The rich Roman history of the Rhineland

A day after I visited Cologne and saw the monuments and Roman history there, I discovered that there was a museum called RömerWelt in Rheinbrohl near my river cottage. That morning I set my alarm for 7.30, made some coffee and got ready for a new adventure. That day exceeded my expectations learning more about the ancient Romans in my area.

Römerwelt in Rheinbrohl
RömerWelt in Rheinbrohl

ROME – A GLOBAL EMPIRE

From the 3rd century BC to the Ist century AD, the Roman Empire took on a dramatic scale evolving from a mere city state. After the unification of all of Italy under Roman leadership, the Romans conquered the entire Mediterranean including vast parts of northern Africa as well as of southern and central Europe.

The area left to the Rhine (today Nordrhein-Westfalen) was ruled by the Roman Empire for about 500 years, after the conquer of Caesar in 55 BC to 460 AD, and when Cologne was taken by the Franks.

Also see the Roman History (in German) here

Roman Empire 300 AD
Roman Empire ~300 AD

The conquest of new regions and the protection of the Roman Empire, domestically as well as regarding foreign affairs were assigned to the military. To facilitate administration the conquered territories were divided into provinces to which the forced Roman government brought their Pax Romana – peace for long periods of time as well as economic blossoming. Immeasurable riches flowed to Rome from the provinces which were the state’s and the Emperor’s main source of income.

The era of the Roman Emperors began with Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD)

LIFE AT THE CASTELL

A considerable part of the military camps was occupied by soldiers’ quarters: low barrack-like buildings which could house approximately 80 soldiers. They were subdivided into 10 simple team rooms for eight soldiers each (contubernia).

Each team room had a vestibule in which weapons and other pieces of equipment were stored. The rearward room contained the bunk beds but was also used as a living room and was equipped with a cooking pit to prepare meals. At the end of the long building was the centurio’s accommodation (captain) which was much more spacious than the soldiers’ rooms. There he lived with his deputy (optio), the bearer of the army flag (signifier) and a corporal (tesserarius)

LEISURE TIME OF AUXILIARY SOLDIERS

According to established rule, Roman soldiers had the afternoon off. Exceptions to this rule were those assigned as sentries or to other special duties. Part of their spare time was used to prepare meals, look after their equipment and clothing as well as cleaning their quarters. Those who had family relations in the castle village could visit them. One of the most popular spare time activities was a visit at the castle spa or a pub.

Gladiator fights are proven to have taken place along the Limes. In larger settlements visits to theatres were even an option.

Sports and games, such as rolling dice, board and ball games, wrestling and boxing were also very welcome.

Roman games in general:

With the exception of sports betting, most games of chance were illegal under Roman law. The amount of the penalty was four times the bet. There are many sources (2 B, mural in Pompeii) that most games like CALIPONAE and POPINAE were secretly played in living rooms. Back room games were tolerated or even organized.

 LUDVSLATRVNCULORUM (translated: “Soldier’s Game” / “Mercenary’s Game”). As by far the most popular Roman board game, it was exempted from this legislation because it was used as a Strategy game was valid and could therefore also be played in public. MARTIAL (AD 40-104) reports Roman intellectuals took pride participating in public Championships. This one has to imagine where similar to today’s Chess tournaments.

ADMINISTRATION OF THE CASTELL

In the castles near the Limes, many administrative tasks arose. Besides the military office, there was also the administrative office for the castle village and the surrounding area. The highest ranking officer (cornicularius) was head of the office.

He was assisted by secretaries who had special areas of responsibility. The official language was Latin as well as Greek in the eastern provinces. Full command of Latin in reading and writing was a prerequisite for moving up through the ranks. In some places, written documents from these military offices were found like wooden boards in northern England, papyrus in Syria and Egypt.

