The Wine of the North
After several days’ journey in the rain we arrive at Augusta Treverorum, the present-day city of Trier, now a pleasant German city near the border with Luxembourg. Still, today, anyone would find this city surprising; you just don’t expect to find so many vestiges of Rome in northern Europe. The whole city is sprinkled with the remnants of baths, bridges, amphitheaters, ovals for chariot races, and an immense basilica, where the emperor Constantine once sat. And it must also have surprised those who, after days of journeying through forests, woods, and lakes, suddenly found themselves confronted with a large, wealthy, Roman city, so far north, in such a cold climate.
But there is another monument that we haven’t yet encountered that will last even longer and better than the city and its buildings, coming all the way down to our own time: the vine.
The two men arrive in the late afternoon, exhausted from the journey. They leave their horses in a stable, paying for the animals’ lodging with a few coins, among them our sestertius, which thus changes hands once again. We won’t see the two men again; they’ll be lost in the folds of daily life in the empire.
But neither will the sestertius stay long in the hands of its new owner. The next morning, a well-dressed young man enters that very stable. He had left his horse there very briefly, long enough to grab a quick bite to eat in the city. It’s a gorgeous horse, powerful and fast, the equivalent of a modern-day sports car. That’s why he put it in a safe and supervised “garage.” When he came back he paid with a denarius and was given several sesterces, including ours, in change.
His horse, his finely crafted clothes, and his denarii indicate that the young man belongs to the upper ranks of society. In fact, he’s the son of a vineyard owner and he’s on his way to one of his family’s farms. For us it’s a nice piece of luck; there’s some Moselle wine waiting for us.
In less than an hour by horseback we are in the heart of where it’s produced. The road runs alongside the Moselle River, which flows majestically through the wooded hills and mountains, creating lots of loops and bends. It looks like a gigantic sleeping snake. The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, one of those landscapes that soothes the soul, but the most impressive thing is the vast expanse of vineyards that cover the sweetly rolling slopes as far as the eye can see, right down to the river’s edge.
It’s like that even today. And if we are still able to savor the renowned wines from this area, we owe it to the Romans, who understood the potential of these hills, giving an incredible boost to the production of wine.
The Romans’ policy on wine is really curious. For several centuries they maintained an absolute monopoly. Wine was popular, especially among the Celtic populations of the north (they had first gotten to know it thanks to the Etruscans) who entered the Roman orbit with the conquests of Julius Caesar. They liked it so much, in fact, that Roman slave traders were able to purchase men and women just by offering amphoras of wine. The barbarians themselves captured other barbarians from nearby territories to sell them to the traders. Wine, in other words, followed the legions like a faithful dog and arrived wherever new settlements were established. It was one of the fuels of daily life.
Then as now, wine was very much appreciated and the demand for the “nectar of the gods” on the part of Roman settlers and conquered peoples was pressing. You can imagine the volume of traffic in amphoras northbound from Italy on ships. On the docks of port cities amphoras were lined up in rows like soldiers, ready to be loaded on board. In fact, the most beautiful amphoras in museums today, the Dressel 1 and 2 models, with their tapered bodies and long necks, date back to this period of conquest and expansion. To see them now is like capturing a photo of that era. It can be asserted with confidence that they date back exactly to the decades immediately before the birth of Christ, that they were manufactured solely in the workshops of Campania, and that they contained wine produced in the vineyards that extended more or less from the south of Lazio to just north of Naples. Those amphoras were also used to export the famous Falernian wine, so praised by the ancients. They arrived everywhere throughout the Mediterranean, especially in the three Gauls. But not all of them reached their destinations. A large portion of the Roman shipwrecks loaded with amphoras that now lie on the bottom of the northwest Mediterranean come from this exact period of history: the colonization of the north.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Roman administrators realized the potential profits that could be made in the wine business. They even prohibited grape growing in the new territories, forcing the populations to pay high prices for imported wine.
Later, with the expansion of the empire, they initiated a policy of concessions, but for a long time the only authorizations to grow wine were issued to legionnaires. Their presence on the frontiers (limites) led to a delocalization of wine production, not least because they were such heavy consumers of it. Wine growing was often entrusted to veterans who were given farmlands in frontier areas as rewards for their period of service. Finally, wine production was also granted to private growers, and this created huge areas of production, like the one we are exploring now.
