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.


15 July 2012

The same excavation, two times

Last Tuesday, we visited Thuin, not far from Charleroi in Belgium. It is, at the moment, the place that is considered the most likely location of the Belgian defeat against the legions of Julius Caesar. Absolute certainty cannot be achieved, but it is not too far from the Sabis battlefield and Caesar’s description fits the situation quite well. The matter is dealt with in N. Roymans e.a. (eds), Late Iron Age gold hoards from the Low  Countries and the Caesarian conquest of Northern Gaul (2012), and you can read more here, here (with map), and here.

To be honest, Thuin is not worth a detour, and we only went there because we wanted at least one photo for the English translation of De rand van het Rijk (“Edge of Empire”), the book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about the Roman presence in the Low Country.

The site is covered by a nice forest where it is nice to walk; it’s called the Bois du Grand Bon Dieu, and there’s a nice chapel. It is best approached from a country house called “l’Ermitage” in the southwest or from northeast; over here, you can still see the remains of an old excavation – see photo above.

Other photos here. More about Edge of Empire here.

Caesar and the Aduatuci

1 June 2012

Caesar (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

Today, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren (Belgium) announced the discovery of the site where Julius Caesar besieged and conquered the Aduatuci (in 57 BCE). The ancient hill fort was south of the town of Thuin, just west of Charleroi. This is the nicest archaeological news from the Low Countries in years.

In 58, Caesar had discovered that Gaul was essentially undefended. In the next year, het conquered the northern part of what is now called France and defeated, in modern Saulzoir, the Nervians, which he presents as terrible savages. After this, he invaded the area that is now called Belgium, where the Aduatuci were his first victims. You can read the story here, with photos of Huy on the Meuse, one of the locations which, until today, were believed to be the location of the oppidum of the Aduatuci. But it was, in reality, at Thuin, which suits Caesar’s description, and where sling bullets and several treasures have been found.

Press release by the Amsterdam Free University: here.

Scaldis (Scheldt)

13 May 2012

The Eastern Scheldt

The river Scheldt flows from northern France through Belgium and empties itself, though two estuaries, into the North Sea in the Netherlands. It is not Antiquity’s most famous river, but I like the plains of Flanders and the vast stretches of brackish water of the Western and Easter Scheldt. Here were two sanctuaries of Nehalennia, a goddess who is, in spite of the fact that more than a hundred altars have been found in the sea, something of a mystery to us.

Some photos are here; a map will be added later this week.

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”.

A House Full of Flowers, Again

22 April 2011

The award, made by Carla Rump

Some time ago, I had the honor to be given an academic prize (this one), and I could blog that my house was suddenly full of flowers. Ever since, I’ve bought a bouquet every week, because I liked the scent.

Now history appears to be repeating itself, because yesterday evening, the NKV (a well-known, large association of people in the Netherlands and Belgium interested in classics) gave its annual award to De rand van het Rijk, a book I wrote with my Livius colleague Arjen Bosman. Again, my house is full of flowers.

The chairman of the jury, Mr Van Reeth from Antwerp, delivered a speech about the nominated books that made the Dutch people in his audience realize that the art of speaking in public is better preserved in Belgium than in the Netherlands. His speech is probably what I will remember best.

What I also liked was the bronze statuette we received. It represents a dancing Muse and is made by Dutch sculptor Carla Rump, who “creates images because they do not exist in reality”. That is a most unclassical point of view: in Antiquity, art was meant to represent reality (mimesis, imitatio), and it was only in the nineteenth century that artists decided to create images that did not exist. Not imitatio but creatio. The statuette is a modern approach to an ancient subject, exactly as we must necessarily approach Antiquity.

1600 Ancient Sites on Google Earth

14 October 2010

The center of Alexandria

What you are looking for, is here.

Common Errors (38): Via Belgica

25 August 2010
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilde”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Tongeren Lead Bar

22 August 2010
Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

In May 2009, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren, one of the best museums in the Low Countries, announced that it had acquired a lead bar that dated to the reign of the emperor Tiberius, 14-37 CE. The inscription, IMP TI CAESARIS AVG GERM TEC, is a bit puzzling, but the message is clear. The first words refer to Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the “tec” is mysterious but almost certainly refers to the mine, and the surprise is that this mine is in Germania. That means, at first sight, the east bank of the Rhine.

The problem is that most historians believe that Germania had been evacuated after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest. This can be read in many ancient sources, like TacitusAnnals, 2.88, where we read that the German commander Arminius was, “without any doubt the liberator of Germania”, or the Epitome of Florus, who believes that an expanding empire that had been able to cross the Channel had been halted at the Rhine (2.30). Although these authors wrote a century after the events and some seventy years after the creation of the limes, the decisiveness of the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest has always been axiomatic, and Roman finds on the Rhine’s east bank are automatically dated prior to the year 9. Perhaps the deepest cause is that Florus and Tacitus used to be popular school texts.

