Late Antiquity and Migration in Southern Germany






by Christian Schaller

Late Antiquity and Migration in Southern Germany






by Christian Schaller

Late Antiquity and Migration in Southern Germany
The fates of the cities of Augsburg (Augusta Vindelicum), Regensburg (Castra Regina) and Kempten (Cambodunum) at the end of the Western Roman Empire

In 15 BC, the ten-year Alpine campaign of the Roman Emperor Augustus came to an end. His stepsons Tiberius and Drusus had subjugated numerous peoples in and around the Alps and incorporated the territories into the growing empire. The foothills of the Alps became Romanized in the following decades, and roads, camps and settlements were built. Merchants and craftsmen moved into the region, which had been rather sparsely populated until then. The first capital of Raetia, as the Romans named the new province that stretched between the Alps and the Danube, became Cambodunum, the ancient Kempten in the Allgäu. The city was conveniently located on the old trade routes and was generously expanded by the end of the first century – with temples, thermal baths and large stone houses. At the same time, the province was also extended to the north, beyond the banks of the Danube. From the middle of the first century AD, the border between the Roman Empire in the south and free Germania in the north was no longer the great river, but the Limes, a complex system of ramparts, camps and fortifications that stretched across Europe from the North Sea to the Black Sea and was repeatedly expanded and renovated. Kempten was slowly falling behind in the growing, larger province. Around the year 100 AD, Augusta Vindelicum, the Roman city of Augsburg, replaced the old capital and advanced to become the new center of the foothills of the Alps. With about 10,000 inhabitants, the trading metropolis was the most populous city of the entire foothills of the Alps in the second century. In the course of the second century, the Danubian provinces saw more and more conflicts with the Germanic Sarmatian tribes, which finally led to the so-called Marcomannic Wars from 166 to 180. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, often referred to as the “last good emperor” and known today primarily for his philosophical writings and Stoic views, therefore decided around 175 to found and until 179 to monumentally expand a legionary base on the Danube – the origins of today’s Regensburg. The camp was named Castra Regina and covered a total area of 24.5 hectares with dimensions of 540 by 450 meters. It thus replaced a fort and civilian settlement that had been destroyed a few years earlier.

The Danube bend, previously controlled only by auxiliary troops, thus became the site of a legionary barracks in the late second century.

With the beginning of the third century, the first signs of the Roman imperial crisis announced themselves. The warlike conflicts on Raetian soil lasted until the last quarter of the century. The invasions often had Italy as their main target, but also caused a general decline in the standard of living in Raetia, partial devastation as well as a certain depopulation.

At the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, stone for new buildings was often in short supply. There was a shortage of slaves and labor, but also of money. Roman-ancient ashlars were often used in new houses, vaults, and even churches – including this “recycled” Roman tombstone turned upside down in a pillar of the medieval Augsburg Cathedral.

© Christian Schaller

After major setbacks, all territories north of the Danube and east of the Rhine had to be ceded in 260. In this area between the Rhine and the Danube, called Decumate Land by the Romans, the Alamanni subsequently settled, a Germanic tribe whose ambivalent relationship with the Roman Empire oscillated for a long time between diplomatic contact and warlike confrontation. Among other things, this forced Kempten to be reorganized into a border garrison. After centuries, the river that flows past the town, the Iller, was no longer in the heart of the province of Raetia, but was now an outer border of the Roman Empire. A resettlement to the better protected Burghalde, an easier to defend hill surrounded by swamps on the other bank of the Iller, was the consequence. Archaeological excavations and finds also reveal several destructions in Augusta Vindelicum and Castra Regina. Thus, with the complex process of the imperial crisis, changed conditions dawned for Raetia. The “barbarian invasions” strained the stability of the northwestern provinces and created a permanent situation of danger. However, more recent historical research no longer assumes a sudden decline in social and economic life and subsequent settlement emptiness. The limes continued to exist even after the crisis had been overcome, renovation measures were carried out and new, albeit smaller, fortresses, the so-called burgi, were built. Despite the abandonment of a large part of the villae rusticae, the regional estates that had always provided agricultural supplies, some continued to be farmed after 260. In addition, however, the import of Mediterranean foods such as wine and olive oil naturally declined.

