Romeinse muur.

The Roman town wall of Tongeren, the only stone monument preserved above ground in Flanders from the Roman period | Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed

Power & Resistance
c. 10 BC - 400 AD
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Tongeren, a Roman Town

Romanisation of the Low Countries

Tongeren, the first town in the territory of present-day Flanders, had several kilometres of town walls, an aqueduct and stone buildings in a style that blended local and Mediterranean influences. From a Roman army base Tongeren grew into a town with a Gallo-Roman culture.

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Around the year 10 BC Roman administrators decided to build a town on a plateau near the Jeker, a tributary of the Meuse, on the site of a military camp. The surveyors designed a plan with a typically Mediterranean chequer-board pattern of streets. At first there still appeared houses of wood and loam in the traditional Gallic style. From the middle of the first century AD, there were more and more stone dwellings inspired by Roman models and often with under-floor heating and wall-paintings.

Tongeren grew into the principal town in the region and an important political, religious and military centre. The main town wall, at approximately 4.5 kilometres, was the longest rampart in the north of the Roman Empire. From the late 3rd century on a decline set in, although Tongeren remained important, partly as a bishopric from which a still young Christianity spread.


Tongeren, Visit Tongeren

The Menapian salt trader Catius Drousus had an altar erected in Tongeren in honour of the Roman supreme deity Jupiter and the protective spirits of the town. The inscription calls Tongeren municipium Tungrorum, making it the oldest mention of a town (municipium) in what was later to become Flanders. Replica of the original.

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Romanisation of the Low Countries

When Roman legions advanced to the Rhine and the North Sea coasts, they found in those areas a culture with Celtic and Germanic elements. After the first violent encounter a period of Romanisation began: in the space of four centuries the local civilisations changed their aspect radically through interaction with Roman culture.

It was the Roman commander Julius Caesar who conquered the area in about 55 BC, but only some thirty years later, under Emperor Augustus, did the military, cultural and economic impact of the Romans become visible. In the wake of the soldiers came traders. Besides goods these Southern newcomers also brought their ideas and customs with them. In some places those exotic habits caught on and, for example, Roman script and coinage were adopted. In some areas the local and Mediterranean cultures merged into a new whole. A good example of that cultural mixture was religion: Roman gods were identified with their local counterpart, like the Roman war god Mars with his Celtic counterpart Camulos. In architecture too cultural interaction was noticeable. For the first time in the Low Countries stone dwellings, bathhouses and under-floor heating appeared. Yet the process of Romanisation was far from straightforward. Depending on the place, the landscape and the cultural background of the local population, in many areas the indigenous elements remained dominant, or Roman elements were placed in a different, local cultural context.

Focal points

Romeinse weg.

Robert Nouwen

The dead-straight course of the Roman main road from Boulogne to Cologne is sometimes still visible in the landscape, as here in Vroenhoven near Riemst.

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The Boulogne-Cologne Road

The various parts of the Roman Empire were linked together. Traders, travellers and soldiers used ships via the sea and the rivers and could also use an extensive road network. The local roads were narrow and unhardened and wound through the landscape, but the main roads had the typical look of straight, wide and hardened routes.

The most iconic of those great transport axes was the road that linked the Roman harbour of Boulogne with the town of Cologne. That road followed approximately the border between present-day Flanders and Wallonia. Emperor Augustus had it built in the beginning of our era. The aim was to transport troops, provisions and mail easily from the North Sea to the Rhine. That was necessary to support the military operations which were then underway east of the Rhine, in Germany.

Along that main road and its branches settlements sprang up, with a market-place and other central functions, so-called vici (villages). At first they were often military bases, which grew into residential clusters. Besides Tongeren such localities as Wervik (Viroviacum). Asse and Tienen owed their Roman origin to the road. In the Middle Ages parts of that good link road retained their function and remained decisive for the make-up of the landscape.

Bronzen munt Carausius.

London, The British Museum

Bronze coin on which Carausius had himself depicted as Roman emperor. On the reverse side is the supreme deity Jupiter. The coin was in that way a handy form of propaganda for Carausius.

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Carausius. The Emperor in the North

In the 3rd century the unrest grew in the north-west of the Roman Empire. Central power weakened, peasants rebelled and local army commanders tried to seize power for themselves. One of them was Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, a man of humble origins from the Menapian area, which lay between the North Sea, the Scheldt and the Aariver in Northern France. .

As an army commander he first put down the peasant rebellions and as the commander of the fleet in the Channel he drove out the Saxon pirates who were active there. Because he kept the booty of the pirates for himself, the Roman Emperor Maximianus sentenced him to death.

In 286, to save his skin, Carausius seized power himself and in fact detached himself from the Roman Empire. With success, since he built an empire on both sides of the North Sea, from the British and Gallic coats to the Rhine. He had coins struck in which he was depicted as Roman Emperor and portrayed himself as the bringer of peace to the unstable Channel region. His imperium was short-lived. In 293 Carausius was murdered by his closest confidant and a few years later the area came back under the control of Rome.

Tumuli Tienen.
Tienen, Toerisme Tienen, Luc Lambrecht

In Haspengouw there are large artificial earth mounds spread through the landscape, as here at the Three Tommen near Tienen. Such Roman ‘tumuli’ or grave mounds cover the burial chamber of a well-to-do person who had themselves buried there 2,000 years ago.

Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed

Fragment of a luxury earthenware plate with the Greek word diadoumenos (literally: diadem carrier) carved in it. The find in Tongeren indicates that there were people in the town who knew Greek, possibly teachers or senior functionaries from the Mediterranean area.


Tongeren, Visit Tongeren

In his account of the Gallic Wars Julius Caesar mentions Ambiorix, chieftain of the tribe of the Eburones. Ambiorix became a hero in national historiography after 1830 and in 1866 was given a statue in the market place in Tongeren. Dress and attributes are fictional reconstructions.

Blokboek van Sint-Servaas, Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, EST COF – MS 18972

Servatius was bishop of Tongeren at the end of the Roman period. According to tradition, he transferred the bishop’s seat to Maastricht. He is the first bishop in the Low Countries of whom we know for sure that he existed. In the Middle Ages many legends were written about him, the best-known of which is by Hendrik van Veldeke. In this 15th-century picture Servatius receives the crook and mitre from a winged angel.

Kleine Zondagsvriend

In 1949-1951 the Antwerp weekly Kleine zondagsvriend (Little Sunday Friend) published the stories of ‘Carausius, the Flemish Caesar’. As early as 1878 Albrecht Rodenbach (1856-1880) had featured Carausius in the play Gudrun, which provided inspiration for the Flemish movement.

Evocatie uit 2013 van een Romeinse tempel in Tongeren. De originele Romeinse funderingen van de tempel zitten onder de evocatie en zijn momenteel niet zichtbaar of toegankelijk voor het publiek.
Tongeren, Visit Tongeren.

Evocation from 2013 of a Roman temple in Tongeren. The original Roman foundations of the temple are under the evocation and at the moment are not visible or accessible to the public.

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