The small towns of Raetia

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The origins

The development of small towns in Raetia only began haltingly, despite its having been part of the Roman Empire since 15 BC and being constituted as a province probably towards the end of the reign of Tiberius (14-37AD). This general statement remains true even if we exclude a number of sites whose finds distribution suggests their small town nature, but which lack results from formal excavations to information on their origins. Such sites include Arbon (Arbor Felix), Füssen (Foetibus), Innsbruck (Veldidena) and Zirl (Teriolis), which are known from ancient itineraries, along with Memmingen, Steindorf, Zusmarshausen and Pocking, which are mostly known as settlements through surface scatters. Only four small towns can be identified which predate the Flavian period (69-96 AD) and whose published reports allow more detailed evidence of their foundation date. These are all in the western part of the province, between the Rhine, Lake Constance and the Lech.

The two oldest settlements are Chur (Curia) and the Auerberg, both of which apparently began in Tiberian times. The earliest pottery from Chur dates to the second quarter of the first century AD, although this currently contradicts the evidence of a fragmentary monumental inscription, which can be reconstructed as dating to between 3BC and 2AD on the basis of two, more complete, examples from Martigny and St.Maurice.

Despite a few militaria, such as the remains of a sword sheath and horse harness parts, the Roman settlement underlying modern Chur was purely civilian in character. It thus differed markedly from that on the Auerberg, where the finds have a marked military component. Moreover, the Auerberg has a defensive bank and ditch system and was abandoned very early (c. 40AD) and should thus be considered an outsider amongst the Raetian small towns.

The development and origin of Roman Constance is currently unclear. The remains of a gate structure were recently excavated on the Münsterplatz, and belonged to the timber defences of a late Augustan or early Tiberian fortification. It remains unknown, how long this site remained in use, but the lack of evidence for repairs to the gate does not suggest prolonged occupation. As militaria are otherwise missing from the Constance finds assemblage, there is little to suggest the presence of military installations elsewhere in the first and second centuries AD. Instead, a marked increase in undecorated and Helvetian Samian, around 40 AD, suggests a civilian settlement at the site in Claudian times

The origins of the Roman settlement of Rapa (modern Schwabmünchen, close to the provincial capital of Augsburg) are definitely Claudian.

In the Flavian period the network of small towns in western Raetia was knitted more closely together by the foundation of the civilian sites of Orsingen and Epfach (Abodiacum), and by the military vici of the Danube forts of Mengen-Ennetach and Günzburg (Gontia), which both outlasted the occupation of their forts. Meanwhile, east of the Lech, the first civilian settlements grew up at Gauting (Bratananium) and Pocking.

In the first half of the second century AD most ‘new’ small towns developed out of former military vici along the Danube and on the Alb. At many locations the finds document continued occupation until the third century AD, but no information as to their original size and appearance is available, with the exceptions of Faimingen (Phoebiani), Munningen and Nassenfels.

This development continued into the second half of the 2nd century; although Heidenheim (Aquileia), the site of a former cavalry fort, uniquely, so far as we know, retained in use a number of large buildings from the former military vicus. A further civilian town of considerable size developed at the end of the century at Pfaffenhofen am Inn (Pons Aeni), although, technically, this site is already in Noricum.

Distribution maps of the small towns of Raetia demonstrate clearly, that the spread of such settlements was largely dependent on the military. Most military vici continued as civilian sites after the troops were moved on but, in contrast, in the foothills of the Alps, where there was little military presence (with the exceptions of the Auerberg and Constance), no urban settlement pattern could develop.


The transport infrastructure

In keeping with the patterns seen elsewhere, Raetian small towns were largely dependant on their position within the road network. In the south of the province the Alpine Passes proved to be particularly dominating factors which channeled the long-distance roads between Italy and the Northern provinces. To the north of the Alps these roads continued along the valleys of Rhein, Lech and Inn, and the towns also benefited from positions along these navigable rivers. The same is true for the small towns along the Danube and the Würm (a tributary of the Isar), whilst north of the Danube the towns clustered along the long-distance roads linking Raetia with the territories on the south bank of the Rhine in Upper Germany.


The role of the small towns

In Raetia, as elsewhere, the importance for the provincial infrastructure of small towns lay not just in their role as markets, but also as centres of production: with workshops for pottery and metalworking attested most frequently. Indeed, Schwabmünchen is unusual in that, from the first half of the first century AD to the middle of the third, it appears to have been solely a centre of production: predominately of mortaria.

Other economic elements, such as important cult centres are suggested for the civilian site of Faimingen, with its classically Roman podium temple. The function of the various large building complexes in the Heidenheim vicus is currently under discussion. They were probably begun by the military during the fort occupation but evidently continued in use well after the soldiers withdrew.

The Auerberg was an exception in many ways. The settlement was defended by bank and ditch from the beginning and contained two settlement nuclei: the eastern and western plateaus. On the Ostplateau only two large workshops could be found, which were arranged parallel to the edge of the terrace. By contrast, the Westplateau produced several strip buildings on both sides of a road.

