The border of the Roman Empire followed the river Rhine through the Netherlands from east to west. A line from Nijmegen, along Utrecht to Leiden.
This had however not at all been the intention of the Romans.
Emperor Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) had ordered a strategic border to be established along the river Elbe, more than 300 kilometers to the northeast.
But the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where three Roman legions simply disappeared in the German wilderness, made an end to further conquest.
For a couple of hundred years, the Rhine in Holland would be the "limes".
Several Dutch cities along and south of that border have Roman origins. Like Nijmegen and Utrecht. The second started as a Roman fort, and was going to be the largest town in this area for more than a thousand years.
North of the Rhine, in the region where today Amsterdam is located, there were no towns at all. Only scattered houses, and very small villages.
But the locals nevertheless did good business with the Romans. Provisioning the border troops with game and fish, cattle and hides, and horses for the cavalry.
Thus the Roman "limes" where in no way an iron curtain. There was a lot of contact both ways, mainly peaceful.
Not always though. Sometimes they clashed, as excavated remains of Roman fortifications witness, on the coast not far from Amsterdam. Places totally destroyed after a dispute with the locals over money ran out of control. With it disappeared the last Roman strongholds north of the Rhine.
From around 250 AD the situation in the border region became unstable. Basically because of unrest and civil war at the heart of the empire, resulting in partial troop withdrawal from the periphery. The weakened border gave Germanic tribes opportunities for incursions and raids.
This started a slow but steady decline of economy and population, both north and south of the border.
At the final fall of the Roman Empire, 476 AD, and the beginning of the Middle Ages, the low part of the Netherlands that was going to be Holland five hundred years later, had become largely depopulated and empty.
A wilderness once more.
to top of page