The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
The history of Xanten, a town at the lower Rhine in Germany, goes back to the Romans who built a legionary fort - Castra Vetera - on a nearby hill overlooking the river in 12 BC. The fort soon attracted a cannabae legionis, a civilian settlement (they're called vicus when attached to auxiliary forts). The civilian settlement continued to thrive and the emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus granted it the rights of a Roman town about 100 AD. The place was then called Colonia Ulpia Traiana (CUT) and became one of the most important settlements in Germania Inferior; the province left of the Rhine that included Luxembourg, parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands, and the German county North Rhine-Westphalia.
Reconstructed town wall of Colonia Ulpia Traiana
The CUT encompassed 73 hectares and had 10,000 inhabitants, but it was almost completely destroyed by an attack of the Franks in 275. The garrison of Vetera II and the remains of the population rebuilt the town in smaller scale (400 x 400 metres) which was better fortified and easier to defend. The new place was called Tricensimae. But the Frankish raids increased; the settlement was destroyed in 352 and rebuilt again, but in the end the place was abandoned in the 5th century. The youngest coin found in the area dates to 426 AD.
Luckily for archaeologists, the Mediaeval town started around a centre on the ancient grave field near CUT, thus leaving the remains of the Roman settlement free of buildings.Reconstructed inn in the Archaeological Park
In 1977, an Archaeological Park was opened on the site of the Roman town. Some Roman buildings have been reconstructed; the most elaborate one is the inn, complete with baths and sleeping rooms. It houses a restaurant which offers Roman food. Other sites have been partly reconstructed, like the Harbour Temple and the amphitheatre. New features are added all the time - right now the artisan quarter is being built, using old techniques and materials as far as possible (albeit with a modern scaffolding; I suppose it's safer) There are digs going on as well.
The latest addition, open to the public since 2009, is the museum that has been erected on the foundations of the basilica attached to the baths. The remains of the baths itself have been roofed in to protect them from the weather. The modern metal and glass buildings
show the size of the original structures which are pretty impressive. St.Victor Cathedral, seen from the amphitheatre in the APX
The modern name Xanten comes from ad Sanctos
(by the Saints), a name given to the 8th century settlement that developed around a Carolingian chapter church. It was assumed the church had been erected over the grave of St.Victor and other members of the Theban Legion; Roman Christians who may have been executed in Xanten in the 3rd century because they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, is said to have collected the bones from the swamp into which they had been thrown, and buried them in the Roman grave field. But the archaeological traces of Victor's remains are murky, and the site of the church is not his burial place.
The church was destroyed during the Viking incursion in 863, and replaced by a Romanesque church that was expanded in the 12th century. Its westwork with the two towers remains until today. St.Victor Cathedral, interior
The Gothic cathedral we can see today was commissioned by the archdeacon Friedrich von Hochstaden, a brother of the archbishop of Cologne, in 1263. The eastern part of the five nave basilica was finished in 1437, the western part that connected with the Romaesque west choir in 1519. The cathedral was completed when the Holy Ghost Chapel was consecrated in 1544. It became the centre of an archdeaconry that managed to retain a certain degree of independence towards the archdiocese of Cologne.
The chapter remained independent from the town as well. The ring of buildings belonging to the chapter was enclosed by a wall, and enjoyed immunity, which means that the jurisdiction lay in the hands of the provost as head of the chapter, not the town major. Part of those Immunity Walls can still be seen today.St.Victor Cathedral, cloister
The cathedral was badly damaged by bombs during WW2. Fortunately, the rich furnishings, the altars, and the beautiful windows had already been brought to a safe place. The cathedral was restored immediately after the war, and great care was taken to stay true to the original. That work was completed in 1966.
Xanten had been granted the rights of a town in 1228, but only in 1389 the town itself was fortified with walls, a result of an ongoing feud with the neighbouring Counts of Kleve. Of the four gates and eighteen towers only few remain today, among them the Kleve Gate and the Kriemhild Mill.Kleve Gate, view to the inner gate
The Kleve Gate, dating from 1393, is a double gate connected by a bridge over the ditch that surrounded the town. The inner gate consists of a quadratic tower, the outer gate of two round towers, the so-called Owl Towers, and an arch. The inner tower has seen several different uses, among others as prison. When most of the town walls were dismantled in the 19th century, the town council voted against destructing the Kleve Gate; instead it was renovated in 1843.
