A day out : The Roman Limes castrum 'Saalburg'

The Saalburg in (relative) proximity to Frankfurt is a largely reconstructed cohort fort on the Limes, which houses a museum, a research institute and an archaeological park. It exists for over a hundred years now (!) and is - as far as I can tell - absolutely unique. The reconstruction of the fort was initiated in 1897 by Kaiser Wilhelm II,  the first stone was laid in October 1900 and it was finished in 1907. 

It is unbelievable, I know, but most people really don't know that this place even exists. They have never heard of it. Interestingly, despite the many documentaries our television stations produce (or licence), I have never seen a report on it either. It wasn't even used as a location or background for anything.

'A fight over the Saalburg' - part 
fiction and part documentary.

And I also didn't know about it for a long time. Because I only came across it a few years ago because I happened to get my hands on an old book (on the left). However, until then I had never dealt intensively with the Limes or the Romans. Maybe that was the reason.

Incidentally, the museum apparently knows that it is rather unknown. There is surprisingly little parking space for cars in front of the complex. When it was built in 1907, the rush was apparently so great that a tram was built especially to bring the many visitors to the fort. The thing is now history and has disappeared, because today we all have our own means of transport. 

Two weeks ago we finally made the little journey of three hours to see it. Unfortunately on the same day the train drivers went on strike, so the streets were full. (Don't believe all the legends about the 'perfect' German train system.) In addition, someone probably decided that every freeway and every bridge on our route had to be repaired at the same time. Literally, no joke. Of the 260 km I drove about 30 km through construction sites and narrowed highways. And back...

Nevertheless, it was the right day because the weather was perfect and there were only a few visitors to the museum. Ideal for taking pictures.

The main gate. Did the Romans actually decorate the gate with such a figure?

The main street of the camp. The museum is housed on the right-hand side and the administration is housed in the building on the left, a replica of the Praetorium. (the house and office of the commander)

The main gate seen from the inside.

The inner courtyard of the Principia, the main building of the fort, is the architectural highlight of the facility. Where do you have the opportunity to experience such a building in its entirety?

A model of the fort and the surrounding buildings.

Remains of a Roman chain mail (from the Feldbergkastell) and a small reconstruction. Can someone tell me how the Romans were able to produce such small metal rings in the required quantities? I do not know. Although I come from mechanical engineering, I can't imagine how they have done that with their limited capabilities. To me that's a mystery.

These are "pilum murale". The Romans are said to have carried on a mule two such sticks for every soldier on a march. At the end of every day, a camp was quickly fortified without having to fell trees.

The spacious interior of the castle. At Roman times there were probably no trees or bushes in the fort.

The back gate through which the road actually led to the nearby Limes.

At the Limes itself, I had a little discussion with my wife as to whether the palisade shown made sense at all. I had seen depictions of it before and always doubted that it was worth the effort. The notice board says that the palisade only existed between 120BC and 145BC because it was not renewed due to a lack of wood and replaced by ditches and a rampart. I, on the other hand, support the thesis that the palisade was omitted because the benefit simply did not correspond to the effort. A lack of wood in the middle of Germany? No way.

I think the Romans saw the Limes more realistically than we do. For them it was probably not a real defense line, they probably wanted to build an obstacle to prevent the unregulated movement of people and goods. Because palisade, rampart and ditch would hardly have withstood a serious, massive attack.

See it this way: The fence prevents individual hikers and riders (migrants, spies, criminals,smugglers, whoever...) from crossing the border, ditches and rampart prevent the passage of wagons and thus goods in significant quantities.

However, it is also easy to underestimate these ditches and ramparts. If you stand on top of such a thing, like on these remains of an earlier earthwork besides the castle, you can easily imagine defending it somehow. It clearly gives you a better position because the rampart is very steep and you stand high above a potential intruder or attacker who will face difficulties to move up. And it provides protection against arrows and attackers on horses.

Outside the fort there are also the remains of the first encampment that the Romans made at this location. Like the later versions of the forts, it was build to control the pass over the Taunus Mountains. The pass still plays a role, today many cars use the road right next to the castle so that the noise is a little bit annoying. I recommend a visit on an early Sunday morning.

On the old Roman road that leads through the main gate to the south there was not only a village (Vicus) but also a temple of the Mithras cult with an 'eternal spring' next to it. Unfortunately, the building was locked, but no real information about the inner workings of such a temple is available anyway so anything shown there is more or less a fantasy.

Perhaps the reconstruction of the castle is not as perfect as one would like it to be by today's standards. For example I think the towers are not right, too small and not really useful from the defenders standpoint. And the battlements are definitely not right.