Roman Castell lock and keys below:

Keys and lock to the Roman castell
Keys and lock to the Roman castell

LATE ROMAN PARAPEGMA (PEG CALENDAR)

This Roman calendar was carved onto a stone slab, similar like the one that was found in Rome from the 3rd/4th century AD

Roman PEG calendar

The parapegma, which is based on the observations of the astronomers in ancient times, helps in organizing and timing everyday life. Three wooden pegs mark the day of the week, the month and the day of the month.

In the upper row you see the days of the week and a wooden peg to mark the current day. The days of the week are symbolized by the seven Roman deities after whom the planets known at that time and visible to the unaided eye were named; starting from the left: SATURN, SOL, LUNA, MARS, MERCURY, JUPITER and VENUS.

A second peg marks the corresponding day of the month at the edges on the right and the left, respectively. In the center there is a circle, which is divided into twelve sections featuring the zodiacal signs in the cycle of the year. Here the peg is to mark the month. There are three holes for each month, which makes it possible to indicate additionally to the month the phase of the moon, i.e. new moon or full moon.

The gods and goddesses always had distinctive characteristics, so-called “attributes”, which distinguished them from each other. SATURN was depicted as god of harvest with a sickle, SOL as god of light with an aureola, LUNA easily recognizable with a crescent moon, MARS as god of war with helmet and spear, MERCURY, the messenger of the gods, equipped with a winged helmet and the caduceus, JUPITER as the almighty ruler with lightning and thunder and VENUS as goddess of love often in the nude. 

Social Life

Hygiene for soldiers and civilians was important to the Roman state. Therefore, each garrison had their own thermal spa facilities, usually outside the castle walls accessible for everybody. Contrary to today’s way of thinking, Roman bathing routines – epitome of roman life and culture not only catered to hygienic aspects but also to medical ones.

Imperial Roman Bath house , Trier (per Wikimedia)

A public bath consisted of a few interconnected rooms with large basins and a sophisticated heating system. The rooms as well as the water had different temperatures. The basins offered space for a number of people but were not suitable for swimming. The visitors bathed naked but wore wooden sandals because of the hot floor. Prior to a bathing sequence, a thorough cleansing of the body was performed with the help of a scraper (strigilis) and oil.

Below body scrapers and rocks for games:

In addition to hygienic and healthcare functions, thermal spas were the meeting place of the soldiers’ leisure time activities, a meeting point to maintain social contacts and companionship. 

CAESAR

* 100 BC, $ 44 BC

Gaius Julius Caesar, a Statesman, military general and author. In 59 BC Caesar being consul held one of the highest offices in Rome. In the subsequent year he became proconsul of several provinces, above all of Gallia Narbonensis in today’s South France (Provencellat: provincia).

In armed conflicts with Celtic tribes and living north of this territory, he managed to conquer the whole of Gaul up to the Rhine frontier by the year 51 BC, thus considerably expanding the Roman Empire. Twice he crossed the Rhine in our region, after he had had bridges built over the river in an incredibly short time.

FOOD FROM NEAR AND FAR

The soldiers food was of high quality and substantial. A multitude of edible plants, many of which had been imported from the Mediterranean, was grown in the vicinity of the forts and in the hinterland. Preferred cereals were single corn, spelt, emmer, wheat and barley. Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas were the most consumed kinds of vegetables.These were complemented by leaf and root vegetables.

The Romans added herbs and spices to their food because they loved it highly seasoned. Salt was indispensable, also when it came to preserving food.

As far as tree fruits are concerned, apples, plums, sweet cherries, peaches, pears and nuts were dominant. Different varieties of grapes were grown along the rivers Rhine and Moselle. In addition to this, many imports from the Mediterranean like oysters and mussels complemented the menu. They also baked their own artisan Roman bread covered with seeds.

Garum, a fermented fish sauce, has a strong smell and an intensive taste was indispensable for the Roman cuisine. Garum was used as a condiment in the cuisines of Phoenicia, ancient Greece, Rome, Carthage and later Byzantium 2000 years ago.The sauce contained olive oil, some fruits that did not grow around here and were highly perishable, also some seafood like imported oysters and mussels.

