Secrets of Martin Luther’s life

Brother Martin, a stout man, was sitting on the toilet in the Wittenberg Monastery, wearing the black robe of the Augustinian Order, when he was suddenly struck with the fundamental concept of his reformist body of thought.

Martin Luther himself noted, in two after-dinner speeches (Nos. 1681 and 3232b), that Protestantism was born in the sewer: “The spiritus sanctus imparted this creation to me on dis cloaca.”

Nevertheless, historians have warmed to Luther’s own admission, arguing that while the word “cloaca” could be interpreted as “lavatory,” perhaps it was a more general term for “this world.”

But the truth is truly as distasteful as the master once stated. Excavations in the Wittenberg Monastery have uncovered not only the remains of Luther’s old study, but “a small pit latrine with a lid” in the cellar below, as archeologist Mirko Gutjahr reports.

This latest finding is the result of a major archeological dig that began in 2003 and ended a few weeks ago with a final analysis of the site. Architectural historians, ceramics specialists and zoologists have discovered the kitchen waste of the man whose theories changed the world, and who proudly referred to himself as the “doctor above all doctors in the entire papacy.”

Luther, a German national hero, has been the subject of dozens of biographies. His translation of the Bible into German was as influential as his curses were memorable. Now archeologists have uncovered surprising new information about the religious reformer at three different excavation sites:

  • The floor of the building where Luther was born, in the town of Eisleben
  • His parents’ house in the town of Mansfeld
  • The estate in Wittenberg where the former monk lived with his wife and their six children

The digs exposed toys and food remains, broken dishes and grain (dated to the year 1500, using the C-14 method). The archeologists also found his wife’s wedding ring and a hoard of 250 silver coins.

The German State Museum of Prehistory will unveil the exhibition of Luther’s personal effects this Friday, to coincide with Reformation Day. The catalogue describes the content of the exhibition as “sensational,” noting that it enables us to reexamine “entire chapters in human life.”

All of this snooping around in the refuse of the founder of their church has not exactly been met with enthusiasm within Germany’s protestant congregations. In their view, the notion that the Luther family tossed dead cats into the household garbage is just as irrelevant, from a religious standpoint, as the suspicion that Luther, as a monk, attached his theses to the castle church with tacks instead of nails.

But the debris from Luther’s household should not be downplayed. Some of it, analyzed using the methods of criminology, relates to the reformer’s intellectual works, and it even reveals that he was not always entirely truthful.

For instance, the scholar fudged his parents’ social circumstances. He claimed that he was the son of a “poor miner” who toiled away in the mines with his hatchet, and that “my mother carried all her wood home on her back.”

But this is far from the truth. Luther’s father already owned a copper mill as a young man, while his mother came from a bourgeois family in Eisenach and had good connections to the royal mine administration.

In 1484, when Martin Luther was still an infant, the family moved to Mansfeld, where the father quickly became a successful foreman. He operated three copper smelters, owned 80 hectares (198 acres) of land and lent his money for interest.

The size and grandeur of his house, as the excavation revealed, were in keeping with his economic standing. “The front of the house on the street side was 25 meters (82 feet) wide,” says archeologist Björn Schlenker. The excavation exposed massive basement vaults and a rear courtyard surrounded by large outbuildings.

It was on this farm that young Martin and his siblings played, surrounded by flocks of geese and chickens. The fragments at the site reveal that they played with crossbows, clay marbles and bowling pins made of beef bones — toys not every family could afford at the time.

The remains of kitchen scraps discovered on the property reveal that the family frequently ate roast goose and the tender meat of young pigs. During Lent, the Luther family ate expensive ocean fish, like herring, codfish and plaice.

Lightning Strike or Fleeing Marriage?

Their diet even included figs and grapes, as well as partridges and songbirds, especially robins. The family hunted with clay decoys.

The birds were cooked in gray three-legged pots in a spacious kitchen. The hearth was heated with hot copper cinders from the smelting works, cooled to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit) and brought to the house in wooden carts.

The theologian later recalled that his mother had once given him a severe beating for stealing a nut. In the local Latin school, the miscreant once received 15 blows with a stick in a single morning.

It is well known that Luther’s parents firmly believed in witches and the devil, but now further details have emerged. The remains of a pilgrim’s horn, a noisemaker pilgrims could buy in the western city of Aachen, were found in the rubble. The father had apparently traveled to Aachen, the German version of Lourdes, to marvel at the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Jesus.

