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Offerings in water

In both the Late Iron Age and the Roman period, people believed in gods and goddesses who ensured day to day life ran smoothly. We do not know the names of the gods worshipped in the Late Iron Age, as there are no written sources from that period. We do however know that people made offerings to the gods. Rivers were particularly popular as votive sites. People threw weapons and other objects in rivers as an offering to the gods. A great deal of this type of material has been dredged up at Kessel and Lith in the river area, for example. Human bones have even been found there, and it is likely they found their way into the water as offerings to the gods. In the north of the country, too, wet sites were popular places to make offerings. Many such finds have, for example, been made in the peatlands of Drenthe.

Old and new gods
In the Roman period, the indigenous people were introduced to other gods. The Roman authorities were very tolerant in matters of religion in the regions they conquered. People were largely allowed to uphold their own religion, provided this did not hamper their assimilation into or disrupt the order in the Roman empire. The Romans also brought their own gods to the new parts of the empire. They had gods of weather, vegetation, happiness, prosperity, fertility, death, war and many other aspects of life. Most gods covered several different things. Mars, for example, was the god of war, and also the god of fertility and vegetation. The Roman gods were popular in the towns, where many people from outside the region lived. Rural areas, on the other hand, were almost entirely populated by indigenous people, who were reluctant to give up their traditional habits, customs and values. They made clear choices, adopting some elements of Roman culture that fitted into their way of life.

A god with a double identity

In the Roman period, indigenous gods often acquired a double identity. For example, the Roman hero and demi-god Hercules was associated with the indigenous god Magusanus, creating a new god with a double-barrelled name: Hercules Magusanus. Both Hercules and Magusanus probably played a similar role in society. Gods with double identities in the northwestern provinces tended to be associated with Mars or Mercury, though the names Hercules, Apollo and Silvanus also occurred. Hercules clearly enjoyed great popularity in the north of Germania Inferior, while further to the south Mars was a more likely choice. This was probably due to the character of the regions. In the Mediterranean world Mars was associated with the protection of large arable farms and vineyards, and so was well-suited to the lifestyle of the southern farmers. Hercules, the protector of shepherds, would have appealed more to the people further to the north whose livelihood was stockbreeding. So it appears that the indigenous population made conscious choices as to which Roman gods to adopt as their own.

01Zwaardschede Mars  02Herculesbeeldje uit Empel


The process of equating a Roman god with an indigenous divinity is often referred to by the Latin term interpretatio Romana. We know this term from the writings of the Roman author Tacitus in which he described the gods worshipped by the Germans and compared them with the Roman gods known to his Roman readers. It is generally assumed that Romans actually made the links between indigenous and Roman gods to make their rule seem more acceptable. However, an equally plausible theory is that the link was made by indigenous magistrates or priests associated with the main regional cult. They held positions of power among their own people and had the most contact with their Roman rulers. By forging a link between their own gods and those of the Romans, they would show their willingness to adapt to Roman rule, without entirely relinquishing their own religious traditions.

Evidence of indigenous gods

Written covenants

The Romans introduced writing to the Netherlands. It is quite possible that the gods of the Late Iron Age were still worshipped in the Roman period. We cannot verify this, however, since we only know names from the Roman period. Writing played a role in cults, as indigenous people to some extent adopted the Roman custom of setting up a votive altar when a god had looked after you well. Covenants were made between the deity and the believer. If the deity provided the favours requested, the believer would make an offering in return. The wealthy would set up a votive altar with an inscription stating that they had kept their promise. Votive altars always bear the name of the god, and usually also the name and position of the person who had dedicated it. Some votive altars were set up by people from other regions – soldiers, veterans or merchants – making offerings to the gods here. Some were gods familiar to them in their home region, but alien to these parts. For instance, citizens and sailors from the Tongeren region made offerings to the goddess Viradecdis and a tribune from the thirtieth legion left behind a temple and a votive altar dedicated to the goddess Iseneucaega. It is not known whether these goddesses, who were worshipped by people from other regions, were also worshipped by the local population.

