BMCR 2006.10.44

Die römische Germanienpolitik. Von Caesar bis Commodus

, Die römische Germanienpolitik : von Caesar bis Commodus. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006. 166 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 3534174380 €34.90.

Riemer’s subject is Rome’s dealings with western Germani (east of the Rhine and north of the upper Danube) in the period from ca. 55 BC to ca. AD 180. She handles it straightforwardly, taking events in chronological order in five main chapters: 1. Caesar’s Germanic campaigns; 2. The Germanic policy of Augustus and Tiberius; 3. First-century Germanic resistance (principally, the Batavian and Treveran revolts of 69-70); 4. Developments from the Flavians to Antoninus Pius; 5. The Marcomannic wars. She ends with an excursus on the ‘rainstorm’ and ‘lightning-bolt’ miracles of Marcus Aurelius’ campaigns, and a short conclusion. R. helpfully divides her chapters into headed sections, and within each section she identifies, assesses and summarises the main literary sources, notes the views of certain modern commentators, and presents her own thinking. Her overall interpretation of Rome’s Germanic policy, expressed clearly at the start of her work (8) and referred to throughout, is that this never envisaged the permanent occupation of most of the region from the Rhine to the Elbe. Emperors sought only the security of existing possessions. They expelled Germanic raiders and crossed into Germania to wage campaigns of reprisal for such raids. Though ambition sometimes led to their getting their reprisals in first (105) none of this amounted to systematic conquest. If there ever was a plan, it was only to create a pacified buffer zone between the Empire and the mass of Germani (cf. 49). If some leaders, such as Augustus, Germanicus, Domitian and Marcus Aurelius, appear set on annexation, this is an illusion. There was no oscillation between defensive and offensive strategies, but a continuum aimed at imperial protection.

R. can pack a lot into a little space, for example in her deft account of the origins of the ‘Danubian Suebi’ (117-18); and she makes a number of excellent points, for example: Germani /Germania were Roman constructs (11); Romano-Germanic relations were often peaceful (13); Caesar invented and exaggerated the extent of the ‘Germanic threat’ (17-20); the clades Lolliana of 16 BC damaged Roman morale more than material strength (41); a major factor in all Rome’s Germanic campaigns was the craving of her leaders for glory (48); Varus’ defeat created no danger of imminent Germanic invasion west of the Rhine (55); there is something odd about Tacitus’ reports of secret meetings in the later stages of the Batavian revolt and of Cerealis’ being offered the purple in 70 (83, 95). The work is generally well produced, though I do not understand R.’s dating of the Batavian revolt to 68-9 (78); and at 76 line 3 ‘zum Schaden des Senats’ should surely read ‘zum Schaden des Staats’ (so Tacitus, Ann. 11.19.6: adversa in rem publicam). It does, however, have more systemic weaknesses.

One small issue is that while R. offers a range of maps she rarely refers to them. More important are limitations in the book’s scope and historical interpretation. It is not as pioneering a synthesis as R. claims (7). Pohl recently published a brilliant overview of the history and historiography of Romano-Germanic relations from the second century BC to the seventh century AD,1 of which R. makes no mention. Likewise, it is over ten years since all the literary sources were collected and translated by Goetz and Welwei.2 R. lists this work somewhat awkwardly (under ‘Welwei’) in her bibliography, and occasionally refers to it in her notes. Her own book, with its many, often lengthy, summaries of the sources, frequently reads like a condensed version of it. It is odd, therefore, that she never specifically adverts to its existence and importance. Among other major publications which receive no attention is Hekster’s Commodus,3 the main thesis of which confirms R.’s interpretation of this emperor, and, most strikingly, the whole genre of archaeological research.