What is Garum? Watch video below:

CIVILIAN LIFE

After having been safeguarded by the Roman military, the scarcely populated area between Rhine, Danube and Limes attracted many people. By and by, a Roman-Celtic-Germanic population mix evolved and civilian life flourished. A governor was responsible for the administration of the imperial province of Upper Germania with its main city Mogontiacum (Mainz) as well as for the provincial troops and legal matters.

Since Trajan (98-117 AD), so-called civitates (large administration areas),which were also given a self-administration following the Italo-Roman example, had been set up in the former Celtic and Germanic areas of settlement. The majority of the population in the hinterland of the Limes lived in castle villages, farm estates (villa rusticae) or in civilian settlements at road stations. Farm villages like those in the Middle Ages were unknown.

ROMAN FARM ESTATES

It was a formidable challenge to supply the troops along the Limes, the Roman military road, fortified with watchtowers and forts, with food. In the course of time, farms (villae rusticae), following the Italian example, arose in the hinterland of the Limes and guaranteed the short-distance food supply of the military.

Roman farm estates
Roman Farm Estates

The farm estates varied in size and went from small farms to extensive estates. Depending on the conditions, they cultivated crops or raised livestock, sometimes there was even mixed farming or specialized cultivation such as viniculture.

The villa rusticae were usually built on slight slopes along creeks or near natural springs. Within the fenced estate, there was a domineering manor’ as well as farm buildings such as barns, stables, workshops and tool sheds. Moreover, there usually was a bathing facility and a place for worship.

The unbuilt land of the estate was used for gardening and orchards. This way, the residents of the estate were self-sufficient. Overproduction was used to supply the military and the inhabitants of the castle villages.

LIFE IN A GERMANIC VILLAGE

‘Germans’ is a collective term for various different tribes with similar characteristics. There had never been one united Germanic people. Those who lived within the confines of the Empire were romanized within just a few decades, those outside the border maintained their traditional lifestyle stone buildings, roads and aqueducts for the transportation of water, monetary economy and writing remained foreign to them.

The majority of the population lived in small villages or on individual farms. They were free farmers and looked after their families, servants and slaves in a self-sufficient manner by cultivating crops and raising lifestock. The women were responsible for the tedious preparation of food and had an outstanding command of textile techniques.

The typical farm building was a long rectangular hall-type house in which men and animals – separated – lived under one roof. The walls were made of interwoven material filled in with clay. Large posts carried the skeleton of the roof which was covered by straw and reed. An open fire pit was the centre of the house and served cooking and heating purposes. Due to the necessity of running water and the danger of fires, mills and smithies were usually located a little away from farms.

ROMANIZATION OF THE GERMANS

Beyond the safety of the border, a population which led a Roman lifestyle and adopted Roman culture rose quickly and the Roman military was the main factor of this Romanization. The spreading of the Latin language was of fundamental importance in this regard and the language became the main means of communication among the mix of Romans, Gauls and Germans in the hinterland of the Limes. With the inclusion of these parts into the Roman Empire, currency, jurisdiction and administration became Roman, too.

Villa rustica, Haselburg at Höchst per Wikimedia

Many urban settlements evolved, Roman architecture became common and rural estates of Italian fashion (villa rusticae) replaced older peasant-type buildings. There was an overproduction in agriculture and the marketing of merchandise replaced non-monetary trade.

New economic branches evolved due to the reaping of natural resources. In everyday life, hygiene of the body, leisure time activities, clothing, jewellery, lifestyle and food as well as Roman funeral rites became trendsetting. However, sometimes also Germanic and Celtic traditions were adopted by the Romans.

USE OF RESOURCES

Romanisation of the Rhineland

The Romans searched for resources in the conquered areas on both sides of the Rhine. Even today, impressive relics made of local stones still remind us of the Roman occupation lasting for centuries along the Rhine and in South West Germany.

