Last week we decided to discover the past where history was made: that happened at the world’s only reconstructed Roman fort and archaeological museum in Saalburg (the fort is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Limes, the frontier between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribal territories) near Frankfurt/Germany.
On our trip back to Munich we stopped at Saalburg fortress in order to visit the most intact-preserved Roman museum. Although the fortress is almost two thousand years old – still shapes the world. A walk around the park-like grounds in the glorious Taunus countryside made our visit a pleasant and relaxing experience.
Back to history
Along with the soldiers, Roman culture and lifestyle arrived in the Taunus around 2,000 years ago. Saalburg fort kept watch over a section of the Limes in the Taunus hills. From the beginning of the 2nd century AD for approximately the next 150 years, the Limes marked the frontier between Rome’s Empire and the Germanic tribal territories. The fort’s garrison was made up of 600 soldiers – both infantry and cavalry. A bath house and guest house were located just outside the main gate. A village housing craftsmen, traders and tavern keepers adjoined the fort. The Roman road to Nida (today, Frankfurt-Heddernheim) was lined with graves and small shrines. As many as 2000 people may once have lived in the fort and the village. The buildings fell into disrepair after increasing Germanic attacks, campaigns in the East of the Empire and internal political problems forced Rome to abandon the Limes. Today, the remains of the 550 kilometer long frontier complex from the Rhine to the Danube comprise the largest ancient monument in Europe. After initial archaeological investigation in the mid-19th century, thanks to an initiative led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the fort was rebuilt between 1897 and 1907 to serve as open-air museum and research institute. Between 2003 and 2009, with the reconstruction of additional buildings, an archaeological park was created. In 2005, the Limes (and with it, the Saalburg) was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Within the fortifications, which include defensive walls, rampart walk and four gateways, many original buildings have been reconstructed in stone and timber. The horreum (granary) is now an exhibition room. The praetorium (commander’s quarters) houses the Museum Administration Unit as well as the Saalburg Research Institute. The centrally located principia (headquarters building) impresses the visitor with its monumental assembly hall and colonnaded courtyard, around which museum rooms are grouped. In Roman times, these were orderly rooms, offices and armouries. The fabrica is modelled on the workshop buildings in Roman military camps. It is used for exhibits, special events and museum education. The common soldiers lived in the nearby centuriae (barrack blocks).
Archaeological finds, reconstructions, displays and models reveal the lives of the soldiers and the residents of the village outside the gates of the fort. Especially eye-catching the reconstructed contubernium (barracks room), home to a squad of eight soldiers who lived in close quarters, and the richly decorated triclinium (officer’s dining room). The aedes (regimental shrine) is particularly impressive: it was once the spiritual and religious centre of the fort. In the re-built ovens along the rampart walk, fresh Roman bread is still baked several times a year.
Outside the fort’s main gate, where the civilian settlement was located, we took a look at the remains of a bathhouse and guesthouse as well as the cellars and wells of the private homes. Those houses provided a model for two buildings that now serve as the cash desk and museum shop. The „Saalburg Circuit Trail“ led to a well-preserved part of the Limes, not far from the fort, where a section had been reconstructed at an ancient border crossing. The trail passes additional ruins, copies and reconstructions of archaeological monuments such as the Jupiter column and the Temple of Mithras.
Roman culture or eat like a Roman
Countless archaeological finds illustrated widely varied aspects of daily life: eating and drinking, construction and crafts, weapons and military equipment, dress and ornament, medicine and body care, finance and religion. In addition to bronze, iron, glass and pottery objects, the leather and wooden finds were a special attraction of the Museum. While such organic materials rarely survive, these articles were found in unusually good condition at the Saalburg, preserved by moisture at the bottom of the fort’s many wells. Even on the frontier of the Roman Empire, there was no need to do without culinary luxuries. Wine from the South, oysters from the North Sea, Spanish fish sauce, North African dates – all those were part of the Roman soldier’s diet.
After finishing the exhibition we entered the Museum Café (Taberna). It became our Roman flair. When I saw the fittings I was gob-smacked. They were reconstructed according to ancient models, such as the stove, pantry, shelving and doors, give the impression of a Roman dining room. The furniture evoked the Roman period and the walls were decorated with scenes from Roman daily life.
On the menu, there were reconstructed dishes from the Roman time such as the “Mulsum,” the honey-flavored wine, or the “Moretum,” a spicy Roman herb cheese. Other traditional dishes were the Roman Stew, Lucanian Sausages – either air-dried or grilled, Pork Fricassee with Apricots as I saw was very popular among visitors, such as the Parthian Chicken.
Of course the taverna offered other stuffs from the modern kitchen: fresh salads, snacks, hot dishes and special children’s menus. Homemade cakes and special coffees were also displayed. In addition, the Keth Bakery delivered freshly made “Roman Bread,” prepared daily according to a traditional recipe. We chose an excellent salad the Insalata Caprese. The sea salt, the extra virgin olive oil and the fresh basil formed a sensational trio (with mozzarella cheese). Then we treated ourselves with a marvelous lemon cheese cake! Oh my God it was molto bueno!!!!