On both sides of the river vineyards cover every possible square inch on the slopes of the hills. But how do they manage to produce wine so far north in the empire, and with what systems?
How the Romans Produce the Nectar of the Gods
The young man on horseback meets and passes a lot of four-wheeled wooden wagons pulled by oxen and loaded with baskets full of grapes. There are a lot of farms that produce wine in this area. It’s harvest time, and along the rows of vines you can see columns of slaves going up and down with panniers chock-full of grapes. The glories of these vineyards will be sung a few generations from now by the poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius.
The surprising thing is that the vines are much different than ours. The shoots are not stretched out for twenty yards or more on suspended metal wires. Instead they are made up of so many little “trees” extending down the hillside from top to bottom in single file. And they have a curious shape: the shoots have been curled and bent like a wire until they form a figure eight the height of a man. It’s an ingenious system: in this way a rather long piece of vine is folded up on itself to occupy a relatively small space. The grape bunches grow on both sides of this figure eight, with the interior ones splendidly framed by the double ring of which it is composed.
The vineyard owner’s son arrives in front of a large wooden gate. His horse stamps its feet. The rider and his beautiful white horse, a sign of his family’s ample profits, have been spotted from far away. A slave opens the gate immediately and greets him obsequiously. The young man advances without returning the greeting. He proceeds at a gallop, up a hill, to a low building where the grapes are pressed. Upon his arrival, a group of slaves in single file stop working and put their panniers on the ground, lowering their heads in deference. They are half-naked and sweaty, their skin sticky from the resins seeping out of the cut vines. He orders them gruffly not to stop and to keep on working. Then he goes into the building, rudely pushing out of his way a slave standing in the doorway. The inside is a single large room—we might compare the entire structure to an industrial shed—with a line of slaves. The slaves empty into a large tub the heavy baskets of grapes they have been bearing on their shoulders. During the harvest they will carry tons of grapes here and empty them into this tub, basket after basket without interruption.
Other slaves, the calcatores, completely naked and soaked with sweat, are stamping the grapes. This is an exhausting job; they have to “march” for hours and hours, crushing grapes that never seem to end, amid clouds of stinging wasps and screaming overseers. To lighten the burden they sing songs from their native lands and lean on strange walking sticks that look like crutches to keep from losing their balance.
All of this takes place under the vigilant eyes of two divinities painted on the walls and much venerated around these parts: Sucellus, of Gallic origins, the protector of Moselle wine growers, often represented with bunches of grapes, casks, and wine presses; and Bacchus, of Mediterranean origins, who is the protector of wine drinkers.
The grape juice pours out copiously from several openings in the form of a lion’s mouth and flows into a smaller tub, sunk below ground. The liquid flows through some wicker baskets that function as filters, holding back the grape skins and dead wasps. The juice that passes through the baskets gradually fills up the smaller tub. At regular intervals it is then poured off into small amphoras.
In an endless assembly line, other slaves slide sticks through the handles of the amphoras and carry them out into the courtyard of the farmhouse. There, they pour the grape juice into large terra-cotta jars that stick up out of the ground. These jars, called dolia, are about the size of washing machines; the juice will age and ferment inside them. The dolium is the Roman solution for aging wine. But the Gauls have invented an alternative that is very effective: the cask.
The Romans adopted it immediately, and in a very short time they introduced it in numerous areas of the empire. The cask will continue to be used over the centuries down to our own time. Here both systems are used. Other slaves, in fact, are pouring grape juice into a line of large casks.
These farms, like all farms throughout the empire, have very modern techniques for optimizing productivity. The aim is to maximize profits by literally squeezing the source of earnings (in other words, the grape) down to the last drop. After the first pressing, done by foot, grapes can still yield a lot of juice. And the Romans know this only too well. But how to obtain the juice? By using a gigantic press, the torculum.
The torculum, which is enthroned in the center of the building, is an immense beam, forty feet long, made from the trunk of a single oak. This is how it works. The pulp and skins of the pressed grapes (that is, the dregs) are left to steep for several days. This makes them softer, watery, and easier to squeeze. Then the mixture is put into a single container, a wooden tub with a lot of openings in the bottom, and the beam is centered horizontally over the tub. The beam will act as a huge weight, crushing the pulp and skins.
