Roman Frontiers, Walls and Foreign Policy

Home | Category: Roman Empire and How it Was Built / Government and Justice


Trajan's Column depicts Trajan's conquest of Dacia

Chief Roman Provinces (with dates of their acquisition or organization): Total, 32. Many of the main provinces were subdivided into smaller provinces, each under a separate governor—making the total number of provincial governors more than one hundred. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

1) Western.
Spain (205-19 B.C.).
Gaul (France, 120-17 B.C.).
Britain (A.D. 43-84).
2) Central.
Rhaetia et Vindelicia (roughly Switzerland, northern Italy15 B.C.).
Noricum (Austria, Slovenia, 15 B.C.).
Pannonia (western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. A.D. 10).
3) Eastern.
Illyricum (northern Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and coastal Croatia, 167-59 B.C.).
Macedonia (northern Greece, modern Macedonia, 146 B.C.).
Achaia (western Greece, 146 B.C.).
Moesia (Central Serbia, Kosovo, northern modern Macedonia, northern Bulgaria and Romanian Dobrudja 20 B.C.).
Thrace (northeast Greece, A.D. 40).
Dacia (Romania, A.D. 107). \~\

Africa proper (Libya, former Carthage, 146 B.C.).
Cyrenaica and Crete (74, 63 B.C.).
Numidia (Algeria, small parts of Tunisia, Libya, 46 B.C.).
Egypt (30 B.C.).
Mauretania (western Algeria, Morocco, A.D. 42). \~\

1) In Asia Minor (Anatolia, modern Turkey)
Asia proper (western Turkey133 B.C.).
Bithynia et Pontus (northern Turkey, south of the Black Sea, 74, 65 B.C.).
Cilicia (southeast coast of Turkey, 67 B.C.).
Galatia (central Turkey, 25 B.C.).
Pamphylia et Lycia (southwest Turkey, 25, A.D. 43).
Cappadocia (eastern Turkey, A.D. 17).
2) In Southwestern Asia.
Syria (64 B.C.).
Judea (Israel, 63 - A.D. 70).
Arabia Petraea (A.D. 105).
Armenia (A.D. 114).
Mesopotamia (A.D. 115).
Assyria (A.D. 115). \~\

Sicily (241 B.C.).
Sardinia et Corsica (238 B.C.).
Cyprus (58 B.C.). \~\

Categories with related articles in this website: Early Ancient Roman History (34 articles); Later Ancient Roman History (33 articles); Ancient Roman Life (39 articles); Ancient Greek and Roman Religion and Myths (35 articles); Ancient Roman Art and Culture (33 articles); Ancient Roman Government, Military, Infrastructure and Economics (42 articles); Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy and Science (33 articles); Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles)

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Frontiers and Territory of the Roman Empire Under Augustus

By the wars of Augustus, the boundaries of the empire were extended to the Rhine and the Danube (including the Alpine region) on the north, to the Atlantic Ocean on the west, to the desert of Africa on the south, and nearly to the Euphrates on the east. The only two great frontier nations which threatened to disturb the peace of Rome were the Parthians on the east and the Germans on the north. The Parthians still retained the standards lost by Crassus; but Augustus by his skillful diplomacy was able to recover them without a battle. He abandoned, however, all design of conquering that Eastern people. But his eyes looked longingly to the country of the Germans. He invaded their territory; and after a temporary success his general, Varus, was slain and three Roman legions were utterly destroyed by the great German chieftain Arminius at the famous battle of the Teutoberg forest (9 A.D.). The frontiers remained for many years where they were fixed by Augustus; and he advised his successors to govern well the territory which he left to them rather than to increase its limits. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~] The Res Gestae is a list of deeds performed by Augustus that dates back to Augustus’s time. Part of it reads: I have cleared the sea from pirates. In that war with the slaves I delivered to their masters for punishment 30,000 slaves who had fled their masters and taken up arms against the Republic. The provinces of Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia swore the same allegiance to me. I have extended the boundaries of all the provinces of the Roman People which were bordered by nations not yet subjected to our sway. My fleet has navigated the ocean from the mouth of the Rhine as far as the boundaries of the Cimbri where aforetime no Roman had ever penetrated by land or by sea. The German peoples there sent their legates, seeking my friendship, and that of the Roman people. At almost the same time, by my command and under my auspices two armies have been led into Ethiopia and into Arabia, which is called Felix ["The Happy"] and very many of the enemy of both peoples have fallen in battle, and many towns have been captured.

“I added Egypt to the Empire of the Roman People. When the king of Greater Armenia was killed I could have made that country a province, but I preferred after the manner of our fathers to deliver the kingdom to Tigranes [a vassal prince].... I have compelled the Parthians to give up to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies, and as suppliants to seek the friendship of the Roman people. Those [recovered] standards, moreover, I have deposited in the sanctuary located in the temple of Mars the Avenger.

Territorial Acquisitions Under Augustus

Egyptianized Augustus

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “Political power at Rome had always been won through the force, prestige, and wealth of conquest; Augustus' armies conquered more lands than any of his Roman predecessors or successors. After the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C., Egypt was the first major gain by Augustus, with the wealth and flourishing cities of the Ptolemies, and Egyptian grain. Exposed geographically only in the south, the province was advanced to the First Cataract by the prefect Cornelius Gallus; in 25 B.C. there was another successful expedition against raids by the Ethiopians. Although Augustus, through his legate, failed to conquer Arabia Felix, the Red Sea was secured and sea-trade with India was ultimately established. In 27 B.C. Augustus visited Gaul and held a census there for the purpose of fairer taxation, and in 26-25 he fought a war in Spain, which Agrippa finally concluded in 19 B.C., with the pacification of the province. While Augustus was in Spain, Varro Murena defeated the Salassi, who were raiding Cisalpine Gaul from Aosta in the western Alps. In 25 B.C. Augustus settled Juba as the king of Mauretania in Africa, another province valuable for the grain supply to Rome. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors ]

“In 25 B.C. in Asia Minor, Galatia was annexed, and Augustus founded the colony of Caesarea at Antioch. The main problem in the east was Parthia, which could unsettle Roman control in neighboring Armenia, and further west into Galatia. In 30 B.C. Augustus refrained from a draining war with Phraates of Parthia, by refusing to abet a pretender to the Parthian throne, by setting up a client-king in Armenia minor, and by holding the brothers of Armenian king Artaxes as hostages to Armenia's good behavior as a buffer state in the area. Ten years later, after the watchful regency of Agrippa from 23-21 B.C., Augustus reached a diplomatic settlement with Parthia for the return of the Roman standards captured from Crassus in 53 B.C., for the stability of the Parthian kingdom in the region, and for Parthian agreement to Roman control in Armenia; Parthia acquiesced under only the threat of combined military force from Augustus in Syria and Tiberius in Armenia. From 16-13 B.C., Agrippa was back in the east settling the Bosporan kingdom, which was economically important as the main source of food from southern Russia for cities of northern Asia Minor and the Aegean, as well as for Roman troops on the eastern frontier; despite a later shift in local control, Roman hegemony was established.

