Roman holiday north of the Alps

(Although photos accompanying this piece celebrates summer, I was able to travel to Augusta Raurica, 20 kilometers outside Basel, Switzerland, in January 2009. It was far from warm in the dead of winter, but the place, thanks to all that history, still managed to look glorious.

(I’m sharing with you this travel piece, which first came out in Current Magazine, the custom publication of Meralco, which was then edited by my good friend Ivy Liza Mendoza. I hope you enjoy the trip back through Roman history, minus those gladiators, like I did.–AYV)

IF not for spectators dressed in 21st century clothes, this mock gladiator fight could have been an ideal throwback to a bygone Roman era.

YOUR sun-kissed blogger from the tropics is left out in the Swiss cold

BASEL’S tourism office was certainly not kidding when it billed the region by the Rhine, particularly the ancient city of Augusta Raurica, as one of the richest repositories of Roman-era antiquities (both below and above ground) north of the Alps.

Located some 20 kms east of Basel, the city named after Emperor Augustus features a partially restored amphitheater that dates back 1,700 years ago, during Christianity’s salad days. It took the tourism office 16 years to restore the ancient venue, which, during its heyday, was the sight of countless pageants and presentations paid for by the city’s rich and famous.

Gladiator combats

“Gladiator combats weren’t one of them,” says George, our Swiss tour guide. “They were

THE writing on the wall says this part is of recent vintage

held somewhere else. With a sitting capacity of 10,000 people, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t a venue for elitist presentations as well. It was used more for popular entertainment.”

Speaking of elitist, Roman society even in this part of the empire gave the best seats in the house, in this case the front row, to the rich and powerful. Indeed, some things never change.

“There were no microphones back then,” George reasons, “so rich people, who often doubled as sponsors, where seated in the front row. They obviously wanted to see and be seen. The farther away you were from the stage, the less important you were.”

Dead of winter

Outdoor activities in Augusta Raurica ground to a halt in the dead of winter, the time our group came to visit. During summers, however, visitors can hobnob and even engage in mock battles with actors dressed as gladiators at the Roman Festival.

BY Roman standards, the restored amphitheater outside Basel is huge.

The young and the young at heart can visit the animals at the Roman zoo. If they’re up to it, they can grab a spade, trowel and brush, roll up their sleeves, and join in the public dig. It’s estimated that close to 20,000 people once lived in Augusta Raurica during its peak 2,000 yeas ago. Even some barangays (villages) in Metro Manila could easily dwarf that figure today, but during ancient times that number was a lot.

E TU, Brutus!

Today, close to 140,000 people from all over the world visit the ruins and its related attractions yearly. This includes a Roman-inspired museum teeming with revolving artifacts. Adjacent to the museum is an authentic, albeit restored, Roman dwelling complete with a private bath (when the rest of humanity were crammed in public bathhouses) and an exposed toilet just a few meters away from the kitchen.

“It may seem disgusting by today’s standards, but that’s the way it was back then,” says George. “The proximity between the toilet and kitchen was probably for practical purposes, as the two areas shared a somewhat primitive form of sewage system.”

The fall

Alas, like all civilizations that came before (and after) it, the once mighty Roman Empire fell, and with it cities like Augusta Raurica. Historians believe that the city remained intact well into the dying days of ancient Rome.

THANKS to this mangled ancient plate, now housed in a nearby museum, more artifacts dating back to the Roman period were discovered.

With virtually no written records to rely on, historians of the day surmised that a major war eventually decimated the place and its inhabitants. Those who survived the disaster settled somewhere else, but not before carting off with blocks upon blocks of huge stones that once make up the amphitheater.

“The city, or what was left of it, was in ruins for hundreds of years and no one seemed to know any better,” says George. “The world finally started getting some answers in the Renaissance, when experts in various fields began making extensive research.”

FUN at the coliseum

And the search for answers continues to this day. As recent as 1961, a group of Swiss construction workers somewhere east of Basel was leveling a sports field to make way for a new building when one of them unearthed a seemingly nondescript disc. Covered in mud, the disc ended up in the garbage heap like countless other objects until it was run over by a bulldozer.

MORE fighting

The clueless workers may have unwittingly committed one of the most grievous sins of omission in the annals of archeology. The seemingly worthless piece of metal, it turned out, was a silver plate with Latin inscriptions indicating that it was handed personally by Emperor Constantine himself presumably to one of his trusted military officers.

“It was certainly meant to be shown off and not to be used for serving food,” says George. “It’s probably the ancient equivalent of you getting a gift from President Obama, the most powerful man in the world today.”

Mangled plate

If it weren’t for an inquisitive pedestrian, who chanced upon the already mangled plate and brought it to the authorities’ attention, such a piece of history would have been lost forever.

There certainly was plenty from where it came from. Upon seeing the artifact, archeologists from the nearby museum lost no time going to the site where they retrieved several other pieces and unearthed more.


The silver plate, together with hundreds of other Roman-era pieces, from gold coins to brass deities, from perforated spoons (more like table sieves) to metal toothpicks with the opposite end doubling as ear-cleaning implements (don’t cringe!), is on display at the museum.

As if the object isn’t historical enough, it further gained a patina of recent history when a worker accidentally trampled on it with a bulldozer. Cleaned of mud and polished to mirror-like perfection, the plate still bears traces of its imperial past.

ALL lit up on a midsummer’s night

Otherwise, almost all of the pieces found in the museum remain surprisingly intact. The same applies to the newly restored amphitheater, which was used to stage a full-length show for the first time last summer after several centuries of lying idle.

“It took its builders 16 long years to restore it because they used the same materials and techniques used by the ancient Romans,” says George. “Red stones came from the Black Forest, while the white lime stones were quarried from nearby hills.”

IT may not look welcoming during winter, but it’s probably a different story come summer.

The difference between the old and new portions of the amphitheater is hardly discernible, says George, that in a few years time no one would know the difference. That’s how faithful the Swiss restorers were.

But you can also trust them to disclose which areas are of the period and which are of more recent vintage. The red stones, for one, are encased and held together by a network of wires, a system that never existed perhaps even in the wildest dreams of the most progressive Roman engineer.

GEARING up for “battle”

Huge sections of white stones that make up the walls, on the other hand, are clearly marked with one stone inscribed with the year a particular section was rebuilt. Other sections, which presumably date back to Roman times, were left unscathed.

Full disclosure

Sure, it would have been a lot easier not to make any disclosures, as no one would probably know any better. But people behind Augusta Raurica’s restoration clearly wanted to capitalize on the city’s rich history and not on mere aesthetics.

And this can only be achieved by disclosing actual facts. Otherwise, their efforts would have been no different from those who run theme parks. To paraphrase the Good Book: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto Walt Disney’s the things that are Walt Disney’s.”

DINNER on a Swiss riverboat cruise with fellow journalists Hector Reyes and Gianna Maniego after our tour of Augusta Raurica

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