1,900-Year-Old Roman Village unearthed in Germany
The ancient Romans had an insatiable desire to conquer territory and they ranged far outside Italy to do so. An excavation this summer revealed that one place where the Romans had an outpost was in Gernsheim, Germany, 943 km (546) miles north of Rome. They also discovered that after the Roman soldiers left the military fort, another group of people moved in and built a village on top of it.
The Romans apparently made some enemies among the peoples they occupied in Germania Upper and Lower because waves of angry Germanic Goths and Vandals attacked the empire and sacked Rome after the occupiers withdrew.
An 1890 painting by J.N. Sylvestre depicting the 410 Sack of Rome by barbarians from Germania under Alaric (Wikimedia Commons)
An archaeological team excavating in summer 2015 found evidence of a small Roman settlement from the 1 st and 2 nd centuries AD in Gernsheim (Frankfurt) that probably had about 500 troops, the team announced in a press release. The head of the excavation, archaeologist Professor Thomas Maurer of Goethe University, said the Romans built the fort as a launching pad for intended occupation of large areas east of the Rhine River. The Romans never did conquer or occupy Germania libera (Free Germania) east of the Rhine.
Finds of Roman artifacts have been made in Gernsheim since the 19 th century, so scholars suspected there had been a Roman settlement there. But it was not until this summer that Dr. Maurer and his team found the foundation of a Roman building, fortifying trenches that had been filled in and more artifacts. Some of the fill in the V-shaped trenches was at least partly garbage, which the researchers called lucky for them because garbage has artifacts.
Rome’s Asinarian Gate, through which Totila the Ostrogoth entered the city to sack it in 546 AD. (Photo by Lalupa/Wikimedia Commons)
Germania was an area of 500,000 square km (190,000 square miles) bordered by the Baltic Sea to the north, the Danube to the south and the Vistula River on the eastern frontier. The population of this area in the 1 st century BC, around the time of the first Roman incursions, has been estimated at about 5 million people.
In 15 BC, the Romans began to occupy southwest Germania with their Alpine Campaign. Two adopted sons of Caesar Augustus, Tiberius and Drusus, conquered the region of the Alps foothills, according to Villa-Rustica.de. Julius Caesar had conquered the left bank of the Rhine, and the two regions were to be the launching point for a conquest of Germania libera on the right bank of the Rhine and as far north as the Elbe River.
In 7 AD, Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed governor of Germania. His superiors expected him to transform it into a Roman province. A young nobleman of the local Cheruskers tribe, Arminius, had other plans. Arminius learned Latin and Roman customs and then gained Varus’s trust. Varus appointed Arminius chief of the Germanic auxiliary troops. But secretly he plotted to eject the Romans from Germanic territory.
In 9 AD, a Germanic force under Arminius attacked and slaughtered the Romans in the battle of the Teutoborg Forest. This led Varus to commit suicide and Augustus to lament, “Varus, varus, return my legions.” In 16 AD, the Roman general Germanicus defeated Arminius and his troops and avenged Roman honor but withdrew soon after.
Artist’s representation of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Image source
The Romans were gone from Germania until around 50 AD, when they reconquered the region up to the Danube. Then, around 75 AD, the Romans established forts at Waldmoessingen and Rottweil. This was around the time of the establishment of the Roman settlement and fort that Maurer and his students have been excavating. Eventually the Romans conquered as far north as the Neckar River. Beginning around 260 until 455 AD, Rome was ejected from Germania.
What goes around comes around. Germanic peoples, under pressure from the Huns invading from the east, were forced south, where they faced difficult conditions, including lack of food and corrupt Romans. The Germanic people eventually turned the tables and began attacking the Romans on Roman soil, even the city of Rome itself. In 410 AD the Visigoths sacked Rome; in 455 the Vandals did; and then in 546 the Ostrogoths sacked the Roman capital. The Gauls, another people the Romans had conquered, had gotten in on the sack action earlier in Rome, in 390 AD.
When historians use the term “sack” they mean the invaders raped and killed, took slaves and hostages and pillaged anything they could get their hands on. That said, the invading barbarians did not commit a wholesale slaughter of the city’s residents.
Maurer had been looking for evidence of the Roman occupation for years in Gernsheim.
The excavation revealed that not long after the Roman soldiers left the outpost in about 120 AD, another group of people moved in and built a village on top of the fort foundations
"We now know that from the 1st to the 3rd century an important village-like settlement or 'vicus' must have existed here, comparable to similar villages already proven to have existed in Groß-Gerau, Dieburg or Ladenburg,” Maurer said in the press release.
Maurer and his students in his Archaeology and History of the Roman Provinces class found the stone building foundation, two wells, cellar pits and fire pits. They’ll examine shards of ceramics of various qualities using scientific methods to more precisely establish a date of the village and its fort. They also found a coin from Bythnia in Anatolia, which lends evidence to the claim that Romans had an outpost in Gernsheim.
"We've also found real treasures such as rare garment clasps, several pearls, parts of a board game (dice, playing pieces) and a hairpin made from bone and crowned with a female bust,” Maurer said in the press release.
Archaeologist Professor Thomas Maurer and his team of students found some interesting artifacts, including gaming pieces. (Photo by Thomas Maurer)
Maurer believes a troop of 500 soldiers was in the area from around 70 or 80 AD until 110 or 120. He assumes most of the troops were of Gallic-Germanic decent.
Featured image: Sandstone blocks, likely placed there by people from medieval times or later, were found in a shaft in the Roman settlement. (Image credit: Thomas Maurer.)
By Mark Miller