Roman Empires and Frontiers
The Roman Empire, probably the greatest single influence on European cultural development, grew from the single city state of Rome and by the beginning of the 1st century AD there was feeling that this expansion was a limitless and natural process. This belief ended sharply with the defeat and loss of 3 whole legions – 15,000 men – in AD9 in Germany east of the Rhine. After that date the boundaries of the Empire became more or less static, except for the addition of two provinces, Britain and Dacia. The idea of frontiers as the limit of the Empire thus developed in the Roman mind.
The invasion of Britain in AD43 under the emperor Claudius was probably motivated by his desire to gain credibility for himself after his unpopular predecessor Gaius or “Caligula”. After the initial campaign, the Roman army moved gradually northwards, mostly reacting to outbreaks of opposition from hostile tribes.
In AD70, under the new Flavian emperor, Vespasian, the Romans appear to have decided to conquer the whole island, having controlled hitherto only as far as the north of England. Despite a resounding victory in AD83 at Mons Graupius, in what is now northern Scotland, the Romans could not sustain the advance and withdrew in stages to the Tyne-Solway isthmus by around the year AD100. Here a chain of forts connected by a road, known to us as the Stanegate although the Roman name is unknown, formed the limit of occupation for 20 years.
The emperor Hadrian (AD117-138) was determined that the frontiers of the Empire should stay as they were when he succeeded. In some cases the frontiers were on rivers, such as the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates. Where no natural barrier existed, artificial barriers were constructed. In Germany, between the Rhine and the Danube, this was a ditch and timber palisade, with attached towers and forts. In Britain the wall which bears Hadrian’s name was built slightly north of the Stanegate “to separate the Romans from the barbarians” in AD122.