A Border Story: Cologne’s Roman-Germanic Museum

Above photo: The Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne – accreditation: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons).

Few people can claim to be totally immune to the magic of museums. For me, they’ve always been perfect places to think and to dream. One boyhood memory remains especially vivid: queuing up in London to see the British Museum’s eye-popping Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972 – a visit and an experience that more than matched the frantic media hype surrounding this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. 

Such a trip could scarcely fail to inspire. It conjured up romantic visions of long hours under flickering lights in dusty Egyptian tombs, unlocking the secrets of pharaohs with impossibly evocative names like Sesostris, Amenhotep and Merenptah. And for a generation of young visitors like me, the exhibition’s centre-piece – the boy-king’s golden death mask – became the defining image that fanned the smouldering flames of our fascination with the past.

Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

But formative, unforgettable museum experiences aren’t just a matter of scale and profile. I fondly recall countless hours spent as a student wandering through Cambridge University’s understated and underappreciated Museum of Classical Archaeology. What a sanctuary! Tucked away on the first floor of the Classics Faculty on Sidgwick Avenue, its world-class plaster cast collection didn’t just enlighten me on the huge achievements of Greek and Roman sculpture, exemplified by the brightly painted, slightly scary female figure known as the Peplos Kore; it also provided an airy, invariably peaceful haven where I could bale out for ten minutes or so, let my brain de-fry from overdosing on classical texts in the library downstairs, and perhaps make a little more sense of what I’d just read…

Peplos Kore, restored, plaster cast. Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge no. 34a. (Original: Athens, Akropolis Museum 679), CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

One author I especially enjoyed grappling with was Ammianus Marcellinus. You’ve almost certainly never heard of him. But bear with me! He left us a priceless account of events culminating in the game-changing Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Here, a Roman emperor lost his life in gruesome circumstances to set the seal on a crushing defeat to the ‘barbarian’ Visigoths. Just thirty-two years later, this mishandled, mistreated, misunderstood Germanic people spent three days sacking the Eternal City itself.

Such was the lure of this pivotal period that, courtesy of a travel grant, I spent the summer of ’84 following the Danube and Rhine along what had once been the frontier between Roman Empire and barbarian lands. The grant’s small print invited me to gather catalogues and guidebooks from the many excellent museums along the route – in Linz, Freiburg, Mainz and elsewhere – and then donate them to the Faculty on my return. The quantity and quality of the exhibits I duly encountered was startling and even my dreams were full of barbarian brooches, buckles and bridle-bits by the time I arrived in Cologne after three weeks on the road. Here, ‘the big one’ awaited me. Nestling beside the awesome twin-spired cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the Rhine (if you were a Balearic mercenary handy with a slingshot…), the extraordinary, still fairly new Römisch-Germanisches Museum was next on my hit list.

Back in Roman times, this was the empire’s frontline. But if that triggers mental images of a backwater of civilisation eking out a precarious existence in the face of howling barbarian hordes on the far side of the river – well, the truth was a little different. For hundreds of years, a Roman colonia (colony, hence ‘Cologne’) positively flourished here. This proved an ideal spot for trade, cultural exchange and even some selective fraternising with the Germanic neighbours, though the settlement certainly saw its share of violent ups and downs before falling into the Franks’ hands in the late fifth century.

Dionysus mosaic, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne
PHOTOGRAPH BY © Following Hadrian / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence. 

The museum is a perfect monument to this somewhat rollercoaster history. Impeccably and thoughtfully presented throughout, its phenomenal array of exhibits includes the mind-melting seventy-square-metre Dionysus mosaic – an expanse of more than a million tiny pieces of coloured stone, ceramic and glass arranged into geometric patterns and quirky images (including a pair of chariot-pulling parrots…) At its heart frolics the ebullient and inebriated god of wine and fertility himself, who clearly had the best job description in the classical pantheon. (What’s Latin for ‘party animal’?) The mosaic was a chance find back in the 1940s, but its obvious significance later led to an enterprising decision to build this museum around it, first opening its doors in 1974.

Sepulchre of Poblicius, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne

Only marginally less impressive is the massive stone sepulchre of Roman legionary soldier Poblicius – a posthumous ‘statement’ piece, if ever there was one. Indeed, from phenomenal glassware to remarkable gravestones giving precious glimpses into the imperial way of life (and death), there’s so much to admire, so much that lifts the lid on people’s day-to-day preoccupations and aspirations two millennia ago. My favourite exhibits of all? Probably the representations of formidable-looking bearded river gods who – as well as bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Green Man time-honoured in myth and folklore – naturally look very much at home here.

River god, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne
PHOTOGRAPH BY © Carole Raddato / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence

As the museum’s name can’t fail to remind you, this was a place where two worlds met, mingled and, sometimes, collided: a border between two worlds and, in a way, between two eras. It’s a museum I never fail to revisit whenever I’m in Cologne, rolling back the years to those long-gone student days and providing the perfect prelude to some hearty Rhineland fare (or maybe just some currywurst…) plus a glass or two of Kölsch, the admirable local brew. Prepare to be enthralled and to do quite a lot of thinking – and perhaps just a little bit of dreaming too.

Practical information:

Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany: Covid restrictions are currently in place (see the website for details, plus ticket prices, transport links etc.)

Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, UK: currently open, with free admission (see the website for full details)

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Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Prof. Jasper Heathcoat-Beech is a historian and archaeologist. His latest unorthodox history book, ‘HOO-HA! History’s Commotions, Sensations, Fusses, Flaps, Rucks & Rumpuses’ includes chapters on Greek, Egyptian and Roman history, and much, much more besides (as they say!). Twitter (or whatever they call it now…): @JasperBeech