Germany and the Low Countries

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According to the standard terminology, the Roman period in the Low Countries and Germany south and west of the Rhine River began with Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, completed in 51 b.c. For the next five centuries those regions were under the political control of Rome. Shortly after Caesar's conquest, Rome became embroiled in civil war lasting from 49 b.c., when Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River into Italy, until 30 b.c., with the rise of Octavian, or Augustus, to supreme power in Rome. During this period there is little evidence for major change in the way of life of the peoples of this region.

Roman written sources indicate that, from the time of the Roman conquest, the newly acquired territories were plagued by incursions by groups of Germans from east of the Rhine. The Roman emperor Augustus spent the years 16–13 b.c. in the Rhineland and Gaul, overseeing the creation of military bases on the west bank of the river to protect Gaul. Since the nineteenth century extensive archaeological research has revealed much about the progress of the Roman defensive buildup. Major bases for Roman legions (between five thousand and six thousand men) were established at Vechten and Nijmegen in the Netherlands and at Xanten, Moers-Asberg, Neuss, Cologne, and Mainz in Germany. Beginning in 12 b.c. Roman armies launched a series of campaigns across the Rhine as far east as the Elbe River. Between 12 and 7 b.c. Rome established a series of bases east of the Rhine on the Lippe River to aid in conquests eastward. The base at Haltern, built around 10 b.c. and abandoned in a.d. 9, is the most extensively excavated early Roman period legionary camp, and its structure provides a detailed view into the character of these complex military institutions that served as towns for the soldiers stationed at them.

Rome's attempts to extend its military conquests beyond the Lower Rhine were brought to an end by an attack on three Roman legions in a place known as the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany. According to writings by Roman and Greek historians, a Germanic leader called Arminius led the slaughter of three legions of Roman soldiers, together with auxiliary forces—some twenty thousand men. In 1987 the site of this great battle was discovered at Kalkriese near the small city of Bramsche. Excavations begun in 1989 have yielded some of the best information about a Roman battlefield.

As a result of this disaster for the Roman forces in September a.d. 9, Rome gave up its attempts to conquer eastward beyond the Lower Rhine and consolidated its positions along the west bank of that river. The bases that Augustus had established between 16 and 13 b.c. were expanded and strengthened, and new bases were established. The Lower Rhine remained the Roman Empire's frontier for the next four centuries.

development of the roman provinces

The Roman bases in the Rhineland had been established in a prosperous region inhabited by peoples commonly referred to as Gauls and Germans. The new communities of soldiers created enormous demand for foodstuffs and raw materials from the countryside. This demand resulted in the beginning of a cash economy in the region and rapid growth in wealth for many local communities. Bases contracted with native communities to supply foodstuffs and critical materials, such as iron and leather. Natives established settlements known as vici (singular vicus) near the military bases, to provide the soldiers with things they might wish to buy with the money they earned, such as ornaments for their uniforms, trinkets, wine and beer, and other treats. These commercial communities often grew to substantial sizes and produced goods for both military and civilian clienteles.

Substantial towns and cities sprang up near many of the bases, as at Nijmegen around the middle of the first century a.d. The largest Roman city in this region was Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, modern-day Cologne. A military base was established on the site before the birth of Christ, and a civilian settlement grew close by. The Roman Rhine fleet was stationed at Cologne, just south of the city. In the middle of the first century a.d. Roman Cologne was designated a colonial city, and in about a.d. 85 it became the capital of the province Germania Inferior. In the following centuries it had a population of about fifteen thousand—large for a Roman city north of the Alps. Several thousand more lived just beyond the city walls. The inhabitants of Cologne and other Roman cities were mostly local natives who moved into the new urban centers, attracted by economic opportunities. Except for governmental officials, few persons moved from Italy to take up residence in the new provinces. When scholars refer to the people in Cologne, for example, as Romans, they mean mainly locals who adopted aspects of the Roman way of life, not people who came from Rome.

In the countryside of northern Gaul, Rome introduced the villa system of agricultural production. The villa was an estate, organized around the residence of the owner and his or her family. Residences could be large and ornate if wealthy people owned them, but they also could be very modest. Around the villa were fields, orchards, kitchen gardens, and workshops, usually including a smithy for making iron tools and a pottery for producing the vessels needed. Wealthy owners had tenants who did the agricultural and craft work of the villas. Ideally villas were economically independent units that produced most of what the residents needed, but they also generated surpluses for trade to the cities to exchange for goods manufactured in the urban centers or imported from other regions. In many instances what had been typical houses of the indigenous Late Iron Age populations were transformed over time into versions of the Roman villa, as, for example, at Mayen in the middle Rhineland.

