What did a Roman fort really look like?
Our ideas about what a Roman fort should look like are being overturned, or at least being severely challenged by some new reconstructions at the Roman fort of the Saalburg in Germany.
The Roman frontier in Germany is not as well-known as Hadrian’s Wall because it was not built so stoutly in stone and has therefore not survived as well. Nevertheless there is in Germany a Roman fortification known by the Latin names as Limes (limit) which was built at much the same time as Hadrian’s Wall, but was very much longer covering nearly 550 kms, but was given up in 270 following the German invasions when the frontier was drawn back to the Rivers Rhine and Danube.
But in its heyday it was nearly 350 miles long and cut off a triangle of land between the Rhine and the Danube, including the modern town of Frankfurt which for nearly 200 years was part of the Roman Empire. Since it ran through two different provinces, the governors of each province had different ideas as to what a frontier should be like, so in the western part (Upper Germany) there was a ditch and a timber stockade, whereas in the eastern part (Raetia) there was a not very impressive stone wall.
Since the western part was built mostly of earth and timber, the course was largely lost, but in the second half of the 19th century it was rediscovered, at first by various amateur groups, but then the great German historian Theodore Mommsen began to take an interest, persuaded the German government to set up a Reiches-Limes-Kommission to study the Limes. However in the 1890s the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm was in the habit of spending the winter in his favourite spa town of Bad Homburg, just north of Frankfurt, where the study of the Limes was in full swing. I particular, one of the larger forts, the Saalburg was being excavated by a local archaeological society, and he was impressed. This he thought would be a fine symbol to link his German empire with the Roman Empire. Would it not be an idea to rebuild the Roman fort at the Saalburg which the excavations were rapidly uncovering? If you are an emperor, a project like this is easy. You simply bring in your army and tell it to rebuild the fort as instructed by the archaeologists.
The army came in and they rebuilt: the ditches were dug out and all the walls and gates of the fort were rebuilt.
At the main south gate a splendid statue of the emperor Antoninus Pius was erected with an inscription in Latin saying that the fort was rebuilt by the Emperor Wilhelm in memory of his father. The statue that we see is of Antoninius Pius but we are meant to understand that this was really the ancestor of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Having completed the walls round the outside, a start was made on rebuilding some of the interior buildings. The obvious place to start was on the principia, the headquarters building, that stands in the centre of the fort and faces the visitor coming in through the main gate. This was a courtyard building.
Facing the entrance was the great basilica or assembly hall/drill hall, which when rebuilt shows how surprisingly large these buildings were.
This led through to the central courtyard, divided by a cross passage in the middle, and on the far side a row of offices.
At the centre was the aedes, the shrine where the military standards were kept.
To the right of the entrance were the two granaries which were rebuilt and have been laid out as the site museum with a magnificent display of some of the numerous articles that were found in the course of the excavations. (Click here to go inside the Museum)
Beyond this a single barrack block has been reconstructed that is now used as the Taberna, or eating house, a restaurant for visitors to the site, where both Roman and modern foods are offered.
Recently however a further major building has been reconstructed: the Saalburg has become a major centre for research on Roman Limes and offices were needed for the researchers, so why not reconstruct the Praetorium, the commanding officer’s house, but reconstruct it so that it can serve as modern offices as well. In the interior certain compromises have been made.
It was a courtyard building and the cloisters that ran round the courtyard are a little too draughty for modern tastes, so they have been enclosed with a glass structure.
The big controversy however has come over the outside of the building which has been rebuilt entirely differently from the rest of the fort. When the Saalburg was originally reconstructed the Kaiser wanted it to be built of stone and the stone to be left as stone and not to be plastered over. This consequently has given a somewhat bleak appearance to the fort and inevitably since the Saalburg has become the model for forts throughout the empire, all other forts have been reconstructed with bare stone.
But is this really how Roman forts were built in antiquity? Evidence has been accumulated that outside walls were normally plastered and painted with lines to imitate proper cut-stone (ashlar) construction. It was decided therefore to reconstruct the praetorium in this way. It makes quite a shock on entering the fort to see the headquarters building ahead and the granary to the right both in bare stone and then to see the commanding officer’s house opposite gleaming white, or rather an ash colour, on the left.
This then is the Saalburg today: a fort reconstructed in two very different styles to challenge the visitor to decide which is likely to be the more authentic.
(Actually, one little corner has been constructed in a black-and-white half timbered style, just to remind us that some of the buildings may have looked like this)
Of course only a small part of the fort has been reconstructed, the headquarters building at the centre, a large workshop behind it, the taberna to one side and the granaries/museum and the commanding Officer’s house/ modern offices.
Most of the interior of the fort is empty though the recent clearance of the trees emphasises just how enormous a standard fort would have been.
Outside the fort was a substantial Vicus, or civilian settlement. The most notorious reconstruction here was of the mithraeum, or temple to the god Mithras. The Kaiser said that there must be a mithraeum, but stubbornly no mithraeum emerged and so a suitable building was chosen and declared to be the mithraeum.
The inside has been laid out with appropriate benches and the walls were painted with a striking blue with a mural at the end depicting a slaying of the bull which was the highlight of Mithraic ceremonies. The location may be wrong, but the reconstruction is very pretty.
Research on the Saalburg continues and the Limes itself has been declared to be a World Heritage Monument, together with Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in Britain. Indeed the whole of the Limes around the Roman world has now been declared a World Heritage monument. Britain and Germany are leading the way in reconstructing their parts of the Roman frontier, and the Saalburg continues to maintain its place as the foremost reconstructed fort in the Roman Empire.
Left: Plan of the fort, taken from the guidebook. The plan shows something of the extent of the civilian settlement outside the fort, and also the position of the earlier timber fortlet that underlay the later stone fort. However the praetorium had not been reconstructed when this plan was drawn up. (Double click to see this enlarged)