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.


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>

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.

A very, very ancient road in Northern Gaul

6 September 2008
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 Brunhilda”), 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.

That being said, the Chaussée Brunehaut or Via Belgica or whatever you prefer to call it, is an important monument. I am not certain, but it may be one of the oldest roads in the world that is still in use. You can find more information here.