Shameless self-advertising

28 July 2013


Some time ago, my friend and colleague Arjen Bosman and I could proudly announce that Edge of Empire, our book about the Romans in the Low Countries, had been translated into English. However, it took some time until it reached the bookshops, but now the award-winning book ought to be available easily. You can also order it on Amazon or buy it directly at the website of the publisher. If you live in Holland, this webpage is the place to go.

Why you should buy this book? To read it, in the first place. Without false modesty: this is a nice book about a subject that deserves more attention than it usually gets. An English review of the original Dutch version is here.

The Eburones

24 April 2013
Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 57 BCE, Julius Caesar conquered the valley of the Upper- and Middle- Meuse, which, he said, was inhabited by Belgian tribes. Among the members of the Belgic confederation were the Eburones. In his campaign notes, the Roman general mentions them together with three other tribes, adding that they were called Germanic (Gallic War, 2.4). This may indeed mean that they were of Germanic descent, but the four Eburonian names we know are perfectly  comprehensible in Celtic (Eburones is related to the word for yew; Aduatuca means “place of the soothsayer”; Ambiorix means “ruler-king”; and Catuvolcus means “hero”).

Caesar explains that the heartland of the Eburones was between the Meuse and Rhine (Gallic War, 5.24), which probably is more or less identical to the Belgian and Dutch provinces called Limburg, and the western part of Nordrhein-Westphalen. In any case, it was north of the Ardennes. South of these old mountains lived the Treverans, of whom the Eburones were a client-tribe, which was protected by the mightier tribe (Gallic War, 4.6).

Caesar tells his most important story about the Eburones in Gallic War 5.24-37. In the winter of 54/53 BCE, the Fourteenth Legion had its winter quarters on a place called Aduatuca or Atuatuca, when the Eburones attacked the Romans. Its commanders, Sabinus and Cotta, trusted the Eburonian king Ambiorix, who appeared to be trustworthy, even when he could not control his men. However, when the legionaries left their camp and started to march in the direction indicated by the Eburonian leader, they were unexpectedly attacked. After returning to Atuatuca, the Roman soldiers committed suicide.

This story is problematic. In the first place, we do not know where it happened. It is tempting to identify the Atuatuca of the Eburones with the later Roman city with the same name, modern Tongeren. However, there are no Roman finds that confirm the presence of the legion: it seems that the Roman city of Atuatuca was built on virgin soil. The objection that “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence” does not apply, because Tongeren has been investigated on many places.

The second problem is that the Eburones were a very small tribe. Caesar mentions them as being able to raise 40,000 soldiers together with three other tribes. Even if we assume that the Eburones were the largest of these four, it is impossible that they could raise sufficient warriors to annihilate a well-trained, heavily-armed legion.

Perhaps we will have more certainty about the campaign once Atuatuca has been identified. It must have been close to modern Tongeren, because the name was transferred from the camp of the Fourteenth to the later city. Two treasures from the mid-first century, found at Heers (2000) and Maastricht-Amby (2008), also suggest military activity in the neighborhood. A possible location is Caestert, where a Late Iron Age-hillfort has been identified; its excavator, Heli Roosens, has mentioned mass cremations, but has never published them, and it is not known where he has found it.

Caesar’s revenge was terrible. In the Spring of 53, he invited everyone who wanted to join him, to help massacre the Eburones. Ambiorix managed to escape (Livy, Periochae, 107) and his fellow-leader Catuvolcus committed suicide. Nothing more was heard of the Eburones. About three hundred days after they had defeated a Roman legion, they no longer existed as a political entity. Later, a tribe called the Tungri was living in the area.

However, it remains to be seen whether the Eburones were all wiped out, as Caesar claims. The ancient armies could hardly exterminate complete nations. On the other hand, from pollen findings in the area of Jülich (north of Aix-la-Chapelle), it appears that the number of pastures and cornfields fell from the mid-first century BCE and that forests were again growing there. On this land at least, there were no farmers any more. However, it is not clear if this is representative of the whole country of the Eburones, so this remains an open question.


