Central places in the southern province of Lower Germany

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Political structures before the romans

Two chartered towns with the rank of colonia are known from the southern part of Lower Germany (now in modern Germany): colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (CCAA) at Cologne, and colonia Ulpia Traiana (CUT) at Xanten. Each town had its own territorium and local tribes could be organised into administrative districts (civitates).
For example, CCAA was originally the oppidum Ubiorum, and was founded in the first half of the 1st century AD as the administrative centre for the civitas of the Ubii, who had been resettled in the area by the Romans. On the other hand, there does not seem to have been a civitas preceding the foundation of CUT-Xanten on the tribal lands of the Cugerni: another resettled tribe. CCAA-Cologne also acted as the capital of the province of the Germania Inferior after its foundation in 85 AD and had already had a more than regional function from the early 1st century, as the site of the imperial cult.

The civitas Tungrorum, with its capital Aduatuca Tungrorum-Tongeren, was promoted to the status of a municipium at some unknown point. The Tungri settled west and south of the River Meuse but, as it remains debatable whether their tribal territory should be attributed to Lower Germany or Gallia Belgica, they will be excluded from consideration here. Including the (now Dutch) northern part of the province, which contained the administrative districts of the Cannanifates, Batavi and probably the Frisiavones, there was a total of 4-6 possible administrative districts for the province as a whole.

Indigenous predecessors

Neither Cologne, nor Xanten have yielded pre-existing indigenous settlements and they also lack any of the features that might be expected from such settlements, despite the place name ‘oppidum Ubiorum’ for the pre-colonia town at CCAA-Cologne. Germanic style graves and find from the area of CUT-Xanten do, though, suggest the presence of at least a Germanic element within the Roman population.

Foundation of the central places

The colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (CCAA)-Cologne was founded c.50 AD. It was previously called oppidum Ubiorum, which might suggest an earlier role as administrative centre and the start of the settlement can be dated to the first decade AD. There was a Roman double legionary base nearby. No Iron-Age architecture has yet been recognised. Quite the reverse, in fact, the town appears to have been entirely constructed in accordance with Roman customs.

The situation at colonia Ulpia Traiana (CUT)-Xanten (founded in 100 AD) was very different. No pre-existing settlement can be identified, comparable to oppidum Ubiorum, but the remains of earlier auxiliary forts and their associated vici, have been identified beneath the remains of the later town. It does not seem likely that the latter acted as the administrative centre of the Cugerni.

Stages of development

Stone buildings had existed at CCAA-Cologne before the foundation of the colonia. The tower structure, known as the ‘Ubiermonument’, dates to 4 AD. The predecessor of the praetorium, was built in stone in the early 1st century and architectural fragments suggest the presence of other stone buildings from the same period. The contemporary residential buildings seem to have been timber built, however, although this might only reflect the fragmentary state of our knowledge about the early town. It is not clear whether the later street grid was already in existence by this time, or how many of the earlier structures remained in use after the foundation of the colony. It is however, apparent, that the change of status gave rise to large scale building activity and even residential buildings were now constructed in stone or, at least, on stone dwarf walls with timber framing above. The development of the town’s infrastructure was mainly a phenomenon of the second half of the 1st century.

After its foundation, around 100 AD, CUT-Xanten was built entirely with stone, ranging from pure stone construction to stone or brick foundations supporting timber framing. The city wall and most of the public buildings date to the first half of the 2nd century.

Typical buildings

Both Lower German coloniae seem to have had a similar provision of public buildings. A greater number of monumental structures is known from CUT-Xanten, but this just reflects the larger area studied by archaeological excavations, which is itself due to the fact that, unlike CCAA, it is not almost completely built over. The praetorium (governor’s palace) in CCAA, does, though, afford one building that reflects Cologne’s position as provincial capital.