But all in all it is very well done and you get a very good impression of an cohort fort. For those who are interested, those who take a closer look at the exhibition, make the circular walk around the camp, visit the ruins of the Vicus, the baths and the earthworks outside the castle and the Limes, the facility is good enough for a stay of some hours. And there is a little restaurant inside where you can eat like a Roman - or choose chips and a coffee like I did.

Open street maps : Link

Roman Officers from Prince August

The three on the right make up the command figures for one of my six centuries : a Centurion, an Optio (second-in-command) and a Cornicen (junior officer and signal giver). A commander on horseback (legatus) and the eagle-bearer (aquilifer) stand for the top rank of my legion.

Prince August did not make moulds for these miniatures, you have to buy them. This is the first and only series where they did it this way, maybe because moulds for not so often used figures did not sell enough.

An interesting idea but I think some home casters (especially the mould-collectors) would prefer complete sets of moulds. On the other hand, it might really make more business sense to design it that way. Whatever you do, you can't make everyone happy. If you are 'only' interested in a way to produce your wargame army in the most economic way this is the right one: cast the masses, buy the rest.

The original packaging.

The contents of the blister.

The Vagdavercustis setting

The background for my Roman project is the year AD 69, which is also known in history as the "Year of the Four Emperors". Its greatest warlike event - besides the bitter struggle for and in Rome - was the Germanic uprising on the Lower Rhine. The episode is commonly referred to as the "Revolt of the Batavi". During this fateful time, four contenders fought for the throne of the Roman emperor. This short episode in Roman history from August 69 to the end of 70 is almost a cinematic story.

Historical background

In 69 the Roman Empire weakened. The city of Rome had been largely destroyed in a devastating fire and the upper class of the empire was busy  poisoning or otherwise killing each other. The uprising in Judea was not quite over and the rebellion in Britain (Boudica) was only a few years ago. Even in Gaul, which had been quiet since Vercingetorix, an uprising broke out, but it could be put down. In Spain, the governor Sulpicius Galba finally fell away from Nero and was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard in Rome shortly after the emperor's suicide. (If it was a suicide...)

He only wanted to sing...Nero and the burning city of Rome

In Germany, the Roman army did not agree with this development and in turn proclaimed the legate Aulus Vitellius, a popular commander, to be emperor. A little later, Galba was murdered in Rome and the Praetorian Guard quickly found a new emperor in Salvius Otho. Thereupon Vitellius decided to move from Germany to Italy with about 60,000 men in order to secure the imperial throne for himself. Incumbent Otho was defeated by Vitellius in the (first) Battle of Bedriacum (near Cremona) and Vitellius actually became emperor.

Six months later, however, he had to face the troops of Mark Antony Primus (Second Battle of Bedriacum), who had sided with the general Flavius ​​Vespasianus, who was the fourth candidate for the imperial throne. After Vitellius was defeated in a strange night battle, Vespasian eventually became the next Roman emperor for ten years. One of his first acts was the suppression of the uprising in Germany.

The heirs to the throne: Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian. As you can see: they all look like nice guys.

The fog is clearing on the Lower Rhine

Around the time when Vitellius left Germany with large parts of the Roman army the Germanic tribes scented the morning air and recognized an opportunity to finally throw off the Roman yoke. The uprising was led by the Germanic nobleman Iulius Civilis, who had served as the leader of Batavi auxiliary troop in the Roman service.

Before that, he and his brother Paulus had fallen out of favor under Emperor Nero and had been imprisoned. His brother was executed. After Nero finally committed suicide Civilis was pardoned by Galba, who, as mentioned above, held the throne for a few weeks. Civilis hurried back to Germany, gathered an army around him and began to fight the Romans. (And by the way: when I hear and read stories like this, I am always amazed at the speed with which these people have covered long distances.) I believe that he saw how shaken the Empire was while he was in Rome and this knowledge was the key factor to start the revolt.

Medieval depiction of the battle of the Batavians for Xanten (from: Romanorvm et Batavorvm societas, graphic by Antonio Tempesta 1555-1630). Note the completely wrong representation. Tempesta dressed everyone as they were dressed at his own time, the soldiers look like landsknechts. And he did not know the the Towers of Vetera (Xanten) were not round. Through long periods of history, even educated people had no reliable information about what it actually looked like in ancient times. 

Finally, Vespasian, who had become emperor, put a total of 8 legions on the march to stop the rebellion. One of them was withdrawn from Britain and two from Spain. Given the fact that Rome "only" had 30 legions, one can estimate the importance of the uprising.

