While travelling around Europe, there are several ways one can immerse oneself in the remains of everyday life of Ancient Rome. The most obvious is to go to Pompeii – or one of the less well-known excavated cities like Italica near Seville or Ostia near Rome. But however well-preserved these ruins might be, they will always be just ruins – and sometimes, to get the full picture of what life of a Roman citizen was, especially on the more remote frontiers, you have to visit a reconstruction.
One such reconstruction we saw this year is on the edge of an ancient German town of Xanten – known to Romans as Colonia Ulpia Traiana, one of the largest and most important Roman settlements in the province of Germania, second only to CCAA (now Cologne). In its heyday, it was home to more than 10,000 former legionnaires and their families.
Of the original city, very little remains beyond some foundations. You can find better preserved ancient ruins even elsewhere in Germany, not to mention France or Spain. But this isn’t why you come to Xanten. The main attraction here are the full-scale, full-colour reconstructions of several Roman structures, set within the original city grid. Most interesting of all – a Roman guesthouse and tavern.
I write a lot about such places in my books. It’s an easy and useful fiction plot device – a chance meeting at a roadside mansio, conspirators plotting in a guesthouse, a feast thrown in the harbour tavern; but it’s often difficult to visualise what, actually, such a tavern would look like. It’s too easy to fall for medieval or fantasy tropes – you know the sort: a large wooden house with a thatched roof, filled with drunken barbarians sitting by the long tables, while a buxom barmaid brings them tankards of ale… But that’s nowhere near what the real thing looked like. If anything, a high class guesthouse like this looked more like a traditional Japanese ryokan, both in materials used, and in the overal mood and layout of the place.
There are the well-known bars and taverns of Pompeii to use as inspiration – but these are urban facilities, from the heart of the Empire, and some four hundred years too old for my needs; the Xanten guesthouse stood on the Empire’s edge, on the Rhine – the city was a base for the Rhine navy, and had substantial harbour – facing the barbarian forests on the other side of the river; this was the sort of place where weary merchants, envoys on official business and other travellers passing through the frontier would mingle together over goblets of Rhenish wine. Or, if you had a few more solidii in your purse and didn’t care for the company of others, you’d have your meals brough from the kitchen t to the private dining room, the triclinium, with the view of the garden, after which you’d pray at the convenient local shrine and head for the lavishly decorated bathroom.
All of this can be explored at the Xanten guesthouse, and it is a real treat. Best of all, the common dining hall functions as a restaurant serving Roman food – back after nearly two millennia! (unfortunately it was not yet open when we were there) After visiting the tavern, your next stop has to be the brand new, fascinating museum, housing among other artefacts, the flat-bottomed Rhine merchant barges, dug out of mud virtually intact.
I’ve been to many magnificent ruins in my life: I’ve been to Pompeii and to Rome, I’ve been to Caerleon and to Housesteads – but the Xanten guesthouse was the one that probably gave me the best insight into an average citizen of the frontiers of the Roman Empire. I can’t recommend it enough.