“In 15 B.C. Tiberius and Drusus completed the pacification of the northern Alpine frontier, begun in 25 B.C. when T. Varro wiped out the Salassi on the western side. Now on the eastern side of the Alps, the frontier was pushed up to the Danube river, including Raetia and Noricum. With Alpine passes open, Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul became more united and prosperous; the raids of the Alpine tribes of Italy were over, and Roman armies could more easily get to central Gaul and the Rhine. From 13-9 B.C. the northern frontier was further strengthened near Illyricum by the conquest of Pannonia. Roman control thus stretched from the Adriatic to the Danube, making an overland route from Rome to Illyricum through the eastermost Julian Alps, and connecting Macedonia to Italy and Gaul. After an uprising in Thrace was quelled from 11-9 B.C., the Romans were in control of the territory south of the entire length of the Danube to the Black Sea. At the northernmost frontier, Drusus campaigned in Germany from 12-9 B.C. and tried to advance Caesar's German frontier of the Rhine as far as the Elbe, but he accomplished only raids between the two rivers.

“On the eastern frontier, the Parthians and Armenians were in dispute again, and in 2 B.C. Augustus sent his grandson Gaius there, in what was already a successfully negotiated end to the trouble. Since 37 B.C. Judea had been controlled by Herod the Great as a friend of Augustus; Judea was finally made into a Roman province in 6 A.D., when at the request of the Jews, Archelaus, the son of Herod, was driven out.

Trajan’s Conquests


Since the death of Augustus there had been made no important additions to the Roman territory, except Britain. But under Trajan the Romans became once more a conquering people. The new emperor carried his conquests across the Danube and acquired the province of Dacia. He then extended his arms into Asia, and brought into subjection Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, as the result of a short war with the Parthians. Under Trajan the boundaries of the empire reached their greatest extent. \~\

Trajan extended the Roman Empire into present-day Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria in A.D. 106 by defeatingGermanic tribes in two Dacian wars (101-102 and 105-106). To achieve victory Trajan built a bridge across the Danube, a startling achievement for its time. The bridge and battles from the Dacian campaign are immortalized in 200 meters of scenes that spiral around the 100-foot-high Trajan column. The campaign ended when the Dacian king, Decebalus, was overthrown.

After the conquest of Dacia, the region north of the Danube became a Roman province. Rome shifted the majority of its defenses from the Rhine to the Danube, which became heavily fortified to protect Roman territory from hostile Gothic and Germanic tribes in the north.Trajan's bridge was torn down by Hadrian who felt that it might facilitate a Barbarian conquest of Rome. Roman monuments can be found all over Bulgaria and Romania. The Romanian language evolved from the Roman's Latin tongue.

The Roman city of Canustrum, which spread out over an area of four square miles and had a large legionary fort and an amphitheater that could accommodate 8,000 people, was built on the Danube about 25 miles from present-day Vienna. It was occupied from A.D. 14 to 433, when it was sacked by the Huns.

Trajan's armies extended the Roman Empire to the Persian Gulf by capturing Armenia in A.D. 114 and defeating several Middle eastern kingdoms, including the arch rivals of the Romans, the Parthians. Trajan died in 117 without yet receiving the news of these conquests. Qasr Bashir was a Roman fort on the eastern fringes of Roman Empire in present-day Jordan. Covering three quarters of an acre, it embraced stone walls and three-story-high towers and was situated on a low hill surrounded by rocks and sand.

Hadrian Abandons the Trajan’s Policy of Conquest

Hadrian dressed like a Greek god

“The Upper German-Raetian Limes covers a length of 550 kilometers and runs between Rheinbrohl on the Rhine and Eining on the Danube, built in stages during the 2nd century. With its forts, fortlets, physical barriers, linked infrastructure and civilian architecture it exhibits an important interchange of human values through the development of Roman military architecture in previously largely undeveloped areas thereby giving an authentic insight into the world of antiquity of the late 1st to the mid-3rd century AD. It was not solely a military bulwark, but also defined economic and cultural limits. Although cultural influences extended across the frontier, it did represent a cultural divide between the Romanised world and the non-Romanised Germanic peoples. In large parts it was an arbitrary straight line, which did not take account of the topographical circumstances. Therefore, it is an excellent demonstration of the Roman precision in surveying. =

“The Antonine Wall was built under the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 140’s AD as an attempt to conquer parts of northern Britain and extends for some 60 kilometers across central Scotland from the River Forth to the River Clyde. Through its military and civil constructions, it demonstrates cultural interchange through the extension of Roman technical skills, organisation and knowledge to the furthest reaches of the Empire. It embodies a high degree of expertise in the technical mastery of stone and turf defensive constructions. As it was in use for only a single generation, it provides a snapshot of the frontier at a particular point in time and offers a specific insight into how the frontier was designed and built. Together, the remains of the frontiers, consisting of vestiges of walls, ditches, earthworks, fortlets, forts, fortresses, watchtowers, roads and civilian settlements, form a social and historical unit that illustrates an ambitious and coherent system of defensive constructions perfected by engineers over the course of several generations. Each section of the property constitutes an exceptional example of a linear frontier, encompassing an extensive relict landscape which reflects the way resources were deployed in the northwestern part of the Empire and which displays the unifying character of the Roman Empire, through its common culture, but also its distinctive responses to local geography and climate, as well as political, social and economic conditions.” =