As demonstrated by moulds for copper-alloy taper bushes from ancient artillery, it seems likely that the Ostplateau workshops were a military fabrica. Apart from the copper-alloy foundry, two kilns document pottery production and chunks of raw glass might point towards glass working. On the Westplateau the road appears to have separated different areas of production. Within houses A-C kilns and loom weights were found, suggesting pottery and textile production, while in the yards of houses D and E as well as in workshop F, metalworking took place. The house type suggests that this was a civilian residential area.


Typical structure of small towns in Raetia

The urban planning

Almost no Raetian small towns allow the reconstruction of the road system or urban structure with any certainty, thanks to overlying modern settlements. The extent of the built up area as well and the changing orientation of buildings in Chur, Faimingen and Heidenheim, however, suggests that these were not simple roadside settlements, with merely a single row of houses following the main road.

Such a simple planning system does appear to be present at Gauting, where the narrow ends of the houses face the either road to Kempten, or the road branching off towards Iuvavum. Nevertheless, although not yet confirmed archaeologically, the position and orientation of further remains suggests the presence of a parallel road as well as a further road crossing the main street.

The pottery centre of Schwabmünchen is situated on a slope, with the houses arranged along two roads. The four houses on the lower Road, ‘TRASSE 2’, as well as the workshop on ‘TRASSE 1’ are the oldest and belong to the Claudian period. The houses along ‘TRASSE 3’ were added from the end of the first century AD onwards. Apparently the older houses were abandoned before the end of the settlement in the mid third century AD, as they were partially covered in large refuse dumps.

The building plans of the post-fort settlements of Munningen and Nassenfels remain unresolved. The idealised reconstruction of Nassenfels shows typical strip buildings, but which face different roads (similar to the situation at Walheim) and it is assumed, that the orientation changes within the block, without reaching the full characteristics of insula architecture.


Public buildings

The Forum

Only two Raetian small towns have provided evidence for fora: Chur and Gauting. So far, however, both lack the classical ground plans of the type of forum complexes known from small towns in southern Upper Germany. In Chur, the open area was apparently flanked from the start by public baths and other buildings of unknown function. In Gauting, the square, which originally opened to the street, was closed in the second century by a large stone building, which is interpreted as a possible market hall. The back of the square was formed by a wall, which had been integrated with an elaborate wooden building. This contained a stone bath block and the entire complex is usually interpreted as an inn (mansio). The function of other buildings along the square is unknown, but the construction of a cellar and heating system suggest that the forum square itself was completely built over in the course of the third century.

In Nassenfels the centre of the town remained as a large, apparently closed, building complex, which was not only built over the principia of the old fort, but appeared to mirror its ground plan.

The very few houses that have been excavated at Munningen, were built on the site of the earlier fort, after it abandonment in (at the latest) 110 AD. One of the earliest is the storage building B. Next to it, to the north, was a gravelled area, which suggests an open square, although the small-scale excavations do not allow certainty on the issue. Building E is unusual and parallels the large building in the centre of Walheim, although this was not built until 170/180 AD.


Public baths

Only at Chur were the public baths constructed next to the Forum, and then, not until c. 100 AD. These original, quite basic baths, were then extended during the course of the second century.

The public baths at Nassenfels and perhaps at Gauting were found on the fringes of the settlement. This is also true for Schwabmünchen where the small baths were apparently constructed during the initial foundation of the town, when it formed the residence of just four, or perhaps six, families.

The function of the large building, which remained in use outside the cavalry fort of Heidenheim after its evacuation by the army, is still debated. Most recently, R. Sölch has re-introduced the idea of a double thermae but, despite otherwise excellent preservation, no remains of water ducts or watertight mortar were found, either of which could have put its use as a bath building beyond doubt.


Sanctuaries whose interpretation is beyond doubt, are only known from Orsingen, Schwabmünchen and Faimingen. The Orsingen Gallo-Roman temple, which was found during rescue excavations, was apparently sited at the edge of a larger Roman settlement of which little is currently known, beyond a spread of Roman finds that shows its position and approximate size. On the fringes of Schwabmünchen, a small square building on stone foundations has been interpreted by its excavator as a further temple.

The temple area of Faimingen, by contrast, is highly unusual. It was built across the filled-in ditch and demolished wall of the local fort, which had been abandoned c. 120 AD, although its defences may not have been slighted until (at the latest) the 140s. The temple district was initially a small area surrounded by a palisade, with a simple square structure built of clay brick or wattle and daub, with a mortar floor and similar in plan to the cult building at Schwabmünchen. Around 160 AD, this sanctuary was torn down and replaced with a podium temple in classical-Roman style and small alterations were made to the sanctuary wall in the third century. The temple was dedicated to Apollo Grannus.

City wall

Faimingen is the only settlement amongst the Raetian and Upper German small towns, which in the third century was defended by a city wall: something that, in both provinces, was otherwise restricted to chartered towns (Municipia or Coloniae) or civitas capitals. Yet, there is so far, no evidence that Faimingen might have had such a role.

Appearance, Function and development of the residential buildings

The normal residential buildings in Raetia formed part of the large group of stripbuildings, whose narrow frontage was oriented towards a road. Examples can be found from the Tiberian period onwards on the Auerberg, where they are typically marked by small foundation trenches, into which the posts for the timber-framing were set. Their in-fills consisted of plastered wattle and daub. These detached houses differed in their room divisions and sizes but, unusually, any porticos are found along the long walls and not the street front.

