Roman Germany : Dark and Dangerous? Or Delightful?

Roman Germany? What picture does it conjure up for you? Mile after mile of dark, trackless forest with a hostile warrior behind every other tree, waiting to kill you?Roman battle against Germanic tribes from film Gladiator

Yup, that was what I thought, too.

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

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…

Roman Germany LIMES palisade and watch tower

Roman Germany: LIMES palisade and watch tower

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?

Reconstructed LIMES watch tower at Zugmantel

Reconstructed LIMES watch tower at Zugmantel

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…

reconstruction of Roman villa at Borg near Trier

Reconstruction of Roman Villa Borg near Trier :

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.]plan of Roman Villa Borg

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.

Roman Villa Borg view from villa to gatehouse

Reconstruction of Roman Villa Borg gatehouse, taken from villa verandah

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.)

Reconstructed Villa Borg reception hall panorama (mosaic floor not reconstructed)

Panorama image of Reconstructed Villa Borg reception hall (mosaic floor not reconstructed)

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):

original Roman mosaic floor at Nennig  

Reconstructed Villa Borg interiorIf you, illustrious visitor, get past the villa’s reception hall, you will find a very luxurious way of life at the Villa Borg.

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?

Reconstructed Villa Borg bath house


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 of bathhouse suite Villa Borg reconstruction of bathhouse suite Villa Borg reconstruction of bathhouse hypocaust

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.

Early 4th century Roman glass drinking horn

Early 4th century Roman glass drinking horn

Would I like to time-travel to Roman Germany? Not really. With my luck, I’d have been the poor slave stoking the hypocaust 😉

Joanna Maitland, author


13 thoughts on “Roman Germany : Dark and Dangerous? Or Delightful?

  1. Alison Morton

    Brilliant post! And Germany is one of the countries that is most proud of its Roman heritage. Nevertheless, the Rhine and the Danube eventually became the de facto border of the Empire from the fourth century. But Trier remains a wonder.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Alison. Must say it was all a revelation to me. And you’re right about Trier which, for some reason, I’d never visited before. Stunning city. Not being an archaeologist, I do like the way that the Germans reconstruct some things, like Villa Borg and the Roman camp at Xanten, so that amateurs can appreciate how they were. I fear that looking at one-foot high ruined walls doesn’t make my imagination work in the same way 😉

  2. Sophie

    Great Heavens! That’s a real revelation. Love the reconstruction, it really shows you the sheer scale of the place.

    Do they have any idea of numbers resident at any one time? I hear analysis of rubbish dumps can be quite revealing.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Revelation to me as well. I love the reconstructions, too. As I said to Alison, I find it impossible to get a feel for a site when there are only a few bits of ruined wall to look at. I saw some interesting reconstructions of Roman fort complexes in Germany and I may do a Roman Germany 2 post about them. (Be afraid. Be very afraid…)

      No idea about numbers resident, unfortunately. Possibly the same as in a feudal manor in England? There would have been a lot to work the land and the workshops, I suppose, besides those in the villa itself.

  3. lesley2cats

    Fascinating post. Unlike Joanna, I am very interested in archeology, but it had never occurred to me to think about the Roman way of life anywhere but Britannica. Fabulous reconstruction.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Well, I am interested in archaeology when it’s done like this, Lesley 😉 Some of the reconstructions are amazing. I’m pasting in another external view of the Villa Borg. It shows the right wing of the complex. The bit with the tower includes the bath house; the bit on the right is the kitchen. Roman villa Borg reconstruction, Trier, Germany

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’ve got lots more, Christina, as you know. And, just for you, I’ll paste in an image of some of the stunning Roman glassware on display in the Cologne museum. You wouldn’t believe how delicate it is.Roman glass fishes, Cologne museum

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Extraordinary. I am a fan of time team and find it fascinating how much archaeologists can tell from a few stones and different layers of earth. But seeing reconstruction really gives you a feel for how it was, lucky you. Computer generated images help but don’t give you the scope of what you clearly found here.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think it’s the sense of space, Liz, when you’re actually standing inside a room. Our guide told a story of how one of his archaeologist colleagues, walking into a reconstructed room, was suddenly sure that they’d built it with the wrong dimensions (ie metres instead of feet) because it felt so much bigger than he expected. When he checked, he discovered that the huge room was exactly the right size but even he, a professional, hadn’t imagined it as it would really be.

      1. Elizabeth Bailey

        Yes, I can imagine. It’s quite different being there inside it than seeing it in an image.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    We’ve obviously been on the same holiday, Joanna! At first, I was shocked by the German archaeologists excavating a site and then rebuilding the buildings on exactly the same footprint, but I have to admit the results are most impressive – as at Xanten, for example. How else can you experience the sheer power of Roman might and the way it dominated the landscape?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, same trip, and Tony asked me to give you his regards! I may do a further blog about the military side, and Xanten will certainly feature if I do.

Comments are closed.