Barbarians and Rome's legions battled along the Danube for 400 years

Fortified by forts and watchtowers, the 1,700-mile river formed the empire's northern border, with Rome on one side and Germanic tribes on the other.

The Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts the chaos of a battle between the Romans and barbarians, who can be identified by their clothing and beards. The sculpture, from the mid-third century A.D., was found on a tomb near Rome’s Porta Tiburtina.
ALBUM/AKG-IMAGES/WERNER FORMAN/N.J. SAUNDERS

Flowing out of the Black Forest in Germany across Europe, the Danube runs for more than 1,700 miles before it meets the Black Sea. This river, Europe’s second longest, shaped the history of the continent as much as it shaped the landscape. The Danube created a natural border, and the rulers of Rome, starting with the first emperor, Augustus, used it to mark the place where Rome ended and the frontier began.

On one side of the river dwelled Romans, on the other were barbarians. Roman writers did not differentiate among the Germanic tribes who lived north of the Danube. Their culture and practices were of no interest to Rome. All Rome wanted to do was keep the barbarians out as it turned its attentions to expanding and maintaining its empire.

Barbarians were not one large group of people. They were many different cultures with differing ethnicities and origins from all over Europe and Asia. The nomadic Huns most likely came from the area around Kazakhstan, the Vandals from Poland and Scandinavia, and the Picts from Britain, while the Sarmatians migrated westward from Iran.

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