Ex­plor­ing Ro­man his­tory on the Limes route

Stu­art Forster searches out re­mains of the Ro­man em­pire along the Limes route in Ger­many and finds it is a fan­tas­tic way to dis­cover the his­tory and cul­ture of both the past and the present

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

As I park my hire car within sight of Saal­burg Ro­man Fort the au­thor­i­ta­tive voice of the GPS sys­tem again com­mands me to turn around. I take smug plea­sure in turn­ing off the en­gine hav­ing proven her wrong – I’ve reached my in­tended des­ti­na­tion de­spite her best ef­forts to send me else­where. Hav­ing twice zipped back and forth along Bun­desstrasse 456, the high­way that runs by the his­toric land­mark, I’ve con­cluded that some­times it’s eas­ier to do things the old-fash­ioned way and sim­ply fol­low di­rec­tions pro­vided by sign­posts than rely on tech­nol­ogy.

Step­ping out of the ve­hi­cle I look up at the sky. To my left it’s blue but over to the right there’s fore­bod­ing grey. Low clouds are rolling this way – not what I want if I’m go­ing to take mem­o­rable pho­tos of the only fully re­con­structed fort along the 550-kilo­me­tre length of the Up­per Ger­man-Rhaetian Limes, the erst­while fron­tier of the Ro­man Em­pire in what is to­day Ger­many. The fron­tier forms the long­est mon­u­ment in Europe and is part of the Fron­tiers of the Ro­man Em­pire UNESCO World Her­itage Site, along with Hadrian’s Wall, in north­ern Eng­land, and the An­to­nine Wall, in Scot­land.

The Ger­man sec­tion of the fron­tier, be­tween the Rhine and the Danube, was sys­tem­at­i­cally guarded from the first cen­tury un­til around 260, when Rome’s au­thor­ity over this part of its em­pire col­lapsed. In its hey­day around 900 watch­tow­ers would have pro­vided el­e­vated look out points for guards to watch over the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, from the Im­perium Ro­manum into bar­bar­ian ter­ri­tory. As many as 120 forts and fortlets would have gar­risoned troops and 35,000 men were once sta­tioned along the Limes, a Latin term that is usu­ally in­ter­preted as sig­ni­fy­ing the mil­i­tarised zone on the ex­trem­ity of Ro­man ter­ri­tory. Dur­ing the sec­ond cen­tury, eight units of cavalry and 36 co­horts of in­fantry were based be­tween Rhein­brohl and Re­gens­burg.

Typ­i­cal of mil­i­tary struc­tures, the Ro­man fron­tier in Ger­many evolved over time. Tim­ber watch­tow­ers

Be­ing on the Ger­man Limes Route has en­abled me to im­merse my­self in Ger­man cul­ture and her­itage, and prompted me to overnight in towns I would not oth­er­wise have con­sid­ered vis­it­ing

were re­placed with stone in the mid­dle of the sec­ond cen­tury. Dur­ing the reign of the Em­peror Hadrian, from 117 to 138, a pal­isade of halved oaks was added. Be­tween 160 and 170 a wall and ditch were con­structed.

Over the past few days I’ve been driv­ing along the Ger­man Limes Route, which snakes for 700 kilo­me­tres be­tween Bad Hön­nin­gen and Re­gens­burg, fol­low­ing the line of the Up­per Ger­manic-Rhaetian Limes. The sign­posted route passes through 93 towns and cities in the Rhineland-Palati­nate, Hessen, Baden-Wuert­tem­berg and Bavaria. It’s one of more than 150 themed driv­ing routes in Ger­many that guide tourists away from big cities to­wards lo­ca­tions that they may not oth­er­wise have rea­son to visit. The themes are di­verse: cas­tles, foot­ball, wine and even fairy tales pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion. The routes tend to fol­low scenic roads rather than au­to­bahns. Fol­low­ing them can be a means of me­an­der­ing through coun­try­side.

In ad­di­tion to the Ro­man as­pects, be­ing on the Ger­man Limes Route has en­abled me to im­merse my­self in Ger­man cul­ture and her­itage, and prompted me to overnight in towns I would not oth­er­wise have

con­sid­ered vis­it­ing. At Ell­wan­gen I drank lo­cal beer while lis­ten­ing to rock bands pro­vid­ing en­ter­tain­ment at the Stadt­fest, the town’s freeto-visit sum­mer fes­ti­val. At Id­stein I en­joyed strolling through the his­toric ur­ban cen­tre while pho­tograph­ing tim­ber-framed build­ings - the town also lies on the scenic Ger­man Tim­ber-Frame Route, which zig-zags north-south.

In wood­land close to Rainau, a small town a lit­tle over 80 kilo­me­tres east­wards of Stuttgart, I saw one of the tallest re­main­ing sec­tions of the stone wall that was a key el­e­ment of the Up­per Ger­manRhaetian Limes. Crunch­ing across pinecones and bounc­ing over sun-dap­pled ground springy with fallen pine nee­dles, I vis­ited a rem­nant of the stonework ac­com­pa­nied by Dr Ste­fan Ben­der, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist work­ing at Baden-Wuert­tem­berg’s Limes in­for­ma­tion cen­tre in Aalen. “It was known as the Devil’s Wall,” said Dr Ben­der as we ap­proached the stonework. “Peo­ple thought in for­mer cen­turies that the devil had con­structed the wall.”

“We have traces of white plas­ter which was on the façade of the Limes. In for­mer times peo­ple would see white plas­ter with red lines, re­con­struct­ing a sense of mar­ble. It was im­por­tant - it had a psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact. It was a mes­sage to the Ger­mans. It showed the pow­er­ful Mediter­ranean cul­ture of the south,” ex­plained Dr Ben­der as we stood in the for­est. The Ro­mans, of course, would have cut down trees on ei­ther side of their em­pire’s fron­tier, clear­ing a belt around 80 me­tres wide through wood­land. Even that, never mind the quar­ry­ing of stone and con­struc­tion of the wall, would have been a time-con­sum­ing and labour-in­ten­sive task.

