Rome had expansionist policy from its early days since the Dacian conquest by Trajan. During these several centuries, Rome took on powerful and established powers such as Carthage, Macedon, Selucid kingdom and so on. It didn't have much difficulty in conquering loose barbarian tribes either, such as the conquests of Gaul and Britain. However, Rome never managed to conquer the Germanic tribes, and the Rhine Danube frontier was always a potential trouble spot for Romans. Why is that?

Now, Romans certainly tried advances in Germany¹, but they were unsuccessful. Most notable example of this would be the disastrous Battle of the Teotoburg Forest. But I am interested in the reasons at a higher level.

Also, it is curious that they never forayed significantly in this region. Mesopotamia was a key area for Romans, and they had at least managed to conquer it once; even though they couldn't even hold it for a decade (Trajan's Mesopotamia). There is no analog for Germany. Was it because Romans were never interested in Germany?

If the scope of this is too broad, then I am interested in the expansionist phase of Roman history, possibly from start of second century B.C. to the end of Trajan's reign.

¹ By Germany I mean what Romans meant by Germania.

  • The Romans conquered several Germanic tribes living south of the Rhine, plus those in the Rhine-Danube angle. The basic issue was support: could the conquered population support the garrisons and the officialdom necessary for control? The German tribal economy was not settled enough to do so. Same problem with the Berbers of North Africa. Every conquest had to be able to pay for itself. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 1:33
  • @PeterDiehr Yes, I meant the heartlands on the other side of Rhine, which Romans never managed to conquer. The economic angle you mention is interesting, but was the situation much different in Gaul and Britain which Romans did manage to conquer? I would be interested if you could make your comment into a detailed answer.
    – taninamdar
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 1:38
  • 1
    A similar question is why not conqueor Scotland? They'd taken 70% of the UK, why stop at Scotland? The empire had to draw a border somewhere it couldn't go one forever at somepoint someone had to say, "it's just not worth loosing men, etc. to take this bit of land of limited value"
    – user7002
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 9:09
  • @Liam True. I'm interested in Germany (as opposed to Scotland) because centuries later, the mortal threat came from the Germanic tribes.
    – taninamdar
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 13:44
  • @TomAu Definitely a duplicate. I knew I had seen a similar question somewhere, but it didn't show up in related questions. Strange.
    – taninamdar
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 15:06

1 Answer 1


The first issue is that the "loose barbarians", the Celts, weren't uncivilized. They built impressive oppidas and fortresses. Their society was organized and complex. Also, Germany had thick woods, while places like Gaul had wide pastures, ideal for Roman tactics. Another thing is that Caesar did struggle against the Gauls and he nearly lost. This issue of finding the Germanic tribes more loosely settled also applies to the Picts, which the Romans weren't able to conquer either, for the same reasons.

Another aspect is that the Roman Empire already reached its critical limit in size. Loosing a few key battles for a land that they would had to build from ground up (unlike Gaul where there already were cities) just wasn't worth the trouble at the end. There were far richer provinces to protect with the soldiers they had left.

A third factor could have been language. Celtic was very similar to Latin. I don't know how similar ancient Germanic was to either of them. Picticsh was most likely a Celtic language, but could possibly have been Pre-Indo-European.

  • 1
    I have a problem measuring how "civilized" a culture is by the cities they built. The Germanic tribes displayed impressive craftsmanship -- they were wearing finely woven cloths, not the "hessian and furs" they are usually pictured with, and worked fine jewelry as well as weaponry. Their culture was tribal, their but apart from that I wouldn't say that they were "uncivilized" compared to the Celts.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 8:05
  • @DevSolar: There are a few definitions of "civilized". The definition I used is that Celts had cities (which Germans didn't), there are quite a few written records of Celts (which there are far less Germanic equivalents) and arguably their societies were more democratic (Aedui as example). They also were masters of trade and their craftsmanship was famous (ever heard of Noric steel?). Measured by that, Celts were just much more "Roman" (except the craftsmanship maybe :P) and thus easier to manage for them. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 8:13

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