One must bear in mind that a successful Germanic uprising would have severely shaken the Roman Empire. The British and the Gauls would certainly have responded to that. There could have been a general rebellion against the Empire all over Europe. So showing any sign of weakness was not an option.

In autumn of 70 the rebellion was over. The overwhelming power of Rome, various lost battles, lack of food, winter, floods, fatigue and even betrayal ensured that the insurgents had to give up their fight after a little over a year. At the end of AD 70, Civilis surrendered and then disappeared from history. 

And it became quiet on the Lower Rhine until... but that's a different story.

This is the background for my first ancient campaign. Of course, this episode is of  particularly interest for me because a large part of the action took place here or in relative proximity. Normally you always have the feeling that everything about the Roman Empire took place in areas far away. But the Lower Rhine region has played an interesting role several times in the history of the Roman Empire. 

In the course of the 69 uprising there were raids, sieges and even 'regular' battles on the Lower Rhine area and in Lower Germany. This is a good starting point not only for making the roman miniatures, but also doing research, reading, developing rules (maybe), making a campaign plan with a local reference and including various excursions and museum visits. All the background stuff people outside the wargame world don't see when they look "only" at the miniature games.

Painting the first Romans and Celts

Here is the first batch for the Vagdavercustis project. 

Very easy to paint. Romans and Celts went off the table in no time. A little bit of wash, a little bit of dry brushing and it's done. The figures do not have to shy away from comparison with commercial miniatures. The size is right, the level of detail is right.

Painting phases : 1) priming 2) laying out large areas 3) inking (shading) 4) lightening raised areas 5) details 6) gluing on the shield and cover with varnish

As always, I should have looked more careful at my castings. With some Romans the sword hilt was missing, which I then re-modeled with Green-Stuff. Useless effort that would have been spared me if I had examined the casts and moulds more closely.

Prince August Romans - Casting report

The moulds  6002 and 7002 make the beginning.

Mould no. 6002. As always, I cut air some air vents. Unfortunately, I haven't had the best metal in my melter. The figures could be more detailed. With the next moulds, I have to make sure that I use the Prince August modelmetal again. The models are very detailed, it's a shame not to make them as good as possible.

Mould no. 7002. I also manipulated this mould a bit, but not that much. As always, there are narrow areas like weapons or arms that tend not to come out correct. However, this form is easier to cast than the previous Romans. For both, however, the following applies: the shields have to be made twice as often. So let the mould cool down every now and then!

And this is the result of the first casting session: 24 Romans and 16 tribesmen. Means one third of the planned legionaries and a quarter of the Germans. 

Vagdavercustis - My roman project calculated

When I started my Roman project, I searched on the web to see what others are doing with these moulds and models. But surprisingly I did not find very much. 

The best example can be found on the blog of the Westerhope Wargames Group who field really big self casted armies. But I could not find another one making real use of it, only some who mentioned that they have used the moulds like on the DigginForVictoryBlog and Landofthelead. Of course there are others who use them, but it seems that nobody published anything about it.

How much to cast and/or paint?

The armies of the Westerhope club are too big for me to start with. These are self casted miniatures, I can increase the size if needed. And, unlike what most wargamers usually do, I want to create both sides of a complete playable setup.

Let's take the advertising picture shown above from the manufacturer Prince August as an impression. Looks great to me. What we see are two units of 12 legionnaires each in 3 rows of 4 men. And now imagine three times this amount and we have a pretty decent Roman army. 72 legionnaires plus extras. If we divide this number by the 6 different Roman soldiers that we can produce with the moulds, each legionnaire has to be made 12 times. Not so much.

The Germans or "Celts" should of course have about as many figures as the Romans. Here we have 8 different poses in 4 moulds. If I take the amount of 72 from above and divide it by 8 moulds I get 9 castings per pose. I go down to 8 to have an even number and get 64 figures in total. 

Now I just have to know how to group them to determine which figures I need and how much of them.

The Romans:

24 figures (like in the picture) I take as a "cohort" and each of them gets a standard bearer (signifier), a primate pilus and a tribune. I divide the cohort into two parts of 12 men and simply refer to that as a "centuria". Each has a centurion as a leader, an optio as a non-commissioned officer and a musician. Like in the picture above. The whole army of three cohorts is led by a commander on horseback and an eagle-bearer. 

This is, of course, arbitrary and has not much to do with historical formations. All quantities were chosen for practical reasons, not because historical units are correctly scaled down. There is also no connection to any set of rules. I have to admit : I don't know any of the rules for ancients. Something like 'Hail Caesar' seems to be very popular at the moment, is that right...?