In other aspects of life the archaeological evidence also shows a persistence of indigenous cultural traditions and only a gradual integration of new Roman ideas and practices. Excavations at the large cemetery of Wederath near the Moselle River show that, even in the second and third centuries a.d., elements of traditional funerary ritual were maintained in the arrangement of burials and in the choice of objects to include as grave goods. Places where gods were worshiped also show the complex interplay of new Roman themes and traditional local ones. At Empel in the Netherlands archaeologists found a ritual site at which metal brooches, coins, and other objects were deposited during the prehistoric Iron Age. In the Roman period a typical Gallo-Roman rectangular temple was constructed on the site, and people continued to deposit the same categories of ritual offerings. The deities worshiped also show a melding of local and Roman. At Empel the god to whom the offerings were made was called Hercules Magusenus—a god with both Roman and native names. Well into the Roman period the traditional Rhineland mother goddesses were accorded a special place in the provincial pantheon. At the mouth of the Rhine the Celtic goddess Nehalennia remained the object of devotion for Roman period merchants setting sail into the North Sea.

The first and second centuries a.d. were times of great prosperity in the Roman Rhineland and northeastern Gaul. Natural resources were abundant in the region, and the Rhine offered easy transport of goods. By the middle of the third century a.d. the period of greatest peace and prosperity had passed. The Roman Rhineland was plagued by incursions by warrior bands from the east, known to the Roman writers as Franks.

across the rhine frontier

From the time of Caesar's campaigns in Gaul (58–51 b.c.), in the lands east of the Rhine, the practice of burying many men with sets of weapons became common. The complete weapon set consisted of a long iron sword, two lances, and a shield. More often a grave contained just one or two lances, sometimes with a shield. Large cemeteries have been excavated at Grossromstedt and Schkopau, both in the former East Germany. Many of the richer weapon graves also contain spurs and Roman bronze vessels. The new role of weapons in burial ritual signals a new importance attributed to military affairs. Perhaps it was a reaction to Caesar's campaigns in Gaul and to his forays across the Rhine in 55 and 53 b.c., but the graves that contain spurs and Roman vessels suggest another reason. In his reports about his conquests in Gaul, Caesar mentioned that he hired German troops to fight with the Roman army, in particular as cavalry, because they were regarded as expert horsemen. Perhaps some of the graves with weapons, spurs, and Roman vessels represent men who served with the Roman army and returned to their homes, ultimately to be buried with signs of their status and of their successful mercenary service to Rome.

This practice of burying sets of weapons, Roman vessels, and sometimes horse-riding paraphernalia with some men continued in fashion throughout the Roman and early medieval periods. In the first century a.d. large cemeteries around the lower Elbe River, such as those at Harsefeld and Putensen near Hamburg, include many examples of this practice. Some graves contain not only weapons and Roman vessels but also elaborate gold and silver ornaments, both local and Roman in origin. These unusually wealthy graves are known as the Lübsow group. Such burials occur across a broad landscape east of the Rhine, from Norway in the north to the Czech Republic in the south to Poland in the east. Their presence shows that significant status differences existed among the peoples east of the Rhine. The similarities in burial structure and in grave goods further indicates that elites in different parts of northern Europe shared common symbols and values that they represented in their burial practices.

Settlements north of the Rhine in the Netherlands and east of the Rhine in Germany remained small throughout the Roman period, most of them farmsteads or very small villages. Many show evidence of interaction with the Roman world across the Rhine. Excavations at Rijswijk in the Netherlands show that between a.d. 30 and 120 the successive generations that inhabited a farm gradually adopted Roman architectural ideas as well as Roman pottery and metal objects. At Wijster in the Netherlands and at Feddersen Wierde on the North Sea coast of Germany, quantities of Roman pottery, coins, brooches, glass beads and vessels, and grindstones from Mayen attest to interactions across the frontier.

The first indigenous form of writing east of the Rhine was created sometime during the first or second century a.d. The earliest runes are short inscriptions incised onto metal objects, especially women's jewelry and men's weapons. Runes were created by people who were familiar with the Latin alphabet of Rome and with the way that the alphabet represented spoken words. The locations of the earliest runes known, such as those on a bronze fibula from Meldorf in Schleswig-Holstein, suggest that this development took place in northern Germany and Denmark.


The Merovingian period is a historical designation for the Early Middle Ages, named for the founder of the first Frankish dynasty. By the start of this period Roman effective power had disintegrated, though Rome continued to play an important role in the minds of many local leaders. In the Rhineland and the Low Countries the dominant group is known as Franks, whereas east of the Rhineland, in northern Germany, were groups identified as Saxons. Many of the old Roman urban centers, such as Cologne and Mainz, remained significant centers of population, industry, and commerce, though they had declined in population from the early Roman period.