At first glance the weight of this immense beam seems capable of giving a pretty good squeeze. But it’s not enough. The Romans devised an ingenious method for infusing the torculum with a force never seen in all of antiquity. The beam is anchored to the wall on one side, while on the opposite side it has an enormous wood screw that goes all the way down to the ground where it is fixed to a massive block of stone weighing a ton. When this screw is turned, the beam descends toward the block of stone, like an enormous nutcracker, crushing the skin and pulp with extraordinary force.
When everything is ready a signal is given. Two husky slaves position themselves near the wooden levers inserted in the screw so as to form a cross and slowly begin to turn it. The whole structure emits loud creaking sounds. With each turn, the screw penetrates inside the huge beam, which steadily moves downward, transforming itself into a pitiless press that squashes the pulp and skins, squeezing them to the last drop. The wood groans noisily, and everyone present can see the liquid spill forth from the openings in the wooden tub, flowing into a collector tub. This last juice will be poured into dolia and into casks like the juice from the first pressing.
The owner’s son looks on with satisfaction at the sweet “liquid gold” flowing steadily out of the torculum. He doesn’t know it, but this invention, the screw press, will remain unchanged until the nineteenth century, when the screw will change from wood to iron. (Today hydraulic presses are used.)
At this point what happens to the grape juice? It will be left to ferment for ten days or so (the must will literally start to boil). Then the large semi-interred jars will be sealed with terra-cotta lids and the aging process, which will last months or years, will begin. In antiquity, in fact, “young” or new wine does not exist; wine that is aged for several years, in some cases even as many as forty years, is more prized. Naturally, this is the theory. The actual practice is established by the wine-producing companies which have to sell it as soon as possible in order to realize their profits, maybe even after only one year. In this they are assisted by the Roman system of distribution, which is slow. Between storage and transport in stages on roads and ships (which cannot sail for six months out of the year because of the terrible storms at sea), months and even years pass before the amphora is opened and the wine poured at table.
Under the press, what remains after this last squeezing is an organic mush that is not thrown out. Dried and shaped into little bricks, it will be used for lighting fires in fireplaces and kitchens. Nothing is wasted. It is an example of true recycling in antiquity.
We now leave the building of the torculum, known as the torcularium, and immerse ourselves again in the panorama of the vineyards. What varietals of grapes did the Romans grow here, along the Moselle?
Archaeologists have discovered the answer by analyzing the grape seeds unearthed during their digs: they were somewhere between wild vines and cultivated ones, select varietals that demonstrated their resistance to the climatic conditions of northern Europe. Probably their distribution path followed the Rhone, passing through the farms that had spread into the Lyon area. From there they migrated northward, eventually arriving in this area.
On the banks of the Moselle white wine is produced, but there is one curiosity: here and there we step on some cherry pits. What are they doing on farms where wine grapes are grown? This is not an accident. Archaeologists have found cherry pits here too. They are added to color the wine red. It’s not considered an adulteration, just as it is not considered an adulteration to add honey to the wine so that the fermenting sugars will increase the alcohol level. As the Romans see it, this has two advantages: the wine is more pleasing because it’s stronger; and it travels better and doesn’t deteriorate during the long journey to distant places in the empire (the high concentration of alcohol inhibits degradation caused by microorganisms, a bit like what happens with high-alcohol-content wines, such as port).
What the Romans don’t like at all, however, is the smoking of wine, as originally done in Narbonese Gaul. This is a system for making the wine age more quickly, but it leaves an unpleasant smoky aftertaste, as Martial notes. Clearly, the wines of this era are very different from ours. Very often they have the consistency of molasses. In the winter they are diluted with hot water, in the summer with ice-cold water, and spices are often added.
Furthermore, the fact that the grapes are squeezed without separating them from the grape stalks, or twigs, makes the wine rather bitter. Quite often, therefore, the wine is seasoned in big containers made of lead—or even worse, lead powder—or else little blocks of lead are added to sweeten it. (Over time, lead develops a whitish patina with a sweet taste.) Naturally, the Romans don’t know about the health hazards of lead: lead poisoning, or saturnism, provokes anemia, jaundice, convulsions, cerebral edema, and finally death.
