The first Roman town in the Netherlands
The first foundations of a capital for the Batavians were laid by the Romans, at the location that is now the centre of Nijmegen (on higher ground at and around the Valkhof). The new town was probably built around the beginning of the present era (before AD 10), in the midst of several military camps which at that time played a key role in the Romans’ campaigns to the north of the Netherlands and Germany. The town, called ‘Oppidum Batavorum’, was burnt to the ground during the Batavian revolt in AD 69/70.
The town was rebuilt, this time in the lower-lying west of Nijmegen, on the site of an existing indigenous settlement called Batavodurum. In the administrative division of the province in the late first century this town was designated the capital of the Batavians. The name Oppidum Batavorum was abandoned and the capital was given the name Ulpia Noviomagus (‘Ulpic new market’), a name that has been found in various inscriptions. The inclusion of ‘Ulpia’ has led to the general assumption that the town was granted market rights by emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus, somewhere around AD 104. However, the name might already have changed soon after AD 70, when the town moved to the west of present-day Nijmegen. The name Noviomagus would in that case be highly appropriate, and ‘Ulpia’ would have been added later during the reign of Traian.
Nijmegen as a municipium
We know that the capital of the Batavians was also granted municipal rights, as the name Municipium Batavorum has also been found in inscriptions. However, we do not know when the town was awarded this status, though it is generally believed to have been some time during the course of the second century. It could however have been earlier, under emperor Traian, around AD 104. During his reign, 6000 soldiers left Nijmegen. Germania Inferior was at last peaceful, they were no longer needed and so they were redeployed to newly-conquered Dacia (Romania). A small military unit remained behind in Nijmegen. This must have been a blow to the local economy. It is generally assumed that Traian therefore granted the civilian settlement market rights to boost its economy. It is also quite possible that Traian granted the town both market and municipal rights. If Nijmegen did indeed receive a city charter as early as AD 104, it would have been the first municipium in the Netherlands. However, it was the name (Ulpia) Noviomagus that was most commonly used.
The earliest Roman town in Nijmegen, Oppidum Batavorum, probably covered some 20 ha. Only a small part of it has been investigated. The town was probably founded around the beginning of the present era, and at any rate before AD 10, as evidenced by the finds made during excavations. A fragment of a ‘votive pillar’ has also been found. This statue honoured emperor Tiberius and his general Germanicus, who had made several successful campaigns against Germanic tribes in AD 14-16.
No indications have been found that the town’s streets were laid out on a grid pattern, as they were in Forum Hadriani, for example. The buildings lined a major thoroughfare that ran from east to west. The plots were divided by fences or hedges, with drainage ditches perpendicular to the main road.
Little has been found of the buildings in the town. They were probably made of wattle and daub, as was common at that time. From around AD 40 foundations or cellars were made of stone, which was very unusual for the Netherlands in that period. In autumn 2005 the stone foundations of a large building dating from around AD 40 were revealed. They might be associated with the home of an important official, but are more likely to have been the foundations of one of the public buildings in Oppidum Batavorum.
On the edge of town
There were probably no buildings on the edge of town, as the area would have been reserved for vegetable gardens. V-shaped ditches were dug around the town to afford some protection. We do not know for certain when these ditches were dug, but they were at any rate not included in the first phase, as one of the excavated sections transected a number of earlier parcelling ditches.
Devastation and reconstruction
During the Batavian revolt in AD 69/70 Oppidum Batavorum, the symbol of Roman domination, came under heavy attack. The town was thoroughly destroyed by fire. However, recent excavations have found indications that people still probably lived at the site of Oppidum Batavorum after the great fire. It is not yet clear what this later settlement looked like. The civitas capital was at any rate moved to the lower-lying west of Nijmegen, and became known as (Ulpia) Noviomagus.
New town on an old site
Ulpia Noviomagus was built at the site of an old indigenous settlement in the west of present-day Nijmegen. There are indications that this settlement included a riverside cult site. It is quite possible that this was the settlement referred to by ancient writers as ‘Batavodurum’.
The borders of Ulpia Noviomagus were defined by one or more ditches. Buildings were still fairly sparse at the end of the first century, lining a road that led to the south far beyond the later town wall. People both lived and worked in the town, as can be seen by the many potters’ workshops. Their kilns and the workshops of other artisans were not situated on the edge of town, as in other places, but in the back yards of houses in the centre.
