Dormagen and Kneblinghausen

12 July 2010

Face mask of a cavalry helmet (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

One of the greatest advantages of the internet is the possibility to help people (or receive help). I am a member of the Roman Army Talk discussion forum, and was approached, some time ago, by a fellow-member who knew something about recent excavations at Dormagen, a limes fort along the Lower Rhine. I have now updated the page.

He also pointed out that I had to rewrite my page about Kneblinghausen, a Roman camp far east of the Rhine. I had written that the type of gate (a “clavicula”) suggested a date late in the first century; the fort might have been built during the campaigns of Domitian. However, my German friend pointed out that there was now evidence for this type of gate from the beginning of our era.

So many changes on the site today, some small, some great. Thanks Siggi!


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.

Common Errors (4): VIIII Hispana

25 April 2009
Object mentioning VIIII Hispana

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) is one of the most charming children’s historical novels I know. It tells the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, who can no longer serve in the army because he is wounded, and decides to look for the eagle standard of the Ninth Legion Hispana. According to Sutcliff, this legion was destroyed in c.117 by Caledonian tribes in what is now Scotland – in 1954 a common hypothesis.

Indeed, there is no evidence that the Ninth was in Britain in the second century, but that does not mean that it was annihilated. It was almost certainly transferred to Nijmegen in Germania Inferior (on the Lower Rhine), where it was in the 120s. One of the finds that prove this, is a metal object found in Ewijk, a bit west of Nijmegen, now in the Valkhof Museum. The fact that we know the names of several high officers of the Ninth who can not have served earlier than 122 (e.g., Lucius Aemilius Karus, governor of Arabia in 142/143), is another indication that the legion was not destroyed but transferred.

It is also certain that this unit no longer existed during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), because it is not mentioned in a list of legions from that age. Perhaps, it had been destroyed by the Jews during the revolt of Bar Kochba (132-136); perhaps it is identical to the unit that was destroyed by the Parthians in 161 (Lucian, Alexander 27). We simply do not know. What we do know, however, is that a movie has been announced about Rosemary Sutcliffe’s lovely book – and to be honest, this time fiction is far better than facts.


  • Duncan Campbell, “The fate of the Ninth“, in: Ancient Warfare 4.5 (2010) 48-53
  • Jan Kees Haalebos, “Römische Truppen in Nijmegen”, in: Yann Le Bohec, Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire (2000 Lyon) 465-489

<Overview of Common Errors>