Here we have to interject a small parenthetical observation. It has often been said that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by lead poisoning stemming from the use of lead pipes to transport drinking water in the cities. But this story is as false as it is widespread. Undoubtedly lead claimed some victims in the Roman era, just as it does today. But it was not absorbed in such massive and widely distributed doses as to weaken and annihilate an entire empire, from the ruling class, to the army, down to the level of ordinary people. Not even serious epidemics, like the terrible plagues that killed emperors like Marcus Aurelius, were capable of doing that.
Despite all these adulterations, people in the Roman Empire like their wine. And evidently they like it a lot, considering the boats filled with wine casks going up and down the Moselle right before our eyes. On the roads, too, we run into wagons piled high with casks. Wine from the Moselle region is exported throughout the empire. This area is a true El Dorado of wine that has enriched many local families.
Archaeologists working in the Moselle area have unearthed many pitchers and cups used at banquets. They are made of dark, much prized pottery, with bright decorations and eloquent inscriptions. The latter are toasts that were recited at banquets, engraved on the cups almost as though they were the fossilized voices of the invited guests. These were dedicated to the guest of honor, to a lover, to life … or to the host so he wouldn’t water down the wine (but how can you blame him, given that the wine often had percentages of alcohol commonly found in whisky!).
One of these toasts has come down to our own time. When a German raises his glass and says “Prosit,” he is actually speaking Latin. A Roman in the era we are exploring would have understood him instantly. Prosit means “That it should be good for you” or “To your health.” That wish, that gesture, embraces an entire world.
When the Dead Speak to You: A Roman Spoon River
The young man on horseback is on his way back to Trier. As in all Roman cities, the access roads to this big urban center of the north are lined with cemeteries. A proper city of the dead greets incoming visitors: on both the left and right tombstones emerge out of the grass, along with stone sarcophagi, monuments, and mausoleums. All around us is a sea of names, and busts and statues observe us with a severe gaze. We’re passing a lineup of the faithfully departed, and inevitably our gaze is directed toward the inscriptions. They are a precious font of information.
Thus we discover that the Romans don’t live very long. Most of the gravestones are in memory of people that today we would consider young. There are lots of teenagers and even more children. Many are adults who died long long before their hair would have started turning gray. The statistics are cruel: in the Roman Empire men have an average life span of forty-one, women a paltry twenty-nine. The big difference in the longevity of men and women was caused by the fact that women began giving birth at a very young age, and frequently they died in childbirth or its aftermath.
It must be kept in mind that these numbers are averages. Some Romans live very long lives, but very few. These data tell us that in the Roman Empire, among the people you see on the street there are plenty of young people while seniors are rare. Exactly like the situation today in the Middle East or in third-world countries.
But there are exceptions. In a Roman cemetery for the poor, discovered in Vatican City, I happened to see an inscription in honor of a certain Abascantus, who died at the age of ninety! He lived more than twice as long as the average Roman. At the time he must have been considered a real immortal.
It’s intriguing that the Romans seem to have used their tombstone inscriptions to create a dialogue between the dead and the living. While on our modern tombs the inscriptions are almost always a dedication to the deceased, with the Romans it’s just the opposite: it’s the deceased who do the talking.
It’s the location of the cemeteries that is responsible for this desire to communicate. Contrary to today, the necropolises are not fenced off and separated from the world of the living, but are still part of it: the tombs line the sides of the city’s most-traveled access roads. It’s only natural, therefore, that a dialogue is created between the living and the dead. And it’s not a dialogue between the deceased and their relatives but between the deceased and the people who happen by the graves.
The dead, in a certain sense, are like those genteel old people that you run into on the backstreets of the city, sitting on the stoop in front of their houses. If you pass by they will almost certainly start up a conversation.
The Romans also have another reason to “humanize” their tombs. They believe that after death the soul of the deceased wanders around the gravesite. There is no afterlife (paradise, hell, or purgatory); at most there is only the gray world of the dead (Hades) where souls, cold and pallid, wander around without memory in the semidarkness (as is written in Book VI of the Aeneid, which recounts the descent of Aeneas into the world of the dead). The Elysian Fields were reserved for the deserving few, heroes of grandiose deeds, who had the good fortune of being able to meet the great figures of the past.
