Saalburg fort

The significance of Roman remains in Germany began to be appreciated in the eighteenth century by writers such as Goethe and the first attempts were made to map the Limes. Serious coordinated excavations of the Limes in Upper Germany did not begin until the Reichstag in Berlin authorized the founding of the Reichslimeskommission (1892-1937). It was headed by that formidable German historian, Theodor Mommsen (Fig. 12).19 Individuals from a wide range of professions, notably the military, responded enthusiastically to the challenge and began searching their localities. In the 1930s we find talented British archaeologists such as Olwen Brogan20 and Eric Birley being attracted to the Limes excavations. During the Third Reich provincial researches were not officially encouraged; however, from 1945 onwards the fascinating subject was attacked with renewed vigour. Odenwald sections of the Limes have received special attention21.

Fig. 12 – Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) (by courtesy of the Humboldt-University, Berlin).

A vivid impression of military life on the Limes can be gained by visiting the reconstructed fort known as the Saalburg high up in the Taunus mountains, about 6 km from the town of Bad Homburg (Fig. 13). The Roman name of its predecessor is unknown but we do know that it was manned at one time by an auxiliary cohort bearing the title cohors II Raetorum civium Romanorum equitata. From this splendid appellation we can reason that it comprised about five hundred infantry and cavalry, was recruited in Raetia (Bavaria) and had been awarded Roman citizenship for acts of bravery. The original fort was built on this site circa AD 90. The characteristic earthen rampart and ditch of the Limes itself can be seen about 220 metres beyond the Saalburg fort and traced for many kilometres through the high forests of the Taunus mountains. The present full-scale fort was erected in 1898-1907 at the command of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Whilst implicitly trying to glorify Germany’s past and its warriors, he dedicated this enterprise to the memories of his father, Wilhelm I, and of his mother Victoria (‘Vicky’), eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Although subsequent researches have laid some features open to criticism, the whole complex, with its parade ground, barracks, wells, granary and large assembly hall, provides a convincing impression of garrison life in Roman times. During excavations, fragments of white plaster inscribed with dark lines were found in the continuous ditch that ran beneath the four outer walls of the original fort, indicating that these walls had been plastered and then painted white with black lines to give the appearance of masonry blocks. Elsewhere on the Limes, ashlar masonry of watchtowers is now known to have been plastered white with painted red joints. In a strange way this Roman practice faintly echoes the whitening of marker stones and kerbs that was once popular in modern military camps.

Fig. 13 – Entrance to Saalburg fort

  1. Famed for his books The History of Rome and Roman Constitutional Law, Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature(1902). []
  2. Olwen Brogan, The Roman Limes in Germany. Archaeological Journal (1935) 92, 1-41. []
  3. Jörg Scheuerbrandt et al. Die Römer auf dem Gebiet des Neckar-Odenwald-Kreises-Grenzzone des Imperium Romanum (Drückerei Odenwälder, Buchern-Walldürn, 2009: ISBN 978-3-89735-524-8) []