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August 1997

Ceaser Conquers the Continent: Germany's Roman Legacy

Germany holds a detailed history of Roman history in the ruins and museums of its cities.

Before his downfall in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and invaded Britain. Then came Augustus Caesar, whose legions pushed as far as the Elbe, establishing the provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Rhaetia. The Romans then settled along the Rhine and Danube and erected the Limes, a nearly 500-kilometer-long system of fortifications to ward off the hostile Germanic tribes. Their rule over today's western and southern Germany lasted 450 years and left an indelible legacy. Germany abounds in Roman ruins, museums and, the latest fashion, archaeological theme parks. There are hundreds of these, and if you scrape one with an archaeologist's spade, more Roman history emerges. From Augsburg to Xanten, many of Germany's Roman sites are perfect weekend destinations, and some are ideal combinations of fun and learning for the whole family. BAVARIA The Romans were all over Bavaria. Augsburg was first founded in 15 B.C. as Augusta Vindelicorum, and grew to be the capital of Rhaetia province. Its city symbol, the Zirbelnuß, or pine cone, was Augustus' royal symbol, and serves as an ubiquitous reminder of the town's imperial past. Its Roman Museum, housed in an old church, overflows with sculpture, architectural fragments, and a wealth of artifacts. The lawn adjacent to the cathedral harbors the foundations of a Roman villa, as well as other archeological findings displayed out of doors. Kempten, just an hour southwest of Munich, was a Celtic settlement called Cambodonum when the Romans conquered it in 15 B.C. Soon thereafter it became an important trade center. Excavations have been underway for decades, and since the 1980s there has been an archaeological park with reconstructions of the forum. Regensburg, to the northeast of Munich, was founded in 179 A.D. as Castra Regina, the headquarters of the crack 3rd Italian Legion. The military contingent alone numbered 6,000, but with families, camp followers, craftsmen, merchants and slaves, the residents comprised a fortified town double that size. Its mint struck the last Roman coin in Germany at the beginning of the fifth century, marking the ultimate downfall of Italian hegemony north of the Alps. Though most of the recovered antiquities are in Regensburg's City Museum, sections of the Roman wall remain visible, including the massive Porta Praetoria gate. XANTEN Xanten, downstream from Düsseldorf, was a flourishing trade and shipping center two thousand years ago.Called Colonia Ulpia Traiana, it had a population of 15,000 Roman army veterans turned merchants who thrived behind the city's extensive defensive wall. The colony's heyday ended in the fourth century when theFranks stormed it. Instead of building on top of the old outpost, the invaders erected their own settlement called Xanten several hundred yards south of the abandoned Roman city. That practice benefited later archaeologists, since the remains of the earlier settlement remained intact. Amateurs began digging up Roman artifacts in the 19th century, and in 1972 excavators started to reconstruct the Roman city and make it into a theme park. The idea was to "popularize archaeology, turn a dig into an educational tourist attraction, and give people an idea of everyday Roman life." Today, DM 75 million later, much of Colonia Ulpia Traiana has been recreated within the old wall. The visitors, at least half a million each year, come to see the historic restoration and watch the archaeologists at work. The vast, rebuilt amphitheater hosts musical and theater events, and reconstructed shops sell replicas of Roman artifacts. Xanteners dress up as legionaries and gladiators for the biannual Roman festival, lending the city an even more credible historic atmosphere. COLOGNE The Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne owns one of Europe's best collections of Roman art and artifacts. The museum itself stands upon the ruins of what had been the heart of the Roman city, called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis. The vast, wealthy Roman metropolis took the name of its "native daughter," Agrippina II, Nero's mother as well as wife and niece of Emperor Claudius I. Among the treasures there are exquisite examples of Roman glassmaking including a mosaic floor from a Roman mansion. There is also the hulking tomb of a wealthy merchant and veteran of the 5th Legion that two Cologne students discovered and dug out of their parents' basement 30 years ago. That house is one of many structures that have been excavated during the past 150 years, but as a local expert put it, "We have another 500 years' work here." TRIER Trier, on the Mosel River, was even larger and more splendid than Cologne. Colonia Augusta Treverorum was founded in 16 B.C., and this "urbs opulentissima," as Roman geographer Pomponius Mela called it, was the realm's most affluent city. Trier rivaled Rome and Alexandria as one of the richest centers of the empire in the third and fourth centuries, and was headquarters to a succession of six emperors including Constantine the Great. Its artistic legacy has survived the centuries and the city is a treasure trove of antiquities. Among the most important monuments are the second-century Porta Nigra, the largest city gate ever built in Europe; the Römerbrücke, a Roman bridge across the Mosel; the Kaiserthermen, Constantine's imperial baths; the Amphitheater, which seated 30,000; and the Aula Palatina, housing the emperor's throne room. KALKRIESE To glimpse a dig at one of Germany's most exciting sites, go to the village of Kalkriese, a stone's throw from Osnabrück. There archaeologists claim to have found the site where in 9 A.D. Hermann, chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, wiped out three elite Roman legions commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, the governor of Germania Inferior. This "Battle of the Teutoburg Forest," in which the Germans killed 20,000 soldiers and 10,000 camp followers, was Rome's worst defeat since the Second Punic War. It was reputedly such a shock for Augustus Caesar that years later he still woke up at night, beat his head against a door and cried: "Varus, give me back my legions!" The Romans never made another serious effort to gain control over theGermanic tribes east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. No one knew the actual site of the battle until recently. Excavations at Kalkriese began eight years ago when an amateur archaeologist discovered 162 Roman coins there, all minted before 9 A.D. and many bearing Virus' stamp to identify them as soldiers' pay. The spectacular Roman objects and weapons recovered at the site are on display at Osnabrück's Cultural History Museum, and there is an information center at the dig.

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