You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
(left) Statue of Ambiorix, a Gallic chieftain who opposed Caesar's conquest of the region opposite the Collegiate Church of Our Lady; (right) interior of the church
Tongeren is a town of the Bishoprick of Liege (a state of the Holy Roman Empire, similar to those at Cologne, Trier and Mainz) situated on a little river. This is a very ancient town, being the Tungrorum Oppidum of the Romans, and a very considerable place in their time. The town is mentioned by Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny. (..) The great church is a handsome Gothic structure, and has a dean and twenty-two canons belonging to it.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
Caesar, having divided his forces into three parts, he sent the baggage of all the legions to Aduatuca. That is the name of a fort. (..) The Sigambri (..) cross the Rhine in ships and barks; (..) they arrive at the frontiers of the Eburones, surprise many who were scattered in flight, and get possession of a large amount of cattle, of which barbarians are extremely covetous. Allured by booty, they advance further; neither morass nor forest obstructs these men, born amid war and depredations; they inquire of their prisoners in what part Caesar is; they find that he has advanced further, and learn that all the army has removed. Thereon one of the prisoners says (..) "In three hours you can reach Aduatuca; there the Roman army has deposited all its fortunes; there is so little of a garrison that not even the wall can be manned, nor dare any one go beyond the fortifications." (..) The Germans leave in concealment the plunder they had acquired; they themselves hasten to Aduatuca. (..) They endeavor to force an entrance and encourage one another not to cast from their hands so valuable a prize. (..) The Germans, despairing of taking the camp by storm, because they saw that our men had taken up their position on the fortifications, retreated beyond the Rhine with that plunder which they had deposited in the woods. (..) Caesar pointed out that fortune had exercised great influence in the sudden arrival of their enemy; much greater, in that she had turned the barbarians away from the very rampart and gates of the camp.
Julius Caesar - The Gallic Wars - Book VI - Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn
Aduatuca or atuatuca was most likely a Gallic word for fortified camp; Tongeren was quoted in Roman sources as Atuatuca (or Civitas) Tungrorum, but this is unlikely to indicate that it actually stood on the site of the fort mentioned by Caesar. In the introductory page you can see some Pre-Roman gold coins which were found near the town.
(above) Romanesque cloister adjoining the Collegiate Church; (below) details of its capitals
Very early it was made a bishop's see (..); but the bishoprick was removed from hence to Maestricht, and afterwards to Liege and now the town has little or no vestiges of its former grandeur. Nugent
Tongres is a very ancient city of 6000 Inhab. The principal Church was the first dedicated to the Virgin on this side of the Alps. The existing Gothic edifice dates from 1240, but the convent behind was built in the 10th or 11th cent., and is the eldest of the kind in the country.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers on the Continent - 1858
At Murray's time Tongeren was part of the Kingdom of Belgium which was created in 1830; today it is part of the Flemish Region, which is one of the components of the Federal State of the Kingdom of Belgium.
Bishops of Tongeren are recorded in the IVth century and according to tradition the Collegiate Church was built on the site of a chapel of that period.
Teseum Museum (Treasury of the Collegiate Church and Archaeological Site): (above-left to right) fragment of a Column to Jupiter portraying Helios; dedicatory inscription to Jupiter Dolichenus; altar to the Three Matrons; (below-left) evidence of hypocaust (heating system); (below-right) apse of a Roman basilica
Highly advanced archaeological excavations under the Collegiate Church in 1999-2008 unearthed much more than the site of an early church as they found parts of a civilian neighbourhood in the centre of the ancient town which included a bath establishment, houses, a Column to Jupiter and altars similar to those which can be seen in many Roman towns along the Rhine. In September 2018 the site, which is very evocative, was open to the public.
Two IInd century townhouses were identified and the lower parts of their walls still retained evidence of paintings. It is now generally thought that the town was founded by the Romans in Augustan age, perhaps 10 BC, as the capital of the region inhabited by the Tungri. The latter most likely replaced the Eburones, the rebellious Gallic nation of Ambiorix. Tacitus mentions Tungrian cohorts in the Roman legions. The economic development of the town led to the construction of proper urban houses which were decorated with typical Roman paintings on red and black backgrounds.
Roman towers in Caesarlaan
The construction of city walls in many Roman towns in Gaul is dated second half of the IIIrd century when a state of military anarchy weakened the defences of the Empire and even towns very far from the border were at risk of being raided. The walls protected a reduced part of the settlements, e.g. at Bagacum Nerviorum (Bavay) and Vesunna (Périgueux) and were usually built with materials from the abandoned neighbourhoods. The Roman walls of Tongeren instead surround a very large area and they do not show evidence of reused material.
Roman walls; they are almost entire in the western part of the town
The construction of the walls is dated early IInd century AD. They might have been built at the suggestion of Emperor Hadrian who visited the region in 122. In his many travels the Emperor inspected the legions, attended military exercises, e.g. at Lambaesis, and made recommendations for the defence of the Empire. Tongeren was relatively close to the Rhine border (see a map of the region) and it was linked by a road to Castra Vetera (Xanten), a key fortress on the river; the Emperor might have thought that Tongeren could provide a second line of defence. As a matter of fact the Romans did not develop a defence-in-depth strategy with tragic consequences in 406 when, 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 unopposed into the inner regions of Gaul.
There are also now remaining the ruins of some of their temples and other monuments of antiquity. Nugent
Koninksem means king's residence and the name of the village most likely derived from two large burial mounds which are similar to that at Nennig in the Mosel Valley. They had most likely an external facing of stone, similar to those of the mausoleums of Cecilia Metella and Lucilio Peto in Rome; Koninksem retains also evidence of a Roman villa.