Living and working
Buildings were mainly concentrated on the long parcels of land directly abutting the road. The rectangular plots (and houses) stood with their short side to the road. The back yards were used as workshops, among other things. Housing for wealthier residents was probably in the more northerly part of the town, where little excavation has taken place.
A centre for the region
From the beginning of the second century, the town not only enjoyed market rights, it was also transformed into the administrative centre of the civitas Batavorum, the tribal area of the Batavians. Several public buildings probably stood in the town. Remains of two temples and a bath house have been found. At the same time, the inhabitants of the town would also have been able to attend the amphitheatre or visit the large market hall in the settlement (canabae) just outside the nearby legionary fortress.
Redesigning the town
Excavations of the temples in the town itself have shown that the town was radically remodelled to accommodate large buildings. Several artisans’ workshops and homes were demolished to make way for temples and new streets. Homes for wealthier residents were also built on the southern edge of the town. The tenth legion was probably involved in the construction work. However, they were present only at the beginning, as we know that they left the town in AD 104. It is very difficult to estimate how many inhabitants the town would have had though, given its size, it must have been between 3000 and 5000.
Somewhere between AD 160 and 180 a town wall with a moat was built around part of Ulpia Noviomagus. Shortly after construction of the wall large areas of the town were destroyed by fire. It is by no means certain that the fire was started by attacking Germanic troops from the north. Fires were a regular occurrence in towns, often caused by the mistake of a careless baker, potter or smith. Since the majority of houses and other buildings were made of wattle, daub and reeds, fire would spread rapidly.
The final phase
Though parts of the town were rebuilt after the fire, the town did not develop further. Building was probably concentrated more in the northern part of the town from the beginning of the third century, with the southern part being dominated by artisans and their workshops. The last residents appear to have left the town around the middle of the third century. However, the town was revived again in the fourth century by the Franks, who had entered the Roman empire from the areas north of the Rhine.
Phases and locations in Nijmegen
c. 10 BC-AD 69/70
Indigenous settlement: Batavodurum. With cult site by river
Batavian revolt. Consequences for Batavodurum unknown
Batavian revolt: Oppidum Batavorum destroyed
c. AD 70-c. AD 100
New town in Nijmegen-West: (Ulpia) Noviomagus. Replaced Oppidum Batavorum
from c. AD 100
Market (and municipal?) rights granted: layout of town finalised, with grid street pattern and public buildings. Also known as Municipium Batavorum
c. AD 170
Major fire, followed by partial reconstruction
One difference between Noviomagus and Forum Hadriani is the proximity to Nijmegen of a legionary fortress (known as a castra). In the late first century and early second century a large settlement (canabae) stood close to the fortress on the Hunerberg. It included an enormous stone market hall (forum), an inn (mansio) and an amphitheatre. The inhabitants of Noviomagus are also likely to have used these facilities. When the legion withdrew in AD 104 these large buildings were probably left empty and abandoned. We only know for certain that the amphitheatre remained in use after the legion had left. New public buildings were probably built in the town of Noviomagus to replace those in the canabae, though no remains of a forum or mansio have ever been found in the town. Remains of a large bath house and temple complex have however been found. Large parts of Noviomagus have never been excavated, so it is quite likely that remains of several large public buildings lie beneath present-day Nijmegen.
Thus far, a forum (market hall) has been found only in Nijmegen. It was situated in the canabae, the settlement beside the legionary camp. The people of Noviomagus would probably also have bought and traded here. The forum in the canabae of Nijmegen consisted of a building covering more than two hectares, surrounding an open courtyard. Around this courtyard was a colonnade, beyond which were shops and storerooms. There was a large hall (basilica) at the back of the building where wholesalers plied their trade. The eastern wing had a floor supported by wooden posts, with a space beneath, probably designed to combat damp. The courtyard, covering a hectare, also had a wooden floor supported by more than 50,000 wooden posts. In the courtyard itself the remains of large rectangular foundations consisting of roof tile fragments have been found. This was probably where two large statues stood opposite each other in the centre. We do not know what the statues depicted. The large market hall was built at the same time as the legionary fortress was being rebuilt in stone, about AD 100. It is not clear how long the building stood. Shortly after construction work began on the forum the tenth legion left Nijmegen. There are indications that the building was still in use in the second century. Opposite the market hall was an industrial district, where a number of buildings, workshops of varying sizes and a granary have been excavated.