The lower part still shows the original Medieaval structure, but the upper part had been destroyed in WW2 and was restored. Today the inner gate houses self catering appartments.Kriemhild Mill by night
In the 17th and 18th centuries several of the eighteen towers of the town fortifications served as living quarters for town employees. The one now called Kriemhild Mill (1) was the Night Watchman Tower. The towers, often in bad repair, were sold in late 18th century, and most of them broken down by their new owners. Our tower had better luck since the merchant who bought it in 1778, repaired it and turned it into a summer house. In 1804, he changed the tower into a wind powered oil mill by adding stocks and sweeps (and the whole interior mechanism). Somewhat later it became a grist mill which was bought by the town. The mill is in use again since 1992, and can be visited.
Xanten has some pretty, old houses as well, but those will be for another post
.The Rhine near Xanten
A branch of the Rhine once ran close to CUT, but the river has changed its course a few times, flooding the fort Vetera II, for example. The harbour of Mediaeval Xanten was cut off in the 16th century, one of the reasons for the decline of the town. I rented a bicycle to better get around and took a tour to the Rhine, among other places.(1) The name Kriemhild comes from the German epic Song of the Nibelungs. In the Edda poems she's known as Gudrun, wife of Sigurd (Siegfried in the German version) who is murdered by her brothers. The German Siegfried is called 'of Xanten' and that's the reason you'll find a lot of Siegfried and Nibelung references in the town.
Limes Fort Osterburken - Part 2: The Garrisons
Well, sort of. What I got here is a display of tin figures in the museum at the fort Osterburken. It's an unpainted version and was very difficult to photograph through the glass. But they got lots of the shiny little guys so I tried to catch some for you.
Tin figures have been popular in Germany since about 1800. They are two-dimensional relief figures, different from the three-dimensional figures common in the UK and US. Some three-dimensional tin figures are produced for the export where they compete with the plastic and lead ones, but I'm not sure how successfully. Painted versions are more common but I suppose no one felt up to the task of painting the lot in the Limes Museum Osterburken.
The garrison of the Osterburken main fort during the so-called Limes time (about 100 - 260 AD) was the cohors III Aquitanorum equitata civium Romanorum, a mixed horse and infantry cohort. Some of the footsloggers are on the photo below.
Roman infantry, 2nd century AD
The 3rd Aquitanorum was originally raised in the province Gallia Aquitana, either by Augustus or Claudius. The first dateable appearance is from 74 AD and mentions the discharge of veterans, so the cohort must have been around at least 25-28 years. The cohort was stationed in Germania Superior at that time, the province that comprised western Switzerland, the Alsace, and south-west Germany. It would remain there during its recorded existence, mostly concentrated in the Odenwald forts.
The soldiers of the 3rd Aquitanorum would have been pretty Romanised at the time of their service at the Limes. There are no differences in the artifacts found in auxiliary forts along the Limes and the legionary forts in Mainz and Strasbourg. They were also no longer recruited in Aquitaine, but closer to their place of service. The title civium Romanorum
and the summary grant of citizenship to the whole cohort was a reward for valour, but it did not extend to new recruits - those had to serve their 25 years and received citizenhip upon discharge. But the cohort was allowed to use the title perpetually.Infantry, closeup
The Legio VIII Augusta mentioned in the previous post was never stationed at the Limes, but some of its members built Osterburken. For some reason, the Romans didn't trust the auxiliary to build straight walls (1).
The Limes functioned much like the Hadrian's Wall, with auxiliaries stationed in the frontier forts and the legions further in the hinterland (York / Eboracum or Mainz / Moguntiacum and Strasbourg / Argentorate). The frontier forts served as migration control and toll stations, and as first defense line. If a larger group made it through (which happened at the Limes in 213 and 233), the legions would get them upon return from their raids. Live in the agri decumantes
(the land between the Limes and the Rhine) at your own risk. ;)
Below are the happier guys who got horses. An equitata
cohort had four (2) turmae
à 32 riders, that would make 128 horse. The infantry varied; there were six centuries with 60 - 80 men each, so a full strength cohort could number between 488 - 608 men, not counting the staff. All the Limes garrisons were equitata
units or - more rarely - cavarly, never infantry only troops.