Historical Importance of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire

According to UNESCO: The site is important because: “1) The extant remains of the fortified German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall constitute significant elements of the Roman Frontiers present in Europe. With their forts, fortlets, walls, ditches, linked infrastructure and civilian architecture they exhibit an important interchange of human and cultural values at the apogee of the Roman Empire, through the development of Roman military architecture, extending the technical knowledge of construction and management to the very edges of the Empire. They reflect the imposition of a complex frontier system on the existing societies of the northwestern part of the Roman Empire, introducing for the first time military installations and related civilian settlements, linked through an extensive supporting network. The frontiers did not constitute an impregnable barrier, but controlled and allowed the movement of peoples: not only the military units, but also civilians and merchants. Hence, they triggered the exchange of cultural values through movement of soldiers and civilians from different nations. This entailed profound changes and developments in the respective regions in terms of settlement patterns, architecture and landscape design and spatial organization. The frontiers still today form a conspicuous part of the landscape. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website =]

2) “As parts of the Roman Empire’s general system of defense the German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall have an extraordinarily high cultural value. They bear an exceptional testimony to the maximum extension of the power of the Roman Empire through the consolidation of its northwestern frontiers and thus constitute a physical manifestation of Roman imperial policy. They illustrate the Roman Empire’s ambition to dominate the world in order to establish its law and way of life there in a long-term perspective. They witness Roman colonization in the respective territories, the spread of Roman culture and its different traditions – military, engineering, architecture, religion management and politics – and the large number of human settlements associated with the defenses which contribute to an understanding of how soldiers and their families lived in this part of the Roman Empire. =

3) “The fortified German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall are outstanding examples of Roman military architecture and building techniques and of their technological development, perfected by engineers over the course of several generations. They demonstrate the variety and sophistication of the Romans’ responses to the specific topography and climate as well as to the political, military and social circumstances in the northwestern part of the Empire which spread all around Europe and thereby shaped much of the subsequent development in this part of the world.” =

Roman Empire in AD at the time of Augustus's death

Hadrian ended the wave of conquest and expansion that occurred under his predecessor Trajan and enclosed the empire within clearly-defined frontiers. Hadrian did not believe that the mission of Rome was to conquer the world, but to civilize her own subjects. He therefore voluntarily gave up the extensive conquests of Trajan in the East, the provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia, an Assyria. He declared that the Eastern policy of Trajan was a great mistake. He openly professed to cling to the policy of Augustus, which was to improve the empire rather than to enlarge it. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Aelius Spartianus wrote: “There were no campaigns of importance during his reign, and the wars that he did wage were brought to a close almost without arousing comment. The soldiers loved him much on account of his very great interest in the army and for his great liberality to them besides. The Parthians always regarded him as a friend because he took away the king whom Trajan had set over them. The Armenians were permitted to have their own king, whereas under Trajan they had had a governor, and the Mesopotamians were relieved of the tribute which Trajan had imposed. The Albanians and Hiberians he made his friends by lavishing gifts upon their kings, even though they had scorned to come to him. The kings of the Bactrians sent envoys to him to beg humbly for his friendship. [Source: Aelius Spartianus: Life of Hadrian,” (r. 117-138 CE.),William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“And yet, at the same time, Hadrian abandoned many provinces won by Trajan, and also destroyed, contrary to the entreaties of all, the theatre which Trajan had built in the Campus Martius. These measures, unpopular enough in themselves, were still more displeasing to the public because of his pretence that all acts which he thought would be offensive had been secretly enjoined upon him by Trajan. Unable to endure the power of Attianus, his prefect and formerly his guardian, he was eager to murder him. He was restrained, however, by the knowledge that he already laboured under the odium of murdering four men of consular rank, although, as a matter of fact, he always attributed their execution to the designs of Attianus. And as he could not appoint a successor for Attianus except at the latter's request, he contrived to make him request it, and at once transferred the power to Turbo; at the same time Similis also, the other prefect, received a successor, namely Septicius Clarus.

“After Hadrian had removed from the prefecture the very men to whom he owed the imperial power, he departed for Campania, where he aided all the towns of the region by gifts and benefactions and attached all the foremost men to his train of friends. But when at Rome, he frequently attended the official functions of the praetors and consuls, appeared at the banquets of his friends, visited them twice or thrice a day when they were sick, even those who were merely knights and freedmen, cheered them by words of comfort, encouraged them by words of advice, and very often invited them to his own banquets. In short, everything that he did was in the manner of a private citizen. On his mother-in-law he bestowed especial honour by means of gladiatorial games and other ceremonies.”

Hadrian’s Defense

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “From around 500 B.C., Rome expanded continually for six centuries, transforming itself from a small Italian city-state in a rough neighborhood into the largest empire Europe would ever know. The emperor Trajan was an eager heir to this tradition of aggression. Between 101 and 117, he fought wars of conquest in present-day Romania, Armenia, Iran, and Iraq, and he brutally suppressed Jewish revolts. Roman coins commemorated his triumphs and conquests. When he died in 117, his territory stretched from the Persian Gulf to Scotland. He bequeathed the empire to his adopted son—a 41-year-old Spanish senator, self-styled poet, and amateur architect named Publius Aelius Hadrianus. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Faced with more territory than Rome could afford to control and under pressure from politicians and generals to follow in the footsteps of his adoptive father, the newly minted emperor—better known as Hadrian—blinked. “The first decision he made was to abandon the new provinces and cut his losses,” says biographer Anthony Birley. “Hadrian was wise to realize his predecessor had bitten off more than he could chew.” The new emperor’s policies ran up against an army accustomed to attacking and fighting on open ground. Worse, they cut at the core of Rome’s self-image. How could an empire destined to rule the world accept that some territory was out of reach?

“Hadrian may simply have recognized that Rome’s insatiable appetite was yielding diminishing returns. The most valuable provinces, like Gaul or Hadrian’s native Spain, were full of cities and farms. But some fights just weren’t worth it. “Possessing the best part of the earth and sea,” the Greek author Appian observed, the Romans have “aimed to preserve their empire by the exercise of prudence, rather than to extend their sway indefinitely over poverty-stricken and profitless tribes of barbarians.”

Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the AD 2nd century after Trajan's conquests

“The army’s respect for Hadrian helped. The former soldier adopted a military-style beard, even in official portraits, a first for a Roman emperor. He spent more than half of his 21-year reign in the provinces and visiting troops on three continents. Huge stretches of territory were evacuated, and the army dug in along new, reduced frontiers. Wherever Hadrian went, walls sprang up. “He was giving a message to expansion-minded members of the empire that there were going to be no more wars of conquest,” Birley says.

“By the time the restless emperor died in 138, a network of forts and roads originally intended to supply legions on the march had become a frontier stretching thousands of miles. “An encamped army, like a rampart, encloses the civilized world in a ring, from the settled areas of Aethiopia to the Phasis, and from the Euphrates in the interior to the great outermost island toward the west,” Greek orator Aelius Aristides noted proudly, not long after Hadrian’s death.”

Frontiers of the Roman Empire

According to UNESCO: “The ‘Roman Limes’ represents the border line of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 2nd century AD. It stretched over 5,000 kilometers from the Atlantic coast of northern Britain, through Europe to the Black Sea, and from there to the Red Sea and across North Africa to the Atlantic coast. The remains of the Limes today consist of vestiges of built walls, ditches, forts, fortresses, watchtowers and civilian settlements. Certain elements of the line have been excavated, some reconstructed and a few destroyed. The two sections of the Limes in Germany cover a length of 550 kilometers from the north-west of the country to the Danube in the south-east. The 118-km-long Hadrian’s Wall (UK) was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian c. AD 122 at the northernmost limits of the Roman province of Britannia. It is a striking example of the organization of a military zone and illustrates the defensive techniques and geopolitical strategies of ancient Rome. The Antonine Wall, a 60-km long fortification in Scotland was started by Emperor Antonius Pius in 142 AD as a defense against the “barbarians” of the north. It constitutes the northwestern-most portion of the Roman Limes. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website =]

“The Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, was one of the greatest empires history has known. Enclosing the Mediterranean world and surrounding areas, it was protected by a network of frontiers stretching from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Black Sea in the east, from central Scotland in the north to the northern fringes of the Sahara Desert in the south. It was largely constructed in the 2nd century AD when the Empire reached its greatest extent. This frontier could be an artificial or natural barrier, protecting spaces or a whole military zone. Its remains encompass both visible and buried archaeology on, behind and beyond the frontier.”=

The site “consists of three sections of the frontier: Hadrian’s Wall, the Upper German- Raetian Limes and the Antonine Wall, located in the northwestern part of the Empire, constituting the artificial boundaries of the former Roman provinces Britannia, Germania Superior and Raetia: Running 130 kilometers from the mouth of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth, Hadrian’s Wall was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 as a continuous linear barrier at the then northernmost limits of the Roman province of Britannia. The frontier extended a further 36km down the Solway coast as a series of intervisible military installations. It constituted the main element in a controlled military zone across northern Britain. The Wall was supplemented by the ditch and banks of the vallum, supporting forts, marching camps and other features in a wide area to the north and south, linked by an extensive road network. It illustrates an ambitious and coherent system of defensive constructions perfected by engineers over the course of several generations and is outstanding for its construction in dressed stone and its excellent use of the spectacular upland terrain through which it passed. =

Roman walls and forts in northern Britain

Foreign Policy and Revenge in the Roman Empire

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “For centuries emperors used a mix of threats, deterrence, and outright bribery to secure peace. Rome negotiated constantly with tribes and kingdoms outside its frontier. Diplomacy created a buffer zone of client kings and loyal chieftains to insulate the border from hostile tribes farther afield. Favored tribes earned the right to cross the frontier at will; others could bring their goods to Roman markets only under armed guard. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Loyal allies were also rewarded with gifts, weapons, and military assistance and training. Friendly barbarians sometimes served in the Roman army; after 25 years, they retired as Roman citizens, free to settle anywhere in the empire. Vindolanda alone was home to units recruited from what are now northern Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Iraqi bargemen once sailed England’s rivers under the banner of Rome, and Syrian archers watched over the bleak countryside.

“Trade was also a foreign policy tool: The Roman-Germanic Commission in Frankfurt, part of the German Archaeological Institute, has a database of more than 10,000 Roman artifacts found beyond the limes. Weapons, coins, and goods like glass and pottery show up as far away as Norway and modern-day Russia.

“Roman foreign policy wasn’t all carrots. Revenge was also a favorite tactic, and the legions were eager to take the fight beyond the frontier. They spent seven years avenging one disastrous defeat suffered in A.D. 9 in Germany. The historian Tacitus explains that when victorious on the battlefield, General Germanicus “took his helmet off his head and begged his men to follow up the slaughter, as they wanted not prisoners, and the utter destruction of the nation would be the only conclusion of the war.”

“Hadrian lashed out at troublesome populations too. In 132 he suppressed a Jewish revolt in a ruthless, protracted campaign. One Roman historian claimed the fighting left half a million Jews dead and added, “As for the numbers who perished from starvation, disease, or fire, that was impossible to establish.” Survivors were enslaved or expelled. The name of the province was changed from Judaea to Syria-Palaestina to wipe away all traces of the rebellion.

“Word of such brutality surely made Rome’s enemies think twice before crossing the line. To the Romans, slaughter and genocide were an important part of keeping the empire secure. “The Pax Romana isn’t simply won after a series of battles,” says Newcastle University archaeologist Ian Haynes. “Rather, it’s asserted over and over in brutal ways.”“

the destruction of Carthage by the Romans was in part revenge for Roman defeats at the hands of the Carthaginians in Italy

Tacitus on the Down Side of Roman Imperialism

The Roman historian Tacitus put words in the mouth of an ancient Briton leader, Galgacus, who was staring down a Roman army ready to attack him, to make a point on the down sides of Roman imperialism. Tactitus wrote: “Meanwhile, among the many leaders, one superior to the rest in valour and in birth, Galgacus by name, is said to have thus harangued the multitude gathered around him and clamouring for battle: “Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. [Source: Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.), “Galgacus: On Roman Imperialism”, “Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola,” 29-33, c. A.D. 98, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb]

“Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

““Nature has willed that every man’s children and kindred should be his dearest objects. Yet these are torn from us by conscriptions to be slaves elsewhere. Our wives and our sisters, even though they may escape violation from the enemy, are dishonoured under the names of friendship and hospitality. Our goods and fortunes they collect for their tribute, our harvests for their granaries. Our very hands and bodies, under the lash and in the midst of insult, are worn down by the toil of clearing forests and morasses. Creatures born to slavery are sold once and for all, and are, moreover, fed by their masters; but Britain is daily purchasing, is daily feeding, her own enslaved people. And as in a household the last comer among the slaves is always the butt of his companions, so we in a world long used to slavery, as the newest and most contemptible, are marked out for destruction. We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman’s leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve.