But was the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest decisive? In the first place, the only contemporary source, Velleius Paterculus, does not say that Germania was evacuated, and reports that fighting continued on the east bank, where the frontier roads were reopened (Roman History, 2.120). Although this is exaggerated and we do not know what limites meant exactly, it is unsound method to immediately assume it was an outright lie. In the second place, Tacitus explicitly says that the Roman base at Aliso remained in Roman hands and that forts were built along the Lippe (Annals, 2.7). In the third place, it seems that the goldmine on the Feldberg was never abandoned – although I may be wrong here. In the fourth place, there is some evidence, published by Rudolf Aßkamp, that Haltern was still in use after 9. In the fifth place, the Claudian army reforms appear to have been pretty important, and we know for a fact that Claudius has evacuated land beyond the Rhine – Tacitus’ Annals 11.19 follows on an account of a successful campaign against the Frisians, but this context does not exclude the possibility that a larger area was evacuated. In the Netherlands, this was the beginning of the creation of the limes; the first watchtower (Utrecht) is soundly dated in the forties.

I am not arguing that the Romans did never evacuate Germania; my point is that the date of the evacuation is very much open to debate. It may have been Claudius’ decision, and I am not alone in my doubts. “Es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen, wie dies geschichtswissenschaftlich Unkundige gerade in diesen Tagen wiederholt propagieren,” as P. Kehne summarizes in one of the splendid catalogs of last year’s Teutoburg Forest expositions: “It is wrong to accept Varus‘ defeat as a historical pivotal moment, as people without sense of history are propagating these days”.

This makes the Tongeren ingot quite sensational. Is this, again, evidence that the Romans were still in Germania? Were the Claudian army reforms the real pivotal moment? From the press release (9 May 2010), I get the impression that the museum has not completely realized the importance of this object. It writes that isotope analysis has shown that the lead could be from the Sauerland (Germania) and the Eifel (Gallia Belgica) and concludes that, since the Romans left the east bank in 9, we must assume that it is from the west bank. But this is assuming what needs to be proved!

I think that this lead bar deserves more study. In the first place, we may perhaps have a more precise isotope analysis. This, however, is not my specialty and perhaps this is impossible. In the second place, I’d like to know which sources prior to the Claudian army reforms call the west bank of the Rhine, which was indeed occupied by German immigrants, “Germania”. To the best of my knowledge, Caesar, Varro, Strabo, and Velleius Paterculus consistently use names like Belgica, Celtica, or Gaul. If we find evidence that “Germania” could be used to describe the west bank, we must assume that the lead bar can be from both banks; if there is no such source, as I suspect, we may add the Tongeren lead bar to the evidence that the Romans did not evacuate the east bank prior to the Claudian army reforms.

Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.


Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.

Common Errors (35): Ambiorix

2 June 2010

Tongeren's Statue of Ambiorix

I love Belgium – my favorite Amsterdam pub is the Flemish Cultural Center – and I love the city of Tongeren, so it is with some regret that I am going to bust a Belgian national myth: that the Eburonian leader Ambiorix in 54 BCE destroyed Caesar‘s Fourteenth Legion at Tongeren. Yes, there is a deservedly famous statue in Tongeren (discussed here), but it’s on the wrong place.

Granted, Caesar calls the site of the defeat of the Fourteenth “Atuatuca”, and this name was also applied to Tongeren. The problem is that there are no Roman archaeological finds from Tongeren that can be dated prior to 30 BCE. Of course it is often said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but that is only true when a town has been poorly excavated. That cannot be said of Tongeren, which has been the focus of much research.

The walls of Caestrich

The walls of Caestrich

So, where did Caesar lose his legion? It must have been somewhere in the southern part of what is now called Limburg. The treasures of Hees (2000) and Maastricht (2008) are uncontested evidence that Ambiorix’ Eburones lived in this area. A possible location of the Roman defeat is the fort at Caestert, just south of Maastricht, on the Belgian side of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. It was built in the second century BCE, and the archaeologist Heli Roosens, who excavated the site in the 1970s, has mentioned that he had found hundreds of cremations – which he did not live to publish.


  • Guido Cuyt, ‘Geef aan Caesar wat Caesar toekomt…’ in: AVRA-bulletin 7 (2006).

<Overview of Common Errors>

Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.

Portrait of Ptolemy of Alexandria

3 September 2009
Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

If I attend a meeting, and am listening to what is said, I will invariably doodle something in the margin of my notes. And when I am lecturing, I am not surprised to see people make little drawings of things I have mentioned. If you speak about, say, Herodotushippopotamus and the long western tradition of deliberately incorrect descriptions of that animal,* you will see a lot of students drawing hippos.

Medieval copiists couldn’t resist the temptation either. Their manuscripts often contain little drawings. Two weeks ago, one of the libraries of Bruges announced that an astronomer who was consulting a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Almagest of Ptolemy of Alexandria, had discovered two small portraits of the great astronomer. The ink is now a bit pale, but you can clearly see that the copiist has done his best, making a pretty, detailed picture of what he thought Ptolemy must have looked like. I think it is beautiful.

You can read more about it here (in Dutch) and download four photos here.

*The best one is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s Hippopotamus.