  • Toorians, L., “Aduatuca, ‘place of the prophet’. The names of the Eburones as representatives of a Celtic language, with an excursus on Tungri”, in: Creemers, G. (ed.), Archaeological contributions to materials and immateriality, Atvatvca 4 (2013) 108-121.

Edge of Empire

3 October 2012


So, here it finally is: the cover of Edge of Empire. Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine. The book is about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries – say Belgium, Netherlands and northern Germany – and contains every relevant literary text, the more interesting inscriptions, and a lot of archaeological information. Basically, my coauthor Arjen Bosman and I use the archaeological data to illustrate that all sources are prejudiced about the people living on the edge of the earth; at the same time, we try to show that you cannot interpret archaeological finds without a profound understanding of textual analysis.

The book has a history of its own. I wrote it in 1999 and it was published in 2000. The reviews were extremely favorable and it was recommended to university students. However, there was a quarrel within the publishing house, and the woman whose project it had been, went away. My book was sort of forgotten and disappeared from the bookshops. Still, I continued to keep notes and improve the text.

The “Lord of Morken”, a Frankish warrior (drawing Johnny Shumate)

Two years ago, another publisher, Athenaeum, decided to reprint it. I asked my colleague Arjen Bosman, who is a professional archaeologist, to contribute, because he knows a lot about the ancient Frisians, a subject that needed more attention. The book was adapted, renamed, and republished with all kinds of illustrations. Again, good reviews and even an award.

And now, Karwansaray publishers makes it available in English. This is also the publisher of Ancient Warfare, which means that it will have the same superb illustrations by people like Johnny Shumate, José Antonio German, and Graham Sumner, and maps by Carlos Garcia.

Order your copy using the links on this page.

“Die Welt der Kelten”, Stuttgart

28 September 2012

Glass bracelet

When archaeologists talk about the Celts, they are usually referring to the Hallstatt and La Tène civilizations: the Iron Age cultures of the people living in Central Europe between, say, 850 and 50 BCE. Right now, there are two exhibitions in Stuttgart about the Celts, together called “Die Welt der Kelten”.

The first exhibition, “Kostbarkeiten der Kunst”, is in the Altes Schloβ. I liked it, even though I profoundly hate it when objects are left in the half-dark, just being beautiful in poorly-illuminated rooms. The quality of the information – important questions like “is this art?” were not ignored – offered sufficient compensation. Moreover, this exhibition is important. The idea is still alive that the Celts were making primitive imitations of classical art. The fact that Paul Jacobsthal’s Early Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, is still a standard work, proves that the subject is a bit ignored.

Princely tomb

The other exhibition, “Zentren der Macht” in the Kunstgebäude, was even better. It is about the history of the Celts, and while the first exhibition was a successful attempt to explain an unusual type of aesthetics, the second one is an extremely successful attempt to introduce you to the ancient people themselves. The two first rooms allow you to understand the problems (“what is a Celt?”, “how reliable are the sources”), and after that, there is the real story.

Dying Gau (Rome): a Celt from the migration age

You can see how social stratification came into being when Celtic leaders managed to control the trade in Mediterranean products. These people were very rich, as you can deduce from their splendid tombs. Agricultural innovations made them even wealthier. After 400, the Celts started to migrate: peasants and bands of warriors reached Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

The end of the exhibition illustrates its high quality. You learn that around 80/70, the great settlements came to an end, and after that, you get information about the campaigns of Julius Caesar (58-50) and Augustus (20-15). In this way, the traditional account, based on written sources, that the Roman conquests put an end to the Celtic states, is challenged. You learn that textual and archaeological evidence are asymmetric.

Yes, this is a good exhibition. And it is so nice to see al those objects together: the Coligny calendar, the Warberg warrior, the finds from Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a copy of the Vix crater. There are animations, models, and drawings; quotes from the ancient authors are written on the walls, and are clearly secondary to the archaeological evidence.