A cohort was commanded by a praefectus
, a Roman citizen of equestrian status, but only one of those leading the 3rd Aquitanorum has left an inscription. There are a few documented names of centurions as well, but overall the auxiliary cohorts of the German frontiers leave room for inventing characters. Roman Cavalry, 2nd century AD
The garrison of the annex fort is more difficult to trace. The most probable candidate is the numerus Brittonum Elantiensium
(3). A numerus
was a smaller, irregular unit that was only recruited for specific purposes. They started under Hadrian who used them as intelligence units (exploratori
In the 2nd century, the numeri
became a regular feature of the Roman army, esp. along the borders, but they still ranked below the auxiliaries and did not automatically receive citizenship upon discharge. The were recruited among the barbarian tribes (the auxiliary came from the provinces). There were a number of them along the German Limes that came from Britain.
A numerus encompassed 140 - 160 men and was commanded by a praepositus
, usually an experienced centurion dispatched from a legion. They had forts of their own with the complete set of commander's house and staff buildings as well as their own baths. In the 3rd century the numeri became larger units, attracted also Roman citizens, and were commanded by tribunes.Cavalry, closeup
The numerus Brittonum Elantiensium
had previously been stationed in Neckarburken, also at the Odenwald Limes. The 3rd Aquitanorum came from that place as well before it moved to Osterburken when the border was pushed further east in that area in 155 AD. The numerus must have remained in Neckarburken (there's an inscription dating to 158) to secure the supply lines along the Neckar river. The unit moved to Osterburken some time between 185 - 192.
Both the Neckarburken dedication from 158 AD and another dedication stone from Osterburken mention one Veranius (Saturninus) as commanding officer of the numerus. That has led to some disucussions about the dating of the annex fort - it was suggested that an earlier annex fort was built in a different place, but the Osterburken inscription is incomplete and open to interpretation. I think it's also possible that two officers with that name commanded the unit; Veranius is not such a rare cognomen, and it could have been father and son. The official websites of the Limes and of Osterburken agree on the date of 185 - 192 AD for the annex fort and the numerus Brittonum Elantiensium
as its garrison.
We don't know for sure whether the numerus was mounted, or part mounted, but it's highly probable considering the fact that mobile troops were important for the Limes defense.Cavalry, seen from the other side
Another interesting find from Osterburken are some triangular arrow points ususally used by Eastern archers (fe. the Syrian troops stationed at the Hadrian's Wall). We don't know if there was a detachment of those in the fort at least for some time, or if the auxilaries adopted the Eastern bows. (1) With the exception of repair work under the surveillance of a Roman officer, as several inscriptions show.
(2) One online source names six, but if that is possible I suppose there was less infantry or the cohort would grow too large. A cohors milliaria had 10 turmae, but those had a complete strength of one thousand men.
(3) Elantiensium means: from the Elz river. Numeri were often listed by their first station even when they moved to a different place, but they were never numbered.
Limes Fort Osterburken - Part 1: The Discovery
The Roman fort of Osterburken is situated at the outer Odenwald Limes (1), some distance east of the Rhine. It's a double fort: a traditional, card shaped cohort castellum on rather flat terrain in the valley, today covered by houses, and a trapezoid shaped annex fort housing a numerus, a smaller, irregular auxiliary troop of about 120 men. The annex fort is built on a steep slope and shows the remains of some impressive Roman architecture.
The main fort was built about 155 AD, the annex fort was added some time between 185-192 AD.
Osterburken annex fort, tower foundations in the west wall
The heaps of stones in the Kirnau valley near Osterburken were identified as remains of a Roman building when a stone with the inscription 'Legio VIII Augusta' turned up in 1718. But at that time the interest in the Romans in Germany was not great, except for the ideological-patriotic interpretation of Tacitus' Germania
and the Varus battle. Thus, a good number of the stones was used as building material in the church and surrounding farms (there's a bill about 30 waggon loads of stones in the parish archives, dating from 1813).