The latter is deliberate. Very early, rejecting the views of Schnurbein (8, n.10; also 50, nn. 43-6), R. dismisses archaeological findings as unreliable, because ultimately parasitic on the literary sources, and then concentrates entirely on the texts. This is mistaken. To make sense of the Romano-Germanic relationship we need to construct some picture of Germani independent of accounts of Greeks and Romans; and this is possible only from archaeology. R. misses the rich data generated by the DFG’s ‘Romanisierung’ project, in particular the rigorously scientific work of Angela Kreuz on the flora and fauna of Free Germany and their significance for Germanic society.4 And R. is equally wrong to reject archaeological input into the political and military debate, which returns us to her ‘continuum’ in Rome’s Germanic policy. R. attacks Schnurbein because his identification of signs of Romanisation in Augustan Germania does not match her own interpretation of the sources (49-50). However, if, as she argues, Germania was not in process of absorption, what was Varus doing marching around with a full army? He cannot have been campaigning, since this was by now an imperial prerogative. He can only have been performing his duties as provincial governor. And even if his provincia was still nominally conceived of as temporary, pending the establishment of a buffer zone, given the persistent Roman ideology of world-domination (40) the longer it continued the more people might anticipate a more ambitious outcome. This in turn might encourage ‘provincialisation by the back door’, which fits Schnurbein’s interpretation of Waldgirmes as a proto-urban centre.5 The supposed impossibility of ruling wild Germani /Germania, which R. makes much of (58, 68, 76), is no decisive argument. We cannot say what might have happened in Germania if there had been no clades Variana. And the Salian Franks proved perfectly capable of conquering and holding Germania from the fifth century. This exposes another of R.’s omissions: late imperial history. Had she read Burns’ Rome and the Barbarians 6 she might have appreciated how far historical and archaeological synthesis can be carried. And if she had tackled the many, frequently archaeology-inspired, modern publications on ‘ethnogenesis’,7 she might have tempered her conviction that Germanic history is still explicable solely in terms of ‘Völkerwanderungen’ (e.g. 118-19).

Generally, R. likes to summarise and compare texts (some very distant from the events they purport to describe: 46, Orosius; 48, Cassiodorus), explore the relationship between them, identify their similarities and differences, comment on their style and tease out their ‘Tendenzen’. She is also keen on pursuing nice points of grammar and vocabulary (e.g. 49, 82, 85, 126). However, when it comes to historical controversy she tends to assert, not argue, as in her treatment of Schnurbein. She is at her most brutal in her outright dismissal (99-100) of Urban’s hypothesis that the trouble on the Rhine and in Gaul in 69-70 was an element of the current Roman civil war, not a Germano-Gallic rebellion.8 R. contends that if Civilis really had fought for Vespasian, Josephus would have mentioned it. But she concedes that Josephus’ account is brief, tendentious and unreliable; and, contra R., there are good reasons to suspect that Josephus suppressed many embarrassing details of a Vespasianic ploy that ran out of control. Such a lack of historical sensitivity is dangerous. It leads R. to conclude by giving the strong impression that events after Commodus would ‘bring about the downfall of this mega-Empire’ (143). This is simply untrue: the third century ‘Crisis’ did not lead to imperial collapse.

However, I do not wish to finish on a sour note. Though it has its problems, R.’s book remains a handy epitome of Romano-Germanic relations under the Early Empire. Read with care, it should prove useful to experienced investigators and beginners alike. I would have welcomed a copy a year or so ago, when I was preparing a similar short survey of the relations between Romans and Germani.


1. W. Pohl, Die Germanen, Munich, 2000.

2. H. W. Goetz and K. W. Welwei (eds.), Altes Germanien. Auszüge aus den antiken Quellen über die Germanen und ihre Beziehungen zum römischen Reich. Quellen der Alten Geschichte bis zum Jahre 238 n. Chr., Parts 1 and 2, Darmstadt, 1995.

3. O. Hekster, Commodus. An Emperor at the Crossroads, Amsterdam, 2002.

4. A. Haffner and S. von Schnurbein (eds.), Kelten, Germanen und Römer im Mittelgebirgsraum zwischen Luxemburg und Thüringen, Bonn, 2000; A. Kreuz, ‘Landwirtschaft im Umbruch? Archäobotanische Untersuchungen in den Jahrhunderten um Christi Geburt im Hessen und Mainfranken’, BRGK 80, 2004, 97-292.

5. Cf. Wigg and Heinrichs, in T. Grünewald and S. Seibel (eds.), Kontinuität und Diskontinuität. Germania inferior am Beginn und am Ende der römischen Herrschaft, Berlin/New York, 2003, for Germanic adoption of coin-usage in this period.

6. T. S. Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.-A.D. 400, Baltimore, 2003.

7. She lists R. Wenskus, Stammesbildung und Verfassung. Das Werden frühmittelalterlichen gentes, Cologne/Graz, 1961, in her bibliography, but appears not to use it in her text.

8. R. Urban, Der ‘Bataveraufstand’ und die Erhebung des Iulius Classicus, Trier, 1985.