Romans murdering Druids and burning their groves

““Do you suppose that the Romans will be as brave in war as they are licentious in peace? To our strifes and discords they owe their fame, and they turn the errors of an enemy to the renown of their own army, an army which, composed as it is of every variety of nations, is held together by success and will be broken up by disaster. These Gauls and Germans, and, I blush to say, these Britons, who, though they lend their lives to support a stranger’s rule, have been its enemies longer than its subjects, you cannot imagine to be bound by fidelity and affection. Fear and terror there certainly are, feeble bonds of attachment; remove them, and those who have ceased to fear will begin to hate. All the incentives to victory are on our side. The Romans have no wives to kindle their courage; no parents to taunt them with flight, man have either no country or one far away. Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the Gods have delivered them into our hands. Be not frightened by the idle display, by the glitter of gold and of silver, which can neither protect nor wound. In the very ranks of the enemy we shall find our own forces. Britons will acknowledge their own cause; Gauls will remember past freedom; the other Germans will abandon them, as but lately did the Usipii. Behind them there is nothing to dread. The forts are ungarrisoned; the colonies in the hands of aged men; what with disloyal subjects and oppressive rulers, the towns are ill-affected and rife with discord. On the one side you have a general and an army; on the other, tribute, the mines, and all the other penalties of an enslaved people. Whether you endure these for ever, or instantly avenge them, this field is to decide. Think, therefore, as you advance to battle, at once of your ancestors and of your posterity.”

Collaboration, Resistance, Civilisation or Enslavement?

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “How did the Romans maintain control of such a huge empire for so long? Partly, of course, it was a matter of using military power to threaten those who resisted. But partly, too, it was a matter of positive incentives to collaborate. |::| In their conquests, the Romans rarely faced united opposition. Usually they made alliances with native rulers who were willing either to fight alongside them or at least provide logistical support. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011. Dr Faulkner is an honorary lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. |::|]

“Once Roman military superiority was clear, other native rulers frequently gave up the unequal struggle and made terms. Die-hards who fought on to the bitter end were often a minority. The difference between collaboration and resistance can be seen in comparing two cases: Pergamum in Western Turkey, which was bequeathed to the Romans by its last independent ruler in 133 BC; and Dacia, the ancient Romania, whose king resisted fiercely in three hard-fought wars between 85 and 106 AD. The result was that whereas the long-established Hellenistic culture of Pergamum survived and flourished under the Romans, Dacia appears to have been laid waste, ethnically cleansed, and re-settled by foreign colonists. |::|

collared slaves

“Another aspect of Roman policy was explained - rather cynically - by the historian Tacitus in a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the governor of Britain from 78 - 84 AD: [Agricola] wanted to accustom them [the Britons] to peace and leisure by providing delightful distractions. He gave personal encouragement and assistance to the building of temples, piazzas and town-houses, he gave the sons of the aristocracy a liberal education, they became eager to speak Latin effectively and the toga was everywhere to be seen. 'And so they were gradually led into the demoralising vices of porticoes, baths and grand dinner parties. The naïve Britons described these things as 'civilisation', when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement.' |::|

“Tacitus was a senator as well as an historian - one of the small class of super-rich politicians and administrators who effectively ran the Roman empire. His testimony reveals that when native aristocrats adopted a Roman lifestyle and acquired a taste for Mediterranean luxury and refinement, the rulers of the empire were delighted. Instead of jealously guarding their privileges, they were eager to share them. They understood that if the empire was to be stable and to endure, it required wide foundations. |::|

“Rome's rulers were happy to welcome native aristocrats as fellow citizens. This was possible because citizenship in the ancient world was not defined by nationality. Anyone could, in theory, be granted citizenship of the city-state of Rome, even if they had never been there and had no intention of going. Place of residence, language, religion, parentage - none of these was decisive. If you had standing in your own community and supported the new order, you were likely to attract attention as someone to be cultivated.” |::|

Roman Frontiers, Fortifications and Walls

Rome depended on a network of forts, walls and natural barriers to separate the empire from outsiders. Walls, military outposts and frontier cities were all types of fortifications that were employed. Seventy-three-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall’s in northern Britain is the most well-known of these fortification. The Antonine Wall, built of stone, turf and wood, was used to extend the frontier beyond Hadrian’s Wall in A.D. 142. Lambaesis was established as military fort in 81. It later served as army headquartered in North Africa. Dura-Europos was built where the Romans seized a city on a cliff above the Euphrates from Parthians in the second century A.D. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

Major barriers included Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the Germanic Lines (walls in Germany that extended 342 miles), Limes Transalutanus (60 miles of walls in Romania) and Fossatum Africae (152 miles in Algeria.)

Diplomacy, trade and violence — and the fortifications — were all used maintain borders and keep the frontiers intact. Of the thousands of kilometers of frontier, only a small portion was protected by walls. They were mainly built to seal gaps between natural barriers such as mountains, deserts, rivers and sea. Troops were concentrated in fortresses, ultimately making the territory beyond them in the interior vulnerable. Over time, the barriers were breached and barbarian incursions led to the fall of the western part of the empire in the 5th century.

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “A stunning network of walls, rivers, desert forts, and mountain watchtowers marks Rome’s limits. At its peak in the second century A.D., the empire sent soldiers to patrol a front that stretched from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea as well as across North Africa.The question isn’t just academic. Defining and defending borders is a modern obsession too. As politicians have debated building a wall between the United States and Mexico and troops face off across the land-mine-strewn strip of ground between the two Koreas, the realities the Roman emperors faced are still with us. Understanding why the Romans were obsessed with their borders—and the role their obsession played in the decline of the empire—might help us better understand ourselves.

