Fort Matilo

1 June 2009
Hand of an ancient statue from Matilo

Hand of an ancient statue from Matilo

Although the Dutch town Leiden has been called Lugdunum Batavorum ever since the Renaissance, its real Latin name was Matilo. (The real Lugdunum was closer to the sea.) The Roman fort has been identified southeast of Leiden’s center, at the place where the river Rhine divided into the branch that emptied itself into the North Sea and the Canal of Corbulo. The site has not been excavated, but the place of the walls has been identified by georadar. On many occasions, objects have come to the surface, which are currently on display in Leiden’s Rijksmuseum van oudheden.

I updated my article (here), and a satellite photo is here. The greenhouse is on the site of the ancient fort.


Common Errors (7): The Frisians

15 May 2009
A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

In the third century C.E., many old Germanic tribes merged into large federations, like the Saxons, the Franks, and the Alamans, which were to become important during the Middle Ages. To this rule, the Frisians appear to have been an exception: they are already mentioned in sources that deal with the Early Empire. Their ethnogenesis took place at least two or three centuries before the other tribes originated. They can still be distinguished.

At first sight, the Frisians show a remarkable ethnic continuity, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pieter Boeles (1873-1961), one of the founding fathers of Frisian archaeology, had different ideas. He noticed important cultural changes in the fourth and fifth century, which he believed were evidence for colonization by the Saxons (from northwestern Germany) and the Anglians (from Schleswich-Holstein). After they had conquered the Frisians, they continued to Flanders, and from there, they conquered parts of Britain. However, Boeles argued, although these tribes subdued the Frisians, their name remained in use, which is why there are still provinces called Friesland in the Netherlands and Germany.

He was right about the Anglo-Saxon settlement – almost. What appears to have happened, is that the country of the Frisians had become empty, for reasons that we do not fully comprehend. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth century, the Frisians are not mentioned in our sources, even by authors who had reason to write about them. When the Saxons and the Anglians arrived, there was no one to subdue, because there was no one living over there.

The name returns in the sources in the seventh century, in an age when other ancient names also return. For example, Gregorius of Tours describes the Frankish king Clovis as a ‘Sugambrian’ – after a tribe that had been annihilated in the first century. These archaisms were usually ignored, but the name of Frisia was accepted. People in what is now North Holland, Utrecht, and Friesland started to call themselves after the district in which the Merovingian and Carolingian authorities had placed them. The continuity of the ancient nation and the ancient name are only apparent.


J. Bazelmans, ‘The early medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians’, in: T. Derks en N. Roymans (red.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. The Role of Power and Tradition (2009) blz. 321-337.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Canal of Drusus

31 January 2009
The Gelderse IJssel

The Gelderse IJssel

The Canal of Drusus is mentioned by Suetonius (Claudius, 1) and Tacitus (Annals, II.8); it appears that it was dug when the Roman general Drusus campaigned east and north of the Rhine in 12-9 BCE. There have been several theories about its location, one of them being that it is identical to the river Vecht, another stressing that both Suetonius and Tacitus use a plural, and that a second canal had to exist, which was localised between Lake Flevo (the modern IJsselmeer) and the Wadden Sea.

The consensus, however, was that the Canal of Drusus connected the Rhine to the IJssel, and was identical to the water course between modern Arnhem and Doesburg, now called Gelderse IJssel. The main argument was that a monument known as Drusus’ Mole can be found a bit east of this watercourse, at Herwen (ancient Carvium).

This hypothesis now turns out to be incorrect. In a recent article in the Netherlands Journal of Geosciences 87/4 (2008 ) by B. Makaske, G.J. Maas & D.G. van Smeerdijk, “The age and origin of the Gelderse IJssel“, radiocarbon data are mentioned that date the oldest part of the Gelderse IJssel to the tenth century. Of course, it remains possible that the Canal was between Arnhem and Doesburg, later changed its course, and that the samples were taken from this new meander.

Tacitus’ Histories

30 December 2008

Strewn across the Internet the diligent Googler will find several copies of the works of Tacitus in English, and a couple in Latin. There is thus no particular virtue or novelty in one more, but I got tired of not finding the convenience of local links, so I’ve added my own, just in English for now: the Loeb edition — translation by Clifford H. Moore — is about 75 years more recent, and as usual on Lacus, my transcription has its full complement of local links. Here.

