Emperor Trajan – taking Romans to the limites at Xanten

Reconstructed Harbour Temple at Xanten Archeological Park
Reconstructed Harbour Temple at Xanten Archeological Park

Paul Theroux, the grumpy travel author, complained in The Pillars of Hercules (in which he travels around the Mediterranean clockwise, from Gibraltar to Ceuta), that he had already had enough of Roman amphitheatres by the time he reached Valencia. By that time, he’d barely covered half of Spain, and he still had the whole Mediterranean seaboard to go.

No chance of overkill by amphitheatres in Northern Europe though. The Romans faithfully maintained their northern limes with army camps (familiar to Asterix lovers) and occasional cities for retired legionnaires, but there weren’t many sites for high-brow cultural entertainment (such as gladiator battling with wild animals).

Amphitheater overlooking the Rhine at Xanten Archeological Park
Reconstruction of the amphitheatre at Xanten, overlooking the Rhine

But at Xanten, a small town on the banks of the Rhine halfway between Düsseldorf and the Dutch border, there was an amphitheatre, and what’s more, it’s been reconstructed. Since the site of the former army camp was discovered in the 1930s, many former buildings have been restored and the park is a huge hit with German and Dutch grammar school classes.

School groups get to blow off steam on the army camp's bouncy castle. North Gate in the background.
School groups get to blow off steam on the army camp’s bouncy castle. North Gate in the background.

And for good reason: in all of Northern Europe, there isn’t anything remotely as powerful to suggest the might of the Romans on the edge of their Empire – Hadrian’s Wall is probably the only site to surpass it. In Roman days, Xanten was named Colonia Ulpia Traiana, which neatly takes us to the dead Emperor whose name it bore:

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Trajan’s warrior statue at Xanten. Original is at the Louvre.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus, or Trajan to his English friends, was one of Edward Gibbons’ Five Good Emperors, all others having done more harm than good to the Empire. Trajan is not only known for being a Good Emperor, embellishing Rome with a Forum, a market and his self-named Column, but he also took the Roman Empire to its greatest geographical stretch by the end of his reign in 117.

Archeology Museum covers the remains of the Roman baths at Xanten
Archeology Museum covers the remains of the Roman baths at Xanten

The Colonia at Xanten was very much on the limes  – the name that classicists traditionally have used for the fortified border of the Roman Empire, but wikipedia says that this use of limes is all wrong: the Romans themselves are supposed to have called it the Munimentum Traiani, or Trajan’s Bulwark – I’m quite happy to go with that too, as it fits nicely with Trajan’s colony on the Rhine!

Excavated central heating system at Xanten
Excavated central heating system at Xanten

But whatever the politically correct name of the limes on the Rhine may be, its remains are getting ever more attention. German paper Die Welt reported recently that the adjacent countries and regions are nominating the whole stretch, from Remagen (famous with WW2 movie fans) down to where the Rhine meets the North Sea at Katwijk, as a Unesco World Heritage site.

I’d be very happy if that happened – as a boy I lived in Wageningen, on the banks of the Rhine, which once was thought to have been the Roman army camp Vada, and our Dutch house is in Oegstgeest, also on the limes and close to where the northernmost branch of the Rhine flows down to the sea. Living right on this historical frontier always made a great impression on me, and I’d love this heritage to get the recognition and publicity it deserves.

Xanten Archeological Park

Am Rheintor, 46509 Xanten

Admission: 9/6 euros, under 18 free

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Living History at the Dead Emperor’s – at Museum Huis Doorn

 

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I revisited Museum Huis Doorn last weekend. This country house, in a wooded area on the banks of the Rhine near Utrecht, is where Kaiser Wilhelm II ended up after seeking refuge in The Netherlands in November 1918. From the date of his forced abdication onwards, he never travelled far from Doorn. He spent his days chopping wood (yes, really), and never gave up hoping to be able to return to the Fatherland as Kaiser. He died at Huis Doorn, at the age of 82, in 1941.

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His remains are still there, in a purpose-built mausoleum in the museum grounds. Occasionally, groups of Prussian nostalgists come from Germany to lay wreaths at his coffin – the last occasion was the Kaiser’s 155th birthday in January 2014. The picture below is taken through one of the mausoleum’s windows, and is probably as close as you’ll get to seeing an actual dead emperor on this blog!

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When I visited, the house grounds were taken over by a living history event depicting daily life in WW I – both in the armed forces as well as at home. I didn’t know this, but there’s a distinction between living history and historical reenactment: whilst the latter is more about getting the details of the battles right, the former focuses on depicting daily life, costumes, and arts and crafts as close to the historical original as possible, usually with an educational purpose. For the event at Huis Doorn, living history groups had turned up from Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

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Now you should know that, as a trained historian, I usually even frown upon historical novels, because of the poetic license that I imagine their authors to take. I like my history unfrivolous and hard-core. But I was fascinated by the living history people. The ones I spoke to really knew their stuff and also were able to put their roles into context. I spoke to a German guy called Siggi, who played the role of an ensign in the Prussian army. He had a great beard and a wonderful banner showing the colours of his regiment.

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I was curious how ‘military’ these guys actually were, so I asked Siggi if he had ever served in the army. It turned out he’d served in the Bundeswehr for four years as an NCO at some point. Because he’d been a sergeant-major during his stint in the modern army, that’s the historical uniform he also liked to wear when role-playing, because it was what he identified with most. But many of his fellow role-players had not served in the army, or if they had, wore any uniform they chose. According to Siggi, there were no set rules for this.

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When I asked Siggi what he imagined the biggest difference there would have been between life in the modern army as opposed to 100 years ago, he immediately said ‘discipline’ – the discipline to which soldiers were subjected to back then was much stricter than today. Transgressions which would have lost you a weekend’s leave back then would not even be noticed today.

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For depicting life ‘back home’, the organisers had chosen to represent the upper classes: ‘grand-mère’s birthday on the lawn’, complete with croquet, cucumber sandwiches and deferential staff.

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All very Downton-esque and beautifully done. For the people in this group, it meant sitting in their lawn chairs the whole afternoon, making conversation about grand-mère and other family matters, and as far as I could see they never dropped their roles. An interesting point in the proceedings arrived when a ‘Dutch officer’ began explaining the uniforms of four ‘Prussian soldiers’ to the public. This took place in front of grand-mère’s marquee and gave a nice contrast between military life and aristocratic hedonism.

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As the Kaiser himself loved to dress up in all kinds of military uniforms, and certainly showed a lot of awareness of Prussian history (see Berlin’s Terracotta army – the Statues of the Kaiser’s Victory Boulevard), I am sure he would have approved of such an event at the home where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life.

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As you’ve probably been able to read between the lines, this hard-core historian was very much won over by the commitment and hard work that the living history people put in their displays. Will I find some funny dress and join them? Probably not, if only because I’d probably get bored after 15 minutes of sitting still. Will I go again? Definitely – there’s a lot to learn by viewing these displays and talking to people who are so passionate about their chosen period.