Archaeology and history

An archaeological and historical introduction to the region

The period of Roman rule in Bavaria, beginning around the Birth of Christ and lasting some 400 years, has left an indelible print on our history. Some of its most visible traces are cities such as Augsburg and Kempten, which were founded by the Romans, the legionary castrum of Regensburg, and the boarder fortifications of the Limes, which is listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site since 2006. The military character of many of these sites has led us to view life under Roman rule as largely dominated by the Roman army, much as it is portrayed in the popular comic adventures of Asterix and Obelix. Indeed, these books, which have been appearing now for some 50 years, have importantly contributed to our vision of the Roman Empire.

The Roman army was certainly important: so much is true. The troops primarily served to protect the provinces, but were also engaged in large-scale organisational tasks such as the building of roads and aqueducts. Behind the militarised Limes, the enduring peace and stability from the beginning of the 2nd to the middle of the 3rd century A.D. provided the conditions for civilian culture to thrive in the cities and in the countryside. The standard of living in Southern Germany rose to a level which was not only unattained but also unimaginable for the next 1500 years after the breakdown of Roman rule!

The project “Römerregion Chiemsee” focuses on this astonishing epoch of Bavarian history. Indeed, the Chiemgau region is particularly illustrative of the prosperous, peaceful side of life under Roman rule, for no other pre-alpine region has so many and such large Roman estates (villae rusticae) with such luxuriant and high-quality features. At the same time, the cultural mix of Celtic and Roman stylistic elements is highly singular in Southern Germany.

The River Inn was more than a coincidental border between the provinces Raetia and NORICUM. NORICUM, comprising the region east of the Inn, peaceably joined the Roman Empire without suffering military force. By contrast, the Celtic clans of Raetia living between the Inn and Lake Constance were subjugated by Augustus’ stepsons Drusus and Tiberius in hard battle in the year 15 B.C. While there are hardly any archaeological traces of the latter, the indigenous Celtic peoples of NORICUM seem to have continued to live undisturbed under Roman rule after the creation of the province by Emperor Augustus. Nowhere in Roman Bavaria were the conditions of life for the indigenous population more favourable than here.

The regional centre was BEDAIUM, a town on the site of present-day Seebruck, located at the outflow of the River Alz from Lake Chiemsee. The important road from Augsburg – AELIA-AUGUSTA to Salzburg – IUVAVUM crossed the Alz over a bridge at this point. The dead straight course of this first man-made road is still recognisable as a raised track, visible at a number of places between Seebruck and Traunstein and between Seebruck and Eggstätt. Under the name “Via Julia”, a modern cycle path now follows its course. The Roman road was once a major transport route bringing wares from distant parts of the Empire into the region. It was policed by so-called beneficarii, two of whom are known by name from inscriptions found in Pittenhart and Chieming-Stöttham.

We may safely assume that there were also a number of other smaller roads and paths in the Chiemsee region which followed much older routes, probably going back to the Neolithic period (from ca. 4500 B.C.). In particular, the valleys of the Tiroler Ache and the Prien Rivers will have been road routes in the Roman period, even though – with the exception of Aschau – no Roman remains have thus far been found there. This lack of archaeological finds is probably due to the considerable erosion on the mountain slopes caused by intensive forestry during the modern age, which may have covered traces of earlier settlement under deep layers of sediment (colluvia). Beyond the mountain region, there are good reasons for assuming that in Roman times a road also led from BEDAIUM - Seebruck in the direction of modern-day Wasserburg, the exact course of which remains to be identified.

The Roman name BEDAIUM is derived from that of the locally worshipped Celtic divinity BEDAIUS. Numerous votive stones found in the Chiemgau bear his name. The region was settled by the Alauni, a Celtic people. Both BEDAIUS and the Alauni are mentioned in Roman texts. Prior to the arrival of the Romans, a major settlement of the Alauni was located around Stöffling near Seebruck. The inhabitants probably later moved thence to BEDAIUM and lived there together with the Romans who had come from all corners of the far-flung Roman Empire.

It took almost two generations after the inception of Roman rule for traces of Roman settlement in the region to become archaeologically significant, beginning in Seebruck around ca. 40 A.D. The Romans probably built a temple dedicated to BEDAIUS on the hill, where now the Gothic town church stands. The town BEDAIUM was largely populated by merchants and artisans. Particularly in the 2nd century A.D., the Chiemsee region flourished with a network of Roman country estates which were probably local centres of agricultural activity. Many aspects of Roman agriculture remain to be thoroughly studied. In particular, the numerous boglands in the Chiemgau could well offer insights into which crops were cultivated and if the seeds were brought from Italy or the Balkans.

The builders and owners of these often quite extensive country properties were members of municipal councils with their principal residence in cities such as IUVAVUM-Salzburg. IUVAVUM was also the administrative centre of the region. The names of such Roman council members appear frequently in gravestone epitaphs. In the Chiemgau region, many such gravestones were removed from their graveyards, probably during the Middle Ages, and used to build church walls, where they have reappeared in the course of renovation work. Some of these gravestone inscriptions also bear names of clearly Celtic origin. These are good indicators of the cultural mixing of the indigenous and immigrant populations.

Like a wreath of flowers, a ring of Roman country estates once surrounded Lake Chiemsee. Mostly, they were located on more or less southerly hill slopes and built facing the sun. A beautiful view over the countryside also seems to have been of importance in choosing a site, as the location of the estate in Bernau indicates. To date, none of these sites have been completely studied. Some, such as the estate at Breitbrunn-Unterkitzing, have been largely destroyed by decades of field work, so that only traces of the foundations now exist. Using geophysical survey methods, it is possible to reconstruct the extent of large complexes, such as the estate near Grabenstätt, without excavating them. All such sites with hidden archaeological objects and structures are classified as covered archaeological sites (German: Bodendenkmäler) and protected by law.

The Roman estates in our region seem to have been abandoned during the crisis which shook the Roman Empire in the later 3rd century A.D., since no finds post-date these events. Immediate danger must have threatened at that time, for there are indications that a group of people hid in the mountains above Aschau. Only in BEDAIUM-Seebruck itself is there evidence of Romanised culture continuing into the 4th century, as the Bedaius temple was fortified for defence. But also there, in the 5th century the last traces of the once flourishing Roman lifestyle in the Chiemgau finally vanish. One tradition, however, lived on: The River Inn, which once separated the Roman provinces NORICUM and Raetia, continued to be the western border of the archbishopric Salzburg well into modern times. Rome’s administrative structures persevered thus many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire itself.