Indigenous names

03Altaar voor HurstgraA number of the known names of gods are clearly linguistically indigenous. For example, we know the names Hludana, Baduhennae and Exomna from historical sources and inscriptions. Other examples include Haeva, Sandraudiga, Nehalennia,  the Mopates and the Aufaniae. Notably, almost all the indigenous names we know today refer to goddesses. In the Roman period many of them were given the Latin suffix Dea (‘goddess’). The gods with a ‘double-barrelled’ name, such as Hercules Magusanus, which are therefore also partly indigenous, were all male. One unique find is an altar that a Batavian couple dedicated to two deities: the god Magusanus and the goddess Haeva, who may have been married in Batavian mythology.

  04altaar Hercules Magusanus en Haeva

Warriors and soldiers

Apart from the written sources, offerings give us most of our information about the deities worshipped at the time. The indigenous-Roman god Hercules Magusanus, for example, clearly had some association with war, as strongly evidenced by the link with Hercules, an icon for warriors in the Roman world. At the temple in Empel, furthermore, many items of military equipment have been found. Hercules Magusanus appears to have been popular among soldiers in the Roman army. The soldiers probably came from these parts, as offering weapons to the gods was not common practice in the Roman army. It had however long been a custom among the indigenous population of what is now the Netherlands. Many recruits in the Roman army were drawn from the population groups along the Rhine, including the Batavians. An inscription on a bronze plaque from the shrine at Empel tells how Iulius Genialis, a veteran of the 10th legion, left a votive offering there, probably along with the inscribed plaque.

Depictions of the gods

Indigenous gods

A human form

The indigenous population rarely, if ever, produced depictions of their gods. This changed when the Romans arrived, however, as people adopted the Roman practice of representing gods in human form. The votive altars to indigenous gods and goddesses found in the Netherlands often only have inscriptions. The few images found have been largely adopted from Roman sculpture, giving the indigenous gods a typically Roman appearance. Shown in human form, they could be recognised by the attributes associated with them. The goddess Iseneucaega (or Seneucaega – the text is almost illegible) was for example depicted in a short tunic with a quiver on her back, from which she is extracting an arrow. Beside her stands a dog. This image strongly resembles depictions of the Roman goddess Diana. The altar bearing the image, which was found during clay extraction work near Tiel, was erected by Ulfenus, son of Publius, tribune of the 30th legion. According to the inscription on the altar, Ulfenus kept his promise to the goddess by building an entire temple from the ground up in AD 222. Unfortunately, the temple in question has not (yet) been found.


Altars erected by sailors

The goddess Nehalennia appears frequently on the dozens of votive altars dedicated to her along the coast of Zeeland in the second and third centuries. Merchants and sailors from far and wide sought her favour there, asking her to guarantee them safe passage over the stormy North Sea. She is almost always depicted with a basket of fruit by her side or in her lap, symbolising fertility. Sometimes she has a horn of plenty in her hand, a symbol of wealth and prosperity. She herself is seated on a chair. She sometimes holds a ship’s rudder in her hand, symbolising her role as the protector of sailors. To one side stands a large basket of fruit, while a dog usually sits on the other side. Unlike Iseneucaega, for example, she did not resemble the gods from the Roman Pantheon. Her appearance is more reminiscent of the ancestral mother goddesses who were worshipped around Cologne and in other areas.

06Nehalennia detail 07beeld Nehalennia 

A cockerel for Arcanua

No depictions of the goddess Arcanua have been found. Her name is known from two inscriptions found at a single findspot. One was on the base of a bronze figurine of a cockerel, which might have been an attribute of the goddess. Words have been scratched on the base: ‘DEAE ARCANVE VLPIVS/VERINVS VERTERANVS LEG VI V.S.L.M.’, which translates as: ‘Ulpius Verinus, veteran of the sixth legion, hath willingly and with reason kept his promise to the goddess Arcanua’. The cockerel’s back is hollow, perhaps suggesting that it was used as a candleholder or oil lamp. The bird’s breast, comb and eyes are enamelled, making it a colourful object. More of these cockerels have been found in the Rhineland, though none had an inscription.