Roman epitaphs, therefore, synthesize the personality of the deceased: sometimes they are romantic, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes endowed with a sense of humor that lasts through the centuries, making us smile even today. Here are some of the epitaphs that have been discovered by archaeologists in various places in the empire, many of which have been collected by Lidia Storoni Mazzolani in Iscrizioni funerarie romane (Rizzoli, 2005).
Hymn to life
Baths, wine, and Venus ruin our bodies. But baths, wine, and Venus are what life is made of.
The tomb of a great worker
Here lie I, Lemisus. My death was my only dispensation from work.
Anyway, there’s no escape
Hey you, walking by, come over here. Rest for a while. You shake your head; don’t you want to? Yet someday, like it or not, you’ll be back here.
Here it is, your asylum. I come here against my will, nonetheless obliged.
You who are still living, take advantage of life
Here are the bones of Prima Pompea. Fortune promises much to many but maintains its promises for no one. Live day by day, hour by hour. Because nothing is ours.
Until the age of eighteen, I lived as best I could, beloved by my father, and all my friends. Have fun, enjoy yourself, that’s my advice. This place is a realm of serious rigor.
I’m out of play
I’ve escaped, I’m out of it. Hope, Fortune, I bid you farewell. I no longer have anything to share with you. Make a fool of someone else.
Death has its advantages
The thought of suddenly finding myself reduced to hunger doesn’t frighten me, and this way I am immune to gout. Nor will it ever happen to me again to be the guarantor on an installment loan. I have the benefit of free lodging forever.
Take your leave with peace of mind
Having lived to a ripe old age, chock-full of years, I am called by the gods; children, what have you to cry about?
To die of childbirth
The cause of my death was childbirth and impious fate. But you stop crying, my beloved companion, and hold onto your love for our son. Because by now my spirit is among the stars in the sky. (Rusticeia Matrona, lived twenty-five years)
Medical malpractice two thousand years ago
Here lies Efesia, good mother, good wife. She died for a malign fever provoked by her doctors and outlived their predictions. For this crime there is only one consolation: that the death of such a sweet woman I believe happened because she was more suited to the company of the gods.
Death of a centaur
I, Florius, here I lie, boy charioteer. Too soon I wished to race, too soon I plummeted into the darkness.
Extraordinary for its sense of humor is the epitaph of an actor who had acted the part of a dying man many times. His words make him quite likable and inspire us with the curiosity (never to be satisfied) to know him:
Here is buried Leburna, a maestro of recitation, who lived a hundred years more or less. I’ve died so many times! But like this, never. To you up there I wish you good health.
One of the surprising things on Roman gravestones is the life span of the deceased: it is specified almost obsessively and in certain cases, in addition to the number of years, months, and days the inscription even counts the hours, almost as if to count every “drop” of lived life:
Callista lived sixteen years, three months, six hours. She was to be married on the 15th of October. She died on the 11th.
Gravestone inscriptions are full of curiosities. Some tombs added warnings to be respectful, like the one admonishing the wayfarer to refrain from taking care of his bodily needs nearby, addressing him with a very direct term: cacator or “shitter.”
Lucius Cecilius Libertus of Caius Lucius Florus lived sixteen years and seven months. That he who shits or pisses on this tomb should suffer the rage of the gods above and below. (Focus Magazine)
In effect, precisely because they are usually unpeopled places and rich with monuments to hide behind, cemeteries are often used by travelers as toilets. And, it’s also easy to find prostitutes here, plying their trade. The reason is simple: as is the case today, prostitution is practiced on the outskirts of the city, on roads frequented by men who travel for work. And the tombstones do offer some privacy.
Skyscrapers for the (Wealthy) Dead
These epitaphs allow us to get to know directly the people who lived in the past: ordinary people, certainly, but also and especially the most powerful families. And we can get a better idea of this as we continue on our way through the necropolis of Trier.
