Of all the Gallic peoples the Belgae are the most courageous, because they are farthest removed from the culture and civilization of the Province, and least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities that make for effeminacy; and also because they are nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually at war. (..) Caesar could see that the Germans were becoming gradually accustomed to cross over the Rhine, and that the arrival of a great host of them in Gaul was dangerous for the Roman people. Nor did he suppose that barbarians so fierce would stop short after seizing the whole of Gaul; but rather, like the Cimbri and Teutoni before them, they would break forth into the Province, and push on thence into Italy. (..) All this, he felt, must be faced without a moment's delay.
Julius Caesar - De Bello Gallico - Loeb edition
Map of "Germania Inferior" and of parts of "Gallia Belgica" (in orange) and of "Germania Superior", three Roman provinces, from "Droysens Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas 1886": the dots indicate the main towns covered in this section: Castra Vetera (Xanten), Colonia Agrippina (Cologne), Bonna (Bonn), Augusta Treverorum (Trier), Mogontiacum (Mainz)
Germany was originally divided into many nations and principalities, who all spoke the same language and were subject to their several heads or leaders, by whom they were governed with an unlimited authority. Rome, from whom we have the first knowledge of this people, attempted to subdue them under Julius Caesar and Drusus, but they defended their frontiers so well, that the Romans were satisfied to make the Danube and the Rhine the boundaries of their empire. Accordingly they built fortresses and planted garrisons on the banks of both these rivers to prevent the incursions of those barbarous nations, as they were pleased to call them.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The Romans came into contact with the Germans during Caesar's campaigns for the conquest of Gaul. After achieving control of the territories along the left bank of the River Rhine, which was regarded as the eastern border of Gaul, they established trade relations with the tribes living on the other side of the river. The continuous conflicts among these tribes favoured the intervention of the Romans. Tiberius (the future emperor) and Drusus led military campaigns to conquer Germania Magna, the territory between the middle course of the Rhine and that of the Weser (Visurgis in the map).
(left) Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius; (right) the same in an illustration of Codex Pighianus, a XVIIth century book of prints showing Roman monuments
Of one Inscription I made out thus much "Marc Celia Fil Leg 18 An 52 Occidit Bello P Celius Pater Fecit" Which signifies that this belonged to a Sepulchral Monument erected by P Celius the Father for his Son Marcus Caelius who, in the 53d Year of his Age, died in a certain war of the Romans which was there expressed, but the Letters are now so defaced, I could not read them.
Theophilus Dorrington - Some reflections made in a journey through Germany in the year 1698
M. Caelius, aged 53, triarius (a very senior veteran) in Legio XIIX (18) was killed at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD with P. Quinctilius Varus, the commander of the Roman Army which consisted of three legions, thus the event is referred to as Bello Variano (Varus' War) in the inscription. His brother (not his father, as assumed by Dorrington) erected a monument to him which contained the bones of two of his freedmen, but not those of M. Caelius. The defeat marked the end of the Roman expansion into Germany. The Romans never used again the numbers of Varus' legions.
The monument was discovered in 1620 near Castra Vetera (Xanten), a Roman fortified town on the left bank of the Rhine, near today's border with the Netherlands.
Archaeological Museum of Frankfurt: two Jupiter Saule, columns in honour of Jupiter in which the god was portrayed as a Roman commander defeating a monster
The humiliating defeat suffered by Varus was avenged by the military campaigns of Germanicus in 14-16, but the Romans gave up attempts to conquer Germania Magna, realizing that its forests were a major obstacle to the effective deployment of their military might. A century later, when Emperor Trajan led military campaigns to establish a permanent Roman presence beyond the Danube in Dacia, he made sure his troops would not be trapped in the forests of the Carpatian mountains and many reliefs in the column celebrating his victory show his legionaries cutting trees, opening roads or building fortified encampments.
The border along the Rhine was garrisoned by soldiers coming from all parts of the Empire and new iconographies of gods were developed to symbolize the military character of the Roman presence. In many towns Jupiter was represented as a forerunner of St. George, rather than the aloof god sitting on his throne on Mount Olympus.