I would have loved to know more about the place of the Celts in nineteenth-century European culture. It was believed that they were, for their own good, subdued by the Romans, and this made them the ancient counterparts of the subjects in the European colonies. I am not convinced that this image is now completely dead.


Another point of criticism is that photography is prohibited. Granted, there is a good catalog, but catalogs never show the objects from the angle from which you want to study the object. There ought to be some kind of rule against this prohibition, which is the museological equivalent of the paywalls that scientistific publishers use to keep information away from the people who are most interested.

There are two small additional exhibitions, one for school classes and one about the excavations at the Heuneberg (“das Schwäbische Troia”). You will need about five hours to see it all.

Die römische Armee im Experiment

4 March 2012

[Fourth part of a series of articles; 1, 2, 3; this is a review/summary of Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011]

In the introduction and two first chapters, Christian Koepfer and Sebastian Bernhard describe the project: an attempt to reconstruct the equipment of the Roman soldiers of the age of Augustus. The objects found at Augsburg, Haltern, Dangstetten, Anreppen, and Kalkriese offer a wealth of information. Using the reconstructed equipment, the members of this project group, called Legio XIII Gemina, did several experiments, like building a road in a mountain area (six men could build about twenty meters of road in two days) and a fourteen-day march.

During these experiments, Legio XIII Gemina collaborated with locals schools and a Bavarian broadcasting organization, but the results can be applied by anyone involved in Roman re-enactment. One chapter in the book, by André Niebler, deals with the didactic methods, and explains how the participants interacted with their audience. A similar article, by Florian Himmler, compares the project with an earlier project, and explains how previous errors were now prevented.

Incendiary arrow

After this, the books contains twenty-one chapters on the various aspects of the soldiers’ equipment, tactics, and strategy. In the first of these, Robert Wimmers describes some finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen from a blacksmith’s point of view. I had not expected that I would ever read an article with interest about forging handcuffs, knives, or an “object of unknown purpose”. Florian Dörschel shows in his article that one of Wimmers’ objects may have served as an incendiary arrowhead.

A soldier with shield, spear, and sword

The next weapon to be dealt with is the spear. Mischa Grab vindicates Plutarch, who describes how Marius invented a pilum with a wooden peg that would break upon impact, making it impossible to throw back the missile (Marius 25). The truth of this statement has recently been challenged, but Grab suggests that Plutarch may be right after all.

Building a catapult

Dominik Molnar’s checked Vitruvius’ description of a catapult; he concludes that it is useful as a do-it-yourself guide, but that one needs to have practical experience to understand the tensions within the machine. There must have been a mouth-to-mouth tradition in the Roman army about the finer details.

Moving from weapons to armour, Andreas Raab checked the types of leather that might have been used in a lorica segmentata, and concludes that chamois leather was best.

Three shields

Christian Koepfer, Matthias Bofinger, and Johann Schmalhofer conducted some interesting experiments with shields. In his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Cassius Dio says that the shields of the legionaries beame useless because it was raining (Roman History, 56.21.3), but the experiment proved that. although the weight of the shields did indeed vary with the air humidity, this change was not enough to make them unusable or even difficult to use. Nor did the shape become unstable. This again proves that Dio’s account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest is not as reliable as it seems.

The focale is the subject of the article by Josef Löffl. He suggests that on rainy days, it protected a lorica segmentata’s inside against rain, and on hot days, it protected the carrier against the heat of the metal.

The nails of a sandal

In his article about military boots, Florian Himmler arrives upon a very curious conclusion: a legion that was marching for about a month, lost about half a million sandal nails. I was very surprised, but it is interesting to know that the march route of the soldiers to the Harzhorn battlefield can be reconstructed from the lost shoenails.

Turning to the soldiers’ food, Philip Egetenmeier argues that an average legionary or auxiliary soldier might lose some weight during a march. I would have liked to know more, and fortunately, the author seems to be looking forward to further research.


