Yup, that was what I thought, too.
Probably I’d been watching too many films like Gladiator with that opening forest battle [above] and all those barbarian attackers.
Or reading about Falco’s bloody struggles in Germania in AD71 in The Iron Hand of Mars. In that story, Falco finds links back to the massacre of the legions in AD9 where up to 20,000 Romans died.
The massacre is depicted in this painting [right]. You’ll note Germanic warriors complete with winged and horned helmets.
It’s by a German painter, too 😉
For me, that battle always conjures up an image of Augustus butting his head against the wall and crying, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions.”
So partly because of those cultural influences, I had assumed, without giving the question much thought, that Romans in Germany would always be watching their backs and that their lives would be pretty basic.
Roman Germany — Keep the Barbarians Out?
If you were coming to Roman Germany from barbaricum (as the Romans called the non-Roman area), you couldn’t just walk in. Imagine yourself hiking through the forests of barbaricum to get to the Roman world, to sell your goods, say. You emerge from the trees and you see…
Argh! Looks menacing. Maybe you can go round and avoid that watch tower?
Nope. This is part of the Roman limes (the Latin root of our word limit) and it goes for hundreds of miles with watch towers all the way along. The palisade is painted white (like the right-hand part of the reconstruction) so that the barbarians can see it from a long way away. The Romans were very good at getting their propaganda message across, don’t you think?
You can’t get round but you can get through. On Roman terms.
That means, basically, that you go through their gate supervised by Roman soldiers from a massive watch tower like this one (left); you show them what you’re carrying and answer their questions about what you’re doing; and — most important of all — you pay taxes to Rome as a proportion of your goods.
So Roman Germany didn’t try to keep all the barbarians out after all. There was profit in letting [some of] them through.
But what were the barbarians coming into? Even with the defences of the limes, wasn’t life in Roman Germany bound to have been nasty, brutish and short?
Life in Roman Germany — Nasty, Brutish and Short?
Well, try this for size…
The Villa Borg site was in use for at least 4 centuries until the beginning of the 5th century AD. My panorama picture probably doesn’t do it justice so here’s the plan of this huge (7.5 hectare) estate. [There’s English beneath the German; click to make the image more legible.]
Yes, there is a gatehouse [marked 1 on plan] but the villa doesn’t look exactly prepared to repulse an attack, does it? It’s a working estate, with animals, formal and kitchen gardens, a smithy, a pottery, and more. The reconstructed 3rd century gatehouse (below, taken from the front of the villa) is certainly imposing, but the wall isn’t very high. Decorative rather than defensive, I’d have said.
And life inside? May I invite you to pay a visit to the Villa Borg?
Life in Roman Germany — Luxurious for Some?
Obviously your host at the Villa Borg would have been someone rich, powerful and possibly aristocratic. And all those workshops, and the villa itself, would have been worked by slaves because that’s the way the Roman economy was organised. (Some of the Roman soldiers in the Varus legions survived; they ended up as slaves of the Germanic victors. We find the idea of slavery obnoxious, but it was the way of the world, back then.)
As a visitor to Villa Borg, you enter the magnificent reception hall through the folding wooden doors (left of picture) from the formal garden. It is intended to impress and it does. The original mosaic floor is lost, so the hall has been reconstructed with a marble floor instead. The original might perhaps have looked like the stunning mosaic floor at Nennig (below, with detail right):
Yes, that is translucent glass in the window of that family room shown on the left. It’s used all through the villa. You can’t see through it — Roman technology wasn’t good enough to make transparent window glass — but it does let in light and keep out rain, wind and draughts.
Bathing at the Villa Borg?
You might even, if your status is high enough, make it to the bath house (right, the hot bath, and left, the cold bath).
Perhaps you can also have a massage from a handy slave while chatting to your host and exchanging all the latest gossip?
You will be naked but very comfortable here, since heating is provided by the underfloor hypocaust system (stoked by house slaves, of course, but probably only once every half-hour or so, according to the latest research).
Villa Borg (reconstruction) bath house and cutaway of floor showing hypocaust heating system
Ave et vale?
Enjoy your time in the bath house, honoured guest. And later, once you’re clean and relaxed, you may enjoy a glass of fine wine with your host. It may even — if you are truly favoured — be served in a Roman glass drinking vessel like this one. Because Roman Germany was renowned for the quality of its glass. And a famous centre of glassmaking, from about AD100, was Colonia (modern Cologne) on the northern Rhine.
Would I like to time-travel to Roman Germany? Not really. With my luck, I’d have been the poor slave stoking the hypocaust 😉