The young Luther did not yet find such relics repulsive when he studied law in Erfurt, a city in eastern Germany. But then suddenly he discontinued his university studies and fled into a monastery. Why?

The reformer later explained that his decision was prompted by a severe storm he had been caught in on July 2, 1505. After a lightning strike, he spontaneously vowed to become a monk.

Modern historians have added their dramatic embellishments to the story. “The lightning struck the ground so close to Luther that he was hurled a few meters away by the pressure,” writes the theologian Hanns Lilje. Others have conjectured that Luther was overcome by “mortal fear.”

But the tale of a sign from above coming to Luther in the form of a lightning strike is greatly exaggerated. In truth Luther, who was 21 at the time, was fleeing from an impending forced marriage.

“Newly discovered archive records show that the father had already married off three of his daughters and one son to the children of wealthy foremen,” explains expert Schlenker. Apparently it was now Martin’s turn.

Instead of submitting to his father’s will, the young man went to the monastery of the Augustinian hermits near Erfurt. The 50 monks living there wore black robes and the circular tonsure. They rose at two in the morning for the first Divine Office of the day.

The newest resident at the monastery was undaunted and even eager to chasten himself. He was constantly in the confessional where, according to one monk, he even confessed to the most minor of offences.

The reason was that the demon of relentless self-analysis was raging in Brother Martin. He was constantly examining his inner self. But the deeper he looked, the more he realized that evil lust and hidden desires were staring back at him.

The agony of the young novice began to grow, especially since Luther, still completely immersed in the Middle Ages, saw Christ primarily as an avenger who would soon descend from heaven for the Last Judgment, to push all sinners into the eternal fires of hell.

Matters did not improve when Luther moved to Wittenberg. While reading a biblical verse about the possessed, he fell to the floor, screaming: “It is not I.”

It was this almost psychoanalytical navel-gazing that led the monk to lose his old belief in the certainty of faith. His heretical thoughts soon expanded to include the letters of indulgence Christians used to buy themselves freedom from their sins. In doing so, Luther was attacking the Vatican’s lifeblood. The church earned millions with the letters.

His final break with the church came during his “tower experience” of 1516. Luther was convinced that man could only receive redemption through the “grace” of God, not through payments and good deeds. From his perspective, man remained an undeserving servant, forever tainted with evil. The creed that suddenly dawned on the Wittenberg monk as he was sitting on the toilet was that Jesus brought salvation to mankind despite his sins.

The resulting 95 theses quickly led to a conflagration in the Europe of the early 16th century. The emperor threatened to put the insurgent to death, but Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle, where he continued to write. He declared as invalid all but two of the seven sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and he criticized the cult of relics as a “dead thing.”

The pull of outrage began to draw in more and more people, breaking apart the unity of Christianity.

The Wittenberg Monastery closed its doors in 1522. Luther was given the building for his personal use and, after marrying the former Catholic nun Catherine von Bora, whom he eccentrically referred to as “Mr. Käthe,” he set up home.

He was no longer interested in celibacy, which he argued was against nature. The Curia, he argued, could “just as easily have banned shitting.”

The archeologists have already been hard at work in the old abbey in Wittenberg. They scored a direct hit in the rear courtyard, where they found a waste pit filled with a collection of the family’s refuse.

The find reveals that the doctor worked in a heated room with a view of the Elbe River. He spent his evenings writing in the light of lamps filled with animal fat. The dig contained the bindings of parchment books, several “quill knives” to sharpen goose quills, as well as four writing sets containing sand, ink and styluses.

The educated thinker was tremendously prolific, writing an average of 1,800 pages a year.

His tone became increasingly brusque over the years. He denounced Turks as “devils,” Jews as “liars” and gay priests as “garden brothers who do it with each other.” Rome, he wrote, was surrounded by “pig-theologians.”

After penning such sharp words, the powerfully eloquent reformer ate from faience bowls and drank from magnificent Turkish pitchers. The archeologists found intricate oven tiles decorated with motifs from the Old Testament, as well as more than 1,600 shards from glasses Luther, an avid eater, used to quench his considerable thirst for beer. Luther needed it to numb his emotions. The reformer’s attacks on the apostolic seat had come at the price of depression. He was constantly tempted by sadness.

In moments of remorse, the suffering Luther was convinced that the devil was trying to convince him to revoke his thoughts. His prompt response was to throw inkpots at the devil or resort to the power of his bowels: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

Given his many conflicts with the pope, it is no surprise that the stress took a toll on Luther’s health. He was plagued by rheumatism and urinary stones. He was so weak that he had himself taken to his lectures in a handcart. He also suffered from angina pectoris, which made him anxious. As gout set in, writing became increasingly difficult.