 08haan Arcanua

Gods with a double-barrelled name and Roman gods

A Frenchman in the Netherlands

We also know very little about the appearance of the more Roman gods. One of the few gods of whom images have been found is Mercurius Arvernus. He is shown on a votive altar built into a church wall in Horn (Limburg). Its original position is unknown, though it undoubtedly comes from a shrine in the close vicinity. Mercurius Arvernus was probably a god of the Arverni people, who lived in the Auvergne of present-day France. The altar was erected by Irmidius Macro, about whom we know nothing else, unfortunately. On the upper part of the votive altar Mercurius Arvernus is shown sitting in a niche. A cloak hangs over his left shoulder and arm and falls over his left leg. He holds a staff with serpents (a ‘caduceus’) in his left hand, and probably a purse in his right hand, which may indicate Mercury’s role as the god of trade. Behind him, a he-goat lies on the ground. The sides of the altar are also decorated with reliefs. Below the central image is an inscription which has unfortunately sustained some damage. The text probably reads: ‘Irmidius Macro hath dedicated (this) temple to Mercurius Arvernus at his command’. It must therefore have stood in or near a temple.
09Altaar Mercurius Arvernus  10altaar Hercules Magusanus

God of the Batavians

A number of images of Hercules Magusanus, chief god of the Batavians, have been found. It would appear that this god, despite his indigenous origins, was depicted in entirely the same way as the Roman god Hercules. Two votive altars from Bonn from the second half of the second century and first half of the third century show Hercules Magusanus as Hercules with a club on which he leans with his right hand. A lion’s skin hangs over his left arm, and his right hand holds the apples of the Hespirides. One of the stones from Bonn also shows the hell hound Cerberus. The back of emperor Postumus’ coins also shows an image of Hercules Magusanus. Here, too, he is depicted as Hercules, leaning on a club, with apples in his right hand behind his back – a popular representation of Hercules in the Mediterranean region. A figurine of Hercules with a lion skin, probably a club and a drinking cup in his hand, was found at the temple in Empel, the only shrine that can be directly attributed to Hercules Magusanus. All the depictions refer to myths about Hercules that were widely known in the Roman empire and which had clearly merged with the myths surrounding the indigenous god Magusanus.

11Mars Nijmegen  13 Mercurius Nijmegen 

Figurines of the gods

Statues and figurines of other Roman gods have also been found in Empel and elsewhere. Most were made of bronze, though pottery figurines of a number of goddesses have also been found, generally in graves. It is not entirely clear how we should interpret these figurines of Romans gods, as we know little about religion and religious practices in the Roman Netherlands.

Special forms of veneration

15Jupiter Gigant ZuilSeveral fragments of ‘Jupiter Columns’ have been found in the Netherlands. They were erected in honour of the chief god of the Romans, usually by private citizens. A statue of Jupiter would crown the column. Jupiter Columns stood in towns and rural centres, and above all in the countryside and at villae. They were particularly common in both Germanic provinces, occurring also in Gallia Belgica and, sporadically, in other Gallic provinces. In the Netherlands most fragments of Jupiter Columns come from southern Limburg, though pieces have been found elsewhere, including Valkenburg (Zuid-Holland province). Indeed, a fairly large number of fragments have been found in Nijmegen.