Pfalzgrafenstein Castle in the Rhine Gorge, a section of the Rhine Valley near Koblenz, and as it was when I first visited the region, a very long time ago
By the end of the Ist century AD the border between the Roman territories and those of the German tribes was stabilized. In Germania Superior the Romans fully controlled both banks of the River Rhine; in Germania Inferior they had towns only on its left bank, but they garrisoned some military outposts on the right bank.
The fate of the river has always been that to mark an east-west border, but at the same time to be a south-north trade route from the Alps to the North Sea. Some of the medieval castles in the Rhine Gorge were built to exact a toll from passing ships.
Preparations for grape harvesting in the River Mosel Valley near Nennig
Julius Caesar would have hardly thought that the valleys of the Rhine and of its tributaries had the potential to become a rich agricultural land, not a granary similar to Sicily or Syria, or a supplier of olive oil similar to Spain or Africa, but an immense vineyard. The Romans were wary of nomadic tribes and saw the development of farming as a mean to strengthen their control over the territories they conquered. Viticulture was introduced in the Rhine Valley in the late IIIrd century and slightly earlier in that of the Mosel; until then wine was imported from Italy and the valley of the River Rhône.
Rheinisches Landesmuseum of Trier: The Mosel Ship, a relief from a tomb found in 1878 in the environs of Trier, which most likely belonged to a wine merchant; it is dated ca 220 AD
The Rhine and its tributaries allowed the easy movement of wine from its production centres to the regions of central Germany and across the Channel to Britain. The Mosel River was navigable well into today's France, thus facilitating trade with Gaul. Land transportation was mainly based on a road opened by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa at the end of the Ist century BC, which linked Lyon on the Rhône to Cologne on the Rhine, via Trier on the Mosel.
National Museum of History and Art of Luxembourg: Roman fresco depicting a Mediterranean garden; it was discovered in 1995 at Vichten, a small town of the Grand Duchy; the Mosel marks its border with Germany
But if a stranger were to arrive here
from the shores of Cumae, he would believe that Baiae had bestowed on this region a miniature copy of its own delights: so great is the charm
of its refinement and distinction, while its pleasures
breed no excess.
Ausonius - Mosella - translation by Hugh G. Evelyn White
Decimus Magnus Ausonius (ca 310-395), a statesman from Bordeaux and the tutor of Emperor Gratian, wrote a poem to describe the beauty of the Mosel Valley and of the city of Trier. The wealthiest inhabitants of the region did not hesitate to decorate their houses with paintings similar to those of the villas of Rome (e.g. Villa di Livia) and of Southern Italy (e.g. Villa di Poppea).
Roman villa of Nennig, not far from Trier: details of the Mosaic of the Gladiators (IIIrd century AD)
Ludi gladiatori (gladiatorial games) and venationes (fights with wild animals) were among the most popular forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire, where some 230 amphitheatres have been identified. Two of the largest ones were at Nîmes and Arles, towns which had trading links with Germany, but only Xanten and Trier retain evidence of their amphitheatres. The wealthy landlords of a villa at Nennig, chose to decorate the floor of a large hall of their mansion with scenes they had watched at Trier. A choice which was popular elsewhere in Germany (e.g. at Bad Kreuznach - it opens in another window) and throughout the whole Empire. It sometimes led to the depiction of very gruesome images (e.g. in Mosaico dei Gladiatori at Torrenova near Rome).
Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: Glassware
Glassmaking was introduced in Germany by craftsmen of the Roman legions. It eventually developed into a main industrial activity. Cologne became an important glass manufacturing site; its most elaborate products were sold to the local upper classes and to the leaders of the German tribes beyond the Rhine who were eager to possess these luxury items. Occasionally glass items might have been used by the Romans as diplomatic gifts. Over time the workshops developed new techniques and new patterns and were able to export also to France and Italy.
Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: silver coins of emperors between 217 and 268 and a solidus, a gold coin portraying Magnus Maximus
The barbarians were adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to hold markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages. They had not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their native manners, their old life of independence, or the power derived from arms. Hence, so long as they were unlearning these customs gradually and by the way, as one may say, under careful watching, they were not disturbed by the change in their manner of life, and were becoming different without knowing it.
Cassius Dio - Roman History - Book 58 - Loeb Edition
The Germans living near the border became accustomed to some aspects of the Roman way of life and they also converted to a money economy. The Rhine frontier proved to be more peaceful than the Danube one: in 166 the Quadi and Marcomanni crossed that river and for many years the Romans had to struggle to protect their provinces. In 256 the province of Dacia beyond the Danube was abandoned and in 267 the Heruli marched into Greece and sacked Athens.
The Roman territories along the Rhine were affected by the creation of the Gallic Empire by Postumus; he belonged to a German tribe and he had enrolled in the Roman army where he rose through the ranks to become governor of the German provinces. The rebellion was quelled by Emperor Aurelian in 274, but this tendency to split from the central government surfaced again in 383-388 when Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman legions in Britain, acquired control of Britain, Germany, Gaul and Spain.
Trier - Porta Nigra in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836" (the town was annexed by France between 1794 and 1815)
Treves is at present a decayed
town, owing the chief interest it posesses for the traveller, to the Roman
remains still existing in and about it.
No other city of Germany or northern Europe possesses such extensive
relics of the masters of the world. (..) The Black Gate, Porta Nigra (Schwartzes Thor) called also Porta
Martis, is the most interesting monument of antiquity in Treves.
J. Murray - A Hand-Book for Travellers on the Continent - 1838
At the end of the IIIrd century Emperor Diocletian redesigned the political and administrative structure of the Empire by grouping the provinces into four large regions (prefecturae) under the command of a Tetrarch (one of four rulers). Constantius Chlorus, Tetrarch of Gaul and Britain set his residence at Trier, a choice which was confirmed by his son Constantine, who however moved part of his court to Arles in 308. Trier was one of the imperial capitals during most of the IVth century and it retains many monuments of that period. Porta Nigra, an imposing gate which was turned into a church, is the symbol of Roman Germany.
Archaeological Park Xanten: reconstructions of a tower and other buildings of "Castra Vetera"
The Roman legions on the Rhine border were able to prevent massive invasions across the river until the end of IVth century, although a number of raids by German tribes occurred before that period.
The people called Huns, slightly mentioned in the ancient records, live beyond the Sea of Azov, on the border of the Frozen Ocean, and are a race savage beyond all parallel. (..) A report spread extensively through the nations of the Goths, that a race of men, hitherto unknown, had suddenly descended like a whirlwind from the lofty mountains, as if they had risen from some secret recess of the earth, and were ravaging and destroying everything which came in their way. And then the greater part of the Goths .. resolved to flee and to seek a home remote from all knowledge of the barbarians; and after a long deliberation where to fix their abode, they resolved that a retreat into Thrace was the most suitable for these two reasons: first of all, because it is a district most fertile in grass; and also because, by the great breadth of the Danube, it is wholly separated from the barbarians. And the whole population of the tribe adopted this resolution unanimously. (..) Foreign ambassadors (arrived and) with prayers and earnest entreaties, begged that the people thus driven from their homes and now encamped on the other side of the river, might be kindly received by us (the Romans). The affair seemed a cause of joy rather than of fear, according to the skilful flatterers who were always extolling and exaggerating the good fortune of the emperor; congratulating him that an embassy had come from the furthest corners of the earth unexpectedly, offering him a large body of recruits; and that, by combining the strength of his own nation with these foreign forces, he would have an army absolutely invincible. (..) Full of this hope Emperor Valens sent forth several officers to bring this ferocious people and their waggons into our territory (in 376). And such great pains were taken to gratify this nation which was destined to overthrow the empire of Rome, that not one was left behind, not even of those who were stricken with mortal disease. Moreover, having obtained permission of the emperor to cross the Danube and to cultivate some districts in Thrace, they crossed the stream day and night, without ceasing, embarking in troops on board ships and rafts, and canoes made of the hollow trunks of trees.
