You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Windmills in the environs of Xanten: (left) Kriemhild-Muhle (still working!); (right) Siegfried-Muhle inside Xanten Archaeological Park, now a coffee house
This girdle of windmills, which announces at a distance the frontiers of the polder, has the appearance of sentinels placed to guard the entrances; and Don Quixote would have been quite
at home among them.
John Murray - A Hand-Book for Travellers on the Continent - 1838
The excerpt refers to an introductory description of the Netherlands, but it is applicable also to the landscape around Xanten, because the town is very near the border with that country.
Xanten: (left to right) Inneres Tor, a chapel and Rundtorm; they were originally built with Roman bricks (Xanten was almost totally destroyed during WWII)
Xanten, a town of 3400 inhabitants,
the Castra Vetera of the Romans.
Julius Caesar is said to have built a
fort here, and the Praetorian camp of
Varus, from which he led the Roman
legions across the Rhine, was on the
neighbouring hill called Furstenberg.
The country around
affords abundant traces of its ancient
masters, in the variety of Roman
antiquities every day brought to light.
There is a very extensive collection of
them here, belonging to Mr. Houben,
a notary. Murray
Philipp Houben (1767-1855), an autodidact archaeologist, carried out at his own expense the first written and graphically documented systematic excavations of the Roman remains near Xanten.
St. Victor's Cathedral: (left) western Romanesque side; (right) Gothic portal
Santen was formerly a famous city, but now very much decayed. The catholic church is a beautiful structure.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1756
According to the legend, the Emperor Maximian caused St. Gereon and the Theban Legion to be executed here, because they had become Christians. A part of their bones are preserved in the Gothic Church of St. Victor, which is a very ancient and beautiful structure, well worth notice. It is in the pointed style of architecture (date 1383), except the W. front, probably built 1128. Murray
The name of Xanten derives from Latin ad Sanctum because it originated from a settlement founded in the VIIIth century around the tomb of St. Victor who was buried in a cemetery outside the Roman town. Xanten was a medieval town of some wealth, but later on the course of the River Rhine moved away from it. It was a possession of the Duchy of Cleves which in 1701 was assigned to the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1822 its territory was merged with other Prussian possessions to form the Rhine Province of that kingdom and an archaeological museum was established at Bonn.
Archaeological Park Xanten: young archaeologists at work
Prince Maurice was Governour of this Dutchy and some of the Neighbouring Provinces under the Elector of Brandenburg. He has built (..) a thick Stone Wall which stands as a Segment of a Circle and in it are fastned several Roman Urns and Inscriptions; several of these were found at Zante or other Places of this Dutchy, and such things are often found hereabouts, a certain Demonstration that the Romans had a considerable Settlement here. The Urns are most of them somewhat broken and appear to have been but thin Pots. (..) There are several Stones fastned in the Wall fore mentioned with Inscriptions upon them which signified that some of them belonged to the Altars of the Romans and some to their Sepulchral Monuments.
Theophilus Dorrington - Some reflections made in a journey through Germany in the year 1698
The timber military camp which housed the legionaries of Varus who were defeated by the Germans at the Forest of Teutoburg in 9 AD was rebuilt in stone and bricks in order to ensure that the Romans retained control of the left bank of the Rhine. It was destroyed in 70 AD during a revolt of the Batavi, a German tribe whom the Romans considered an ally to the point that some of them were recruited in the Roman army.
The Batavians formed part of the Chatti so long as they lived across the Rhine; then, being expelled by a civil war, they occupied the edge of the Gallic bank which was uninhabited (..). Without having their wealth exhausted - a thing which is rare in alliance with a stronger people - they furnished our empire only men and arms. They had long training in our wars with the Germans; then later they increased their renown by service in Britain, whither some cohorts were sent, led according to their ancient custom by the noblest among them. They had also at home a select body of cavalry which excelled in swimming; keeping their arms and horses they crossed the Rhine without breaking their formation.
Tacitus - Histories - Loeb Edition
Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: a parade cavalry helmet from Xanten (ca 50 AD)
The camp was rebuilt after the Romans quelled the revolt. It was known as Castra Vetera (Old Camp) and a civilian settlement developed outside its walls where the legionaries could spend their salary and raise a family. In ca 100 Emperor Trajan merged the two settlements into Colonia Ulpia Traiana, a large fortified town which had the status of colonia.