Jupiter-giant Column

There were various types of Jupiter Column, with the most striking difference being found in the statue of Jupiter topping the column. A Jupiter-giant Column would show Jupiter on horseback, jumping over one or more giants (mythical beasts with serpents for legs). In another type common in Germania Inferior, Jupiter is seated on a throne (like the statue of Zeus in Olympia). Both types of column also have other distinctive features. The Jupiter-giant Column, for example, has a distinctive pedestal with representations of deities (Viergötterstein), showing Roman gods (usually Juno, Minerva, Hercules and Mercury) on three or four sides. Above that there was often a second plinth (octagonal or round) depicting the gods for whom the days of the week are named. The plinth supported a column that was generally decorated with a fish-scale pattern. The column was crowned with a capital, on which figures were often also depicted, perhaps representing the four seasons, or tussling giants. On top of that would be the statue of Jupiter on horseback.

The heyday of the Jupiter-giant Column was the late second century and third century AD. This type of Jupiter Column, characteristic of Germania Superior and the eastern part of Gallia Belgica, would appear to tie in with the indigenous religious practices of the Celts. It is particularly common in the civitas Tungrorum, the capital of which was Tongeren in present-day Belgium. The same applies to Maastricht, which was probably also part of the Tongeren civitas. Several fragments – parts of a column with a fish-scale pattern, at least three Viergöttersteine, and also a large capital with personifications of the four seasons – have been found in Maastricht, although the columns cannot all be completely reconstructed. The most impressive Viergötterstein found on Dutch soil is an almost metre-high pedestal from Kessel (Limburg) with reliefs of Juno, Minerva and Hercules. One of the most important examples of the equestrian group that topped the column was found in Tongeren.

Jupiter Columns from Germania Inferior

The Jupiter Column from Germania Inferior was simpler than the Jupiter-giant Column, and probably also smaller. The column supported a statue of Jupiter seated on a throne. Unlike the equestrian version, it did not usually have a Viergötterstein as its base. However, there would often be three depictions of gods one above the other on the column, giving it a distinctive front and back. The column itself was usually decorated with fish-scales, like the versions with the giants, although smooth columns are also known. This type of column occurred mainly in the civitas Ubiorum, around the capital Cologne and elsewhere in Germania Inferior. A fairly large number of fragments of Jupiter Columns have been found in the Roman city of Nijmegen. There, three statues of an enthroned Jupiter have been found, as well as one unique variation: a standing Jupiter wrestling a giant. The Nijmegen columns, including parts of the column with the scale pattern and depictions of gods, probably date to the late second and early third centuries. Another notable group of finds comes from Grevenbicht (in southern Limburg), where three statues of an enthroned Jupiter and remains of columns have been found. The Jupiter Columns from Grevenbicht were found at a villa site. This type of column had its heyday at the same time as the Jupiter-giant Column, in the late second century and third century AD.

17Jupiter van Grevenbicht

Votive pillars

Monumental votive pillars are related to Jupiter Columns. However, they were not ‘columns’ (monolithic and round in cross section), but ‘pillars’ (constructed in sections and square in cross section). Like Viergöttersteine, which might have reliefs of the gods on four sides, the pillars had several stages bearing images of the gods.
One of the earliest known votive pillars stood in the oldest Roman town in the Netherlands: Oppidum Batavorum near Nijmegen. This is the earliest and most important example of Roman sculpture ever found in the Netherlands. The Nijmegen votive pillar must have been erected around AD 17 as a monument commemorating the Roman army’s victories in the name of emperor Tiberius. It supported a statue not of Jupiter, but of the emperor himself. While not a Jupiter Pillar in the sense that its successors were, this monument – which stood some 7.5 metres high, including the statue of the emperor standing – might well be regarded as an early stage in the development of the type.
In Maastricht the remains of a colossal Jupiter Pillar have been found dating from AD 138-180. It stood almost ten metres high, including the statue of a standing Jupiter, which is more than life-sized. The pillar itself was made of blocks of limestone with gods carved on all sides. In terms of its size and execution, this was an exceptionally monumental pillar, and probably served as an example for Jupiter Columns for many miles around. Although this type of monument differs significantly from the known Jupiter Columns with an enthroned Jupiter and Jupiter-giant Columns, it has to be regarded as part of the same group, and indeed it was made in the same period. The type of stone used and its extraordinary artistic quality mean this pillar was almost certainly commissioned by the Roman authorities. It was found in a Roman temple complex below what is now Hotel Derlon. The base of the pillar is still in its original position, and can be seen at Museumkelder Derlon.

