Fachbereich Alte Geschichte, Sabine Huebner
Do rivers make good frontiers? Environmental change and military policy along the Roman Rhine
The Rhine, Danube, Euphrates, and Nile, along with many other, smaller rivers, played important roles in shaping Roman frontier policy. Rivers could both divide and unite, functioning simultaneously as frontier obstacles that separated Roman from non-Roman territory as well as connective highways for the transportation of people, goods, and ideas. While the riverine frontiers of the Roman Empire are generally well known today for incorporating both elements, the opportunities and obstacles posed by the dynamic nature of flowing water have yet to be fully assessed. Rivers, of course, changed constantly throughout the year and over longer time periods; high water levels in spring and autumn alternated with low flows in summer and possible freezing in winter across temperate Europe. Over longer periods, rivers could also move, especially in flood plains and deltaic regions where channel dynamism was especially pronounced. These changes could be driven by climatic and anthropogenic factors, often at the same time. How did Roman frontier policy adapt to and incorporate these dynamic environments? Since these rivers were not static entities, local knowledge of hydrological regimes was critical to successfully managing military policy along their banks. This paper examines the case study of the German frontier, examining how the ever-changing nature of the Rhine River was successfully incorporated into frontier strategy, or not. Particular attention will be paid to (geo)archaeological evidence for hydrological change, as well as written attestations of episodic flooding, drought, and winter freezes. The resulting picture of geographical and chronological diversity reveals an important truth: rivers could make good frontiers, but often did not, and Roman policy had to account for this variability or, ultimately, fail.
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