The strategic location on an Alpine pass gave Aosta great importance for the traffic between Italy and Gaul already in Roman times. (Photo: Buffy1982 / fotolia.de)
The Romans also had a strong impact there and brought their cultural-hegemonic claim with them. Due to the still relatively low awareness of this history, we have made it our task to provide clarification here. How did the Romans manage to conquer the Alps in the first place and thus expand their empire into Central Europe?? What cultural peculiarities and achievements they brought and left behind in the process?
Why the Romans came over the Alps
The first question that comes to mind when dealing with this topic is why the Romans in ancient times took the arduous journey across the Alps. A culture that was clearly located in the warmer Mediterranean region had to take great risks to make this choice at all.
In fact, routes across the Alps seem to have been known already in pre-Roman times – and these were trade routes that already existed in the Bronze Age. However, barter trade between the north and the south of the Alps has probably been taking place since the late Neolithic period, i.e. the so-called Neolithic period. If we take a closer look at the technological achievements that were available during this period and the very low level of education that people obviously had on average during this time, it seems all the more astonishing that they took these arduous and sometimes life-threatening paths.
The Celts also apparently already used routes over the Alps – hunters and shepherds were active here. They did, however, conquer very high mountains, such as the nearly two-and-a-half-thousand-meter-high St. Gall. Bernhard. From our point of view, such heights may no longer be particularly awe-inspiring, but from the point of view of that time – completely without the possibility of using our present-day technologies and equipment – conquering these mountains could only be explained by tremendous curiosity or by absolute necessity.
Military and economic motives
Above all, military and economic motives dominated here. After all, the Roman Empire was a real world power not only because of its territorial expansion already at the latest after the victory over Carthage before Christ, but also because of the economic and military strength associated with it. Today’s economic laws also applied in antiquity and were followed by the Romans, including the reliance on exports.
Military expansion was, of course, also one of the strategies of the world power of the time.
In fact, Caesar – before his time as dictator – was already concerned with opening up a trade route from Italy across the Alps, and was prepared to subjugate the tribes living along the routes he had planned for this purpose. His famous historical work "De Bello Gallico" reports in parts about this venture. The campaign he ordered for this purpose even almost failed. So the Romans were not yet as secure and overpowering in that region as they should have been, especially in the high phases of the Empire.
For the comprehensive claim as hegemon not only of the European continent, one of the biggest problems for the Roman Empire was the question of how the troops could be supplied far from home. This, however, was not the only logistical issue that literally imposed itself on the Empire: if conquests north of the Alps were to be closely integrated in the long term, they would have to be connected to Rome with a solid infrastructure.
From a purely geostrategic point of view, the route across the sea could not be sufficient – because the only way to the north without detours is across the Alps. Just the way over the sea is strongly dependent on the tides and on the bounty of the weather. Not enough with that, the threat of the trade routes over the sea is geostrategically possible practically at any time. As the only possibility to supply the own infrastructures logistically, it is much too risky to use only the sea.
How the Romans came over the Alps
But how did the Romans get across the Alps? Well, actually this experiment was dared some historians from the University of Augsburg itself. Equipped only with the objects that were also available at that time, they dared to ascend. The desire for authenticity went so far that they chose tunics as clothing and spent several days at the top of the pass. Of course, there was also a research goal here.
For at the time of Emperor Claudius (10 bc. Chr. – 54 n. Chr.) the Via Claudia Augusta was also built across the Alps. However, not by specially trained engineers, but instead by ordinary legionaries. These functioned practically thus permanently still equal as coworkers – in an anyway hostile environment an additional load. The researchers, meanwhile, have found that they were able to create twenty meters of road on the pass in a week’s work by five people – this allows conclusions to be drawn about the efforts with which the Romans made such road-building operations possible.
This expansion of the road network, which now also allowed progress with horse-drawn carts, was of course a major step for the Roman Empire in the direction of consolidating its own rule. Finally, the new means of transport meant nothing less than an acceleration of the movement of goods and a quantum leap in terms of the development of their infrastructure.
Cultural achievements of the Romans
If we ask ourselves which cultural developments the Romans brought with them to the Alpine regions, the answer is quite simple: as good as any they had. The Romans tended to export culture, and although they allowed partial independence to peoples they had subjugated, they always brought their own customs with them.
That is why we will mainly deal with some of the typical Roman achievements that they practically brought with them to the Alpine regions as well as to other areas. It should go without saying that we cannot appreciate all the various achievements – nevertheless, we would like to briefly outline the diversity of Roman achievements in particular.
In fact, the Roman jurisdiction can look back on a rich history in its development. A great deal was to change within the centuries – no wonder, since Roman history was also an eventful one. It may seem remarkable, for example, that the Romans distinguished between criminal and civil law at a relatively early stage. Not only that, but a rather complex judiciary developed, which has similarities with today’s German civil service.
The complexity of the legal forms can also be measured by the fact that even at that time it was quite clearly regulated in which linguistic arrangements the legal transactions had to take place. If these norms were not kept relatively strictly and exactly, a contradiction could take place in rapid speed.
Already the complexity of the legal system shows the high level of civilization of the Romans – after all, an extensive legal system had been developed over centuries. Incidentally, it was not uncommon for high-ranking Roman politicians to earn their first merits in jurisprudence, including the world-famous rhetor Cicero.
It can hardly be exaggerated to count the Roman way of water supply among the great engineering feats of world history. This, too, arose primarily out of necessity, for in the beginning Rome was indeed supplied primarily with water from the Tiber and that from various springs and wells.