Hadrian's Wall west of Housesteads

Purpose of the Walls

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “If the walls weren’t under constant threat, what were they for? Ever since British antiquarians organized the first scientific excavations along Hadrian’s Wall in the 1890s, historians and archaeologists have assumed Rome’s walls were military fortifications, designed to fend off barbarian armies and hostile invaders. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“For decades arguments focused on tactical details: Did soldiers stand along the wall to rain spears and arrows down on invaders or sally forth to engage the enemy in the field? The trenches of WWI—and the deadly back-and-forth battling of WWII—did little to change the prevailing view of the ancient frontier as a fixed barrier separating Rome from hordes of hostile barbarians.

“Archaeologists studying the frontiers in the 1970s and ’80s later found that the Iron Curtain dividing Europe had shadowed their view of the distant past. “We had in Germany this massive border, which seemed impenetrable,” says C. Sebastian Sommer, chief archaeologist at the Bavarian State Preservation Office. “The idea was here and there, friend and foe.”

“Today a new generation of archaeologists is taking another look. The dramatic, unbroken line of Hadrian’s Wall may be a red herring, a 73-mile exception that proves an entirely different rule. In Europe the Romans took advantage of the natural barriers created by the Rhine and Danube Rivers, patrolling their waters with a strong river navy. In North Africa and the eastern provinces of Syria, Judaea, and Arabia, the desert itself created a natural frontier.

Roman Fortifications: Border Stations Rather Than Invasion Stoppers?

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Military bases were often ad hoc installations set up to watch rivers and other key supply routes. The Latin word for frontier, limes (LEE-mess), originally meant a patrolled road or path. We still use the term: Our “limits” comes from limites, the plural of limes. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Outposts on rivers like the Rhine and Danube or in the deserts on Rome’s eastern and southern flanks often resemble police or border patrol stations. They would have been useless against an invading army but highly effective for soldiers nabbing smugglers, chasing small groups of bandits, or perhaps collecting customs fees. The thinly manned walls in England and Germany were similar. “The lines were there for practical purposes,” says Benjamin Isaac, a historian at Tel Aviv University. “They were the equivalent of modern barbed wire—to keep individuals or small groups out.”

“Isaac argues that the frontiers resembled certain modern installations more than thick-walled medieval fortresses: “Look at what Israel’s building to wall off the West Bank. It’s not meant to keep out the Iranian army, it’s made to stop people from exploding themselves on buses in Tel Aviv.” Warding off terrorists may not have motivated the Romans, but there were plenty of other factors— as there are today. “What the United States is planning between itself and Mexico is substantial,” says Isaac, “and that’s just to keep out people who want to sweep the streets in New York.”

“More archaeologists are endorsing that view. “Isaac’s analysis has come to dominate the field,” says David Breeze, author of the recent Frontiers of Imperial Rome. “Built frontiers aren’t necessarily about stopping armies but about controlling the movement of people.” The Roman frontier, in other words, is better seen not as an impervious barrier sealing Fortress Rome off from the world but as one tool the Romans used to extend influence deep into barbaricum, their term for everything outside the empire, through trade and occasional raids.

Hadrian's Wall

Emperor Hadrain (A.D. 76-138) ordered and oversaw the building of Hadrian’s Wall near the present-day border between Scotland and England to protect the unstable British provinces from fierce tribes such as the Caledonians, Picts and "Raiding Scots" in present-day Scotland. Hadrian's Wall was a Roman frontier built between A.D. 122 and 130. Running for 117 kilometers (73 miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west, it makes use of ridges and crags, particularly Whin Sill, and offers goods view to the north. A deep ditch reinforced some parts of it. Other parts were built on the top of cliffs.

Probably largely built by Roman troops and slaves, Hadrian’s Wall is the most lasting and famous monument left behind by the Romans in Britain and remains a powerful symbol of Roman rule. Stretching from the North Sea near the east coast town of Newcastle to the Irish Sea near Carlisle in the west, the 2000-year-old wall snakes through treeless valleys and over bluffs in a land as big as the sky. The 12 best preserved miles of the wall are located in Northumberland National Park where hills gently rise and fall like waves in a calm sea.

Hadrian's Wall

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “That “outermost island” was where Hadrian built the monument that bears his name, a rampart of stone and turf that cut Britain in half. Today Hadrian’s Wall is one of the best preserved, well-documented sections of Rome’s frontier. Remnants of the 73-mile barrier run through salt marshes, across green sheep pastures, and for one bleak stretch not far from downtown Newcastle, alongside a four-lane highway. Miles of it are preserved aboveground, lining crags that rise high above the rain-swept countryside. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“More than a century of study has given archaeologists an unparalleled understanding of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, perhaps designed by Hadrian himself on a visit to Britain in 122, was the ultimate expression of his attempt to define the empire’s limits. In most places the stone wall was an intimidating 14 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Traces of a 9-foot-deep ditch running the length of the wall are still visible today. In the past few decades excavations have uncovered pits filled with stakes between ditch and wall, one more obstacle for intruders. A dedicated road helped soldiers respond to threats. Regularly spaced gates were supported by watchtowers every third of a mile.”

Composition of Hadrian's Wall

During Roman times Hadrian’s Wall was 10 feet wide and 13 and 15 feet high— high enough so that a man standing on the shoulders of another man still couldn't reach the top. Signal stations were set up every mile and every five miles or so there was a castle. As a testimony of how much the Scots were feared 13,000 soldiers and 5,500 horsemen were positioned along the wall. To put these numbers in perspective William the Conqueror captured England with a force of only 7,000 men.

During Roman Times, a traditional fighting ditch stood on the north side of the wall. On the south side was a 10-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide ditch intended to keep smugglers and local inhabitants at bay. Causeways were built across these ditches at the forts. The largest fort enclosed nine acres and housed 1000 men. Each fort had a central headquarters, a chapel for storing sacred weapons, rows of slate-roofed barracks, storage granaries, cookhouses and latrines with running water large enough to accommodate 20 men at one time.

Hadrian's wall was made from 25 million lunch-box-size stones. In the interior of the wall was poured mortar, and tons of rubble, dirt and gravel. The wall was built at a rate of five wall miles and one fort a year per legion. Although the wall wasn't finished until A.D. 122 most of the work was complete in three years.