Remains of large public bath houses have been found in both Nijmegen and Voorburg. The inhabitants of old Nijmegen had a bath house in their own town. It appears to be the largest example of a bath house ever found in the Netherlands, though the entire complex, covering around a hectare, has been only partially excavated. Various phases of building have been found, during which the rooms changed their function, and walls were demolished or built. The interior walls were decorated with red and white painted panels. The hot water bath (caldarium), the tepid water bath (tepidarium), a furnace room and the position of the hot water boiler have all been found. During the excavation archaeologists could clearly see how the heating system – the hypocaust – would have worked. Hot air flowed beneath the floor of the bath house, heating up the floor. Much of the warm air then rose via tubes (tubuli) in the walls, thus warming the walls too. Many of the small pillars of the hypocaust have been found beneath the floor in the Nijmegen bath house. Between them lay the collapsed remains of the actual floor. Many fragments of the tubuli have also been found. Stamped roof tiles indicate that at least part of the bath house was built around AD 100. It fell into disuse at the end of the second century.
The only known Roman amphitheatre in the Netherlands was in the canabae of the Nijmegen legionary camp. It was probably very similar to the one in the town of Xanten (Colonia Ulpia Traiana). The amphitheatre consisted of an oval arena separated from the seating area by a wall made of tuff. The seating itself stood on the sand dug out to create the arena, which measured some 58 x 46 m. In the centre there was a square underground area (hypogeum) from which wild animals, for example, were driven into the arena. There was seating for some five to six thousand spectators – more than the total number of people estimated to have lived in Noviomagus. The theatre was therefore originally built for the legionary soldiers, which must have numbered in the thousands. After the legion withdrew, in around AD 104, the amphitheatre remained. Finds made at the amphitheatre suggest that it remained in use into the third century, suggesting that it was also intended for the population of the town.
Remains of a very large temple complex have been found on the Maasplein in Nijmegen. It was built in around AD 100 and remained in use for around a century. The complex consisted of two adjacent temples for the worship of Fortuna and Mercury, both of whom signified wellbeing and prosperity. However, Fortuna was intended mainly for the female section of the population, and Mercury for the male. The temples were built according to the Gallo-Roman principle. They both consisted of a square walled area. In the middle a small square building stood on a platform, with a staircase on the east side. This was the actual shrine, known as the cella. There were a number of other shrines inside and outside the temple walls, possibly to other gods, and galleries containing several rooms on the north and south sides of the complex. One of these rooms on the south side was probably used for performing rituals. The faithful might have been able to buy offerings for the gods or trinkets in the other rooms. Temples of this construction have also been excavated elsewhere in the Netherlands. See the ‘Cult’ section on this website.
A fairly large number of traces of the Nijmegen inn (mansio or praetorium in Latin) in the canabae have been found, allowing a replica to be built at the Archeon archaeological theme park in Alphen aan de Rijn. The inn consisted of an inner courtyard with rectangular buildings, probably several stories high, divided into small rooms on the two short sides. There were probably covered galleries on the long sides of the courtyard. Wall paintings adorned the interior.
In Oppidum Batavorum, which was destroyed in AD 69/70, the houses were probably largely made of wood, as was common at that time. The plots of land were divided by fences or hedges, and by drainage ditches that have been found running perpendicular to the road. Very few remains of the buildings in the town have been found.
The oldest stone house in the Netherlands
From around AD 40 stone foundations or cellars were built here and there, which was highly unusual for the Netherlands in that period. In autumn 2005 excavations exposed the stone foundations of a large building built in around AD 40. They might be associated with the home of an important official, but are more likely to have been the foundations of one of the public buildings in Oppidum Batavorum.
From wood to stone
The first houses in Ulpia Noviomagus were built of wattle and daub. They stood on long narrow plots, and were sometimes divided inside by thin walls. Only later were the houses gradually replaced by stone structures. New houses with a different layout and heavier foundations were built where the wattle and daub houses had once stood. These new buildings were generally made of wood, however. First the cellar would be reconstructed in stone, then a stone extension might be added, which had the great advantage of being more fire-resistant. One example of this process has been found in a house immediately to the west of the temples on the Maasplein. A half-timbered house, built around AD 100, caught fire and was rebuilt at virtually the same site. The internal layout of the new building was however different. Some parts also had heavier foundations made of brick rubble. Later, a heated stone extension was added to the back of the house. Another house built in the same district was larger than the rectangular town houses. It bears more resemblance to the main buildings of the large farmsteads (villae) found in rural areas.
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