In summary, these numerous micro-disasters during the imperial crisis also made Raetia a trouble spot. Around the turn of the third century, however, the province regained its weight as a reconstituted military location with the expansion of the defensive “Wet Limes” along the Rhine, Danube, and Iller rivers, and regained a measure of security, stability, and prosperity through, for example, the Diocletianic and Constantinian reforms in the last third of the third century. The Roman province of Raetia was divided for better organization. The new province of Raetia prima, the “first Raetia” with its capital at Curia, today’s Chur in Switzerland, included the former southern territories in the Alpine region. The province Raetia secunda, the “second Raetia”, extended over the lowlands between the Alps and the Danube – from Kempten in the southwest, Regensburg in the northeast and still Augsburg as the relatively centrally located capital. The initial position around the year 300 consequently postulates Augusta Vindelicum as the still civilian center of Raetia secunda, Castra Regina as the military focus of the province, and finally the transformed Cambodunum as a frontier garrison and late antique hilltop settlement. The sites, continuously inhabited through the imperial crisis, can still be considered as three of the most populous settlement areas in the region.

The general lines of development between the following three centuries, i.e., the years between 300 and 600, show an almost enormous change in political-military, social and cultural-religious respects and thus mark Late Antiquity not only as a time of decline and fall, as was previously assumed, but rather as a transitional epoch. Clear, datable breaks can hardly be identified.

The great events such as the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the Roman Empire partition in 395, Attila’s Hun storm until 445, the fall of Western Rome in 476, Justinian’s foreign policy until 565 or even the Merovingian expansion of the sixth century can only stand emblematically for these developments. The decline of the Western Roman Empire that took place in these three centuries and the end of the Roman-ancient state apparatus and political infrastructure – at least in the West and thus above all north of the Alps – are only the effects of manifold causes and multi-layered processes. The initial situation around 300 included not only reforms and a reorganization of the empire but also the beginning of the migration of peoples, the gradual establishment of Christianity and the complex process of “Christianization” as well as the increasing “Germanization” of the empire. This term meant not only the warlike conflicts and raids, but also the integration of the Germanic tribes into the Romanic culture. The Germanic tribes were never a completely delimited enemy – there were diplomatic exchanges, alliances and trade, numerous marriages between Romans and Germanic tribes, and last but not least, some Germanic tribes rose to the highest political and military offices of the Roman Empire.

If one considers the numerous historical and even more archaeological finds from Augsburg, Regensburg and Kempten, which were made and evaluated in the past decades, a broadly diversified, but by far not complete insight into the possible development lines of provincial Roman settlements in Late Antiquity is offered. Even if these three highlighted settlement areas cannot comprehensively depict the tendencies in the entire region and province, they are nevertheless suitable as historical windows to broaden the spectrum and to focus on the Late Antique period as such. Despite the unique developments in the formerly Roman frontier province, the events of Raetia can also be inductively placed in the larger overall historical context and in late antique political, military, and social history. The examination of defensive measures, burial customs, and basic supplies is meaningful in this context and at the same time also allows a view of cultural and social change, which was not only characterized by new elements such as Christianity or different forms of rule, but also by transformation and integration. The uncertain period of Late Antiquity and the migration of peoples necessitated in many places the construction of new walls and towers, as well as the increase of the militia and the military, as evidenced by the discovery of foundations or the findings of weapons and pieces of armor. The burial rites, in turn, reflect the adoption of the Germanic or Christian cultural standards mentioned earlier. Of course, the most telling of these are the grave goods or, quite succinctly, the orientation of the graves and the dead towards the east – usually an indication of a Christian background.

