The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary


2000 Years Later: Roman ship Christened in Hamburg

Phil Hill, Hamburg, 5-30-2008

"I have pacified Germany up to the mouth of the Elbe", the Roman Emperor Augustus once claimed. Now, his fleet, under the name "Victoria," has pushed even further, into a tributary called the Alster, despite an unhappy encounter with the Germans.

The 16 meter long true to the original reconstruction of a small Roman combat boat was christened on Hamburg's big lake, the Alster, on May 30. It was built by Hamburger experts and students as part of the commemoration of "2000 years of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest" – the anniversary of the German uprising against Roman rule is due in September 2009. Prof. Christoph Schäfer of the University of Hamburg says the reconstruction project has added to our knowledge of Roman naval warfare, particularly regarding the speed and astonishing agility of the boat. The rows of first galley slaves working under the lash are Hollywood mythology: This was a combat ship," says Shäfer, with soldiers who both rowed and fought. They were no match for today’s Germans, however: The water police pulled them over for not having a ship’s number and imposed fine of 10 euros on the “Roman” sailors.

In any case Quintilius Varus, who lost three legions at Kalkriese Hill near Osnabrück in the year 0009 would have had little use for such a vehicle – the deepest creeks there are only a few centimeters deep. But that changed in the ensuing war. During the winter of 0015/’16, his successor, the Roman commander Germanicus, had 1000 ships built from the forests of Gaul, most of them huge barges which transported his army down the Ems and Weser into the Germanic hinterland. Ships like the Victoria, with room for crews of only 20, would have served to protect the fleet.

The ship’s baptism was accompanied by German tribal chieftains who continued their internecine battle, as in days of yore, as the Romans had noted to their satisfaction. For the commemoration is being sponsored by three museums, two in Westphalia and one in Lower Saxony – the Varusschlacht Museum at Kalkriese Hill, where the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place. But the two Westphalian institutions still vehemently deny that fact. For "Hermann," as the German leader Arminius is occasionally still wrongly called, towers above the Westphalian city of Detmold in the form of a 350 meter monument. And so local boosterism leads to stringent denial that the battle actually took place in Lower Saxony.