Things changed when one Karl Wilhelm, chairman of the Society for the Research of National Monuments, discovered a deposit of 30 silver coins in 1838. The fields in the Kirnau valley became the target not only of serious archaeologists but also of treasure hunters in search of Roman objects. The town major Hofmann called them 'Californian gold diggers'. View from the west gate down to the valley
But even archaeologists like the members of the Mannheim Historical Society who were involved in the excavations were more interested in digging out shiny things, coins, weapons and altar stones which could be displayed in museums, than in either documenting the exact in situ
position of their finds, or any detailed analysis of the walls, post holes and other architectural features. It was the time of Heinrich Schliemann who did much the same in Troy.
The situation improved with the founding of the Commission zur Erforschung des Limes Imperii Romani
in 1852 (2). The 550 kilometres of the Limes - where it could be traced with the means of 19th century technology - were divided into parts and the forts numbered. By then the remains of Osterburken had been identified as Roman fort, albeit with an odd double structure: one fort in the valley and another one up the southern slope of the Hundsrück hill. It got the number 40. Osterburken fort, model
Karl Schumacher, chairman of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum
in Mainz, undertook two digs in 1892 and 1893. Most of what we know about the Osterburken fort goes back to his work. Schumacher also tried to conservate the annex fort; there were even plans to rebuild the south wall but those came to nothing.
Unfortunately, interest waned after 1900 and the area of the main fort was built over with houses in the mid-20th century. Only the south wall that connects with the annex fort remains. I could not find a reason why it was abandoned that way, but I suspect the land was needed since Germany is rather densely populated, and the remains probably weren't that spectacular. It's still a pity, though.
The annex fared better because it houses a monument for the dead of WW1 and today is a little park. There may be a chance for another dig; it's assumed the ground still should render some interesting discoveries.Trench between main fort (wall to the right) and annex
Some Roman stones with inscriptions appeared during the renovation of the parish church (I told you those people used every stone they could carry or drag in their walls) and in 1973, the remains of the military bath were discovered during railway construction work. That incited new digs in 1976 (a second bath was found), and 1982, which led to the discovery of the famous altar cove of the beneficarii
The second bath had already been conservated and roofed in in 1986, with a little museum attached. The museum has been considerably enhanced in 2006, and now houses finds from the digs in Osterburken as well as the area, both Roman and Germanic. Its most famous object is the Mithras stone
.Part 2, The Garrisons / Part 3, The Cohort castellum / Part 4, The Annex Fort. Annex fort, some foundations on the north side(1) The German Limes was a frontier cutting through the right angle formed by Rhine and Danube, the first borders of Germania. It starts north-east of Wiesbaden and meets the Danube near Regensburg, thus adding not only the Taunus and Odenwald forests but also the fertile lands of the Wetterau and Neckar plains to the Roman Empire.
(2) In 1891, this would become the Reichslimeskommission. The famous German historian Theodor Mommsen got the project underway. Up to that point, research had been in the hands of the local governments of Hessia, Württemberg and Baden. The commission published a series of articles between 1894 - 1937 and undertook a number of excavations. Since 2003 research and representation of the Limes are supervised by the Deutsche Limeskommission; since 2005 the Limes is UNESCO World Culture Heritage.
(3) Beneficarius is a specific grade within the military staff. During the principate, their tasks encompassed the maintenance of the roads and relais stations, the collecting of tolls, and obviously also intelligence work. Beneficarii often set up an altar after they succesfully conducted - and survived - their job. Osterburken was a key post in the road network and developed a veritable cove of altars.
Helmut Neumaier:, Die Kastelle von Osterburken - Eine Grenzstation am obergermanischen Limes., Osterburken 1991
The Kugelsburg - Part 2: Troubled Times
The Everstein family spread into several branches and some of its members appear in various positions and places in Germany for the next centuries. One Gertrude of Everstein was abbess of Gernrode in late 14th century, for example, and one Otto of Everstein-Polle was marshal of Westphalia acting on behalf of the archbishop of Cologne around the same time. But the prodigious offspring of Albert III seems to have led to increasing financial problems because of the need to split the possessions and provide dowries, and the loss of the main seat of Everstein probably increased those troubles.
At some point the Everstein must have pawned out part of the Kugelsburg to the archbishop of Cologne, because in 1303 Otto of Everstein renounced his rights to that part of the castle in favour of Cologne. That was something he could only do if his liegelord - Corvey - agreed. It could work out because Corvey itself had submitted to the protection of Cologne in 1298.