And then there was his obesity. At first, the doctor weighed 100, then 120 and, finally, an estimated 150 kilograms (the estimate is based on an ink drawing made of Luther shortly after his death).

The archeologists also found dozens of small containers, which Luther used to hold the many ointments and medications he bought for himself.

Gradually he wasted away, Luther, the Lord’s wrestler, the man who, eternally convinced of the incompleteness of all activity, noted humbly on his deathbed: “We are beggars.”



Holzminden camp – The Great Escape of 1918

It was certainly a Great Escape, even if it did not get the Hollywood treatment of Steve McQueen on his motorbike. The little known story of the prisoners of war who tunnelled out of a German camp in 1918 is to be told in a major exhibition that will show how they pioneered the subterfuge before their celebrated Second World War counterparts.

The story of the attempt by 60 officers to break out of Holzminden camp during the First World War has long been eclipsed by films about PoWs set in the Nazi era, such as The Colditz Story and The Great Escape, starring McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough as captives at Stalag Luft III. From this week, however, the audacious bid for freedom will be featured in the Imperial War Museum London’s show ‘In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War’, marking the 90th anniversary of the armistice on 11 November.

‘Everybody’s heard of The Great Escape, but it will surprise our visitors to see that similar escape attempts took place in the First World War,’ said Terry Charman, senior historian at the museum. ‘Holzminden was the worst prisoner of war camp in Germany and had a reputation like Colditz for being inescapable. Its commandant, Karl Niemeyer, was particularly brutal.’

Holzminden, near Hanover, held 550 officers and 100 orderlies, and after it opened in September 1917 there were 17 escape attempts in the first month alone. All were unsuccessful. In November that year the prisoners began digging a tunnel that would run under the camp’s perimeter wall. They were assisted by three German administrators at the camp: a mailman who became known to the soldiers as ‘the letter boy’, a man who supplied torches and was dubbed ‘the electric light boy’, and a female typist who passed on information because she was infatuated with an airman.

The captives had a room at the barracks in which they made imitation German army uniforms and used a basic camera to forge identity documents. They also created an air pump out of wood and tin tubes from biscuit tins. The tunnellers worked in three-hour shifts, in teams of three, using trowels, chisels and a ‘mumptee’, an instrument with a spike on one end and an excavating blade on the other. The earth was moved in basins by a pulley system then hidden in the cellar roof.

One of the biggest threats came from the Allies’ own side, when new PoWs arrived and asked, within earshot of the Germans: ‘Are you building a tunnel?’ But it remained undiscovered and nine months later was 60 yards long and six feet deep. In July 1918, 60 officers began the escape attempt, getting away through a nearby field of rye. But the tunnel collapsed on the 30th man, blocking the escape route.

It meant that the next one, Major Jack Shaw, had to turn back. Of the 29 escapers from Holzminden, 19 were rounded up and taken back to the camp, partly because the alarm had been raised by a farmer whose rye field had been trampled. But the remaining 10 made a successful run to neutral territory, led by Wing Commander Charles Rathborne, who hid on board a train and reached the Dutch frontier after three days. The 10 great escapers were awarded medals at Buckingham Palace by George V.

Terry Charman said he hoped the exhibition would help to preserve the memory of the first great escape.

‘In Memoriam’ will also feature the Military Cross awarded to Wilfred Owen that was worn by the poet’s mother until her death.

The ‘In Memoriam’ exhibition runs from 30 September.


Roman sea-battle and ships

(Click photo thumbnails to enlarge photos)

Through the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. the destiny of the Roman Empire was decisively influenced by a sea-battle for the final time. Following it Rome dominated the seas; enemies with their own large fleets no longer existed. Despite this, the Roman navy was not disbanded; indeed, it was expanded further. This clearly demonstrates that the fleets did not play an inconsiderable role in Roman imperial policy. As a result, one has to ask oneself what functions the fleets performed.

