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The Road Almost Taken

An ancient city in Germany tells a different story of the Roman conquest

March/April 2017

Waldgirmes Horse HeadThe oft-told tale of the Roman Empire’s expansion is one of violent conquest—its ever-widening borders pushed forward at sword point by Roman legions. Some of the bloodiest military engagements pitted Rome against the inhabitants of Germania, who are described by contemporary sources of the time as a loose confederation of uncivilized, quarrelsome, warlike, ferocious tribes to the north. The conventional wisdom goes that after a decades-long attempt to conquer the region east of the Rhine River finally failed in A.D. 9, Rome gave up on the Germans entirely. But what if there’s more to it than that?


In the 1980s, the chance discovery of sherds of Roman-style pottery on a farm in the Lahn Valley near Frankfurt led archaeologists and historians at the German Archaeological Institute’s Romano-Germanic Commission to begin excavations. What they uncovered was a Roman site they call Waldgirmes, after a nearby modern town. The ancient name is unknown. When German Archaeological Institute archaeologist Gabriele Rasbach started working at the site in 1993, she and her colleagues assumed they had found a military installation. Ground-penetrating radar surveys revealed carefully planned streets, the foundations of wooden buildings, and postholes that are evidence of 10-foot-tall timber walls. “It was clearly just like a Roman military camp,” says archaeologist Siegmar von Schnurbein, who was the director of the commission during the Waldgirmes excavation.


Although the discoveries were exciting, they were not necessarily surprising. The Roman army, fresh from its conquest of Gaul and bent on further dominion, had been active all across Germany, and the distinctive straight lines of Roman military camps are familiar to German archaeologists. “The military interpretation here is so strong that at first we didn’t think it could be anything else,” Rasbach says. As the Waldgirmes excavations progressed, though, archaeologists began to question their initial assumptions. “We found buildings that had nothing to do with the military,” says von Schnurbein, “and we still haven’t found anything resembling a barracks.”


The excavators began to realize that the site might be something else entirely. As they dug over the course of nearly 15 years, they uncovered specialty workshops for ceramics and smithing, and administrative buildings made of local stone and timber from the thick forests nearby. They found evidence of some Roman-style residences with open porticos in front, unlike the longhouse-style buildings preferred by the locals, as well as other hallmarks of a typical Roman town, including a central public space, or forum, and a large administrative building called a basilica. “There’s actually not a single military building inside the walls,” says Rasbach. What they had uncovered was a carefully planned civilian settlement.


Artifacts from the site further reinforced the identification of Waldgirmes as a town. Of the hundreds of objects archaeologists have excavated, just five are military in nature, including a few broken spear points and shield nails that could be associated with the army. When taken together, the artifacts and structures persuaded researchers that they were dealing with an entirely novel phenomenon: a new Roman city established from scratch in the middle of a potential province. From the forum to workshops, houses, and water and sewage systems—from which sections of lead pipe have been recovered—to its sturdy outer walls enclosing 20 acres, Waldgirmes had everything a provincial capital needed. “It’s the first time we can see how Rome founded a city,” says von Schnurbein. “You can’t see that anywhere else.”


Because the site was built predominantly of wood, archaeologists have been able to establish precise dates using dendrochronology, which uses tree rings as a time stamp. They determined that construction at Waldgirmes began around 4 B.C., not long after Roman troops reached the Elbe River, pushing the empire’s range deep into Germany. Waldgirmes’ architecture and the absence of a military presence suggest a relationship between Romans and Germans that runs against both the ancient and modern versions of the accepted story. “The fact that a city was founded in the Lahn Valley without a major military presence means there was a different political situation in the region,” von Schnurbein says—that is, different from what most historians have assumed. He concludes, “The Romans thought the Germans were loyal enough that they could build a civilian settlement here.”



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