The Roman Frontier? We Brits immediately think of Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall to defend the empire against painted marauders (the Picts or picti) from the barbarian north.
We imagine their life was cold and wet and miserable. Some of them certainly sent letters home to Rome to ask for warm woollen socks. Clearly northern Britannia was not a place for short tunics and sandals.
On the German frontier, the weather was warmer than Britannia, especially in summer. Short tunics and sandals would have worked just fine.
But guarding a frontier against a potential enemy — who (mostly) didn’t attack — was probably 99% boredom.
So how did the soldiers fill their time?
Especially in the early days of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Romans kept pushing the northern frontiers on mainland Europe further out. So the soldiers would have been campaigning. But expansion didn’t last. The loss of the Varus legions in AD9 confirmed that and the Rhine became the effective frontier. It was much more defensible than the Elbe to the east.
On duty, soldiers would have spent their time training, patrolling and, especially, doing a lot of building. Soldiers even manufactured their own bricks and tiles. It was important to promote the Roman way of life in the new provinces and Roman soldiers built to last.
Their engineering was superb. This is a replica of a Roman building crane, seen against the background of the reconstructed amphitheatre in the Xanten Archaeological Park, on the Rhine, north of Cologne.
In the reconstruction of the Xanten walls shown right, hedges have been planted between the defensive towers to reduce reconstruction costs. The original would have had walls and upper walkways throughout, as shown in the right-hand part of this picture.
The wall, at 6.6 m high, provided an excellent view for the defenders.
Road and sewers and temples
And, of course, the soldiers put in the infrastructure of main roads, water supply and sewers first. Shown right is part of Xanten’s original Roman system. Compare the human figure at the far end to the diameter of the pipe!
Each of the wooden doors in the massive North Gate at Xanten had a portcullis on the outside. The windows and the angles in the upper storey made sure that soldiers inside could see, and if necessary attack, anyone approaching below. The interior of the gate was a statement, too. Impressive?
Xanten’s surrounding walls were 3.4 km long. There was plenty of room inside for buildings essential to the Roman way of life — the amphitheatre, the public baths, the forum, and the capitol.
If this was a subsidiary temple, what was the main temple like? Magnificent, certainly, and probably not the stark white that we normally expect to see. In the Xanten museum, there is a reconstruction of how a capital might have been painted.
Imagine what Xanten would have looked like, if the whole settlement had been decorated that way…
Life inside the walls on the frontier
Roman soldiers on the frontier expected to live to Roman standards. Initially, the local area in Germania could not provide all that was needed, so essentials like wine, olive oil and cereals were imported from Italy, Spain and France.
Luxury goods like bronze and glass vessels, and even furniture, were imported from the Mediterranean. Eventually, local industries supplied many of the soldiers’ needs. The glass from the Cologne area came to be highly valued.
If they had time on their hands, the soldiers could spend their pay in one of the taverns on the base, or in one of the brothels that inevitably sprang up. Or perhaps they could while away a few hours watching poor beasts being put to death in the amphitheatre? Or gladiators fighting? (The gladiators — especially the ones on the lucrative circuit to the outposts — would normally survive their bouts. Their owners had a lot invested in them and the gladiators had other engagements to fulfil.)
A luxurious life. And death.
Their ashes were buried in some style, usually, but always outside the city walls. There are many altars and memorial tablets dedicated to the dead and they are usually beautifully and carefully fashioned, like these.
And religion, too
The emperor was worshipped as a god. It was usually one of the soldiers’ first acts, when setting up a new permanent fort, to put up a statue of the emperor. When the German Kaiser had the Roman fortress at Saalburg reconstructed at the end of the 19th century, he put up just such a statue (left) outside its main gate. (The inscription he added is rather more about the Kaiser than the Roman Emperor, sadly).
Very recently, in 2009, archaeologists found part of an equestrian statue — possibly of Augustus — at the bottom of an 11m deep well at Waldgirmes, on the east side of the Rhine. It may date from as early as 4 BC when the empire was still expanding there. It’s thought that, as the Romans had been forced to retreat, they were attempting to conceal the statue so that it would not be desecrated. This is the stunning head of the horse, made of gilded bronze.
It goes to prove that the Romans didn’t always win. Sometimes, they had to retreat, fighting for survival. And there is one later, rather touching example of this, from about the 4th century AD. It’s a memorial to a Roman soldier who died, on the far shore of the Rhine, fighting to defend the small enclave of Deutz, on the east bank, opposite Cologne. You can see that the inscription was hurriedly done. The carving is rude but the message is clear, and deeply felt.
In translation, it says: “The Protector Viatorinus served for thirty years. He was killed by a Frank in the land of the barbarians near Divitia-Deutz. The deputy commander of the Divitian garrison erected this monument.”
So the life of the Roman soldier might have been tedious, and occasionally cushy, but it was often tough. And it could also be pretty short.