16Fundament Jupiterzuil Maastricht


Old gods

In both the Late Iron Age and Roman period people worshipped gods and goddesses who ensured day to day life ran smoothly. We do not know the names of the Late Iron Age gods, as there are no written sources from that period. We do however know that people made offerings to the gods. Rivers and other wet sites were particularly popular sites for offerings. The Roman authorities were very tolerant of religion in their newly conquered territories. The people were in large measure allowed to stick to their own beliefs, provided this did not hamper their assimilation into or disrupt the order in the Roman empire. Many finds have provided evidence that indigenous gods were still worshipped in the Roman period.

Worshipping gods

The arrival of the Romans added a new dimension to the religion of the indigenous people, as they adopted the Roman practice of setting up votive altars to the gods who took care of them. The altar would bear an inscription, and often also an image of the deity in question. As a result, we known the names of some indigenous gods and goddesses and some of the people who worshipped them. Goddesses, in particular, appear to have retained their indigenous name, with the Roman suffix ‘Dea’ (‘goddess’) simply being added. One example is the goddess Nehalennia, who was worshipped along what is now the coast of Zeeland. Several male gods were linked to a Roman god who had the same ‘function’. The god Magusanus, for instance, who was probably venerated in the Late Iron Age with offerings of weapons and other objects, was linked to the Roman demi-god Hercules. He was an icon to Roman warriors, and was therefore well-suited to the indigenous Magusanus. Hercules Magusanus was popular among soldiers in the Roman army, who made offerings of their weapons, presumably after they had finished their military service. Many pieces of military equipment have been found in the river near the Roman temple at Empel. The offering of weapons and equipment was an indigenous custom that was unknown among the Romans. The military followers of Hercules Magusanus were probably therefore soldiers from Dutch territory.

Depictions of gods

The Romans also introduced the practice of depicting gods in human form, and votive altars have also revealed to us some images of indigenous-Roman gods. Notably, depictions of gods appear largely, though not exclusively, to be derived from Roman mythology. The goddess Iseneucaega, for example, strongly resembles the Roman goddess Diana, while Hercules Magusanus was depicted as the Roman Hercules, with all the attributes belonging to him, according to Roman lore. We also have images of gods worshipped in the Roman Netherlands from the widespread finds of bronze and pipe clay figurines.

Columns for Jupiter

Jupiter Columns, erected in honour of the Romans’ chief god, have been found in both Germania Inferior and Germania Superior, and in Gallia Belgica and regions further to the south. Representatives of this type of monument have also been found in the Netherlands. These tall columns supported a statue of Jupiter. In the version most commonly found around Cologne and elsewhere in Germania Inferior, Jupiter is seated on a throne. The other version is known as a Jupiter-giant Column, after the giants (mythical beasts with serpents for legs) over which Jupiter jumps astride his horse. Jupiter-giant Columns are common in the region around Tongeren in Belgium, which also includes Maastricht.

Votive pillars

Votive pillars are related to Jupiter Columns. These four-sided pillars were decorated all over with images of gods. One of the earliest known votive pillars, a monument commemorating the Roman army’s victories, was found in Nijmegen. It supported a statue of the Roman emperor. The Maastricht Jupiter pillar at Derlon is a later example, from the mid-second century. The foundations of a Jupiter pillar, almost ten metres high, were found inside the surrounding wall of a temple complex. A statue of a standing Jupiter crowned the pillar.

Margje Vermeulen-Bekkering
Met dank aan dr. T. Derks en dr. T.A.S.M. Panhuysen


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