The usefulness of water buckets is the subject of Marcel Giloj’s contribution, which had more to offer than I had expected. They were really designed to be very practical, for example to be filled very quickly. Water bags, on the other hand, might leak easily, as Reinhard Nieβner shows; again, information about how to make objects, must have been rendered orally from one craftsman to another, and things are not as easy as they seem.

At the end of the book are several chapters about subjects that are not directly related to the experiments. One of these is an attempt to reconstruct what a German warrior might have looked like in the early third century. He was better armed and protected than I had expected. Ross Cowan deals with fourth-century battle tactics, proving that the army was still excellent, but that its strength was wasted by too many civil wars.

The participants

Markus Handy deals with the strategic roles of XIII Gemina (the historical unit) and XV Apollinaris in Pannonia in the second half of the first century. It seems that the Fifteenth was more often involved in actual fighting than the Thirteenth. This cannot be an optical illusion, caused by the incompleteness of our evidence, because the commanders of the Fifteenth were selected on military experience. Meike Weber offers a similar account of strategy and space, showing that long before the distinction between limitanei and comitatenses was created, there was already a mobile reserve in the hinterland.

All in all, this was delightful to read. Given the nature and scale of the Legio XIII Gemina Project, it is inevitable that Die römische Armee im Experiment does not deal with all aspects of the Roman army, but one theme was almost conspicuous by absence: the way the Romans dealt with information. How to make a perfect water bag or a catapult, the function of certain objects, how to carry a shield and where to march – all this must have belonged to an oral tradition. This book is essentially an attempt to recover the lost stories that belong to the objects, and left me wondering how information spread from Britain to Pannonia to Syria.

Final note: that perennial insult to Anglo-Saxon scholars, the English summary of a text they understand perfectly well, is mercifully absent.

Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011 Frank & Timme; 978-3-86596-365-9; €24,80

Photos on this page taken from the Facebook page of Legio XIII Gemina.

Bridging the gap

4 March 2012

On more than one occasion, I have indicated how the study of Antiquity is its own reward (example, example). What it offers, is essentially a sensation: a surprise, the experience that this text or that battle changed your own life, the sense that you’ve made contact with someone in a distant past, the Aha-Erlebnis of realizing how things actually were.

This is of course a personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that academic study is useless. It’s nice to know that your experience of the past is based on correct facts, and besides: the study of Antiquity has offered us much of great value.

As researchers, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists have little to be ashamed of. Their work is highly relevant and offers much pleasure. Still, they exclude the man in the street. As I already indicated, books for the larger audience are often of very poor quality and have little to offer to those who are most interested.

This is why I am happy to review Die römische Armee im Experiment by Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl, which was published in 2011. Admittedly, the study of Roman army equipment is not of the greatest importance, but the contributors manage to combine the professional standards of the university with the enthusiasm for the past found among re-enactors. They show that is possible to share the excitement of research with those who are really interested. Experimental archaeology is better-suited for this purpose than other subdisciplines, but this book is a clear sign to any scholar that it is possible to keep the larger audience within scope.

[to be continued]

Edge of Empire

6 December 2011

Yesterday, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review published a very kind review of De rand van het Rijk, the book about Germania Inferior that I published with archaeologist Arjen Bosman. What I like very much about this piece is that the reviewer, Birgitta Hoffmann, stresses an aspect that I also consider to be very important:

… the rise of the Frankish kingdoms as very much influenced by and the direct result of the history of Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica from the third century onwards, rather than as a separate historical phase distinct from the preceding Roman empire.

The review was a complete surprise, because I did not know that my publisher had sent a copy of this Dutch book to a foreign journal. Even better, the article appeared just one day before I met the director of my English publisher, Karwansaray.

Today, we discussed the translation. For example, there will be some changes, because the Dutch version assumes knowledge of the topography of Holland and Belgium. Some photos need to be replaced, we need to take into account some new finds (like this one), we can benefit from other maps, we will add a long list of nice museums in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

The project will start in January, and I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that the book will be in the shops in the Spring of 2013. The book already won an award and now has a very good review. As we say in Holland, this will be “an unrelenting bestseller”.


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