Ammianus Marcellinus - Roman History, Book 31 - 1862 Translation by Charles Duke Yonge.
The account explains how the Visigoths entered the Roman Empire and eventually settled in Italy. Roman troops were moved from the Rhine border to Italy to protect Emperor Honorius at Ravenna. On the night of December 31, 406, profiting from the fact that the Rhine was frozen, bands of Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the river near Mainz and gained control of its western bank. They were followed by their whole tribes and they moved into Gaul, Spain and Africa where they founded "kingdoms" inside the borders of the Empire. The Franks in the meantime established themselves in the Lower Rhine region. These people were largely Romanized and some form of coexistence with the remaining Roman power was established. In 451 a coalition of Roman, Alan, Visigothic and Burgundian troops under the command of Flavius Aetius defeated the Huns and repelled them beyond the Rhine.
Aachen (near today's German border with Belgium and the Netherlands): Palatine Chapel: original side door
In the early VIth century the provinces of Roman Germany were under the control of Clovis I, King of the Franks. They eventually became the core territories of the Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne set his residence at Aachen, perhaps a former Roman spa. In 792 he began the construction of a palace which included a chapel. The design of the latter was based on those of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus at Constantinople and of S. Vitale at Ravenna.
According to Eginhardt, Charlemagne's biographer, he imported columns and marbles for the work from Ravenna and Rome and he is supposed to have stripped and ruined the splendid palace of Theodoric at Ravenna which has now practically disappeared.
Thomas Graham Jackson - Byzantine and Romanesque Architecture - 1913
The reuse of ancient architectural materials in the Palatine Chapel had a great influence on the development of the Romanesque style in Germany and France.
Cecilienkirche, one of twelve Romanesque churches of Cologne you can see in this section: apse (left) and interior (right); since 1956, the church houses the Schnütgen Museum for medieval art
We came to Cologne in a good time to see the Processions of the Feast of the Holy Sacrament which are some of the greatest and most solemn Processions of the whole Year. As we were going to our Inn, we met one which staid us almost an Hour to see it pass by. Dorrington
The writer was a Church of England clergyman; the full title of his book was: Observations concerning the Present State of Religion in the Romish Church, with some reflections upon them made in a journey through some provinces of Germany in the year 1698; as also an account of what seemed most remarkable in those countries.
Some parts of Roman Germany, and in particular Cologne, retain many Romanesque churches. The region was almost totally Roman Catholic and for many centuries it was ruled by the Archbishops-Electors of Cologne, Trier and Mainz (see a page on their palaces). In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, the Electorates of Cologne and Trier were assigned to the Kingdom of Prussia. The Kings of Prussia, later on the Emperors of Germany, felt that the Gothic style was more representative of the spirit of the nation and their governments favoured Gothic additions/modifications to Romanesque churches.
Limburg an der Lahn - Entrance to the Bishop's Palace with the Cathedral in the background
The destructions brought about by WWII in Germany were immense. Many of the monuments shown in this section were rebuilt "as they were" after the war, although very often only their façades. Limburg an der Lahn, a small town in the hills east of Koblenz, was not bombed and therefore retains most of its original medieval buildings.
The image used as background for this page shows a relief portraying the head of a wind on Igeler Saule, a Roman mausoleum near Trier.
Plan of this section:
Ahrweiler and its Roman Villa
Bad Kreuznach and its Roman Villa
Boppard (Bodobrica) and the Rhine Gorge
Cologne (Colonia Agrippina)
Igel, Nennig and the Mosel Valley
Trier (Augusta Treverorum)
Xanten (Castra Vetera and Colonia Ulpia Traiana)
Aachen: Palatine Chapel
Cologne: Romanesque Churches
Limburg an der Lahn