The best literary sources are to be found in Dio Cassius, Velleius Paterculus and Tacitus, who describe four expeditions of Roman fleets along the North Sea coast. This occurred in connection with the Roman attempt to conquer Germania up to the River Elbe. In 12 B.C. the Romans under the leadership of Drusus risked the first attempt; the second expedition followed in 5 B.C. under Tiberius. Germanicus undertook the two final voyages in A.D. 15 and 16, both ending in catastrophes, when tidal waves destroyed the ships. The reason for all four operations was always the same: a part of the army of occupation was brought by ship as close as possible to the theatre of war. Together with the soldiers equipment and provisions were also loaded on the ships newly constructed for this purpose. In this Tacitus (Annals 2, 6) describes the ships of Germanicus. They had wide hulls, but narrow sterns and bows. The keel was flat, so that the ships did not run aground, even by low-water. All could be sailed and rowed. Some possessed a cover to protect the cargo from wind and weather. A series of these characteristics survived upto the 4th century, as displayed by the five Roman military ships from Mainz (Mainz 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

In later times, too, troops and their equipment were transported by ship to their place of action. An impressive witness for this is the 40 m high Trajan’s Column in Rome. The whole of the exterior is decorated by a continuous band of reliefs on which the events of the First and Second Dacian wars (A.D. 101/102 and 105/106) are depicted. Scenes 33-35 show the emperor and his soldiers marching out of winter-quarters and his journey to the theatre of war

in 102. One can clearly distinguish different types of ships. Firstly, there are small cargo vessels with high bulwarks and wide bows, allowing storage space for the folded tents. They are steered by two lateral steering-oars. One can recognise these in particular on the ship shown during a journey on the Danube. The helmsman sits on an elevated position, so that he can look over the heads of the rowers. These ships had only one row of oarsmen on each side; the oars rested on top of the bulwarks.

The horse transporter, however, displays other characteristics. In order to obtain room for the animals, there is no steering-oar here. The small team of rowers is responsible for steering. A conspicuous aspect of this vessel lacking in the other cargo ships is the inclined bottom at the front of the ship. The use of such inclined ends was that the ships could be manoeuvred onto a flat bank. This allowed them to be loaded from the front, which was of obvious advantage when having to load a ship with animals.

Such flat ends are especially accentuated in the ships of Type Zwammerdam. These ships have often been recorded north of the Alps and could measure upto 40 m long, as documented by the ships Zwammerdam 4 and Mainz 6. One needed a large crew to be able to navigate such long ships on a river. In Roman times only the army could provide enough personnel, so that most ships of Type Zwammerdam can be regarded as military vessels. The find-spots seem to confirm the close connection with the army; in the majority they are forts or towns in the proximity of which Roman military forces were stationed.

If this is a first indication that the ships depicted on Trajan’s Column are not requisitioned civilian vessels, the final proof is provided by the ships on which the emperor and his staff are travelling. On the one hand they display the inswinging prow typical of warships, on the other hand two rows of oarsmen are positioned on each side. The disposition of the oars demonstrates that these ships had an outrigger, so that the two rows of oars dipped into the water at varying angles and, therefore, did not hinder one another.

In doing so the rowers sitting on the outside placed their oars through the rail on the outrigger, the oars of the rowers sitting on the inside lay on the bulwarks below the outrigger. The bireme warships were called liburnae and represent the typical ships of the provincial fleets.

The scenes on Trajan’s Column disclose, therefore, that fleets also took part in the Dacian wars. Thanks to the inscription of C. Manlius Felix we can assume with great probability that there were two fleets in operation, the Pannonian and the German. In the inscription Manlius Felix is described as “Praefectus classium Pannonicae et Germanicae” (Admiral of the Pannonian and German Fleets), so one can safely assume that he commanded both simultaneously. The concentration of fleets stationed far apart was usual during campaigns in later times, too. The inscription of Valerius Maximianus mentions his special responsibility during the Marcommanic wars of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (168-175). He had to secure the food supply for both the Pannonian armies. For this purpose he had under his command sections of the Misenum, Ravenna and British fleets. It is pertinent that the Pannonian fleet, i.e. the regular provincial fleet in the theatre of war, was not part of this assignment. Apparently, it was needed for other operations. These could have involved the transport of troops and equipment, as well as patrolling the Danube. After all, the army itself was involved in the war, i.e. without the fleet the Danube as the Empire’s border would have been defenceless against enemy attacks.

The surveillance of river borders

In a series of Roman provinces a river forms the border of the Empire. In Europe this is the case for the provinces on the Rhine and the Danube. We know of three provincial fleets here, the classis Germanica, the classis Pannonica and the classis Moesica. Although one could conclude from their names that their areas of operations stretched over both provinces bearing their corresponding name, this was not the case. Thus, so-called military diplomas clearly show for the classis Pannonica and the classis Moesica that they belonged to the army of Pannonia inferior and Moesia inferior respectively.

