The Romans in the Netherlands

Only when the Romans came from the south to the region now known as the Netherlands, these lands emerged from pre-history. It was in 57 B.C. when Julius Ceasar first entered Gaul. In the following years he claimed to have managed to annex the whole region to the vast Roman Empire. 1 In reality in was only in 12 B.C., under the rule of Emperor Augustus, that the Roman general Drusus brought the southern part of the Netherlands under Roman rule.2 About two thousand years ago, in 47 A.D, the border of the Roman Empire ran through the Netherlands.3 The Rhine river was the northern border, the Limes. The Rhine flowed from Colonia Ulpia Trajana (Xanten, Germany) in the east, via Traiectum (Utrecht) en Albaniana (Alphen aan de Rijn) to Lugdunum Batavorum (Katwijk) at the coast.
North of the river was were the uncivilized world began. There lived Germanic and Celtic tribes. The main tribes were called the Chamavii and Frisii (Frisians). These Germanic and Celtic tribes shared a common language, a culture and religion. However, they did not share an overall governing institution. With the coming of the Romans, the Netherlands became a place where various groups, like soldiers and merchants of different ethnical backgrounds, from all over the Roman empire came in contact with the local Celtic and Germanic tribes.4
The Frisians where allies of the Romans and paid them taxes. The remained true till 28 A.D. when they revolted. They destroyed a Roman camp near modern-day Velzen, probably the camp Felvum.5 From 47 A.D. onwards, they were part of the free Germania north of the Limes.6


Map of the modern coastline of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, showing the Germanic peoples that lived there c. 150 AD and shipbuilding techniques they used (clinker-built and carvel-built). Source: Wikimedia Commons 7

South of the Limes, on Roman territory, lived the tribes called Batavii (Batavians) and the Caninefates (Cananefates). They lived in peace with the Romans as allies, foederati. That means that though the tribes did not gained Roman citizenship, many Batavians and Cananefates served in the Roman army as soldiers. Their territories were turned into Civitates, Roman administrative units. However, in 69 A.D. the Batavians revolted against the Romans, making use of the unrest and disorder in the realm following the death of Emperor Nero. The leader of the rebels was Julius Civilis. He was a Batavian who had served in the Roman army for 25 years. For a while the revolt seemed to have worked, but after a few months, the Batavians were put down by the Romans.8
The Romans brought with them a new form of organization. The left of the river Rhine was the province Germania Inferior, with its capital city Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium  (now the German city Cologne). This province enclosed today’s Luxembourg, southern Netherlands, parts of Belgium, and the Northern part of Germany left of the Rhine.
The most important settlement in the Dutch part of this province was Novimagus Batavorum (now Nijmegen). Along the Rhine, the Romans build watch posts and military encampments at regular intervals. They used these to protect their territory from attacks from the North. Most of these camps where suited for a few hundred soldiers, but near Nijmegen there was a camp that could host two legions of six thousand men strong.9 
The Romans must have made a great impression on the locals, both because of their impressive attire and their advanced architecture. By the introduction of the latter, the surroundings of the Roman camps, changed considerably.10 They build for instance large villas with bathhouses and central heating.11 The Germanic tribes adopted several Roman habits witch suited them best. This process of mixing the cultures was called Romanization. Among other things, the Romans introduced the concept of a city, the written word and practice of Roman law. Also the agriculture changed, for the Romans brought with them larger breeds of cattle, rye and bread wheat. They also introduced wine and olive oil and other heretofore unknown foodstuffs.12 The Rhine was not just a border, it was also a very important transport line for the Romans. Many products were transported to and from the forts in the Netherlands by ship.13 The presence of the army resulted in a flourishing trade in food and luxuries. For the first time, the Netherlands came in contact with a monetary system.14

In the third century the German raids increased. Also the sea level rose, making a large part of the low-lying parts of the Netherlands uninhabitable.15 This resulted in a withdrawal of the Roman forces behind the Alps.16  After the abandonment of the Romans, the population of the Netherlands dropped considerably. The economy became largely self-sufficient again. Both Roman law, the language and the knowledge of the written word disappear, among many other Roman inventions, only to reappear in Medieval times or even later.17


Roads and Towns in Germania Inferior. Source: Wikimedia Commons 18

Several Dutch villages and cities along the Rhine descend from the Roman time. On a regular base archeological excavations reveal this history.19 In the Tabula Peutingeriana or the Peuringer map there one can find the names of many forts and cities in the Netherlands.
The cities are Forum Hadriani/Aellium Cananefatum (Voorburg), Colonia Ulpia Noviomagus  and Batavorum (together now Nijmegen), Colonia Ulpia Trajana (Xanten, Germany) and Coriovallum (Heerlen).
The most important forts are Flevum (Velsen), they’ve also found a Roman harbour here, Lugdunum Batavorum (Brittenburg), Praetorium Agrippinae (Valkenburg), Matilo (Leiden-Roomburg), Albaniana (Alphen aan den Rijn), Laurium (Woerden), Traiectum (Utrecht), Fectio (Vechten), Levefanum (Wijk bij Duurstede), Carvo (Kesteren) and the biggest one, Noviomagus (Nijmegen).20



In the Netherlands there are several museums and theme parks dedicated to the roman history of our country:



  1. J.C.H. Blom, E. Lamberts, red. Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden (Baarn 2002) 3.
  2. H. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, (Amsterdam 2003) 12.
  3. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 3.
  4. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 3.
  5. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 12.
  10. Idem
  11. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 14.
  15. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 14.
  20. Bosatlas van de Wereld-geschiedenis, 36 B.


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