The complex interplay of influences of the Roman world and the new Germanic societies is well illustrated in the grave of the Frankish king Childeric, discovered at Tournai in Belgium. Late Roman written sources reveal that Childeric was a local Frankish king who commanded Germanic troops in the service of the late Roman army, helping to protect the Rhineland from Saxon invasions. He died in a.d. 481 or 482. His grave shows his complex role with respect to Rome and to his Germanic origins. A gold signet ring with his portrait and his name in Latin and a gold fibula of a type traditionally presented by Roman emperors to leaders who provide service to Rome demonstrate his link to the Roman world. His style of burial, however, with a full set of weapons, including a sword in a scabbard ornamented with gold and garnet and a gold bracelet, show that his funeral included the traditional rituals of native practice. Other excavations in Tournai reveal that, as part of his funerary ritual, at least twenty-one horses were sacrificed and buried in three pits around his grave—a practice foreign to the Roman world but common in Germanic societies.

During the latter part of the Roman period a new style of ornament developed that was known as Germanic art. This style became important as a marker of identity among peoples who wanted to distinguish themselves from Roman traditions, and it flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries. Its origins were diverse and reflect the varied influences that formed the societies of the early medieval period. The ornamental technique known as chip carving—removing chips of metal from a surface with a burin—was adopted from Roman techniques used to decorate fittings on soldiers' belts. The characteristic animal ornament derived from earlier artistic traditions in central and northern Europe. In elite contexts, as in Childeric's grave, gold inlaid with garnet was an important new style adapted from traditions associated with the people known as Goths north of the Black Sea. This new style was applied to a variety of objects, especially personal ornaments and weapons.

By the start of the fourth century Christian communities were active in many of the Roman cities in the Rhineland. The archaeological evidence for the adoption of the new set of beliefs and practices is complex. Early churches, objects bearing signs of the cross, and changes in burial practice all provide material evidence for the adoption of the new religion. Just as with Roman religious ritual, however, and its integration with traditional practices (as seen at Empel), the adoption of Christianity resulted in complex patterns of integration of traditions rather than replacement of pre-Christian practices by Christian ones.

For example, excavations at Bonn beneath the modern cathedral have shown that many pre-Christian sculptures, including those of mother goddesses, had been built into the foundation of a fourth-century church. The construction workers may have treated them simply as convenient stone, but more likely they were incorporated, both figuratively and literally, into the new religious structure and its meaning. Early Christian burials often are difficult to distinguish from non-Christian ones. In the course of investigations underneath Cologne Cathedral, archaeologists discovered a woman's grave dating to around a.d. 520 in a chamber within a small church. The woman was outfitted with grave goods characteristic of pre-Christian traditions, including a headband containing gold thread, a box of amulets, a belt with ornate metal fittings, a crystal ball, and vessels made of pottery, glass, and bronze. Although the burial assemblage was not Christian, the location of the grave was. Such ambiguity in burial character is common during this period. While Christianity was being adopted in late Roman cities of the Rhineland, very different traditions were practiced in other parts of northern Europe. For example, at Thorsberg in Schleswig-Holstein large quantities of weapons and ornaments were being offered to native deities in a pond, continuing a practice of great antiquity in the region.

The complexity of the interactions between different groups of peoples and of changing patterns of belief and ritual practice in the Rhineland is illustrated by the cemetery at Krefeld-Gellep, where more than five thousand graves have been excavated. In the third century the cemetery was used by the inhabitants of a small Roman military post and an associated civilian settlement. Burial practice was the standard Roman one of the time, inhumation with no weapons and no unusual wealth in the graves, just a few ceramic or glass vessels and a piece of jewelry or two. During the fourth century the predominant orientation changed from north-south to east-west, and the numbers of grave goods decreased, shifts associated with the acceptance of Christianity. Early in the fifth century, however, a new burial practice appeared in the cemetery, with weapons in many men's graves and sets of Germanic jewelry in women's. This change is interpreted as the result of the arrival of new peoples from east of the Rhine with different practices.

An exceptionally richly outfitted burial dated to about a.d. 525 is representative of a series of sixth-century wealthy men's graves in the Rhineland. Grave 1728 contained objects of a character similar to those in earlier wealthy burials east of the Rhine. Weapons, including many ornamented with gold and garnet; horse-riding equipment decorated with gold and silver; and elaborate bronze and glass vessels from late Roman workshops were present, as were a series of gold and silver personal ornaments. The majority of graves at Krefeld-Gellep during the sixth century were equipped much more modestly, but in contrast to earlier practices, men's graves often contained weapons, and women's often had substantial assemblages of personal ornaments. During the sixth and seventh centuries large cemeteries known as Reihengräberfelder (row-grave cemeteries) were common. These often extensive burial grounds, as at Krefeld-Gellep, are made up of thousands of graves, many well outfitted with grave goods, arranged in rows. They are common in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, in regions that had been parts of the Roman Empire, but are rare east of the Rhine.

