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Archaeological Park Xanten, Copyright: Axel Thünker DGPh für LVR-Archäologischer Park Xanten/LVR-RömerMuseum
Image: Axel Thünker DGPh für LVR-Archäologischer Park Xanten/LVR-RömerMuseum

Follow in Roman gladiators' footsteps

Felix Schlagwein / ad
August 1, 2016

Imagine you're an ancient Roman gladiator about to enter the ring. Today might be your last day. At the Archaeological Park Xanten in Germany, you can experience ancient Roman society hands on.


As soon as you leave the modern entrance hall, your feet touch the ground on which a vibrant Roman city once stood - Colonia Ulpia Traiana. Its reconstructed city wall with massive towers is visible from a distance.

Just behind the city wall, there is the arena where spectacular gladiator fights and chariot races took place roughly 2,000 years ago. During Roman times, the amphitheater held as many as 10,000 spectators.

Archaeologist Sebastian Held explains why the population size of the time can be deducted from the size of the amphitheater: "It was important to the organizers of the games to have a huge audience; they wanted the entire population to be there to watch their events."

On the sandaled heels of Roman gladiators

The 60-hectare (148-acre) Archaeological Park with Roman Museum in Xanten enables visitors to travel back to ancient times. You can pass through the halls where gladiators and wild animals once awaiting their turn in the ring and step on the sand on which their lives may have abruptly ended. Sitting on reconstructed seats, visitors can also look at the arena from the spectators' perspective.

Roman re-enactment at Archaeological Park Xanten, Copyright: Axel Thünker DGPh für LVR-Archäologischer Park Xanten/LVR-RömerMuseum
Live re-enactments take place from time to time in XantenImage: Axel Thünker DGPh für LVR-Archäologischer Park Xanten/LVR-RömerMuseum

Under the slogan "Swords, bread and games," a large weekend event took place there in late June, catapulting roughly 17,500 visitors back into Roman times. Xanten came to life with 450 people from nine European countries acting as period craftsmen, bakers, weavers, bakers and - of course - gladiators.

A mix of play and learning

Xanten Park often welcomes school classes, often from the Netherlands since the border is just a 30-minute drive away. "That's why all information boards are in German, English and Dutch," explains Sebastian Held.

The park offers plenty of opportunities for children in particular to get to know the ancient world of the Romans. A huge playground in the form of a Roman fort, for example, enables them to discover a Roman defensive fortification. The gigantic trampoline behind the fort may not have a lot of historical value, but jumping up and down on it is certainly a lot of fun.

The park can be fun for adults as well, with a historically reconstructed craftsman house, an inn and a temple in the port. Its tall white pillars of various heights rise high into the sky.

Although archaeologist Sebastian Held has visited the temple countless times, his enthusiasm for the pompous building is still strong. "It's located at an extremely popular spot where it must have been visible to all the ships that passed by on the Rhine River," he elaborates.

Roman Museum in Xanten, Copyright: DW/F. Schlagwein
The museum juxtaposes the ancient with the modernImage: DW/F. Schlagwein

"It's highly likely that it was dedicated to a special person," added Held, though it's unknown who that person may have been.

Antiquity in a futuristic atmosphere

The center of social life in Roman cities were, however, not the temples, but the baths. In 2008, the very modern Roman Museum was constructed on top of the foundation walls of the ancient thermal baths.

While its outer appearance is reminiscent of ancient structures, its interior has a futuristic look, making visitors feel as though they were in a spaceship. Through hanging corridors, they walk through the city's history in chronological order. Yellow passages mark certain milestones in the development of these originally Germanic settlements, which evolved into one of the most significant Roman cities north of the Alps.

One may wonder, indeed, why the museum was housed in such a modern-looking building, while the park had made so much effort to retain the ancient flavor of the compound. "We wanted to create a sense of distance so that the visitors could view the history of the city from the vantage point of modernity," explains museum educationalist Kathrin Jaschke. "We want people to feel those 2,000 years that have passed."

Become a Roman soldier

The ancient city of Xanten can look back on a rich history. The Romans settled in this Germanic region well before the birth of Christ. In 100 AD, the Emperor Trajan declared the settlement a city, calling it Colonia Ulpia Traiana, in line with his own Latin name, Marcus Ulpius Traianus.

Coins and tools at the Roman Museum in Xanten, Copyright: DW / Nelioubin
Objects from everyday Roman life are on display at the museumImage: DW / Nelioubin

That had huge repercussions for the city and its inhabitants: Trajan destroyed the former settlement, creating an ostentatious city where it had once stood. The inhabitants were granted Roman civil rights, plus certain privileges like tax exemptions.

#Walking around the museum, the visitors get to know the daily life of Xanten's former inhabitants. Some of the exhibits are not locked away in glass cabinets, but can actually be touched.

Those who want to find out how it must have felt to be a Roman soldier can put a replica of an ancient helmet on their heads, pick up a sword and mount a horse statue. "Visitors remember things much better when given a chance to pick up the items," says Kathrin Jaschke.

The concept of the Archaeological Park in Xanten seems to work well. Last year, the symbiosis of modernity and antiquity attracted approximately 560,000 people, which makes it one of the 20 most-visited museums of Germany.

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