Here they have built some imposing tombs that stand out like skyscrapers; some of them look like square towers with pointed tops more than seventy feet high (as in the Igel cemetery). If the rich have the biggest and most beautiful houses while they’re alive, the same is true after they die. It’s still possible even today to admire these tombs in a very special place, the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Trier. Many of them date back to the third century, but we can plausibly imagine that there were already similar monuments in the second century.
Sometimes they are real masterpieces, with a lot of sculpted scenes showing the deceased during their lives, involved in their daily routines. Never depicted by chance, these scenes are always status-symbol moments immortalized for the viewer.
The most surprising thing is the tendency to tell the story of how the family became rich, sometimes showing, in a rather coarse way, their piles of money. And so we can see the head of the family sitting at a table, with his clients or servants lined up and carrying sacks full of coins that they empty out onto the table. The deceased is represented carefully recording his profits in a big ledger, with the precision of an accountant.
Sometimes on the other side of the tomb the wife is represented, sitting in a wicker chair with a high back as her slaves ritually comb her hair. On other tombs we can see the scions of these families, sitting at their desks while their tutor teaches them languages and other subjects. (Rich families were all at least bilingual. They knew Latin and Greek as well as the local language.) All of these scenes are painted in bold colors—blue, red, yellow, green—and you can see every little detail.
There’s no mistaking the mountain of sculpted amphoras that, quite often, are the crowning element of the funeral monument. They are piled one on top of the other in an orderly manner, like oranges at a fruit stand. That’s how the deceased made his money, in the wine trade. And we also discover an extraordinary detail: the amphoras are all encased in woven straw, which covers everything except the neck and handles. This is clearly a way to avoid breakage during transport. We can’t help but be reminded of our own glass wine flasks, which are protected in the same way. We may not have noticed it before, but it’s possible that every time we’ve sat down to the dinner table, we’ve had right before our eyes an ancient custom that has come down to us directly from the Romans, a true archaeological fossil.
Kill Your Father?
Another tomb along the way is truly spectacular. It is in the form of a Roman boat, cutting through the water. In the front, as on a Viking ship, the head of a dragon. In the back, on the curled stern, the muzzle of a bear. The boat is propelled by a host of oarsmen and, at its center, are five enormous casks of wine. The deceased is sitting in the boat, his hand indicating the casks, as if to say “Look how much wine I’ve managed to sell. Imagine how rich I am.” No one today would be represented like this on a tombstone, but in an era in which the only important things are money and social status, such memorials are quite normal.
And you can also imagine what is going through the head of our young man on horseback. In such a competitive society, which values only the size of one’s bank account, the sons of the rich are in an uncomfortable position. As long as their fathers are alive, they are under their tutelage, under their control, and have no say whatsoever in how the family holdings are managed. Nor do they have property of their own. This is certainly normal if they are still young. But the situation is a little more delicate and embarrassing if an elderly father manages to remain alive and insists on keeping the reins of the family estate even though his children’s hair is starting to turn gray.
It is not so surprising, then, that every once in a while some of these sons try to kill their fathers. Sometimes the motive is debt: killing your father, by poison or with the help of a hired killer, means finally having access to the family coffers and being able to pay one’s creditors. This was the reason that Macedo, a man who lived under the emperor Vespasian, used to justify the murder of his father. The case caused an uproar and the Senate approved a law, senatus consultum Macedonianum, which prohibited anyone from collecting money from people who were still under paternal authority.
What was the punishment for a son who kills his father? It was particularly gruesome: the convicted patricide was tied up inside a sack with a snake, a chicken, a monkey, and a dog, all still alive. The sack was then sewn up tight and dumped in a river. This punishment was applied frequently in Rome. We have documentation of it under Constantine and under Claudius, who, according to Seneca, “sacked” more patricides during his short reign than all of his predecessors put together.
The young man is now entering the city. He doesn’t know it, but in the future the place where he is now will be photographed by thousands of tourists from all over the world who have come to admire the Roman ruins of Trier. It may well be the most impressive city or Roman site that one can see in all of northern Europe. This entrance gate, in particular, is a true symbol of the city. It is the Porta Nigra, or Black Gate, composed of two towers, three and four stories high respectively, adorned with innumerable archways and openings. It is an emotional experience today to pass through it while trying to imagine how many Romans did the same centuries ago. Not our young man on horseback, however: the grandiose gate will not be built for another couple of generations.
