Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > The Boundaries of Empire

The Boundaries of Empire

It was great fun for an Archaeology Geek.

The tunnel’s ancient stone walls almost brushed my shoulders as I walked. Hard, brittle echoes clattered off into the gloom ahead. Every 30 feet or so, small bulbs shot their little circles of light onto the floor. A long-dead empire had built this place.

Rebuilt Roman Bridge in Regensburg, Germany

I was in the Cloaca Maxima, deep under the Roman city now known as Cologne, Germany. Yup, walking through an old main sewer really is fun for an archaeology geek. Totally Lame, huh?

After about a hundred yards, I paused and wondered again to myself, How come the Romans stopped here?

‘Here’ being the border line they set that runs along the Rhine and Danube rivers, where Cologne sits. That Roman choice around 1,900 years ago helped shape today’s world. All of it, not just Europe and the West.

To get an answer to my question and material for a book, I was traveling all along those two rivers, learning what I could first hand. After digging into the question and looking for everything Roman during that thousand mile trek, I came up with an answer that makes sense to me:

Ruins of the Roman Praetor's Palace in Cologne, Germany

The Romans thought that going further would have been much more trouble than it was worth. Also, the bank of a big river is a lot easier to defend than open ground. So, they stopped.

And it really did seem like a good choice. The Romans were sure of their invincibility. They knew that no barbarian rabble could ever do any real, lasting harm to the empire. So, over the years, Rome bought off the barbarians when they could and reacted in other ways when they had to. Romans were in a hurry to get back to the real game: the wealthiest life on the planet, and of course, Roman against Roman in the struggle for power over the greatest empire in history.

But… they never saw how fragile their complex civilization really was. And they didn’t worry too much that the barbarians eventually learned how Romans fought Romans. The wealth of the empire’s citizens was beyond belief. And the barbarians wanted it. Goodbye Rome in the West. Hello Dark Age.

Roman sculpture, mostly found along the Danube in Austria

Unless someone works hard to misread or distort the past (and many do), it’s pretty clear: barbarians are always at the gate. Sometimes, the gate is strong. Often, it is weak. Just before the end, it is wide open.

History proved the last Romans in the West to be arrogant, rich, complacent, self-absorbed fools. Are we?

  1. March 26, 2011 at 2:58 am

    I am costantly surprised by the Romans. I have been travelling in Spain a lot recently and am constantly overwhelmed by what I come across. Next month I am going to Merida so really looking forward to that.

  2. March 26, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Enjoy! More time in Roman Spain is high on my list for a future trip. Both Barcelona and Granada already hold fond memories for my wife and I.

  3. March 27, 2011 at 5:55 am

    The Roman town of Segobriga in Castilla-La Mancha was an unepected surprise when I visited in 2009. The Aqueduct in Segovia is truely magnificent and worth the price of the air flights by itself!

    • March 27, 2011 at 6:51 am

      Seobriga and Segovia are now on the itinerary. Thanks much for your advice!

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