On the Roman Limes 100 – 450

Neighbouring Empires

During the Roman period there were two other major empires . The Persian Empire immediately to the east of the Romans and throughout the period they remained a balancing power. Further to the east the Chinese Empire, equally as violent as the other two. In between lay India (sometimes including what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan) however, they never evolved into an empire similar to China or Rome.

Chinese Empire

Forbidden City Beijing – 2004

After their own violent centuries, China, during Roman times, had built up an unrivalled bureaucratic system that kept their large area rather peaceful and under control. There was occasional official contact between the Roman and Chinese Empires but the main contact was trade (in particular silk), whereby the the Parthians and the Persians were the main middlemen. Also the nomadic dessert tribes profited from this trade through raids and protection money – it has been mentioned that the Huns evolved from these tribes. It were these Huns that created both havoc in the Roman and the Chines Empire.

It was probably the relentless pursuit of the Huns under the Chinese Emperor Wu Du that saw the start of the Huns moving further west. They followed earlier east-west migrations that had been taken place during the previous 2,000 years, using the endless steppes that made travelling through this region a relative easy expedition. The Huns were probably the most formidable of all the barbarian nations, whoever stood in their way, eventually had to make way and move on for them; 2,000 years later their name is still linked to death and destruction. In the 2nd century the Roman and Chinese Empires had a similar size population of around 60-80 million people, together they accounted for roughly half of the global population.

Persian Empire

Preceding Persian Empires included those of the the Sumerians (6000 – 2000BCE), they were the first to establish true city states in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Most likely because of over exploitation of the land, salinity occurred and this led to the decline of city states and the center of power started to move northwards. Over exploitation of natural resources would from this time onwards be a permanent feature of all following agriculture-based cultures.

The Assyrian Empire was the next in line, they started to arrive in the 2nd millennium BCE and their rule lasted til 6th century BCE when the Medes became the ruling power only to be overthrown by the Persian king Cyrus the Great half a century later. It was arguably the largest empire on earth at that time. It was also during these times that a rather small tribe of hunters and gatherers settled themselves as farmers in the fertile area in the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, they conquered the local Canaanite people around 900BCE. Two hundred years later they were overrun by the Assyrians and later on by the Babylonians.

It briefly had another period of Independence between 141 BCE and 70BCE after which the Romans invaded their lands and established here the Province of Palestine. Two thousand years later their 3rd period of independence starter after the State of Israel was formed in 1948.

Many wars and conflicts were fought out there were East meet West. Already during Greek times such clashes were evident, perhaps starting with battle of Troy. More formal clashes followed with the Persians (under the leadership of Cyrus the Great and Xerxes the Great) he undertook two major military campaigns into Greece; but they lost them both.

Alexander the Great made the largest inroads into the East, nearly reaching the Chinese boarder. But after his death his Empire crushed but the various conquered territories remained under Hellenistic influence in some cases for centuries to come. Often led by Greeks settling in these new territories, this was a period of great freedoms in travel, personal expression and religious tolerance. Alexandria in Egypt – named after Alexander became the leading city in the world with it enormous library and its famous lighthouse, until the Eiffel Tower was built it had been the tallest building ever built. With free travel this also was the period that Indians started to travel and brought Buddhism to the West.

Back to Persia where the Parni tribe (south-east of the Caspian Sean) gradually established the Parthian Empire (247BCE – 224AC) by replacing the Greek influence (Seleucids) in the regions. However, they retained large parts of the Hellenistic structures. They were able to control the very lucrative Silk Road and this became the major income of the Empire. When the Parthians expanded further west (Armenia) the clashed with the Romans and several Parthian wars severely weakened the Parthians. This played into the hands of internal rivals and in 224 the Parthians were overthrown and replaced buy the Sassanids.

They greatly expanded the empire encompassing all of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, part of Turkey, certain coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf area, and areas of southwestern Pakistan, even stretching into India. The Persian Empire came to a very abrupt end when it was completed destructed by the armies of the Islam between and 646 and 651 AC.

At this time what is now north-western Europe – the focus of this publication – was a backwater. The colder and wetter weather made it more difficult to grow the sort of commercial crops that were so readily available around the Mediterranean. In comparison to the lifestyle that they enjoyed the Germanic tribes did it much tougher and was more or less the developing world of their times. The Romans arrived in this region not for commercial gains but for military reasons.

The Roman Empire

The early beginnings

What started as a small agriculture community around 1,000BCE grew into one of the most powerful empires the world has even seen.

Legend has it that Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome in 753BCE. After the influence of their overlords the Etruscans started to wane, the Latin and Sabini tribes seized the opportunity to take control over their tribal regions.

Legend has it that the seven hills were first occupied by small settlements and not grouped or recognised as a city called Rome. The people of the seven hills began to participate in a series of religious games, which started to bond the groups. The city of Rome, thus, came into being as these separate settlements acted as a group, draining the marshy valleys between them and turning them into markets (fora in Latin). Later, in the early 4th century BC, the seven hills were protected through the Servian Walls. They used the tufa stone for this from the Etruscan city of Veei, following the construction of headers and stretchers stone work.

The seven hills are:

  • Aventine
  • Caelian
  • Capitoline
  • Esquiline
  • Palatine
  • Quirinal
  • Viminal


By the end of the 3rd century BCE they were in control of most of Italy and had started to establish colonies around the Mediterranean, similar to those established by Greek and Phoenician colonist. (See video clip Roman times in Israel).