In the post-Roman period, a.d. 450–800, settlement in the Low Countries and northern Germany was mostly in small villages and trading centers of a regional scale. In a few places, such as Cologne and Trier, urban populations survived, but they declined from their peaks during the first few centuries a.d. In the countryside villas went out of fashion, and architecture returned to traditional building techniques based on wooden posts sunk into the ground, supporting wattle-and-daub walls. At Warendorf near Münster a settlement occupied between a.d. 650 and 800 consisted for four farm-steads at a time. Large, sturdily built post buildings provided for both human habitation and livestock, and smaller structures served as sheds and workshops. Most of the pottery the people used was locally made coarse ceramic, but some finer wares were brought in from the Rhineland. Ironworking is evident, as is weaving. The community produced surplus farm products and traded for glass beads and

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vessels and for grindstones made of basalt from the quarries near Mayen.


During the Carolingian period in the Low Countries and in the German Rhineland, major changes are apparent in political organization, religion, and commerce. The Frankish kings of the Merovingian period gradually created larger kingdoms, and Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the region in the year a.d. 800 by Pope Leo III in Rome. This event symbolized the accumulated power of the Frankish kings, the importance of Christianity to the Frankish world, the recognition in Rome of the significance of Frankish power, and Charlemagne's concern with linking his political and cultural aspirations with those of ancient Rome. He made these connections plain in his capital at Aachen, where his royal chapel was designed on the plan of the church of San Vitale at Ravenna. He even had marble columns transported from Italy to Aachen to emphasize the links between his plans and past Roman greatness. Charlemagne's royal hall, where he exercised his political power, was connected directly to the chapel, providing material expression of the unification of worldly power and religious authority.

Ever larger churches were built as Christianity became an increasingly important feature of life. The tradition of the Reihengräberfelder faded into disuse because Christian funerary practices discouraged the placing of objects, especially food and drink, in graves. Cemeteries were established next to churches, and high-status burials for clergy and elite citizens were placed underneath church foundations, with the choicest positions being in front of the altar, a practice known as ad sanctos.

During the late Merovingian and Carolingian periods commerce grew. In the Rhineland major pottery industries focusing on export trade grew up on the west bank south of Cologne at Badorf and later at Pingsdorf. Products of these workshops appear throughout the Rhineland and farther afield, in northern Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain. Throughout northern Europe new trade towns developed from the late seventh century.

Dorestad, on a branch of the Rhine in the Netherlands, became the principal port for Charlemagne's kingdom, bringing in goods from all along the North Sea and Baltic coasts and exporting pottery, basalt grindstones, and other products of the Rhineland. Besides being a major transit port, Dorestad also was home to a wide range of industries typical of the trading towns that emerged throughout northern Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries. Craft workers at Dorestad processed metals, carved amber and bone, and wove textiles. Near the southern end of the Jutland Peninsula in Schleswig-Holstein, the port of Haithabu (Hedeby) became a thriving cosmopolitan center, transshipping goods between the North Sea and Rhineland ports and those of Scandinavia and the Baltic lands (fig. 3). Similar developments are apparent at Quentovic in northern France and at Hamburg on the lower Elbe River and Ralswiek on the Baltic coast, both in northern Germany.

Although Aachen was Charlemagne's royal capital, there were still no major urban centers in northern Germany or the Low Countries during this period. The old Roman centers at such places as Cologne and Mainz continued as manufacturing and trading towns but on a much reduced scale from the Roman period. Thriving agricultural villages, such as that excavated at Warendorf, showed a prosperous economy, with active involvement in the commercial systems of the time but no trace of town life, which remained restricted to the coasts and the major river systems. In eastern regions of northern Germany status differences are well represented in settlement systems. At Tornow, for example, a fortress situated above the village included not only substantial defensive works but also sizable storage structures and workshops, all apparently managed by the local elite groups.

By the end of the Carolingian period in the tenth century communities throughout the Low Countries and northern Germany were thoroughly tied into the expanding economy represented at trading towns such as Dorestad, Haithabu, and Ralswiek. In regions west of the Rhine memories of Rome as well as physical remains of the empire had significant influence on thinking about political power as well as on architecture, religion, and art and ornament. In lands to the east, with no direct experience of Roman rule, ideas about the past and its connections to the present were different. The Rhineland was to remain a significant cultural divide between west and east for another millennium.

See alsoGermans (vol. 2, part 6); Merovingian Franks (vol. 2, part 7); Goths between the Baltic and Black Seas (vol. 2, part 7); Tomb of Childeric (vol. 2, part 7).


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Germany and the Low Countries

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