The Porta Nigra is so big and spacious that in the Middle Ages its lower section was transformed into a church, and the upper part into a monastery. When Napoleon arrived he dismantled all the religious coverings and architectural details, restoring the Porta Nigra to its original form, as we see it today. It seems strange how certain places can make multiple appearances on the stage of human history. Trier is the birthplace of Saint Ambrose, whose father was the prefect of the Pretorium. And many centuries later, not more than a hundred yards from the Porta Nigra, Karl Marx was born. His house, still visible today, is on the street that begins at the city’s great gate.
Today the street is lined with stores, restaurants, and ice-cream shops. It already existed at the time of Trajan, and we are now riding down it on horseback. It seems like we’re seeing the same things: shops, stores, eateries, and pubs. Some things never change.
Our young man dismounts from his horse in front of a popina. Having tied his horse to a post, he sits down at one of the tables arranged outside on the sidewalk and orders some wine. “And make it ice-cold,” he adds.
The order slip arrives immediately inside the tavern. The girl behind the counter takes some ice out of a compartment and puts it into a bronze colander, pressing it into a ball as though it were a scoop of ice cream. Then she grabs a pitcher and pours some wine over the ice. The ice turns the color of the “nectar of the gods” and an instant later, from the holes of the colander, the chilled wine, almost frozen, comes flowing out, filling a lovely terra-cotta cup. Then she adds a little spice. The girl’s movements are rapid, sure-handed, and elegant.
Put on a tray, the cup of cold wine begins its passage among the tables. Many of the customers notice this petite, dark-haired young woman, with gracious movements and elongated eyes, who passes between their tables with surprising agility. Discreetly, she approaches the young man sitting at the table who is absently staring at the comings and goings of the crowd.
He looks up to see first the cup and then the girl’s eyes: they are smiling, deep, and full of life. Almost mechanically, the young man pulls out our sestertius, never taking his eyes off the girl, and puts it on her tray. It’s a nice tip, his way of saying that he is struck by her beauty. She squeezes the sestertius in the palm of her hand and smiles. Their gazes have become much more intense.
Hurrying Off to the Edge of the World
At the next table, a man observes the scene out of the corner of his eye and smiles. He is tall, blond, and blue-eyed—clearly Nordic. His short beard betrays his occupation: he must be a soldier. It’s hard to shave every day when you’re on the march or at war. Legionnaires, therefore, and auxiliary troops as well, are spared the requirement of being clean-shaven.
Indeed, beards are not fashionable in Trajan’s time. And it has been this way for generations. A Roman man is always well shaved, following the emperor’s example. But things will change when the next emperor, Hadrian, wears a beard, setting a style that will last for generations to come. In the era in which we now find ourselves, a man who lets his beard grow is in mourning, or on trial (to soften the heart of the tribunal); or he is a barbarian, or else a soldier.
The young officer signals to the waitress that he would like to pay for the lunch he has just eaten. As his change he receives our sestertius. He gets up and heads toward his horse, and our sestertius is setting off once again.
The soldier is heading to the frontier of the empire along the Rhine. He is a centurion. Until a few days ago he was on leave, but he’s been called up in a hurry to rejoin his century, the basic unit of a legion, composed of eighty men. He imagines that something is cooking, probably a military operation to respond to an emergency on the border.
It’s curious: our coin has now gone from the northern frontier, in Scotland, to the eastern frontier, on the Rhine, which may be an area even more at risk. Beyond the big river, in fact, lies the home of the most dangerous of the barbarian peoples: the Germans.
During his journey, the centurion will come to realize more and more that the operation is an important one. On the long road that will take him to the Rhine he’ll encounter some sizable units and detachments (vexillationes) sent by other legions or frontier forts. Some have been on the march for several days. At the head of their ranks are their emblems and banners (vexilla) displayed for all to see by the signiferi, or standard bearers, in the front line.
Thus the centurion discovers that all of the principal northern legions have sent reinforcements, like the VIII Augusta, stationed in Argentoratum (Strasbourg). Founded by Augustus, the legion has distinguished itself in many battles, first and foremost in the battle of Actium against Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
Or the I Minervia, headquartered in Bonna (Bonn), with the goddess Minerva on its emblems, the same legion that fought the Dacians just a few years ago in terrible and bloody battles during the conquest of Dacia (Romania) under Trajan’s command.
