Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.36

Dieter Planck, Andreas Thiel (ed.), Das Limes-Lexikon: Roms Grenzen von A bis Z. Beck'sche Reihe; 1836.   München:  Verlag C.H. Beck, 2009.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 9783406568169.  €9.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Chris Epplett, University of Lethbridge (
Word count: 1162 words

The Roman limes in Germany, the most extensive system of fortifications in the Roman Empire, has long been an object of study among archaeologists and ancient historians. Countless monographs and articles have been written in the last century on various aspects of the limes, as well as the soldiers who defended this particular frontier. Included in these publications are a number of general guides to the Roman limes, of which Planck and Thiel's lexicon is the most recent example. The immediate inspiration for this particular work is the designation of the limes as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005.1 Das Limes-Lexikon was written to justify the increased public interest in the Roman frontier occasioned by this particular designation. The editors and authors involved in this project are certainly well qualified to write a book on the Roman limes in Germany. Dr. Dieter Planck, for example, is chairman of the Deutsche Limeskommission, and all of the other contributors to the book are similarly experts on the limes, as well as other Roman sites in Germany.

Apart from the introduction, the lexicon also contains a brief bibliography and table of contents. The bibliographic entries, as might be expected of a work aimed at a broad readership within Germany, are primarily German-language books and articles. The table of contents contains a useful combination of both German and Latin terms. It is, of course, beyond the scope of this review to discuss all of the alphabetical entries which make up the rest of the lexicon: what follows are some general observations on the book's content.

The broad target audience of this book is reflected in the choice of entries. While some other books on the Roman limes,such as D. Baatz's Der Römische Limes, provide a relatively detailed survey of the forts along its approximately 550 kilometer length, information of particular interest to those studying Roman forts and fortifications, this lexicon instead only includes entries on those forts along the frontier which are especially significant or unusual in some respect, and which might therefore be of more interest to a general readership: one of the reasons for including the site of Welzheim in the book (p. 141-42), for example, appears to be the large number of shoes discovered in situ, which have added considerably to our knowledge of Roman footwear.

In other respects, however, Das Limes-Lexikon attempts to be more ambitious in its scope. The entries within the lexicon are not limited to the actual fortifications of the limes, but instead encompass a relatively wide variety of topics associated to varying degrees with the Roman frontier in Germany. Such topics include the history of research upon the Roman limes, including the contributions made by prominent scholars like Ernst Fabricius and Theodor Mommsen, as well as Roman fortification systems found elsewhere in the Empire, e.g. Hadrian's Wall and the strata Diocletiana. A separate entry is also included on Chesterholm/Vindolanda, largely because of the important 'documentary' remains found within that fort.

Many articles within the lexicon also detail the activities of the soldiers who defended the limes. Such topics as military religion, amphitheatres, bathing, and burial practices are all discussed within the book. A number of entries are also concerned with soldiers' clothing and equipment, including the offensive and defensive weaponry of Roman troops. Substantial attention is also paid to the organization, duties, and ranks within the Roman army: separate entries, for example, detail the alae and cohorts, as well as exploratores, beneficiarii, and signiferi found within such units.

A number of entries within the lexicon pertain in particular to various artifacts from the Roman era, and their archaeological and historical importance. Entries on such topics as military diplomas, writing tablets, and coin hoards, for example, highlight the information these objects provide on such topics as terms of service within the Roman army, as well as conditions on the Roman frontier at various times. Another very important 'archaeological artifact' discussed in the lexicon is Trajan's Column. Although this particular monument is, of course, nowhere near the Roman limes in Germany, the authors quite rightly include it in their lexicon because of the unparalleled artistic evidence it provides for the appearance of Roman troops and fortifications, including those found in present-day Germany.

On the whole, I found Das Limes-Lexikon to be a useful work, especially considering its relatively modest length of only 160 pages. There are, however, a number of criticisms which can be made. First of all, the choice of entries appears to be somewhat arbitrary at times. As noted above, for example, the lexicon includes an entry on Trajan's Column, but there is no entry on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, another monument which similarly provides important artistic evidence for the Roman army in the second century CE. In addition, the bibliography that is included with some entries in the lexicon also appears somewhat inconsistent: some entries contain two or three references for further reading, while others contain none at all. One wonders, for example, why the entry on Trajan's Column contains no references for further reading, e.g. Ian Richmond's Trajan's Army on Trajan's Column. Textual references for ancient authors would also have been useful for those readers wishing to pursue further research on some topics discussed in the lexicon.

Other comments should be made concerning the presentation of text and images within the book under review. The text, first of all, is largely free of spelling errors, with only the odd exception (e.g. 'Tatsche' instead of 'Tatsache' on p. 42). I have more of an issue with the pictures and maps interspersed with the text. No doubt due to the small size of the book (19 by 12 cm), many of the pictures within are quite small and sometimes difficult to decipher. The picture of a scene from Trajan's Column, for example, is only 5 by 3 cm, and at such a scale, it is difficult to make out all of the figures in the scene. Similarly, some of the maps within the book might ideally have been made larger as well. In particular, the map of the Roman Empire within the front and back covers of the lexicon might have been replaced with a larger and more detailed fold-out map. A hypothetical plan of a Roman fort to accompany the entry on fort design (p. 68) might also have been useful, particularly for more general readers.

Such criticisms, however, do not seriously detract from the value of the book under review. It should be noted, of course, that some issues may be due to the publisher's limitations on the size and length of the lexicon, rather than any preference of the authors involved. Certainly, a considerable amount of information has been packed into a relatively small book, and the authors of Das Limes-Lexikon have succeeded in writing a broadly accessible lexicon of the Roman limes. The book under review, however, also contains information which will be of interest to a more scholarly audience as well.


1.   The limes in Germany, along with the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall in Great Britain, are now designated as the 'Frontiers of the Roman Empire' UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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