Museum of the Archaeological Park: altars: (left) to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, a cast from the original in Bonn; (right) to Jupiter and Hercules Saxanus
On one Stone there are Three Images in a row at the top and under them this Inscription following IOM for Iovi Optimo Maximo Iunoni Minervæ Tovartinius Saturnalis signifer Leg 3c VV pro se et suis VSLM. This was an inscription upon an Altar dedicated to the Three Deities named and whose Images were upon the Stone which Altar was erected to their Honour by the Person nam d who was Ensign bearer to the 30th Legion. This Altar he had sometime before vow d to build for the Prosperity of him and his and having perform d his Wow the Four last Letters which stand for these Words Voto Soluto Libenter Merito signifie that he had done it willingly it being deserv d of him by the Favour of the Gods. Dorrington
Dorrington did not report the inscription on the pedestal Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Gordiano et Aviola co(n)s(ulibus) Kal(endis) Iu(liis) which indicates that the altar was made in 239 AD when Emperor Gordian III was consul together with Manius Acilius Aviola, a Roman senator, during a very turbulent period of the history of Rome. He also misread the name of the donor who was T. Quartinius Saturnalis; the triple (praenomen, nomen and cognomen) name indicates that he was of Roman descent or that he had acquired Roman citizenship; this is confirmed by the fact that he dedicated the altar to the three deities who were worshipped on the Capitoline Hill of Rome.
The other altar was dedicated to Jupiter and Hercules Saxanus. The cult of the latter was of Italian origin and it was popular among the military in Germany. It referred to an episode of the life of Hercules in which he was saved from his enemies by Jupiter who caused rocks (Lat. saxa) to rain down on them. More in general the worship of Hercules was widespread in Germany as he was associated with local deities. The inscription is interesting also because it says that three legions were stationed at Xanten in ca 100.
Museum of the Archaeological Park: (left) altar to Mars Cicollus; (centre) altar to Mithra; (right) relief depicting Cautes, a torch-bearer associated with Mithra
The Roman legions on the Rhine border included troops from all provinces of the Empire. Cicollus was a Celtic god and the legionaries from Gaul associated him with Mars, the Roman god of war. The altar was erected by citizens from Lingones, today Langres, in north-eastern France, not far from Autun. The inscription asked for divine protection over Nero, but the name of the emperor was erased after his death. Many auxiliary regiments were recruited in the eastern provinces of the Empire and their members spread the worship of Mithra, a god of Persian origin. The altar to Mithra is dated 189 and it was erected by a centurion who served in two legions. You may wish to see other reliefs portraying Mithra in the museums of Frankfurt and Bonn.
Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: silver hoard from Xanten (see some silver spoons found at Canterbury - it opens in another window)
The people living near the Roman border became accustomed to the quality of Roman goods and they also converted to a money economy. This explains why so many hoards were found in towns near the River Rhine. For long periods of time the legionaries at Xanten did not have much to do. The town was situated where a right tributary (the River Lippe) emptied into the Rhine; it was navigable and it facilitated trade with tribes well inside territories which the Romans did not control. The hoard found at Xanten was most likely hid in 260 when the region was raided by the Franks.
Xanten Archaeological Park: reconstructions of a gate (vaguely resembling Porta Nigra at Trier) and of a section of the walls
The town returned to be mainly a military outpost towards the end of the IIIrd century, when Constantius Chlorus rebuilt the walls. There is not much evidence of what happened to it during the IVth century, before the final collapse of the Rhine border in 406. It might have housed some warships which patrolled the river.
Xanten Archaeological Park: reconstructions of an amphitheatre, of a catapult and of a Roman temple, vaguely resembling Maison Carrée at Nîmes
Beyond Xanten the road is heavy sand and gravel;
it passes by the scarcely distinguishable site of a Roman amphitheatre. Murray
In the 1970s a regional council developed a historical park on the site of the ancient town. It is not an archaeological area: Almost the entire area of the ancient city is today covered by the park, whose Roman buildings give visitors a better idea of life in Colonia Ulpia Traiana than any history book. (..) Children of all ages can let their imagination run wild on the large timber adventure playground, while the new water playground with its ditches, sluices, punps and a large Archimedean screw is sure to make a big splash. The House of Roman Games invites you to discover the most popular Roman pastimes in any weather. The Roman restaurant in the Hostel offers coffee as well as culinary delights prepared from ancient recipes.
From the leaflet distributed to the visitors of the park.
Overall view of the baths
A different approach was taken in 1999 when the remains of large baths which had been discovered in 1993 were protected by a glass and steel structure. They are dated ca 125, at the time of Emperor Hadrian.
"Laconicum", sweating room
The building had all the traditional facilities of a large public bath establishment where customers could spend many relaxing hours, similar to what the inhabitants of Rome did (see a page with excerpts from Seneca's account of a day at the baths and with images of Caracalla's Baths in Rome). It is likely that the baths were embellished with statues and reliefs, but these are yet to be found.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a fresco from a house of the Roman town.
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