Forum and basilica

As public and economic centres, the fora dominated the crossing of the main roads within each town. The CCAA-Cologne forum, of which only small fragments are known, terminated with the basilica on one side and, on the opposite side, with a monumental crypto-portico, which formed an exedra 135 m in diameter. The latter was unusual, for most fora have straight sides. To judge from its immense size (amongst others features), this was probably the site of the ara Ubiorum, the provincial altar to the imperial cult, which is known from Roman literature. As a result, the area is also known as the ‘provincial forum’, albeit no clear traces of an altar have yet been identified. The complex's foundation date remains unknown.


The rectangular forum at CUT-Xanten was built after 130 AD and the work must have taken some time, for the German fleet was still providing building materials for the site in 160AD. One side of the forum abutted the (120 x 23 m) basilica, whilst the others were flanked by shops (tabernae).



Public baths were essential ingredients of the urban make-up. They were usually luxuriously decorated and fitted with very high quality materials and, after the fora they tend to be the public buildings with the largest footprint.

The baths at CCAA-Cologne occupied two adjoining insulae, although it has not yet been possible to resolve the phasing and exact ground plan of the excavated part of the building satisfactorily. A further public bath, of which a still smaller section is known, has been postulated in the northern part of the town and both complexes date to the second half of the 1st century.

The so-called ‘Grosse Thermen’ (c. 120 x 120 sqm) in CUT-Xanten was a public bath with a particularly large basilica, which also served as the entrance. Its plan allows us to classify it as ‘Reihentyp’ bath and a large courtyard was available as an exercise area. The complex was built around 125 AD.


Hostels or inns (mansiones) are to be expected in any central place but they are not always easy to identify because their ground plans could be very different. One possible inn is known from CUT-Xanten. It was a narrow building, 80 m long, with a corridor which gave access to rooms of varying sizes (12-60sqm). The building had its own set of baths and was built in the first half of the 2nd century.


No scenic theatre has yet been discovered in either CCAA-Cologne or CUT-Xanten, but this almost certainly does not mean, that neither had such amenities.


Amphitheatres served as venues for animal hunts and gladiatorial combats and, typically, have an oval shape with a central arena. CUT-Xanten has produced a fairly large amphitheatre, offering seating for c.10.000 spectators, and the stone structure, which dates to the second half of the 2nd century, had a timber predecessor. There were underground cellars beneath the centre of the arena, which containing lifting gear, probably for lifting gladiators or animals.

No amphitheatre is so far known at CCAA-Cologne but, in view of the city's importance, it seems likely, that such a building did exist there. There are also a number of inscriptions from the town and its surroundings that suggest the presence of the gladiators.


Both CCAA-Cologne and CUT-Xanten have produced temples in central locations, which may be capitolia, i.e. temples dedicated to the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Both lay inside a walled enclosure and both were podium temples whose cella was divided into three, reflecting the triad of deities venerated. The Cologne capitolium was built in the final third of the 1st century.

A further Roman style temple is known from CUT-Xanten, whose position has given it the name of ‘Hafentempel’ (harbour temple). According to an inscription, it may have been dedicated to Jupiter.

The town has also produced a Gallo-Roman temple within an otherwise residential block (insula 20). This sanctuary was probably dedicated to the Matrones Aufaniae and both temples were probably built after the mid 2nd century.

Two Mithraea are known from CCAA-Cologne. One lay south of the cathedral and the other in the western part of the city. This type of sanctuary is characterised by sunken cult rooms, with flanking podia which were used as benches, and with (here lost) cult images at the far, narrow wall.

City walls

Both coloniae were surrounded by city walls. In CCAA-Cologne these were built in the last third of the 1st century, and thus some time after the colonia's foundation, but parts of an earth bank are known from its predecessor, the oppidum Ubiorum. In CUT-Xanten, however, dendro-dates from the pilings under the foundations show that the city wall was built immediately after the colonia's foundation, c. 105/106 AD. Both city walls had towers and gates and the towers in particular saw later alteration for both sets of defences had originally served representational functions, stressing the status of the city. Parts of the Cologne's Roman walls and a tower survive.