“Hadrian's Wall makes use of locally-available materials. Running for forty-five miles from the east, the Wall was built of stone. The stone wall had two outer faces of dressed stone, containing a centre of rubble. The remaining thirty-one miles of the Wall in the west was built of turf. The turf wall, constructed from turf blocks, was built either from the prepared ground or upon a bed of cobbles.” On “locally-quarried stone. Roman stone-masons have left inscriptions in the stones which describe the location of these quarries. |::|

Purpose of Hadrian's Wall: a Frontier Zone Not an Invasion Stopper

a Celt

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Scholars today ask a key question that must have crossed the minds of Roman soldiers shivering through long watches in the English rain: What were they doing there in the first place? The scale of the wall and its system of ditches, ramparts, and roads suggest that the enemy could be deadly. Yet reports from Vindolanda hardly portray a garrison under pressure. Aside from a few scattered clues—like the tombstone of luckless centurion Titus Annius, who was “killed in the war”—there are no direct references to fighting anywhere on the British frontier. The big building project to the north isn’t even mentioned. “You get a sense something’s up. Colossal amounts of supplies are being ordered,” says Andrew Birley, director of excavations at Vindolanda and Hadrian biographer Anthony Birley’s nephew. “But they don’t refer to the wall itself.” “ [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

Hadrian’s Wall, it was long thought, was built to keep the tribes northern tribes from invading Roman Britain. It was not formidable enough to keep determined individuals out, but it was obstructive enough to halt an invading army, with its requisite supply wagons and horses. The wall also signified the limit of Roman expansion. By building it from sea to sea, the Romans admitted they did not have the resources to pacify the tribes in Scotland. The goal was to keep them at bay. In the A.D. 2nd century, the Roman Empire reached its limit and one of Hadrian’s major contributions was saying enough was enough: lets focus on keeping the existing empire together rather being compelled to constantly expand it.

According to the BBC: “The Wall was not designed to prevent movement, but rather to control it, as can be seen in the numerous gateways or milecastles which, as their names suggests, were placed at regular mile intervals along the length of the Wall. Although the Wall had a military function, and enabled watching and patrolling, over time it attracted wider settlement and trade to its forts and garrisons. [Source: BBC |::|]

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “The Roman army at this time was in a period of retrenchment. In A.D. 84, Agricola had defeated the Caledonii of south-eastern Scotland at Mons Graupius, and was (according to his somewhat partisan biographer Tacitus) poised to conquer the rest of Britain when his army was recalled by the emperor Domitian, who needed it for his Chattan wars on the Rhine. Large detachments of troops were withdrawn from the province, and those that were left established a frontier zone called a limes [pronounced leem-ays] along the military road of the Stanegate which ran from Carlisle to Corbridge (approx.). | [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“The fact that the limes was not fixed at the narrower neck of land between Edinburgh and Glasgow suggests strongly that the Scottish tribes had not been quite as comprehensively trounced as Tacitus would like us to believe, as do tombstones and snippets of official correspondence which hint at troubles in the north during this time. |::| “However, it would be a mistake to view the limes as a static defensive line. Even when Hadrian's Wall was erected some thirty years later, it was never that. It was a permeable frontier, designed to control the movements of the tribes within the border zone and to regulate commerce between Roman Britain and its barbarian neighbours. As such, the troops within it fulfilled a similar sort of police function as those British troops who used to guard Hong Kong. Pivotal to this system was the fort of Vindolanda, which sat at the approximate centre of the frontier.” |::|


Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Just as Hadrian’s Wall shows the Roman frontier at its strongest, an abandoned fortress on the Euphrates River vividly captures the moment the borders began to collapse. Dura-Europos was a fortified city on the frontier between Rome and Persia, its greatest rival. Today Dura sits about 25 miles from the Syrian border with Iraq, an eight-hour bus ride through the desert from Damascus. It first came to light in 1920, when British troops fighting Arab insurgents accidentally uncovered the painted wall of a Roman temple. A team from Yale University and the French Academy put hundreds of Bedouin tribesmen to work with shovels and picks, moving tens of thousands of tons of sand with the help of railcars and mine carts. “At times it was like the Well of Souls scene from Indiana Jones,” says University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Ten years of frenzied digging uncovered a third-century Roman city frozen in time. Fragments of plaster still cling to mud-brick and stone walls, and the rooms of palaces and temples—including the world’s oldest known Christian church—are tall enough to walk through and imagine what they looked like when they had roofs.

Dura Europos

“Founded by Greeks around 300 B.C., Dura was conquered by the Romans nearly 500 years later. Its tall, thick walls and perch above the Euphrates made it a perfect frontier outpost. The northern end was walled off and turned into a Roman-era “green zone” with barracks, an imposing headquarters for the garrison commander, a redbrick bathhouse big enough to wash the dust off a thousand soldiers, the empire’s easternmost known amphitheater, and a 60-room palace suitable for dignitaries “roughing it” in the hinterlands.

“Duty rosters show at least seven outposts reported to Dura. One of the outposts was staffed by just three soldiers; another lay nearly a hundred miles downstream. “This was not a city under constant threat,” James told me when I visited, before the political situation in Syria deteriorated and made excavation impossible. We sat amid the ruins and watched orange gas flares from Iraqi oil wells flicker on the horizon. “Soldiers here were probably busier policing the locals than defending against raids and attacks.”

“The quiet didn’t last. Persia emerged as a major threat along the empire’s eastern border a half century after the Romans seized Dura. Beginning in 230, war between the rivals raged across Mesopotamia. It was soon clear the frontier strategy that had served Rome for more than a century was no match for a determined, sizable foe.

“Dura’s turn came in 256. Working with a Franco-Syrian team of archaeologists interested in the site’s pre-Roman history, James has spent ten years unraveling the walled city’s final moments. He says the Romans must have known an attack was imminent. They had time to reinforce the massive western wall, burying part of the city—including the church and a magnificently decorated synagogue—to form a sloping rampart.

“The Persian army set up camp in the city cemetery, a few hundred yards from Dura’s main gate. As catapults lobbed stones at the Romans, the Persians built an assault ramp and dug beneath the city, hoping to collapse its defenses. Dura’s garrison struck back with tunnels of their own.

“As fighting raged on the surface, James says, a squad of 19 Romans broke through into a Persian tunnel. A cloud of poison gas, pumped into the underground chamber, suffocated them almost instantly. Their remains are some of the oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare. James believes the bodies, found 1,700 years later, stacked in a tight tunnel, were used to block the tunnel while the Persians set it on fire.