The houses in the pottery town of Schwabmünchen date to the Claudian period (complex 1) or to the late 1st and throughout the 2nd century AD (complex B and C). In comparison to the houses on the Auerberg, they appear very regulated, although the older houses along Trasse II, which are at 8 m x 13 m, are somewhat smaller than the later examples (the width of the later houses was 9m). Whilst the backs of these properties could not be excavated, because they were covered by a modern road, it seems that the yards behind them were between 16 and 19 m long. Each of the Schwabmünchen houses had its own outer walls, but no internal divisions could be recognized and small post trenches were only rarely encountered. With the exception of a single house with stone walls (or dwarf walls) resting on gravel foundations there are no indications of any later stone built phases of the Schwabmünchen houses. In the earliest phase no clear links between houses and particular kilns could be identified, but from the end of the first century onwards the kilns were found in the yards behind each house.

In Gauting recent work allowed just two neighbouring houses to be at least partially excavated (XV). No coherent traces remained of the original timber buildings, and only the final phase, which dates to the second half of the 2nd century, allows statements on the original appearance of the complex. The external walls of both stripbuildings (which share a common longitudinal wall), were timber-framed and rested on mortared sleeper walls. On the inside, the rooms were separated by plastered wattle and daub divisions. The southern house was 9.5 m wide, while the northern had a width of just 7.8m.

The hypocausted stone building III, which was excavated in 1936, is unusual in that it was apparently not a strip building and does not appear to have adjoined the road. Few traces remain of the other houses in Gauting, so that all statements as to their dimensions have to be conjectural.

Similarly, we have only very few systematically excavated residential buildings from Roman Chur. The best understood example, Building 1, had been modified frequently. The remains of the earliest traces were timber constructions, dating to the second quarter of the 1st century AD, although they do not allow a secure reconstruction of the original building(s). From the middle of the 1st century onwards, however, the area was occupied by two separate stone houses, which were merged into a single building complex at the end of the century. In the second half of the 2nd century, several alterations can be identified, with a number of rooms being fitted with hypocaust or channel-heating.

The living quarters, at least, contained both wall paintings and mortared floors and the building complex shows distinct elements in common with the small town houses of southern Upper Germany. To judge from the finds, the house was used both as living quarters and as a workshop and the finds of the final phase, if nothing else, suggest the presence of a copper-alloy foundry.



Selected literature

Introductions with further literature:

W. Czysz, K. Dietz, T. Fischer u. H.-J. Kellner, Die Römer in Bayern (Stuttgart 1995)

W. Drack u. R. Fellmann, Die Römer in der Schweiz (Stuttgart / Jona 1988)

Ph. Filtzinger, D. Planck u. B. Cämmerer, Die Römer in Baden-Württemberg (3. Auflage, Stuttgart 1976)

D. Planck, Die Römer in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgart 2005)

J. Heiligmann, Der "Alb-Limes". Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg 35 (Stuttgart 1990)

Further publications on surviving built remains


G. Ulbert, Der Auerberg I. Münchner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 45 (München 1994)

Ders. u. W. Zanier, Der Auerberg II. Münchner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 46 (München 1997)

Ch. Flügel, Der Auerberg III. Münchner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 47 (München 1999)


A. Hochuli-Gysel, A. Siegfried-Weiss, E. Ruoff u. V. Schaltenbrand, Chur in römischer Zeit I. Antiqua 12 (Basel 1986)

Dies., Chur in römischer Zeit II. Antiqua 19 (Basel 1991)


J. Eingartner, P. Eschbaumer u. G. Weber, der römische Tempelbezirk in Faimingen-Phoebiana. Limesforschungen 24 (Mainz 1993)


S. Mühlemeier, Die aktuelle Topographie des römischen Gauting. Byerische Vorgeschichtsblätter 70, 2005, 159 ff.


R. Sölch, Die Topographie des römischen Heidenheim. Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg 76 (Stuttgart 2001)


D. Baatz, Das Kastell Munningen im Nördlinger Ries. Saalburg-Jahrbuch 33, 1976, 11 ff.


P. Eschbaumer, das römische Nassenfels und sein Umland (Microfiche, 1990)


W. Czysz, Neue Beobachtungen zum Ortsbild und zur Geschichte des römischen Töpferdorfs von Schwabmünchen. das archäologische Jahr in Bayern 1997 (Stuttgart 1998) 113 ff.

G. Sorge, Die Keramik der römischen Töpfersiedlung Schwabmünchen, Landkreis Augsburg. Materialhefte zur bayerischen Vorgeschichte Reihe A 83 (Kellmünz 2001)

Dies., Römisches Töpferhandwerk in RAPIS bei Schwabmünchen. In: L. Wamser u. B. Steidl (Hrsg.), Neue Forschungen zur römischen Besiedlung zwischen Oberrhein und Enns. Schriftenreihe der Archäologischen Staatssammlung 3 (Remshalden-Grunbach 2002) 67 ff.