Before I came to the Old World, I knew the Romans were a big deal. I studied their history, their mythology, even started to learn their language. I knew that their empire basically engulfed Europe, that their culture commingled with every other culture it touched, and that it was a generally awe-inspiring entity. I thought the Romans were pretty excellent. I didn’t, however, have any sort of experiential context to really understand the full extent of the Roman Empire’s influence.
It’s been a bit like going outside for the very first time after reading field guides and natural history books for years. No matter how detailed a description of an eagle’s wingspan you are given, no matter how accurate the drawing on the page, until you have seen one in person you have very little tangible understanding of the bird’s sheer size and how that relates to you.
London/Londinium was crammed with Roman history – but it was also crammed with everything else imaginable and frequently managed to overshadow itself, losing sight of the details of its own history in the process (exceptions – the British Museum and the Museum of London). It was in the smaller places that I first started to get a grasp on the monumentality of the Roman Empire – places like Bath/Aquae Sulis, built on the site of a preexisting settlement centered around a hearty mineral spring. Conveniently enough, the Roman goddess Minerva lined up particularly well with the native Brythonic Sulis (to whom the waters were already dedicated), so the Romans and Britons combined the two into Sulis Minerva and continued to use the mineral spring as a temple and generally holy place.
Hail Brittania. Tangible history, the kind that links the Celts and the Britons and the Romans firsthand. All of a sudden, the linked mythologies, the Celtic names for Roman deities and the Roman names for Celtic deities, the bits of writing where Roman authors document druidic practices, everything made sense. The cultural fusion was there, preserved in stone, behind glass cases, and tied to the present by the waters that still run up from the earth through the original Roman plumbing.
I’d never really thought about Roman influence in Germany. It must have been somewhere in the back of my mind that Germany is clearly between Rome and Britain and that I’d read plenty of Roman accounts of Germanic tribes, but for whatever reason I’d just never made the connection that the Roman Empire once occupied Germany. Again, the eagle’s wings.
Bingen was once known as Bingium. The first fortress on the hill where Burg Klopp now stands was built by the Roman general Drusus in 38 B.C.E. There are still aqueducts running under the city, the hills are still smattered with Roman gravestones, parts of the road layout haven’t changed since they were built by Roman troops. A large strip of the original road still remains in a forested bit of a nearby hillside. Archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of ceramics, medical tools, and other wares from the area. The town’s main church, the Basilika St. Martin, was built on the site of a temple to either Mercury or Mithras.
Senatus Populusque Romanus – The Senate and People of Rome. They were everywhere, and they still are.