Seventeen pages on Roman Nijmegen

25 December 2008
Nijmegen on the Peutinger Map.

Nijmegen on the Peutinger Map.

Nijmegen was not the largest or most important city north of the Alps, and because there is a major city on top of it (Nijmegen is Holland’s tenth city), excavating it is a pretty complex and frustratingly slow process. Still, the cluster of six settlements is one of the most fascinating archaeological projects I know, and fortunately, the Valkhof Museum is up to its task in explaining it to the larger audience.

Milestone along the road to Xanten.

Milestone along the road to Xanten.

Briefly summarized, the Romans arrived in 19 BCE, and founded a military base that was called Hunerberg; next to it were the HQs of the army of the Rhine, which have been identified on the Kops Plateau. To the west was the town where romanized Batavians lived: Batavodurum. In its center was a monument, dedicated to Tiberius. As long as Rome tried to conquer the land east of the Rhine, this was the situation. Later, the Hunerberg was abandoned, and when the limes was created, the Kops Plateau was converted into a cavalry camp.

In 69, the Batavians revolted (one of the subjects of TacitusHistories), and although they achieved some remarkable successes, Rome returned. The Hunerberg became a legionary base again: X Gemina stayed there for about thirty years, and was later replaced by troops from Britain (including a part of VIIII Hispana), and a subunit of XXX Ulpia Victrix. It was a luxurious base, with an aqueduct that was identified only recently.

A glass vase; Valkhof Museum.

A glass vase; Valkhof Museum.

The civil settlement Batavodurum had been destroyed during the Batavian Revolt, and a new city was built in the west, called Noviomagus. There was a bridge across the river Waal, two or three temples have been identified, the baths, the walls, and several splendid tombs.There were important satellite settlements, like the pottery at De Holdeurn, the Batavian sanctuary at Elst, and the bridge at Cuijk, which was vital for reaching Nijmegen.

In the fourth century, the situation had changed. The garrison was now concentrated on the Valkhof hill, and the civil settlement was along the river. It was still called Noviomagus, which became “Niomagus” after the Frankish take-over. The Valkhof remained an important castle, which was used by important rulers like Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa.

The Waal and its bridge.

The Waal and its bridge.

The castle was demolished in the eighteenth century, but if you go there, you can still see why this could become a city of some significance: you have a splendid view on the bridge that was so important a target for the Allies during the Second World War. Nijmegen will always be the place of one of the most important river crossings in the Low Countries.

I devoted seventeen pages to ancient Nijmegen, with some ninety photos. And if you prefer to read only about the history, this is your starting page. Enjoy!

[Update: page #18: three maps.]


30 November 2008
Photo Marco Prins.

Roman bridge at Cyrrhus

The base of the Tenth legion Fretensis in northern Syria, Cyrrhus, has never been excavated, and the nearby city was investigated only superficially. With a little luck, a visitor can find a still unknown inscription or the tombstone of a Roman soldier (as we did).

However, archaeologists have already a few parts and there is much to see: two Roman bridges, a well-preserved mausoleum (probably the tomb of a centurio), the traces of the wall (built by Justinian), two gates, a theater, and a basilica. A satellite photo can be found here, and my new article is here.

Meanwhile, Bill Thayer has put online Book 18 and Book 19 of Diodorus of Sicily‘s Library of World History. It’s a good read.

Castellum Nigrum Pullum (Zwammerdam)

6 October 2008
The Hooge Burgh excavation

The Hooge Burgh excavation

The small fort at Nigrum Pullum (‘black chicken’ or ‘black soil’) controlled the confluence of the little river Meije and the Rhine, the frontier river of the Roman province of Germania Inferior. The military settlement was founded after 47, when the Roman general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo reorganized the frontier zone. It was rebuilt several times and the foundations of the HQs are still visible. The greatest discovery, however, had little to do with the army: six ships. I used to have two pages on Zwammerdam, which I have now joined and to which I have added photos of models of the ships. You can find it here and your satellite photo is here.