1350 Ancient Sites on Google Earth

16 August 2009
The Roman fort at Hardknott

The Roman fort at Hardknott

What you are looking for, is here.

Common Errors (25): Caesar on the Sabis

7 August 2009
Battle of the Sabis

Battle of the Sabis

Among the mistakes in the new historical atlas (the subject of an earlier posting) is the identification of the river Sabis, where Caesar defeated the Nervians, with the modern Sambre. It is true that the words resemble each other, but that’s about all evidence there is for this identification.

A much more plausible place is the little river Selle, which empties itself into the Scheldt near modern Valenciennes. The obvious objection is that Selle does not look like Sabis at all, but looks can be deceptive. In 706, the river was called Save; in 964; we find a reference to the Seva; the change to Sevelle is a normal development in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and in 1476, presto, the little stream was known as Selle.

This identification also explains why the Nervians could surprise the Roman invaders. The Selle is crossed by a very ancient road, about which I’ve blogged before, which Caesar used: he writes that he left for the Nervians from the Ambiani, who lived near modern Amiens. The legions just took the main road, and were nearly defeated at a place that is now called Saulzoir, in northern France.


Pierre Turquin, ‘La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l’ An 57 avant J.-C.’ in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156

<Overview of Common Errors>

Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.

An Urban Legend: Ambiorix’ Statue

21 May 2009

Tongeren's Statue of Ambiorix

One of my archaeology teachers used to tell that the statue of Ambiorix in Tongeren had been made by a Frenchman, and actually represented Vercingetorix. It was erected, he said, on the market of the Belgian town because in France, there was no need for a statue of the Gallic prince after the monument in Alesia had been made. So they sold it to the Belgians.

Because my teacher was a serious man without any bias against Belgians, I never suspected that the story might be untrue. If I had any doubts, they were laid to rest because I heard the story on several occasions, even by an English travel guide standing in front of the statue. And I confess that I have contributed to the story’s gaining popularity, because I have repeated it to others.

But it is not true. Here are the facts: the statue was designed by Jules Bertin (1826-1892), who was indeed a Frenchman, but had left his country after the events of 1848, and had been living in Tongeren since 1859. The statue was commissioned by Tongeren’s town council and finished in 1866. Yet, there is a connection to Vercingetorix, although it’s the other way round: Bertin was later requested to make a nice Vercingetorix for the French town of Saint-Denis. It seems to have resembled the Ambiorix closely – past tense, because it’s lost since the Second World War.

My guess is that this urban legend was invented by the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Tongeren to discredit their nineteenth-century, Walloon officials. The story may have survived because it is amusingly absurd that one nation recycles the national symbols of another nation – the other day, I stumbled across the same joke.


18 May 2009
The walls of Caestrich

The walls of Caestrich

I’m on a little holiday. After a business meeting this morning, I could catch the train to Maastricht, the charming city in the south of the Netherlands, and home of one of the most beautiful statues of the Holy Virgin, “Star of the Sea” -  a statue that, like Marcus Aurelius in Rome, I can never pass by without saluting it.

I had rented a bike at the railroad station – after all, I was heading for Belgium, the country of Eddy Merckx. My first goal was an Iron Age settlement called Caestert, or Kanne-Caster. As the name already indicates, the Romans called it a castra, a fort. It is situated on a hill, about sixty meters above the Meuse, and it can dendrochronologically be dated to the year 31 or 30 BCE. It is immediately south of Maastricht, southeast of a village called Kanne, just across the border (satellite photo).

The date has generated a lot of debate. Originally, it was believed that this hill fort was built in 57 BCE, which would make this site a very likely candidate to be Atuatuca, where Ambiorix defeated the Fourteenth Legion. In fact, it remains the only plausible candidate: everything fits Caesar‘s account, and it is often speculated that the wood that was tested dendrochronologically, belonged to a later repair.

I had been there before, but had forgotten that a bike is not the ideal means to climb to the platform. Still, I managed to get there, made my way through the muddy forest, and took some photos. Although most of the site is covered by trees, several walls and two gates can be distinguished. Fortunately, there is no place to buy ice cream; the beautiful area is still the domain of people walking at their leisure, and an occasional cyclist.

Passing through villages like Zussen and Bolder, I reached Val-Meer, with a miraculous crucifix and a small medieval church that is still impressive. I made photos of the remains of the Roman road from Tongeren to Maastricht, and crossed to Herderen, where I wanted to see an ancient tumulus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, and because I was getting tired, I decided to continue to Genoelselderen, where I had a snack at the local “frietkot“. Not much later, I reached Tongeren, where I am now staying at the Ambihotel – it took some time before I understood the pun, which is easier to understand if – like the Belgians – you do not pronounce the H.

After a brief nap, I cycled en lisant around the Roman city walls. There were more ruins than I had expected, and the forest west of the city, where the view of the remains of the ancient aqueduct at sunset was splendid.

I am really enjoying myself. When I was eating my patates frites in Genoelselderen, sitting in the sun, enjoying a nice view of the Haspengouw, I realized how badly I had needed this trip.

[To be continued]


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