But soon this kind of supply was no longer sufficient, as the population of Rome exploded more and more. Water had to be brought from more distant regions. The so-called aqueducts made it possible to supply Rome with fresh spring water. The Romans also took this technology with them – in part as far as the Alps.
Wine was the only alcoholic beverage in antiquity that actually enjoyed great popularity in all Mediterranean nations. The Romans, of course, played a large part in this fact. Here there was also a huge export to other countries from Italy, tens of thousands of hectoliters were exported annually and transported in amphorae, wineskins or barrels.
Due to the climatic conditions in the region, there was much more red wine than white. Wine was an absolute popular drink and was drunk not only by legionaries and citizens, but also by slaves as a matter of course.
However, wine was not served in the same form that we know today. Because drinking pure wine was not considered very chic, it was rather considered as a sign of existing alcohol problems. Therefore, most people drank it mixed with water – rarely there was a ratio of 1:1, usually the water proportions in the mixture were significantly higher.
The reason for this, however, was not only that people did not want to consume too much alcohol, but also that wine was often stored thickened and the rather oily consistency was improved a little in this way.
At the latest in the first century after Christ, wine was an absolute mass product and affordable for almost all members of Roman society. Nevertheless, as the empire grew, it was hardly possible in the long run to supply the needs of all the people with exports from the Roman heartlands – and not even those of all the Romans who were serving far from home.
Therefore, it was only logical that in the long run the Romans would look for ways to plant their vines in other areas as well. Finally, in this way they would be able to achieve a greater variety of tastes in the long term, and also significantly shorten the distances that the wine would have to travel to reach its destination.
Wine growing in foreign regions
When the Romans occupied territories, they also began to plant vines there. Especially in the times when the Roman Empire extended over Asia Minor, Europe and North Africa, wine was also produced there. Especially emperors like Domitian and later Probus made themselves very deserving here, as they took complex decrees and measures concerning viticulture in foreign countries.
The emperors could not have realized at that time what an enormous service they would be rendering to the later, i.e. today’s, wine world. Many of the world’s most important wine-growing regions were already established at that time – and are still flourishing today.
This is due not only to the initiatives of the emperors mentioned above, but also to the already extensive literature on the subject at that time, which dealt with the most diverse aspects of viticulture.
Of course, the Romans also brought one of their most beautiful cultural achievements to the Alpine regions. Some excellent wine regions have emerged in Austria, for example, one that was even designated an imperial residence by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Latin name of the growing region indicates the Roman origin. Also with the designation of the wines this is reflected partly (z.B. Rubin Carnuntum). The fact that the Romans devoted themselves to viticulture in these regions is, among other things, of such importance because without their intervention wine would probably have penetrated later or even not at all into the regions in question.
After all, the people there did not know wine – or the gold of the vine was not part of their taste habits. Even the wines we know today from the Rhine and Moselle, for example, are partly due to the Romans and their cultivation efforts.
Roman building technology had a total of about nine hundred years to develop to its full maturity – numerous architectural masterpieces, many of which we can still marvel at today, not only in Rome. Of course, as in many areas, the Romans took over many things from the Greeks and then refined them, especially with regard to building techniques. In this respect, it is not surprising that the Roman buildings that we can still admire today are often UNESCO cultural heritage sites.
The fact that the Romans were able to build a world empire has, of course, not only something to do with their diplomatic skills – nor with their economic abilities. Although they were able to gain experience in both areas for centuries and to refine these disciplines, they did not forego the opportunities to engage in military activities in a variety of ways in many areas.
Caesar’s Gallic war is only one of the countless examples of an expansive behavior. The Romans were able to rely on sophisticated military tactics – and appropriate equipment. A closed formation was part of the very common Roman maneuvers for the soldiers before going into the thick of battle. This closed military form had not only physically devastating, but in advance also psychologically devastating consequences for the soldiers of the enemy army.
Hannibal – conqueror of the Alps and the Romans?
When it comes to the Alps and the Romans, you can’t forget a historical figure and one of Rome’s greatest and bitterest enemies: Hannibal. Even if the existing ancient sources can by no means be classified as one hundred percent authentic, because they come exclusively from Roman sources, the information about Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to attack the Romans in their rear is nevertheless available:
We know that Hannibal crossed the Alps with an army and war elephants – but not exactly where he did it. Instead, until today there are only several assumptions and indications where exactly the route may have run. The forces that Hannibal’s army had to leave here were, of course, no longer available to him afterwards. Nevertheless, the Romans feared for their existence at the time of the conflict – in this respect Hannibal Barkas, who threatened Rome badly two centuries before Christ, is rightly considered an almost legendary figure.
What remains of the Romans today
So what remains of the Romans today?? Well, as far as the alpine regions are concerned, quite a lot. The Romans were also the first to turn the Brenner Pass into a road. In many areas they imposed certain cultural achievements elsewhere as well.
This must have been terrible for the populations at that time – because they did not have a choice whether they would like to accept the foreign influence. From today’s perspective, however, it must be said that the Romans certainly brought civilization around the Alps far forward.
Their principles in jurisprudence, architecture, viticulture, but also in the military have significantly influenced and shaped European history and thus also that of the Alpine regions. The supposedly dark period of the Middle Ages was in fact one that incorporated many Roman principles – in many different areas.
In summary, then, both the Romans’ conquest of the Alps as a world-historical event is just as important as the achievements they left behind on their way north and west. Thus, the importance of this expansion can hardly be overestimated from the historical point of view – rather, interesting questions follow. What would have happened, for example, if the Romans had refrained from crossing the Alps or had used the sea route exclusively?? It is only when dealing with such questions that it becomes clear how important the Romans really were as a cultural nation.