How Amsterdam Became A Roman City

Cover of “De rand van het Rijk”

Today, my new book on the Romans in the Low Countries (this one) was officially presented. Livius Onderwijs, my employer, organized two lectures, one on Roman Tongeren and one on Roman Velsen: a city in Belgium and a naval base in Holland. The second speaker was Arjen Bosman of Gent University, my co-author.

One of the points he mentions in our book is that there was probably no gap between the two bases at Velsen. Until now, it was believed that Velsen 1 was used from 15 to 28, and Velsen 2 from 41 to 47. But Arjen has found evidence for continuous occupation, like a dendrochronological date in 37.

In an interview with an Amsterdam newspaper we told the kind journalist that Arjen’s discovery – in itself not terribly important – meant that people living in what would later be called Amsterdam would have seen Roman ships every day. The man or woman who lost a fibula that was excavated in the 1970s, belonged to the Roman Empire.

The journalist sent us the interview, we corrected a sentence or two, and gave the text our imprimatur. I knew that the paper would also publish a brief summary to make people curious about the main article, which was fine with me.

I should have asked if I could check the summary as well. I was surprised, this morning, by a phone call from a radio station: could I please tell a bit more about those excavations and that new foundation date of Amsterdam? I was surprised, because there’s no excavation (Arjen is reinvestigating old finds) and we hadn’t said anything about the foundation of the city. We had only said that this part of the world had been within the Empire, and that is also what the journalist had written down. The radio reporter told me she had read it on the website of the newspaper. I went on the air and told that the claim was exaggerated.

It was only later that I saw that webpage. It contained the summary of our article and was free of factual errors, although “investigation” had been changed into “excavation”, and it was not immediately clear that it dealt with Velsen. The real problem, however, was the headline: “Amsterdam inhabited for 2,000 years”, from which a careless reader might indeed deduce that the Romans had founded the city.

When I bought the newspaper itself, I noticed that this piece was on the frontpage. When I returned home, I found several e-mails from people who had been led to believe that Amsterdam had been a Roman town. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence for this. There must have been people living over there (someone must have lost that fibula), it was part of the Roman Empire, there are careless summarizers and ditto readers, and yours truly has failed to check a summary. That’s all.

[To be continued]

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One Response to How Amsterdam Became A Roman City

  1. duncanbcampbell says:

    Congratulations on the new book. It all looks very impressive! (The maps are especially well done.)

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