They are all war-fighting professionals, trained to kill a human being in just a few seconds. Now they are marching in silence toward a new mission, with their heavy equipment and their lances held high. All you can hear is a rhythmic, metallic beat, the choral rattling of weapons and armor in cadence with their marching feet. It can be heard from very far away, as though it were a drum announcing their arrival. Some units sing military songs, to give rhythm to their steps, with the commanders themselves leading the chorus. The centurion salutes his colleagues as they pass by but he doesn’t ask any questions. From the way they’re marching, at a constant, sustained rhythm, it’s clear to him that they have orders to arrive as fast as possible.
It is really impressive to see the speed with which these legionnaires are able to move. They are trained to cover twenty Roman miles (a little over eighteen miles) in just five hours, and they do that carrying sixty-five pounds of gear on their backs. Their training demands that they each carry their own equipment: armor, weapons, cooking implements, digging tools, even two pointed poles for building a defensive enclosure: in enemy territory, at the end of the day’s march, they have to set up camp immediately.
This means digging a long trench around the perimeter, in all about two miles long, three to ten feet deep and wide (according to the degree of danger at the moment). Using the dirt they’ve dug up, they build an embankment on the inside of the trench in which they plant their pointed poles. Inside this defensive perimeter, they set up tents for six hundred soldiers. (These are goatskin tents; this is why Roman soldiers say they are going sub pellibus, under the skins.) The final shape of the camp is a quadrilateral measuring about 875 yards long on each side, with the tents lined up close together and divided into quarters, each with its own main street, headquarters, etc.
And how long does it take them to build this camp? About two hours! This is because each of the five to six thousand soldiers in a legion knows what he is supposed to do, and he does it quickly in a precise location.
It is clear, therefore, why the legions have been a victorious army for generations: in an era when the typical mobilization for war consisted of rounding up as quickly as possible the largest number of warriors available, relying only on numbers and violence (that’s what most of the barbarian peoples do), the Romans have created a permanent army of professional soldiers, an army in constant training. Even in peacetime, in fact, the legionnaires do three 20-mile marches per month, carrying sixty-five pounds on their backs. And this for every one of the twenty-five years of their military service!
Naturally, there were no jogging shoes or easy trails in city parks: the soldiers march wearing their caligae on unpaved roads or cross-country, in the suffocating heat of summer, under the pounding autumn rain, or in the penetrating chill of winter.
Small wonder that the legions are much more mobile than any of their enemies. And as we will see, they also know how to deploy in battle and which part of the enemy’s body to strike with their swords. The legions are a perfect war machine, in which discipline, speed, training, and the capacity to adapt to any situation are the keys to victory. In this respect we can’t help but compare them to modern armies. In reality, they are the ancient expression of the modern mentality, in which organization, strategy, and technology are the key factors in every battle.
Becoming a legionnaire is not easy; after a rigorous initial selection process, the training is intense, a bit like the training in all the elite corps of modern armies, from the marines to the special forces. We are used to seeing films depicting new recruits being terrorized by sadistic sergeants. For the legionnaires it was worse. The centurions are even more rigid and beat the recruits (and veterans as well) with heavy sticks made from gnarled olive wood. Serious violations (like falling asleep on watch in enemy territory) are punished by being beaten to death at the hands of your comrades-in-arms.
Recruits are trained to fight using the methods of the gladiators, dealing blows to a pole stuck in the ground, in order to perfect their aim against a tall, thin target. All blows inflicted along the central line of an adversary’s body, from the forehead down through the nose, throat, chest, and belly to the groin, will have grave, often lethal consequences. Initially, recruits train for long periods with heavy weapons made of wood. Even the wicker shields weigh twice as much as normal. In this way, they learn to move with strength. When they are ready to move beyond this first level (there are always superior officers sitting as judges to supervise the training), they graduate to real weapons that will seem much lighter by comparison. So the blows they strike will be murderous.
According to an eyewitness account from the Roman era, “the training sessions are like real battles without the blood and the battles are like training sessions with the blood.”