As for Germania inferior one can see the same from the distribution of inscriptions and tiles, which are limited to Lower Germany. The sole exception is the Brohl Valley, which lay in Upper Germany, but the stone-quarries there were exclusively used by the army of Lower Germany. That the classis Germanica belonged to the army of Lower Germany was recently confirmed by a military diploma dating to Trajan. It was found in The Netherlands and names beside the auxiliary troops of the Lower German army the fleet as well. For the protection of the Empire’s borders there was certainly a chain of forts along the corresponding rivers in all three provinces, but an effective control of the border was only possible with ships undertaking daily patrols, as the author Ammianus Marcellinus still describes for the 4th century. But Lower Germany, Lower Pannonia and Lower Moesia were not the only provinces with a riverine border with the non-Roman world. Since the fleets did not operate beyond their provinces, however, one must ask who was in charge of surveillance here.

A special feature of the province Moesia inferior provides a first indication for this. Although the province had its own fleet, the classis Moesica, there have been found in the legionary fortress of Novae tile-stamps bearing the name of the locally stationed legio I Italica in a frame shaped like a ship. Moreover, this is not any ordinary ship, but a warship displaying the typical concave prow and a sternpost decoration, such as seen on liburnae on Trajan’s Column. This extremely seldom way of stamping tiles gives every reason to believe that the legio I Italica was equipped with its own squadron of warships. The tiles clearly belong to the 2nd century. This means, however, that in Moesia inferior alongside the fleet itself the naval squadron of a legion was also stationed. The reason for this lies in the area of operations of the classis Moesica. Its inscriptions and tiles are to be found only on the western and northern coasts of the Black Sea and in the Danube delta. They are absent further up river. One can assume, therefore, that the classis Moesica possessed mainly seaworthy ships with a deep draught, which were unsuitable for use on the rivers. As a result, the legio I Italica took charge of surveillance on this section of the Moesian border using more suitable ships.

But the finds in Moesia inferior are not the only pieces of evidence for naval squadrons in the legions. Confirmation is provided by information in the Notitia Dignitatum, a late Roman administrative handbook. Among other things it lists the legionary units and their bases under the command of the “Dux Pannoniae I et Norici”. Some of these units consisted of liburnarii from distinct legions. At first, the word liburna meant a very particular type of small warship, but in the course of time it became synonymous with a warship in general. As a result, in the late Roman period the crews of warships are called liburnarii. According to the Notitia Dignitatum four legions were provided with such liburnarii: the legio II, legio X, legio XIV and legio I Noricorum. Except for the legio I Noricorum, which was first recruited at the end of the 3rd century, the other units are old ones, whose bases in the 2nd and 3rd century are known. Drawing conclusions from the information in the Notitia Dignitatum as to the conditions in earlier times, we have the following picture: In Noricum the Danube was controlled by ships of the legio II Italica, which since 172/173 lay in Lauriacum. At the end of the 3rd century it receivedhelp from a squadron of the legio I Noricorum in Favianis. For Pannonia superior this task was carried out by the 10th legion in Vindobona and the 14th legion in Carnuntum. In both provinces the Danube formed the border of the Empire, but, apparently, the naval squadrons of the legions were sufficient for surveilling the border, perhaps, because the border at this point was considered by the Romans as less threatened.

There is also evidence of military squadrons from legions for provinces in which a river did not form the Empire’s border. For instance, in Niš one finds the funerary inscription of L. Cassius Candidus, a soldier of the legio VII Claudia in Viminacium in Moesia superior. Before his death he was discens epibetarum. During the Roman Empire epibeta is a very rarely used term for a member of the fleet. It particularly describes the marines, as opposed to military personnel endowed with nautical tasks. The inscription is generally dated to the late 2nd or 3rd century, thus belonging to a period in which Moesia superior was no longer a border province. Since, however, a river cannot be blockaded in the same manner as a land border and the Danube in particular possessed supraregional importance, the surveillance of the Danube remained a military operation even after the setting up of the province of Dacia.

A similar situation is known on the Rhine in Upper Germany. The anchor with a mark of the 16th legion, which during the Claudian period was stationed in Mainz, and the gravestone of a shipbuilder from the 22nd legion from the late 1st or early 2nd century belong to a period when rivers here, too, firstly the Rhine, then the Neckar, formed the imperial border. The same cannot be said of the two soldiers of the 22nd legion, who as optiones navaliorum superintended the legion’s own wharves. Both belong to the late 2nd century, when the forward limes had already been constructed.
The assumption that the 22nd legion only possessed cargo vessels during this period is negated by one of their tile-stamps from the 2nd or 3rd century. Beneath the legion’s name one can clearly recognise a warship with concave prow and many rowers. As in the case of Moesia superior, we must assume for Germania superior, too, that the Romans employed military ships on the large rivers, irrespective of the border situation, without us today knowing their special tasks.

