When in Xanten, do as the Romans Do | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.05.2003
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When in Xanten, do as the Romans Do

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the western German city of Xanten was one of the largest Roman settlements north of the Alps. For the past 25 years, archeologists have been reconstructing the ancient town.


Welcome to ancient Rome on the Rhine

If Marcus Sattonius Iucundus were to come back to life today, he'd feel right at home in the western German town of Xanten.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Marcus Sattonius Iucundus was a member of the city council of Xanten – or Colonia Ulpia Traiana as it was then called.

Archäologischer Park Xanten

Roman ampitheter in Xanten

The town was one of the largest Roman settlements north of the Alps. And even though the rest of the world has changed considerably since Marcus Sattonius Iucundus' death, he'd recognize his beloved home town right away: He'd see the fortified city wall with its massive gates and the white columns of the temple near the harbor. He'd hear a crowd cheering in the amphitheater and see smoke curling up from the chimney of the local inn.

Rebuilt town from Roman times

Archeologists have been excavating the ancient Roman town of Colonia Ulpia Traiana for two and a half decades. But what makes this site unique is that they have also reconstructed some of the Roman town's most-important buildings to show what they looked like in the city's heyday.

Archäologischer Park Xanten, Innenraum

Roman interior in Xanten

For the past 25 years, tourists visiting the "Archeological Park Xanten" have gotten a unique, hands-on experience in Roman life. They not only see the crumbled ruins of a town that was home to 10,000 people in the second and third Century A.D., they can also experience what life in the town was like back then.

Tourists today enter the town through an impressive fortified gate. They follow the city's grid-like streets to the temple, with its white columns, or to the partly reconstructed amphitheater, which is reminiscent of Rome's Colosseum. But unlike Roman times, modern-day tourists won't be able to see gladiators fighting lions in Xanten's amphitheater. The spectacles staged in the ancient stadium today are of a more civilized kind and include theater and opera performances and even rock concerts.

And hearing Joe Cocker rock the Xanten amphitheater, even city councilor Marcus Sattonius Iucundus would have noticed that times have changed in his home town.

Ancient Roman cuisine – more than pizza

Archäologischer Park Xanten


The ancient Roman city official would, however, have felt right at home at Xanten's reconstructed Roman Inn (photo). Here, today's tourists can sample food that would have also pleased Julius Cesar.

The meals are prepared from recipes that are 2,000 years old. A four-course dinner could include such delicacies as antipasti with onions and chicken liver (Gustus de Bublis), green beans and wine rolls (Fabaciae Virides, Mustea), pork with apricots, honey and mint leaves ( Minutal ex Praecoquuis, Quadra) and to top things off, a dessert made of honey, nuts, raisins and dried figs.

All recipes are taken from cookbooks written by ancient Rome's version of Julia Child: the man who you might say invented Italian cuisine was called Marcus Favius Apicius and was born around 25 B.C.

He left a ten-volume cookbook that sheds light on the culinary delicacies Roman emperors and senators may have enjoyed. And even 2000 years after the recipes were published, they can still make your mouth water.

Römerstadt Xanten

Model of the Roman city

Experimental archeology or a Roman Disneyland?

Xanten opened its doors in 1977. Since then, nine million visitors have come here to experience Roman life. Every year, some 5,000 groups of schoolchildren tour Xanten to learn about antiquity.

But not everyone is totally thrilled by the Xanten experience. In the 25 years the archeological park opened, many historians have criticized its concept. They see the Xanten archeological park as a "Roman Disneyland" and claim architects and archeologists let their imagination run wild when they recreated some of the buildings. After all, no one really knows what the original structures in the Roman town looked like - at least not exactly.

In Xanten's recreated Roman baths, for instance, colorful murals today show depictions of maritime scenes, fishing boats and sea birds. But the archeologists there hadn't found enough material to say for sure that such designs were originally used to decorate the baths 2,000 years ago.

Deli Brandts of the Archeological Park Xanten says even though there wasn't enough evidence for these exact designs in Xanten, archeological findings in other Roman settlements indicate what the murals could have looked like. "We analyzed remnants found in bath houses in Roman settlements in England, Switzerland and southern Germany. And that gave us an indication what the decorations in our bath house here in Xanten may have looked like," Brandts explains.

Still digging 25 years after the Archeological Park Xanten opened its doors, archeologists here are still excavating. Visitors can look over their shoulders and see how, piece by piece, they unearth more information about what life in Roman times was like.

Xanten is a unique place for the archeologists because it's the only Roman settlement north of the Alps that wasn't resettled after the collapse of the Roman empire. Underneath the grass of the fields and meadows, today's archeologists find the foundations of Roman buildings, streets and canals virutally untouched.

Marcus Sattonius Iucundus, the city councilor from Roman times, would surely appreciate that. After all, which member of a city council today could honestly hope that the work he or she is doing will still be visible 2,000 years from today?

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