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).

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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]