In modern archaeology, examinations of bones or teeth are also used to draw conclusions about diet, lifestyle, origin and ethnicity. The basic supply of food and water were of course also central to the continued existence of cities and settlements. Water pipes and aqueducts, the discovery of amphorae containing the remains of food, coins or the contents of cesspools are all significant sources. The presence of southern foodstuffs or other luxury goods also allows conclusions to be drawn about a still functioning long-distance trade. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that the infrastructure, military defense and cultural exchange were partially functional and, at the same time, a certain financial potency was still present.

In summary, Augusta Vindelicum, today’s Augsburg, presents itself as a continuously populated civilian center until late antiquity. Civic life, trade, commerce and administration determined the cityscape until late antiquity. A continuous inhabitation of the Augsburg area throughout the entire period of the migration of peoples is now considered to be proven.

The Porta Praetoria in Regensburg has been preserved until today. SIe was a monumental gateway into the Lewgion camp Castra Regina, from which the city developed. As Rome’s power faded in late antiquity, the Germanic tribe of Bavarians continued to use Regensburg’s impressive stone walls, making the city on the Danube the seat of their early medieval tribal duchy and thus a first capital of Ur-Bavaria.

© Christian Schaller

In the early Middle Ages, there is evidence of a settlement reduced to the cathedral quarter, which only developed again over the centuries into an important episcopal seat and a major trading city in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Castra Regina, today’s Regensburg, on the other hand, distinguished itself from its foundation primarily as a military location and remained so until the disappearance of the Roman presence. Similar to Augsburg, Regensburg first shrank within the Roman walls. The focus of settlement was in the northwest of the old camp. This underwent two reconstructions before large-scale leveling took place in the middle of the fifth century. After the extinction of the Roman central power, the late Roman legionary base probably turned into a central place of the Bavarian population flows and into a residence of the Agilolfing dynasty, which ruled the area now called Bavaria in the early Middle Ages. The situation was different with Cambodunum, today’s Kempten, which as the first Raetian provincial capital had a civil character. This was to change fundamentally after the imperial crisis of the third century and in the course of late antiquity. Cambodunum underwent a complete resettlement as a result of the border shift as well as a profound structural change from a civilian trading town into a military base, which in turn formed part of the Late Antique “Wet Limes”. A continuity of settlement until the early Middle Ages is commonly assumed, but still requires further substantiation by archaeological finds. The end of the migration of peoples in the sixth century can be equated with the end of antiquity north of the Alps. With the end of the Late Antiquity, the course was already set for essential political and cultural developments in the course of the early Middle Ages. In addition to a cultural intermixing, the shift of political emphasis from the Roman Empire to the successor empires can be seen as a central element of this transitional period. The at least formal seizure of the Raetian territories by the Frankish Empire in the west and the Bavarians in the east, which took place after an eventful regional history, led to a renewed stabilization of the political situation, the like of which had not been seen since the end of the imperial crisis and the Diocletian and Constantinian reforms, despite the profound changes that had taken place in the meantime. The Lech River, which flows through Augsburg and flows into the Danube, formed a not insignificant cultural border between the present-day regions of Swabia in the west and Old Bavaria in the east, a border that still exists today. Augsburg, Regensburg and Kempten, as Roman foundations with an almost uninterrupted continuity of settlement, irrefutably played an important role in the eventful period between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The ancient origins of the three cities were subsequently the nucleus for their medieval and early modern position as free and imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. With the beginning of modern times and up to the present day, new archaeological finds and historical findings continually underpin the state of knowledge about history – and in this context also about Late Antiquity – and consistently continue the historical reappraisal of the three Bavarian Roman cities.

Read more about this in Christian Schaller’s book – Augsburg Cultural Histories. You can find out more (incl. reading samples) via the link.

    • Bringmann, Klaus: Römische Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Spätantike. München 2019.
    • Demandt, Alexander: Zeitenwende. Aufsätze zur Spätantike. Berlin 2013.
    • Kaiser, Reinhold: Die Mittelmeerwelt und Europa in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter. Frankfurt am Main 2014.
    • König, Ingemar: Spätantike. Darmstadt 2007.
    • Czysz, Wolfgang / Dietz, Karlheinz / Fischer, Thomas (Hg.): Die Römer in Bayern. Hamburg 2005.
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