“In my opin­ion it was not the bor­der of the Ro­mans but a con­trol­ling line to see who went in or out of the em­pire. They wanted to rule the world, so why should they have bor­der? It was only a tech­ni­cal line to con­trol the traf­fic,” sug­gested Dr Ben­der as we stood in a re­con­structed watch­tower look­ing out over the coun­try­side, like

two aux­il­iaries per­form­ing fron­tier guard duty 18 cen­turies ago. “It was a bar­rier but it has en­trances. It looks like a bor­der, noth­ing more,” he added, sug­gest­ing that the long-held view­point of the Limes as a bor­der was a con­cept formed in the 19th cen­tury, an age of Na­tion­al­ism.

Dur­ing that era, Ger­many’s Kaiser, Wil­helm II, de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion for Ro­man his­tory. In 1897 he an­nounced that the restora­tion of the fort at Saal­burg would be an im­pe­rial pri­or­ity. State fund­ing was sup­ple­mented by pri­vate do­na­tions. The re­con­struc­tion was led by Louis Ja­cobi over the next ten years. The fo­cus, though, was on re­build­ing the fort’s stone build­ings. That meant traces of ex­ca­vated tim­ber were largely over­looked: bar­racks, sta­bles and equip­ment rooms were not ini­tially re­built. Since 2004 ad­di­tional build­ings have been erected, re­flect­ing the evo­lu­tion in un­der­stand­ing about Ro­man mil­i­tary ar­chi­tec­ture over the in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod. A com­man­der’s res­i­dence, known at the prae­to­rium, and work­shop ( fab­rica) are among the struc­tures that have sub­se­quently been added. A Latin in­scrip­tion by Saal­burg’s main gate, the porta prae­to­ria, records the role of Kaiser Wil­helm II in in­sti­gat­ing the re­con­struc­tion. A bronze statue of a much ear­lier em­peror, An­ton­i­nus Pius, stands be­tween the arches of the gate. A

sign in­forms me that I’ve ar­rived on a day dur­ing which re-en­ac­tors will be per­form­ing. A man re­cites Cicero in Latin and, in­side of the great hall, mu­si­cians play in­stru­ments based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds. “Et tu, Brute?” asks Julius Cae­sar with his dy­ing breath, elic­it­ing ap­plause from those of us watch­ing a group of ac­tors per­form­ing the stab­bing scene from Shake­speare’s play about the Ro­man em­peror who was mur­dered on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Im­pressed, I watch as a glad­i­a­tor bran­dish­ing a tri­dent takes on a fearsome-look­ing, sword-wield­ing bearded bar­bar­ian. Be­tween per­for­mances I mooch around the his­toric site, look­ing in­side the likes of the prin­cipia, the gar­ri­son’s head­quar­ters, view­ing a re­con­struc­tion of a tri­clin­ium, an arched din­ing room dec­o­rated with fres­coes.

De­spite the re­con­struc­tions of more than a cen­tury ago, the site still has a hand­ful of ru­ins, in­clud­ing a multi-room bath­house. A low rail sur­rounds the stone out­line of the bath­house, in which sol­diers would have cleansed them­selves. They would have washed in the steam room be­fore head­ing into a luke­warm room then tak­ing a dip in a cold bath. There’s also a build­ing in which the out­line of an un­der­floor heat­ing sys­tem is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent. Af­ter view­ing those I head to Taberna, the on­site café, for lunch. I opt for a Ro­man-style plat­ter, fea­tur­ing olives, air-dried sausages and more­tum, a type of herb-in­fused cheese that was eaten dur­ing an­cient times. I sip from a glass of mul­sum, a form of spiced wine in­fused with honey. The Ro­mans did not know the joys of sip­ping a post-lunch espresso but I rea­son that is not go­ing to stop me from or­der­ing one.

Be­fore de­part­ing I de­cide to walk around the re­main­der of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal park. The Saal­burg Cir­cuit trail runs for 2.4 kilo­me­tres and leads me past a tem­ple ded­i­cated to Mithras, re­con­struc­tions of civil­ian houses from the Ro­man era plus a col­umn de­pict­ing Jupiter. There’s also the re­mains of earth­works dug in 1913 by 120 Prus­sian Army en­gi­neers. In what is re­garded as an early ex­am­ple of ex­per­i­men­tal archaeology, the sol­diers re­quired 20 hours to con­struct an en­clo­sure sur­rounded by a wall and wat­tle fence. While ad­mir­ing the now over­grown and par­tially eroded ditch I re­alise that, a lit­tle over a year later, those same sol­diers would prob­a­bly have been dig­ging trenches in the Great War.

I head back to my car with the intention of spend­ing the night in nearby Bad Hom­burg. It looks as if I’ll have to lis­ten to the voice of the GPS again.

Above: A sign post for the fron­tier route to Saal­burg

Above, clock­wise from top left: A signpost on the route at Rainau; A re­con­structed tower at Rainau; Sec­tion of the wall at Holzhausen; The fort at Pohl

Right, top: The base of a tri­umphal arch is en­closed in an angular glass struc­ture at Dalkin­gen

Right: Re-en­ac­tors in front of the Latin in­scrip­tion at Saal­burg's main gate

Above, left: The tower at Id­stein

Above, top right: Re­mains of Ro­man build­ings at Saal­burg

Above, bot­tom left: The re­mains of the Ro­man bathouse at Saal­burg

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.