The Germans/Celts:

There are of course no regiments, so I divide the miniatures into two 'tribes' of 32 men. Each tribe gets a group of 6 additional figures, i.e. a chief, druid, musician etc.

Total : 

  • 72 self casted Roman soldiers
  • 64 self casted Germanic/Celtic warriors
  • 12 Germanic/Celtic special figures
  • 27 Roman special figures
  • 1 rider
  • 1 eagle bearer

Altogether 177 figures (101 Romans, 76 Celts) of which 136 are self casted. 

Of course there are miniatures missing in this plan. I think of roman archers and cavalry for both sides. It seems that Prince August does not have any plans to make moulds to fill this gap so I will have to take them from other manufacturers.

A day out : Nideggen Castle ...with a surprise

Last year (before I started this blog) we made a visit to Nideggen Castle. We went to the castle not knowing what to expect, the only reason was to leave the house and see something else.

The main tower that houses the museum.

The Castle is located near the western end of the Hürtgenwald, a place that wargamers and history buffs may know. The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was - according to the Wikipedia - 'the longest battle on German ground during World War II and is the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought'. The cities Schmidt and Vossenack played a role in this battle and are not far away. They can be seen from a viewpoint on the ruined tower. The castle itself is mostly a ruin today but with a restaurant and a museum in the reconstructed main tower. 

The restaurant and a beer garden were once stood the largest hall building ('palas') in the 14th century.  In the background the Hürtgen Forest.

The surprise in the museum was that we were able to see a part of the tin figure collection of the late Joachim-Albrecht Graf Bülow von Dennewitz (1925-2013). Graf Bülow was a known collector of tin figures because in 1977 he made a film about the Battle of Leuthen completely depicted with 10.000 flat tin soldiers. I stumbled about that several times in the past when I was reading old hobby magazines from the 70's and 80's. For a while the "Leuthen Movie" must have been a thing for the tin figure enthusiasts.

The Bülow family is a very old one and on the long list of family members and ancestors we can find more people of historical interest. One of them was General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow who fought against Napoleon in the battles of Luckau, Großbeeren and Dennewitz in 1813 and later at Waterloo. The list also contains a lot of people with a military background: a war minister, some generals, U-boat commanders, pilots and also a field marshal. It is difficult to say if these illustrious round of military ancestors and relatives played a role in the choice of the hobby but it is very likely.

In an article by Graf von Bülow, published in "Die Zinnfigur", he says that his passion for collecting tin soldiers began at the age of seven (1932) and continued throughout his life. As a teenager, he was already able to arrange for an entire room in his parents' apartment for his collection. Like most collectors of his generation Graf von Bülow collected flat tin figures because the 'stiff' lead soldiers of the time were not beautiful enough for him. An understandable decision, today we have a lot more options.

Part of the Battle of Murten (Switzerland 1476)

A diorama in a box is very typical for what collectors of flat tin figures do with their miniatures. 

Some dioramas showing scenes in the life of Charles the Bold.

The museum acquired 'only' the medieval part of the Bülow collection, about 6700 figures. 

The museum is a so called "Burgenmuseum", means the focus is on the history of castles and the Middle Ages.

One room shows several models of castles. This one here is under attack during the Thirty Years' War.

How would a Germanic village for my Vagdavercustis project look like? A lot like that.

Do I spot good old Airfix miniatures from the Robin Hood range? (They don't belong to the Bülow collection.)

A chess set made with Prince August moulds. The first time I saw them in the "wild".

Massachusetts Regiment

Another regiment for the AWI project.  Did not put much effort into painting the stars on the flags I must confess. Next time. Maybe.

The Meisterzinn mould no. 1103. (Before use.)

Queens own Rangers - Dragoons


These poses are a little bit, lets say, 'artificial'. Who would carry a musket like that?  But the moulds are from the 70's and are meant to produce 'simple' toy soldiers and this is what my AWI project is about. All my cavalry troops in this project will be very small, so this is a full unit. Maybe I add some men on foot later.

"An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Uniforms 1775-1783: The American Revolutionary War", Lorenz Books 2008. My only book with AWI uniforms and a very good one I think.

They make charcoal AND know history!

Not much to say. Did they see the connection? I don't think so. OK, the word "Nero" means "black" in Italian and I think that was the idea behind the name.  But nobody saw the connection to the burning of Rome?

When I look at their website I find one of this hipster startups who claim to have the more environmentally friendly product. Charcoal & Environment? Come on, you had me with Nero & Charcoal but now it's real comedy. 

The shape of things to come

Toy soldiers from Meisterzinn moulds waiting to be painted for my AWI project.