Top Quality Roman Glass – in Germania Inferior

When I went on a ‘Roman Germany’ holiday a few years ago, the last thing I was expecting to see was superb Roman glass that had actually been made there. I knew that, during the Roman Empire, Rome had occupied parts of Germany to the east of the Rhine for several hundred years but I’d imagined a rough Frontier existence with evidence of Roman forts, siege warfare, and Roman armour – not sophisticated, top-quality glass!

Xanten – a reconstructed Roman fort in Germany; purely military – no fancy glass here, surely.

I was wrong. Cologne, for example, had started life as Oppidum Ubiorum, one of the Roman fortresses set up by the Emperor Augustus in about 10 B.C. It became part of ‘Germania Inferior’ – that is Lower Germany,  the area nearest to the Rhine Estuary. Oppidum Ubiorum and the surrounding territory of Germania Inferior was not so much ruled by Rome directly, it was more an area within Rome’s influence –  the Roman Empire’s boundaries tended to be fluid rather than rigid. In due course, Augustus extended the Imperial frontier to include Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and, eventually, 40 forts stretched along the Rhine; he planned to use them as stepping stones to extend the Roman Empire eastwards as far as the River Elbe.

One of the remaining Roman towers along the city walls of Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis.  

Fast forward 60 years or so, and Oppidum Ubiorum was given a new name: Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis, after the Emperor Claudius’s wife who was born there – hence the name Cologne, or Köln, which it bears today. I was beginning to see that the Roman presence in Germany was much more intentional that I had thought.

Reconstructed Roman scaffolding at the Roman fort at Xanten. Nothing fancy, but it was efficient

This is how the Roman system worked: the military garrisons occupying the Rhine land comprised about 80,000 men. Reliable links were essential if they were to expand eastward and secure the Frontier against the Germanic tribes to the east; some of whom were friendly but others were definitely not. Roads, bridges, forts etc. all had to be built, secured, garrisoned, fed and maintained; the Romans also needed to forge and nurture alliances with friendly tribes on both sides of the Rhine. In other words, the Romans set out to create an autonomous economic zone in Germania Inferior – the land which they now occupied, and had named – in which everyone, soldiers as well as civilians could thrive – and could be taxed.

Partial reconstruction of the obligatory military temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva at Xanten 

The Emperor, and those who governed Germania Inferior, were also anxious to promote the Roman way of life: the military garrisons needed pottery, for example, leather goods, wool and linen for clothes and furnishings, carpenters, wheelwrights, builders, stonemasons and so on. Every garrison town had a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; a Mithraeum, and other communal buildings, like baths. Somebody had to oversee all that building.

Roman glass bowls from the Roman fort at Saalberg; officers could expect the best.

Then there were the veterans, soldiers who had served their 40 years’ service and been granted money and land. They wanted to settle, in comfort, near their old legions – and, of course, Rome could call upon them, if she suddenly needed any military back-up. Roman urban prosperity would mean that the amenities the Romans were used to: comfortable homes with central heating, water on tap, a proper sewerage system, public baths, places to eat out or have a drink, not to mention shops, were not just desirable but necessities if Cologne were to thrive. Merchants, too, came to settle in Cologne: the roads were there; the river provided transport; and, in AD 310, the Emperor Constantine the Great built a bridge over the Rhine.

Roman glass ewer, I love the trailing swirls of colour: white, blue and gold.

Cologne gradually became a city which expected luxury. Cologne’s fine white clay encouraged top quality pottery; and around 100 A.D. the almost pure quartzite found nearby began to be mined for the production of glass.

These wonderful glass fish are in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne. I just love their quirkiness, not to mention the skill with which they were made. 

As I said at the beginning of my post, Roman glass-making came as a complete surprize to me. Most of the glass objects in the museum were found in Roman or Frankish graves; and it was obvious that the delicate glass objects must have been both costly and highly valued.

The Cologne glassmakers specialized in ‘cage cups’ where a decorated glass cup nestled inside an intricate cage of glass.

The cup pictured above is being held upright by a modern metal holder. Heaven knows how it stood up originally.

Glass birds

These were the first glass objects I saw in the Museum. I couldn’t make out how they stood up without rolling over – perhaps the bases are flattened slightly.  Nor do I know what they are for. But they are plainly things of beauty and they came in different colours, (most people like to collect things in sets).

Glass slippers – shades of Cinderella?

For me, the glass objects that are obviously just decorative – like the glass slippers above, or the glass birds, or the fishes, are the most poignant. We know that they were grave goods that their owners obviously treasured and wanted to take them with them to the Afterlife, and I’m sure that all those beautifully created little glass masterpieces have stories to tell.

What I love about travelling is that you never know what you are going to find; the important thing is to keep an open mind.

All photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley ©

Elizabeth travelled with Andante Travels

© Elizabeth Hawksley










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A Visit to Cyprus

Cyprus sits in the north east corner of the Mediterranean and almost every country in that neck of the woods has at one time or other invaded it. And today I’m re-visiting it; it is a country with much to offer.

I love the fact that, in Cyprus, scarlet pimpernels are royal blue

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The Extraordinary Water Theatre at the Villa Aldobrandini

The Villa Aldobrandini, a superb example of Baroque architecture, stands in a dramatic and commanding position above the ancient town of Frascati, looking towards St Peter’s in Rome. It was built between 1598 and 1603 for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini as a gift from Pope Clement VIII. Popes weren’t allowed to own property, so Pope Clement’s gift of this magnificent villa to his nephew ensured that it remained in the Aldobrandini family.

The Villa Aldobrandini dominates the town of Frascati

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The Parthenon Frieze

A day or so ago I visited the British Museum – the first time for months. Of course, I had to book a timed slot, wear a mask, make sure I used the hand gel and so on; and we were only allowed on the ground floor, so I had a choice of things Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, or Middle-Eastern. I decided to take a look at the Parthenon Frieze. I was particularly interested in the south frieze reliefs depicting a sacred procession with priests leading heifers to be sacrificed. One relief in particular, shown below, is supposed to have inspired the poet, John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.


The south frieze with the heifer

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The Etruscans at the Villa Giulia

Even though it’s early July, it’s dull and damp here in London and I’m in a ‘and now for something completely different’ mood with regard to blogging. So I’m taking you to the Villa Giulia, just outside Rome, once a summer residence for Popes and, nowadays, it is the Etruscan Museum with some spectacular objects dating from the 6th century B.C.

An eye-catching terracotta statue of Apollo, still retaining much of its colouring. 

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Arthur Mee’s ‘1000 Beautiful Things’

Arthur Mee (1875-1943) was one of the most successful children’s non-fiction writers of the first four decades of the 20th century. His name is now almost forgotten but, in his time, I think it is fair to say that everybody knew him. He was the literary editor of Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail from 1903 until his death in 1943 and he collaborated with Harmsworth on a number of publications like The Self-Educator (1905-7), and The History of the World (1907-9). Perhaps his greatest talent was his ability to organize a huge and diverse amount of general knowledge and disseminate it to the general public (in particular, children) in ways which stimulated their imaginations and kept them coming back for more.


Arthur Mee at his desk with ‘The Children’s Newspaper’, courtesy of Wikipedia 

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A Visit to Ostia Antica

If you visit Pompeii, you find the ruins of a sophisticated town, with a number of seaside villas depicting a luxurious lifestyle. If you visit the Ostia, on the mouth of the River Tiber, you will find  buildings which are impressive in quite a different way. This was once a successful commercial port with warehouses, shops and offices, as well as the usual urban amenities: bath complexes, public latrine, temples and so on.  It is well worth a visit.

The Decumanus Maximus, the well-preserved main street in Ostia Antica

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Browser Backgrounds

This weekend is the August Bank Holiday and, as the traffic to my blog is fairly quiet, I’m giving myself a small break. I have an interesting blog planned but it can wait a week.  So, today, I’m looking at my browser background, that is, the photos I have as a background on my browser, and why I chose them.

Odeschalchi Castle, Bracciano. I liked this shot of the view taken halfway down the castle on the way out – it gives the picture depth

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Bulgaria: A Visit to Plovdiv

Today, I’m removing myself from wet, chilly and windy London and re-visiting Plovdiv, a town I’d love to see more of. First, a bit of history to set the scene. The earliest evidence for Plovdiv is a Neolithic settlement; it was later settled by invading Thracians, expanded by Philip II of Macedon who named it Philippopolis, and, in due course,, it became part of the Roman Empire. The photo below of the archaeological excavations of the Roman Odeon below, shows how closely packed the layers of history are. You don’t have to dig very deep to find something surprising. But more of that in a minute.

Excavations of the Odeon in Plovdiv

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Death in Roman London

I recently visited the excellently-presented exhibition: Roman Dead: death and burial in Roman London at the Museum of London Docklands. I knew that Romans were taught to face death unflinchingly and expected to be stoical, but, wandering round the exhibition I began to question this. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their general bloodthirstiness as far as death in the arena or wholesale slaughter on the battlefield went, the Romans had a surprisingly uneasy attitude towards death on a personal level. Death was seen as polluting, and the house where a person had died became a polluted space. Until the proper burial and cleansing rites had taken place, the dead person’s soul could not rest in peace. And an unquiet soul who was vengeful or upset could seriously affect the living.

Teenage boy buried with a baby and a 4-year-old child, probably his siblings. Research shows that he was brought up in a Mediterranean country. Unusually, there are a few grave goods like the pottery jar.

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