Especially clay and various types of rocks were but some of the natural resources which contributed to the flourishing of the German provinces. In the branches of the Rhine, people mined for iron ore, lead and copper and even for precious metals (gold, silver). The rapid increase in population led to the expansion of arable areas and fertile soil was cultivated. The forests, rich in wood, had a special meaning for the Romans and led to deforestation of vast areas. Only during the Middle Ages, the forests slowly began to recover. 

THE LIMES AS CONFLICT ZONE

In the middle of the 1st century BC, Romans and Germans became neighbours on the Rhine. This was the start of a multi-layered relationship which lasted for more than 500 ears. The era was characterized by hostile military conflicts as well as periods of peaceful coexistence, contact, alliances, collaboration and integration. To protect the regions immediately beyond the Limes, the Romans frequently entertained diplomatic relationships with the Germanic tribes and exerted their influence and recruited Germanic auxiliary troops.

Roman Limes Rhineland

However, the wealth of the Romans often tempted the Germanic tribes to go on raids. In Upper Germania, the tribe of the Chatti (around 162 and maybe also around 170 AD) severely threatened the border region. From 166 to 180 AD, the Romans, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, were involved in severe military conflicts with the Germanic Marcomanni tribe in the Danube area which had a devastating effect on Rhaetia. In the course of the 3rd century AD, the pressure of the Alemanni at the border became so strong that the Romans had to abandon the limes.

SIGNALLING SYSTEMS

The entire Legion Army was able to recognize its members by a unique sign code and to act accordingly: The Limes did not constitute an insurmountable bulwark. The crews of the watch towers could only supervise their own section of the border but they could not defend it. Approaching threats were reported quickly by way of fire, smoke, flag or horn signals from tower to tower to the next castle where troops were deployed to fight and persecute intruders.

It was not always possible to avoid penetration but also when hordes of intruders laden with booty retreated, the Limes constituted a formidable obstacle and raiders could then be arrested.

Schematic drawing or a Roman warning signal at the Limes
Schematic drawing or a Roman warning signal at the Limes

The schematic drawing shows how the warning signal system at the Limes functioned:

1. Soldiers at the watch tower realize there is an attack (upper left corner)

2. The watch towers nearby are notified by fire signals (red light)

3. Auxiliary troops move out (white light)

THE REORGANIZATION OF THE ROMAN WORLD

In the 4th and 5th century AD, a perpetual influx of vast Germanic tribes lastingly changed the Western Roman Empire. The Emperor reacted to this penetration of Barbarians by fighting back but also by contractually accepting single tribes and letting them maintain independent states while including them in the defence of the Empire.

Roman Empire 395 a.D
Roman Empire 395 a.D

The intruding groups did not want to destroy the Roman Empire but, on the contrary, they were looking for better living conditions. After a short time, they usually identified with the Roman Empire, accepted Roman traditions and fought other Germanic tribes without hesitation. Some Germanic noblemen even held high military ranks or political positions in the Empire.

The dismissal of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD by the Germanic king Odoaker is generally viewed as the end of the Western Roman Empire. Around 500 AD, the Germanic kingdoms of Saxon, Franks, Burgundy, the East and West Goths and the Vandals coexisted in this territory.

  • Roman crane to lift rocks
  • Roman crane to lift rocks
  • Pile drives for wooden bridge construction
  • Pile drives for wooden bridge construction
  • Pile drives for wooden bridge construction
  • Pile drives for wooden bridge construction
  • Roman roof tiles
  • Roman Bread baking oven
  • Roman Flour mill, grinder
  • Roman Bread baking oven
  • Roman bread baking
  • Roman Stone making
  • Roman Stone making
  • Roman castell life, clothing, roman weapons
  • Roman legion soldier
  • Roman legion soldier
  • Germanic soldier
  • Roman wagon
  • Roman artifacts
  • Roman artifacts
  • Roman artifacts
  • Roman coins
  • Coin of Roman Emperor Trajan, 107 a.D
  • Roman artifacts
  • Roman Hinges artifacts
  • Roman artifacts
  • Roman aqueduct

Reference:

Some text I published are from signs in the Museum “RömerWelt” Rheinbrohl