“The Persians failed to topple Dura’s wall but eventually succeeded in taking the city, which was later abandoned to the desert. Surviving defenders were slain or enslaved. Persian armies pushed deep into what had been Rome’s eastern provinces, sacked dozens of cities, and overpowered two emperors before capturing a third, the hapless Valerian, in 260. The Persian king, Shapur, reportedly used Valerian as a footstool for a while, then had him flayed and nailed his skin to a wall.

“The crisis was a turning point. Around the time Dura fell, the careful balance of offense, defense, and sheer intimidation along the frontier fell apart.For nearly 150 years the border had helped Rome ignore a painful reality: The world beyond the walls was catching up, in part thanks to the Romans themselves. Barbarians who served in the Roman army brought back Roman knowledge, weapons, and military strategy, says Michael Meyer, an archaeologist at Berlin’s Free University.”

Roman Legionnaires Reach China During the 1st Century B.C.

Romans are believed by some to have made it as far east as the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago. The people in Liqian, a village in Gansu Province in western China on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, near the Qilian mountains, insist they are descendants of Romans and say the curly hair, straight noes, and light-colored eyes that some of them have proves it.

Bronze coin of Contantius II (AD 337-361) found in Karghalik, China

The Romans that made it to China are said to have been soldiers under Crassus—a Roman leader who formed the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey—who survived a battle against the Parthians in Syria and Iran and then made their way east, working as mercenaries for the Huns, until they were captured by Chinese troops during a Chinese attack on the Hun ruler Zhizhi in present-day Uzbekistan.

According to this theory Roman legionaries settled in the Liqian area in the first century B.C. after fleeing the disastrous battle in 53 B.C. in which Crassus's army was pitted against a larger force of Parthians, from what is now Iran, bringing to an abrupt halt the Roman Empire's eastwards expansion. Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus himself was beheaded, but some legionaries were said to have escaped the fighting and marched east to elude the enemy. They supposedly fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese of the Han Dynasty in 36 B.C. Some stories say that 145 Romans were taken captive and wandered the region for years.

Evidence for this claim, first proffered by Oxford historian Homer Dubbs in the 1950s, includes: 1) the mention of “fish scale formations”—a formation of overlapping shields — believed to be a reference to "tortoise" phalanx formations made only by Roman soldiers”— by Zhizhi's army; 2) Roman-style palisades found in the wall in the town where Zhizhi lived; and 3) a city called Liqian in a historical record dated to A.D. 5. At that time Liqian was also the name used by Chinese for Rome. Only two other Chinese cities mentioned had the names of foreign places—Kucha and Wen-suit—and both were given the name of the foreigners that lived there.

Among the biggest promoters of the Roman connection are tourist officials in Liqian who have erected a statue of Roman next to ones of a Han Chinese and a Muslim Hui Chinese, and built a new museum with a skeleton said to be of a Roman, found in a 2000-year-old tomb, and charts that show Roman physiological features found among the local people. As of the mid-2000s the town boasted a luxury hotel for tourists, an “Imperial City Entertainment Street” and a Caesar Karaoke bar. A statue at the entrance of the nearby town of Yongchang, shows a Roman legionary standing next to a Confucian scholar and a Muslim woman, as a symbol of racial harmony.

Caucasian DNA Found in Remote Chinese Villagers: Evidence of Romans in China?

Caucasian-originating DNA has been found among villagers in remote parts of China. While some see this as evidence of Roman ancestry; others point they could be other sources of the Caucasian DNA could be Sogdians from Central Asia; Eastern Iranians: Bactrians, Saka Scythians or Tocharians or other peoples that spoke Indo-European language (which gave birth to English an many other European languages) or have some roots in Europe and the West.

In 2010, Nick Spence, wrote in The Telegraph: “Genetic testing of villagers in a remote part of China has shown that nearly two thirds of their DNA is of Caucasian origin, lending support to the theory that they may be descended from a ‘lost legion’ of Roman soldiers. Tests found that the DNA of some villagers in Liqian... was 56 per cent Caucasian in origin. [Source: Nick Spence, The Telegraph, November 23, 2010]

“Many of the villagers have blue or green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, prompting speculation that they have European blood. A local man, Cai Junnian, is nicknamed by his friends and relatives Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, and is one of many villagers convinced that he is descended from the lost legion. Archeologists plan to conduct digs in the region, along the ancient Silk Route, to search for remains of forts or other structures built by the fabled army. “We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China's early contacts with the Roman Empire," Yuan Honggeng, the head of a newly-established Italian Studies Centre at Lanzhou University in Gansu province, told the China Daily newspaper. Maurizio Bettini, a classicist and anthropologist from Siena University, dismissed the theory as “a fairy tale”. “For it to be indisputable, one would need to find items such as Roman money or weapons that were typical of Roman legionaries," he told La Repubblica. “Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend."

In 2007, Richard Spencer wrote in The Telegraph, “Scientists have taken blood samples from 93 people living in and around Liqian...more than 200 miles from the nearest city. “I really think we are descended from the Romans," said Song Guorong, 48, who with his wavy hair, six-foot frame and strikingly long, hooked nose stands out from his short, round-faced office colleagues. “There are the residents with these special features, and then there are also historical records about the existence of these people long ago," Gu Jianming, who lives near Liqian, said it had come as a surprise to be told he might be descended from a European imperial army. But then the birth of his daughter was also a surprise. Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair. “We shaved it off a month after she was born but it just grew back the same colour," he said. “At school they call her ‘yellow hair’. Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don't know about our ancestors." [Source: Richard Spencer, The Telegraph, February 2, 2007 ^]

Cai Junnian “said his great-grandfather told him that there were Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half's walk away, but he had never connected them to the unusual appearance he inherited from his father. Prof Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, cautioned against over enthusiasm. “Even if they are descendants of the Roman empire, it doesn't mean they are necessarily from the Roman army," he said. “The empire covered a large area. Many soldiers were recruited locally, so anything is possible." The issue has split the university's history department, with some scholars supporting the claim, some rejecting it. Prof Wang Shaokuan poured scorn on Prof Dubs's thesis, saying the Huns themselves included Caucasians, Asians and Mongols." ^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC, “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books) and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.