Archbishop Wigbold fortified the castle and had the round keep built. His successor archbishop Walram gave the Cologne part of the Kugelsburg as fief to his marshal Berthold of Büren, a member of the Everstein family in 1335, but in 1339 the same Walram gave the castle to the brothers Rabe von Papenheim; the family were hereditary stewards of Corvey since 1106. You see, the feudal connections remain complicated.
The Rabe family which soon called themselves Rabe von Cogelenburg lived in the castle from 1346 - 1530 as chatellains or Burgmannen
, men of noble birth charged with the defense of a castle. They built the Gothic palas
. Thus it must have been a member of that family who held the castle during the Hessian Brother War in the 15th century (see below).
Corvey still held rights to part of the castle but they didn't install any Burgmann
to live in the castle. In 1440, the rights of distraint on the second part of the Kugelsburg went to the Electorate of Cologne as well (the archbishop of Cologne had electorate rights as one of the seven princes of the realm as decreed in the Golden Bull 1356, since then the archdiocese of Cologne is refered do as Kurköln
- Electorate of Cologne).
The main line of the Everstein family, the counts of Everstein, kept having troubles with the dukes of Braunschweig. When Hermann VII of Everstein had no male heirs, he decided to make and end and betrothed his daughter Elisabeth to Otto IV Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg in 1408. The marriage took place the same year despite the girl being only four years old. Herman VII Count of Everstein went into exile; the line died with him.
Outhouses attached to the inner curtain wall
Meanwhile, the Rabe of Cogelenburg sat in the castle without too many troubles until they got embroiled in the Hessian Brother War. When Ludwig I Landgrave of Hessia died in 1458, he left no detailed will though he had recommended that his older sons Ludwig II and Heinrich III should part the lands, with Lower Hessia (the area around Eschwege and Kassel; with Volkmarsen at its western border) going to Ludwig and Upper Hessia (the area around Marburg and the Lahn river) and the former county of Ziegenhain (in between those two parts) going to Heinrich. But the brothers could never agree about where exactly the border was to be and who held which rights, so open war broke out in 1469.
Heinrich sided with an old archenemy of the landgraves of Hessia, the archbishop of Mainz, one of the electorates. Mainz had possessions east of Hessia, among them the town of Erfurt, and therefore wanted to gain supremacy over the landgrave. The counts of Ziegenhain had asked Mainz for aid before, because the landgrave of Hessia didn't like to have an independent lord between his
territories, either, and attacked them. The counts of Ziegenhain lost the war in 1437 and had to accept their lands as fief from Hessia.
When the last count died in 1450 without male offspring, landgrave Ludwig I considered the fief to have fallen back to him, but the Ziegenhain family thought otherwise. Heinrich had inherited an old quarrel, and a new alliance - to the Electorate of Mainz.
But it was Ludwig who had the greater military success, destroying several castles and villages in the process.
In the end, their third brother, Hermann Archbishop of Cologne, got them to the negotiation table and in 1470 they came to an agreement. But Ludwig died in 1471 and Heinrich acted as regent for his young sons, ruling over both Lower and Upper Hessia until his death in 1483.
Kugelsburg, view from out of a cellar
It was after that war that the Kugelsburg comes into focus again. When archbishop Hermann gave the castle and the town of Volkmarsen to his brother Heinrich in 1474, both castle (which means the Burgmann
, a Rabe of Cogelenburg) and town refused the oath of fealty to their new lord. It makes one wonder about the motives for that disobedience. Maybe they had faced an attack by Heinrich during the war that is not mentioned in the still existing chronicles (which don't need to be complete), maybe they were angry that Heinrich sided with Mainz which obviously had caused problems before.
They should have known better. Heinrich came back with an army and conquered the Kugelsburg in 1475. Why he waited until 1477 to deal with Volkmarsen as well I don't know; one possible explanation is that he tried negotiations first. But in the end he covered the town by missiles from the castle and when it fell, set it on fire.
View from the outer bailey towards Volkmarsen
Archbishop Hermann renewed the rights of distraint from Hessia after Heinrich's death, and there was a Hessian garrison in the Kugelsburg until 1507. Since the Rabe of Cogelenburg sat in the castle until 1530, they must have made their peace with the landgrave and now commanded the Hessian garrison. Hessia was united under Wilhelm II, son of Ludwig, after Heinrich's son died rather young.
Part 3 can be found here