(above) Partial reconstruction of a Roman temple near the walls; (below) what was actually discovered
Don't miss the Roman temple site on Caesarlaan. Long ago, there was a impressive temple on the northern edges of the city. It was one of the most imposing buildings for miles around. We are not sure which Roman deity the temple was dedicated to, or whether it was used for the imperial cult. But we can still get a realistic impression of the original site from the archaeological remains.
Tongeren Tourist Office Website
The reconstruction, alas, does not invite the visitor to stop, rest for a while and ponder on mankind.
There was a road paved with stone leading to Paris near 200 miles in length, some parts of which are still to be seen. Nugent
Tongeren was placed along a road linking Bavay to Cologne; another road linked it to the German towns south of Cologne. The distances were indicated in Gallic leagues corresponding to 1.5 Roman mile. The roads were initially built for military purposes, especially to help Roman troops to move across the forest Arduenna (Ardennes), which is the largest of all Gaul, and reaches from the banks of the Rhine and the frontiers of the Treviri to those of the Nervii, and extends over more than 500 miles. Caesar
Gallo-Roman Museum of Tongeren: (above-left) decorative relief; (above-right) capital; (below) lead bar made at a mine belonging to Emperor Tiberius
Tongeren has an excellent Gallo-Roman Museum which shows exhibits from prehistoric times to the establishment of the Kingdom of the Franks by Clovis in the late Vth century. One of the oldest exhibits of the Roman period and the only one to bear the name of an emperor is a lead bar which was most likely made in the Eifel mountains between Trier and Cologne which were mined by slaves of the Romans. Other exhibits show how the town was embellished with Roman architectural elements and decorations.
Many of the Columns to Jupiter which were erected in Belgium, Germany and Britain were found along the main roads in villages which served as stations for the travellers. The columns were decorated with reliefs on the pedestal, or the shaft, or even on the capital (see an example at Cirencester), which portrayed other very popular gods, as if to cater for a variety of believers. The relief depicting Hercules with a staff, rather than with the usual club, was perhaps due to an association between his cult and that of local gods of the herdsmen, possibly Magusanus, because altars with dedicatory inscriptions to Hercules Magusanus have been found in many locations near the border of the Empire.
Gallo-Roman Museum: wall paintings: (left) Bacchus and his panther in a typical posture; (right) a peacock
The finest period of Civitas Tungrorum is usually set during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) when most likely the house and villas of the wealthiest citizens were decorated with floor mosaics (a detail of one of them can be seen in the image used as background for this page) and wall paintings.
During the second half of the IIIrd century the region experienced a series of raids by Germanic tribes which were facilitated by the creation of a Gallic Empire in 260-273 by Postumus, the commander of the army along the Rhine, and by the ensuing conflict with the central power. Roman control over Gaul was eventually restored, but the areas near the Rhine, including the region of Tongeren, were greatly impoverished, yet some of its citizens could still spend for the decoration of their graves.
Gallo-Roman Museum: small exhibits: (left to right) a matron goddess; Eros and Psyche; apotropaic (evil chasing) amulet; dodecahedron; head of Bacchus/Dionysus
Of the many small objects on display, one in particular puzzles the visitor. The following is its description in the excellent catalogue of the Museum: Over the years all kinds of theories have been considered in relations to this hollow bronze object and its twelve pentagonal faces. Is it a child's toy, a sword pommel or the finial of a sceptre? Was it an instrument that people used to decide the best time to sow according to the alignments of the planets? Or perhaps it is a mythic-religious symbol: a sort of die with which you can predict the future? Was the object used in the rituals of underground semireligious movements?
(left) Moerenpoort (Gate of the Marshes - XIVth century), the only remaining medieval gate of Tongeren; (right) a view of the Beguinage from the top of the gate
The Beguines were women who entered into a life
dedicated to God, but without retiring from the world.
In the 13th century they founded the béguinages, enclosed communities designed to meet their spiritual
and material needs. The Flemish béguinages form
architectural ensembles composed of houses,
churches, ancillary buildings, and green spaces organized in a spatial conception of urban or rural origin, and are built in styles specific to the Flemish
cultural region. They bear extraordinary witness to the
cultural tradition of the Beguines that developed in
north-western Europe in the Middle Ages.
From the UNESCO documentation which supported the inclusion of 13 beguinages, including that of Tongeren, in the World Heritage List in 1998.
XVIIth century houses of the Beguinage
The béguinages formed miniature towns, enclosed by walls or surrounded by ditches, with gates opening to the "world" during the day. The béguinages were organized according to one of two models: one, the city type, reflecting on a smaller scale the model of a medieval city, with a plot set aside for the cemetery, or the square where the church is built (Lierre, Diest, Tongeren, etc). UNESCO
Reliquaries in the Treasury of the Collegiate Church: (left) head of St. Pynosa, one of the virgins of St. Ursula; (right) head of St. Oliva; you may wish to see the Golden Room of the reliquaries at Ursulakirche in Cologne or the reliquary containing the skull of Charlemagne at Aachen, the nearest German town to Tongeren or a reliquary of Ursula at Castiglion Fiorentino
Plan of this section:
Atuatuca or Civitas Tungrorum (Tongeren)
Bagacum Nerviorum (Bavay)
Mediolanum Santonum (Saintes)
Vindunum (Le Mans)
Roman villa of Montcaret
and an excursion to Laon