The naval squadron of the 22nd legion became again extremely necessary in the period following 260, after the area east of the Rhine had been abandoned. This made the Rhine the Empire’s border again, the west bank of which was well fortified with a chain of forts. At the confluence of important tributaries on the eastern bank there were small outposts, the so-called burgi, which could only be reached by ship. The enclosure walls were built out into the rivers and so formed a small harbour. The ships Mainz 1-5 from the late 3rd and 4th century belong to this historical context. Whereas the ships 1 and 2 as well as 4 and 5 belong to a very narrow, rapid type, ship Schiff 3 is a broad, short vessel. Both types were reproduced in accordance with the original and are exhibited in the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt in Mainz.

Reconstruction Mainz A is based upon the scientific analysis of ships Mainz 1 und 5. Accordingly, it produced in the reconstruction a roughly 21 m long, very narrow ship with a length-to-width-ratio of 8:1 which could be both rowed as well as sailed. Thanks to the favourable form these ships could reach high speeds. The keel is flat and hardly stands out from the bottom. The 35 man crew consisted of 32 rowers – 16 on each side one behind the other – two men for the sails and a helmsman. The distance between the thole-pins is 95 cm, a measure conforming to the classical tradition, according to which oarsmen should sit at such a distance, in order not to impede one another.

The remains of the prow surviving from Ship 5 suggests that the ships of this type possessed the inswinging prow of a warship. The steering apparatus is formed by a beam running transverse through the ship serving as a support for both the rudders. Because of their high speed, ships of this type served most probably as troop-ships. Possibly, the crew of such a ship also served as the guard in the small burgi on the east bank of the Rhine.

Reconstruction Mainz B embodies a broader and shorter type of ship. Its reconstruction is based upon Ship Mainz 3. The fore, which had not been preserved, was restored according to the model of a ship from the Treasure of Rethel in France. This vessel, too, could be rowed and sailed. The narrow stern and the ratio of length to width of 5:1 show it to have been a military ship.

Unlike reconstruction Mainz A, reconstruction Mainz B possesses a covered deck in the stern. The midships with an outrigger on both sides offered room for only 14 oarsmen, 7 on each side. Thus, it was much slower as a troop-ship. Most probably it was used as a patrol vessel, where speed was not so important as regular appearance, as is documented by a report of Ammianus Marcellinus. Although the literary sources are silent about how the surveillance of the border in Upper Germany was organised in the second half of the 3rd and the 4th century, the ships themselves offer conclusive evidence: it was the task of the legion at Mainz for which it was equipped with its own naval squadron.

The province Raetia on the Danube also possessed a riverine border. Here one can see that not only legions must have had their own naval squadrons, but auxiliary units, too. In 1994 members of the Museum of Ancient Shipping in Mainz were able to excavate two Roman ships (Oberstimm 1 and 2) at the auxiliary fort of Oberstimm. In their shape they resemble the rapid troop-ship from Mainz, but they are constructed completely in a Mediterranean technique. The planks display mortise-and-tenon joints, for building materials one used fir for the planking and oak only for the keel and frames. As with the ships from Mainz, they could be rowed and sailed. However, they were a little shorter and intended for a crew of only 21 or 19 men. Particularly through the narrow stern and the ratio of length to width of 6:1 they can definitely be identified as military vessels.

According to dendrochronological analysis the ships were built in the late Domitianic or Trajanic period. By A.D. 118 at the latest they had been decommissioned and used to strengthen the river-bank, as piles of a revetment from this year had pierced both ships. These, too, had been used for surveilling the river, as the construction of the Raetian limes had not been completed by the Trajanic period. Against this backdrop a patrol of the river seems very sensible. Since in this period no legion was stationed in Raetia, the ships from Oberstimm must have belonged to an auxiliary unit.

In summary, one can therefore say that fleets and naval squadrons were eminently important, both during campaigns for securing supplies and for troop transport, as well as for surveillance of large rivers, whether they formed the Empire’s border or whether they represented merely regional traffic routes. As a result, even after the Battle of Actium, the Roman emperors could not dispense with their navy.

Source – NAVIS I

Museum für Antike Schiffahrt