Marktbreit am Main: town in Germany where an ancient Roman military base has been discovered.

Map of Varus' Germany
Map of Varus' Germany

In the second decade BCE, the Roman emperor Augustus embarked upon an ambitious military policy: the defenses of Gaul had to be strengthened by subdueing the tribes east of the Rhine and along the Danube. As a first measure, the generals Drusus and Tiberius conquered Vindelicia and Raetia and pushed back the northern frontier from the Alps to the Danube (16 BCE). Communications between Italy and the Rhine frontier were now a lot easier. In the second phase, which can be dated to 12-9, Drusus conquered the fertile valleys of the rivers Lippe, Lahn, and Lower Main. Military bases and semi-military civil settlements like Haltern and Waldgirmes were the beginning of the Roman administration of Germania.

In 4 and 5 CE, Tiberius reached the river Elbe. The only part of the country between Elbe, Rhine and Danube that remained unconquered was the kingdom of Maroboduus, the leader of the Marcomanni, who lived in Bohemia. Tiberius wanted to attack him in 6 with tree armies:

  1. Tiberius
    He would march to the north from the Danube, where eight legions (VIII Augusta from Pannonia, XIII Gemina, XIV Gemina, XV Apollinaris and XX Valeria Victrix from Illyricum, XXI Rapax from Raetia, and XVI Gallica from Germania Superior and an unknown unit) were gathered at Bratislava.
  2. In the northwest, Publius Quinctilius Varus was to keep the tribes in check with XVII, XVIII, and XIX.
  3. I Germanica and V Alaudae were supposed to march to the east along the river Main.

It was to be the most grandiose operation that was ever conducted by a Roman army, and the preparations were equally grandiose. Archaeologists have established that east of the modern town Marktbreit am Main, 140 km east of the Rhine, a large base was built on a hilltop. Probably, the First and Fifth were supposed to stay here before the final attack was to begin; and once the conquest of Germania had been finished, it could serve as a civil settlement, perhaps the capital of southern Germania.

Marktbreit, panorama
Marktbreit, panorama

However, a rebellion in Pannonia obstructed the execution of the plan, and the base was never used. Tiberius was occupied for three years until he had suppressed the insurrection, and when he was finally master of the situation in 9, the defeat of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest put an end to all Roman ambitions east of the Rhine.

Marktbreit was identified on aerial photos in 1985, and archaeologists were active in 1986-1992. They discovered a remarkable place, because the palisade (2¼ km long, or 21,000 trees) appeared to be finished and several buildings were complete. The surface area of 37 ha suggested that the base was built for two legions or one legion and a lot of auxiliary troops. But there were no traces of actual occupation. It took some time to conclude that this was not the result of erosion, but from the fact that the base had been prepared but was never used.

Marktbreit, seen from across the river Main
Marktbreit, seen from across the river Main

The people who constructed the wall lived in a smaller camp on the summit of the hill; its size (9 ha) suggests that about 3,000 people were involved in the construction activities. The headquarters (praetorium), the residences of three centurions, store rooms (horrea), and kilns had already been finished before the settlement was abandoned. There are no traces of violence, and precious objects appear to have been taken away, which suggests that Marktbreit was evacuated when strategic realities had changed and made it unnecessary.

The site was never used again. After the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, the Rhine became the frontier of the Roman world. The emperors Caligula (37-41), Vespasian (69-79), and Domitian (81-96) were again interested in the lower Main valley, but never went far to the east. The settlement at Marktbreit was forgotten, and we will probably never know its real name.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 10 October 2020.