The 2nd century aqueduct bringing water from the Eifel to CCAA-Cologne was 100 km long and, with its branches, it was one of the largest structures of its kind in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire. It was mortared and ran mostly underground, but it ran on arches for the last 8 km before reaching the city wall and whilst crossing the Swistal. There was also an older aqueduct, built around 50 AD, which brought water from the foothills of the Eifel into the south-east of the town.

A similarly built, but far shorter (12 km) aqueduct supplied CUT-Xanten and, here too the final section ran on arches.

Both coloniae also had a system of drains, that ran alongside or under the streets and covered the entire built-up area.

The legal status of the cities

Both colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium-Cologne (founded c.50AD) and the colonia Ulpia Traiana-Xanten (founded 100AD) were veteran colonies and thus towns with codified charters under Roman law. The prerequisite for participation in the running of the cities was Roman citizenship, which was initially restricted to the veterans and such members of the indigenous population that had obtained direct grants from the emperor, e.g. former auxiliary solders and members of the tribal aristocracy, and Ubii who did not hold the Roman citizenship can still be found up to the end of the 1st century.

In the case of CCAA-Cologne it is highly likely that a civitas, a self governing community without a Roman charter, already existed on the same site. There is no evidence that the same was true for the Cugerni, however, who settled on the territory of CUT-Xanten. It is commonly assumed that both the Ubii and the Cugerni were completely subsumed in the later coloniae but it is not completely impossible that a colonia and a civitas could have existed side-by-side, as is shown by the example of the Helvetii in Upper Germany.

Information on the local inhabitants

We have a number of mementos of inhabitants, especially from the area in and around CCAA-Cologne. Numerous gravestones and dedications provide us with names: amongst them those of decurions, the members of the city council from which the magistrates were elected and who formed the community's governing class. It is difficult to assign any given recorded person a specific status unless there is information on his/her origin, but a few citizens can be also be shown to be equestrians and high office holders in the wider Roman Empire.

The far more fragmentary epigraphic evidence from CUT-Xanten means that our understanding is more limited.

Religious cults

Apart from the temples discussed above, a much broader range of religious cults is attested on inscriptions, especially in Cologne. The Matres or Matrones appear to be of particular importance in this context, given the large number of surviving monuments and a number of Graeco-Roman and Eastern deities can also be identified


Two veteran colonies (CCAA-Cologne and CUT-Xanten) existed in southern Lower Germany, which were founded in 50 and 100 AD respectively. Cologne's predecessor the oppidum Ubiorum already had the trappings of a regional centre and might have been the administrative focus for the Ubii. No similar development can be identified for CUT-Xanten. Here, by contrast, the settlement appears to have been preceded by a series of auxiliary forts and associated vici, whose buildings were destroyed and levelled, at the latest during the foundation of the colonia.

Both CCAA-Cologne and CUT-Xanten had orthogonal street grids and regularly sized insulae, something that might also have been true of the predecessor to the colonia in Cologne. The occupied areas were 97 ha (Cologne) and 76 ha (Xanten) and large parts of both towns were occupied by public buildings. CCAA-Cologne’s function as provincial capital was reflected by the presence of a structure interpreted as the governor’s palace (praetorium) and both towns had impressive city walls. Heavy government and military involvement in CUT-Xanten is attested by the use of military brick stamps in the public building but, in Cologne, such involvement seems to have been restricted to the praetorium. The monumental character and design of the large building projects testify to a high standard of construction, comparable to that seen in southern Upper Germany or Gaul and this is also true of the cities’ aqueducts.

The residential buildings in the insulae ranged from long rectangular structures with party walls, to villa-like complexes for the rich upper class. The latter were probably more common in CCAA-Cologne, than CUT-Xanten. More city magistrates are known from Cologne, probably as a result of the systematic stone robbing of post-Roman Xanten, for the walls there were robbed right down to their foundations in a search for suitable building materials. There are hardly any surviving echoes of pre-Roman, indigenous building traditions.

Both towns shared an exceedingly good provision of public buildings, which can easily stand comparison with other coloniae in the frontier provinces. They thus formed the most important civilian centres in Germania Inferior.

Text: Thomas Schmidts


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