Reproduction of a Villa Rustica with pewter figures.
Reproduction of a Villa Rustica with pewter figures. Limesmuseum Aalen

Roman lifestyle in Helvetia

In Roman times, major urban centres such as Vitudurum (Oberwinterthur), Aquae Helveticae (Baden) and Vindonissa (Windisch) needed to be fed. Large farming estates in the region played a major role in meeting this need.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

The Roman farming estates mostly stood along the roads that were key to the province’s survival. If there were natural resources such as limestone, clay or iron ore in the vicinity, commodities such as bricks and tools were often produced in addition to food. The manorial part of the estate, the “villa rustica”, was deliberately ostentatious in appearance. This was a prestige space and residential building in one. The associated “pars rustica”, on the other hand, were mainly agricultural buildings and stables. Archaeologists estimate that there were around 120 Roman estates in the Canton of Zurich alone. Many of these structures have not yet been excavated. There is a specific reason for this: archaeological treasures are best preserved by leaving them in the ground. Where digging has been carried out, again, there has usually been a specific reason: to save the sites from planned construction projects. Nevertheless, we now know a lot about the role and function of these estates.
A “villa rusticana” from the 2nd century AD.
A “villa rusticana” from the 2nd century AD. Wikimedia
Between the first and third centuries AD, anyone who was anyone tried to live the Roman “lifestyle”, even in Helvetia. With 120 to 160 people living and working on a farm of an average of around 80,000 square metres, the place resembled a small village. The lords of the manor were former Roman soldiers, but it is thought that many also came from the better-off local elite. Leg irons that have been found suggest some of the workforce were slaves.
Model of a Roman estate in Winkeln near Bülach.
Model of a Roman estate in Winkel near Bülach. Swiss National Museum
It would be a mistake to think that feasting and orgies were a part of daily life on Roman estates. A lavish meal with exotic tidbits such as flamingo or dormouse stuffed with pork and the like was reserved for special occasions, such as important meetings or festivals. When there was nothing to celebrate or discuss, simple stews and a dish known as Puls, a viscous grain porridge, were much more likely to be on the daily menu. In addition, meat was usually reserved for the upper echelons.
But when meat was served, the “lords of the manor” enjoyed themselves going hunting, among other things, and often made sure the season’s finest appeared on the table. While the workers and slaves mostly subsisted on a diet of inferior grain porridge, the bill of fare for those in power included meat, game and elaborate casserole dishes. It might also be oysters. This is evidenced by finds such as those in Buchs in Zurich. The shellfish were brought to Helvetia alive in barrels filled with seawater. With olive oil and garum, a salty, fermented fish sauce, Mediterranean cuisine continued to find its way on to Nordic tables.
Mosaic depicting a garum amphora in the villa of the famous garum producer Aulus Umbricius Scaurus.
Mosaic depicting a garum amphora in the villa of the famous garum producer Aulus Umbricius Scaurus. Wikimedia
In addition to the culinary arts, the Roman bathing culture also migrated northwards. And not only in well-known spa towns such as Aquae Helveticae, Avenches and Augusta Raurica. Even a smaller estate would have an elaborate bathing complex with cold and warm water pools and a sophisticated heating system known as a hypocaust. This ensured individual rooms could be heated. The warm air from a fireplace was fed through a heating duct into the cavities under the floors to be heated. Tubuli in the walls ensured that optimal use was made of the smoke, which was also hot, and warmed the walls before it was channelled outside.
The Romans had a very sophisticated heating system.
The Romans had a very sophisticated heating system. Photo: Katrin Brunner
Towards the end of the 4th century, the estates opened up and some of them became villages and towns. With the Alemanni invading from the north, times became more turbulent and new population groups moved into the region. The technology of the Romans’ underfloor heating and their baths was almost forgotten. Almost – where people could afford it, for example in monasteries, the method was still used later on.

Further posts