Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
When one thinks of the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire) typically it is the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. However, the Empire was so much more stretching farther Northern Europe and even into the Near East.
Today we venture northward as we explore the Romans in the Netherlands!
The European portion of the Netherlands borders Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, sharing maritime borders in the North Sea with Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
During the Gallic Wars, the area south of the Oude Rijn and west of the Rhine was conquered by Roman forces under Julius Caesar from 57 BC to 53 BC. Caesar describes 2 main tribes living in what is now the southern Netherlands: the Menapii and the Eburones.
At first part of Gallia Belgica, the area south of the Limes became part of the Roman Provincia (Province) of Germania Inferior. The area to the north of the Rhine, inhabited by the Frisii, remained outside Roman rule (but not its presence and control), while the border tribes Batavi and Cananefates served in the Equites Romani (Roman Cavalry).
The Batavi rose against the Romans in the Batavian rebellion of AD 69, but were eventually defeated. The Batavi later merged with other tribes into the confederation of the Salian Franks, whose identity emerged at the first half of the 3rd Century.
Salian Franks appear in Roman texts as both allies and enemies. The Salian Franks were forced by the confederation of the Saxons from the east to move over the Rhine into Roman territory in the 4th Century.
The Frisii were initially won over by Drusus, suggesting a Roman suzerainty was imposed by Augustus on the coastal areas north of the Rhine river. Over the course of time the Frisii would fight the Romans in concert with other Germanic tribes, and finally be relocated in Flanders and disappeared from recorded history as of 296 AD.
Some believe the disappearance was due to deteriorating climate conditions, while others believe the Frisii were probably forced to resettle within Roman territory as Laeti around the same time. In any event, coastal lands remained largely unpopulated for the next couple of centuries.
For around 450 years, from around 55 BC to around 410 AD, the southern part of the Netherlands was integrated into the Roman Empire. During this time the Romans in the Netherlands had an enormous influence on the lives and culture of the people who lived in the Netherlands at the time and (indirectly) on the generations that followed.
During the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar established the principle that this river, which runs through the Netherlands, defined a natural boundary between Gaul and Germania Magna. But the Rhine was not a strong border, and Caesar made it clear that there was a part of Belgic Gaul where many of the local tribes were Germani Cisrhenani.
When Caesar arrived, various tribes were in the area of the Netherlands, residing in the inhabitable higher parts, especially in the east and south. These tribes did not leave behind written records, so all the information known about them during this pre-Roman period is based on what the Romans and Greeks wrote about them.
Caesar himself, in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, wrote in detail only about the southern area which he conquered. Tribes who he described as living in what is now the Netherlands were the Menapii (a Belgic tribe who stretched from the Flemish coast, through the south of the river deltas, and as far as the modern German border), the Eburones (the largest of the Germani Cisrhenani group, whose territory stretched covered a large area between the rivers Maas and Rhine), and the smaller Ambivariti (perhaps part of the Eburones or Menapii, who Caesar mentions in passing as living west of the Maas).
In the delta itself, Caesar makes a passing comment about the Insula Batavorum (Island of the Batavi) in the Rhine, without discussing who lived there. Later, in imperial times, a tribe called the Batavi became very important in this region.
Other tribes who eventually inhabited the Gaulish islands in the delta during Roman times are mentioned by Pliny the Elder include: the Cananefates, whom Tacitus says were similar to the Batavians in their ancestry, living in what is today the province of South Holland; the Frisii, who inhabited a major part of the modern Netherlands; the Chauci, whose main territory was the North Sea coast of Germany, bordering the Frisii on their east; the Frisiabones, who Pliny also counted as a people living in Gallia Belgica, perhaps stretching into Gelderland and South Holland; the Marsacii, who Tacitus refers to as neighbors of the Batavi, who probably inhabited what is today the province of Zeeland; and the Sturii, who are not known from any other sources, but are thought to have lived near modern Zeeland or South Holland.
As mentioned above, the northern Netherlands, above the Old Rhine, was dominated by the Frisii, with perhaps a small penetration of Chauci. While this area was not officially part of the empire for any long periods, military conscription and other impositions were made for long periods upon the Frisii.
In the south of the Netherlands the Texuandri inhabited most of North Brabant. The modern province of Limburg, with the Maas running through it, appears to have been inhabited by (from north to south) the Baetasii, the Catualini, the Sunuci and the Tungri.
About 38 BC, a pro-Roman faction of the Chatti (a Germanic tribe located east of the Rhine) was settled by Agrippa in an area south of the Rhine, now thought to be the Betuwe area. They took on the name of the people already living there, the Batavians.
Batavian culture was influenced by the Roman one, resulting among other things in Roman-style temples such as the one in Elst, dedicated to local gods. Also, the trade flourished with the salt used in the Roman Empire being from the North Sea with remains found across the whole of the Empire.
However, this did not prevent the Batavian Rebellion of AD 69, a very successful revolt under the leadership of Batavian Gaius Julius Civilis. Forty castella were burnt down because the Romans violated the rights of the Batavian leaders by taking young Batavians as their slaves.
Other Roman soldiers (like those in Xanten and the auxiliary troops of Batavians and Cananefates from the legions of Vitellius) joined the revolt, which split the northern part of the Exercitus Romanus (Roman Army). In April of AD 70, Vespasianus sent a few Legions to stop the revolt.
Their commander, Petilius Cerialis, eventually defeated the Batavians and started negotiations with Civilis on his home ground, somewhere between the Waal and the Maas near what the Batavians probably called Batavodurum. During their stay in Germania Inferior, the Romans established several towns and military forts in the Netherlands along the Limes Germanicus with.
More notable towns include Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum (modern Nijmegen), Forum Hadriani (Voorburg), Flevum (modern Velsen), Lugdunum Batavorum (Brittenburg at modern Katwijk aan Zee), Praetorium Agrippinae (at modern Valkenburg), Traiectum (in modern Utrecht), Colonia Ulpia Trajana (in modern Xanten, Germany), Coriovallum (in modern Heerlen), Nigrum Pullum (modern Zwammerdam), Ceuclum (modern Cuijk), and Trajectum ad Mosam (modern Maastricht).
Franks appear in Roman texts as both allies and enemies. Around 310, the Franks had the region of the Scheldt river (present day west Flanders and southwest Netherlands) under control, and were raiding the Channel, disrupting transportation to Roman Britannia. Roman forces pacified the region, but did not expel the Franks, who continued to be feared as pirates along the shores at least until the time of Julian the Apostate (AD 358), when Salian Franks were granted to settle as foederati in Toxandria, according to Ammianus Marcellinus.
At the beginning of the 5th Century, the Franks became the most important ethnic group in the region, just before the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
We hope that you enjoyed today’s journey to a region previously unknown to us to be occupied by the Romans. If nothing else, we just reiterated the fact that the extent of Rome touched far and wide.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Colebrander, Bernard. Limes Atlas. Rotterdam, 2005.
Lucius Cassius Dio. Book LIV, Ch 32.
Lendering, Jona, “Germania Inferior”. Livius.org.
Roffelsen, Cees. “History of the Netherlands: The Roman Occupation (57 BC – 406 AD)”. Medium.com, 16 October 2016.
Roymans, Nico. Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power. The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire.
Cornelius Tacitus. Germany and its Tribes.