This led to several clashes (e.g. Punic Wars) with their rivals. During the 2nd century BCE they conquered all of the Greek and Phoenician colonies as well as their homelands, they also defeated the Persians during that period. The last city to fell to the Romans was became known as Baelo Claudia near Tarifa in southern Spain, this also marked the end of the 2nd Punic War. We visited the well preserved ruins of this once thriving Roman city – which had a tuna salting factory – in 2013.

Baelo Claudia – Decumanus maximus

Roman life was done in very brutal, destructive and even sadistic ways. Favourite Roman family entertainment was looking at people being killed in the arena by wild beast or gladiators fighting each other to death. If the Roman army  lost a battle they indiscriminately killed one in ten of their own soldiers.

Striking terror both among their own troops as well as among the people they conquered was their idea of warfare. Their destruction of Carthage (149BCE) was one of the most cruel battles , ever conducted.  This was a critical point in the history of the Romans, it opened up access to unheard of (agriculture) riches that allowed the emerging empire to expand. From here they started to fully dominate the Mediterranean. The riches however went to nobility who started to by up large parts of land, which they worked with the slaves from the countries they concurred. These landowners supplied the army which allowed the Romans to move their attention further northwards.

From the 1st century BCE onward the Roman Empire started to extend its reach to what became known as the province of Gaul. This was done here, as elsewhere, with brute force. In 101-102 BCE Gaius Marius defeated in this way the Cimbri and Teutones, Germanic war bands who were raiding in what is now southern France and started to cross into northern Italy. This brought the Romans in action and they defeated these tribes who were also increasingly making the lucrative trade between Rome and Gaul difficult, in the end the Romans just decided to conquer the whole area. They used the Roman city of Massalia (Marseille) as their starting point and from here took the corridor of the river Rhone pushing further north.

By 120 BCE the province of Gallia Transalpina started to take shape. Wherever possible they took control by subduing the tribes through intimidation if that didn’t work the annihilated them through brute force to which those tribes had no defense what soever. This worked in most of cases.

Moving further north this also brought them into contact Gaul but not with the Germanic tribes. The interaction between these tribes and the Romans was very violent. During the many Roman expeditions into this area as well as during subsequent revolts hundreds of thousands of Germanic warriors were killed and their families slaughtered even larger numbers were captured as slaves for the insatiable demand for slaves in Rome and other Roman cities.

The Roman General Julius Caesar mentioned that the Germanic tribes were highly mobile and they didn’t have any permanent ‘oppida’ (settlements). This also made it very difficult for the Romans to attack these tribes as they simply vanished in the wilderness. While their warriors were recognised, Caesar and also Tacitus didn’t use a similar praising language when they wrote about the Germanic farmers. Instead they wrote that their agriculture was not particular advanced and also their cattle was smaller than theirs.

Land was held by the tribe and on annual bases distributed to family clans. In this way no group could at any time create wealth by occupying the most fertile lands. Instead status was acquired through bravery, similar to the descriptions of the early Celts who entered Italy. Raiding was an integral part of Germanic life and Caesar reports that “raiding is good training for young man and stops them becoming lazy”. Tacitus also describes a change in tribal societies. He mentions a new form of dual leadership: the rex as he called him was elected for life from among a small group of aristocratic households, comprising the royal class. The dux were appointed based on the military valour to lead the army in raids and war. Councils of the elite were held regularly as were general assemblies of warriors who met to debate issues given to them, they didn’t initiate actions themselves.


Low Countries during Roman times.

Eburones, Nervii members of the Belgae alliance

We mentioned the possibility of Eburon people living in northeastern Brabant near the estuaries along the river Maas. As we saw above, in Julius Caesar’s ‘Commentarii de Bello Gallico (commentaries on the Gallic wars), the Brabantine wilderness was used by the Germanic and Celtic tribes in northern Gaul during the many hit and run attacks which took place during the Gallic Wars from 58BCE until 51BCE.

Under the personal leadership of Caesar – who had been recently appointed at that time as the provincial governor of northern Italy and southern France – the Romans entered the region with 8 legions (approx 30,000 – 40,000 legionnaires, a few thousand cavalry and further ancillary troops. The tribes had formed an alliance of some 60,000 well prepared warriors and were named by Caesar the Belgae.

Leader of the resistance was the Nervii chief Boduognatus. During the winter of 58BCE, Caesar quartered a legion and five cohorts (one and a half legions) in the country of the Eburones, under the command of his legates, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta.

The Eburones, headed by their leaders, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, and evidently aided by their allies the Nervii and other tribes, attacked the Roman camp; and after inducing the Romans to leave their stronghold on the promise of a safe passage, they massacred nearly all of them (approximately 6000 men). The legion also lost its standard. (It has been argued that Caesar had it wrong and that the Eburones weren’t Germanic but Celts the names of Ambiorix and Cativolcus would certainly confirm this. This also fits into the picture of the boarder region in Brabant where during Roman times the population is believed to be mainly Celtic).


The name of his ‘mountain’ east of Maastricht most probably refers to the above mentioned Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. Legend has it that is he buried on top of this hill. Here lived two priestesses, Valeda and her daughter Gronsela, they were in charge of the solar temple (hut) of the Eburones that was situated here, built over a – still existing – well. One day Cotta met these two ladies and he fell in love with Gronsela. When Cotta died in his battle with Ambiorix, the deeply saddened Gronsela buried him on top of the hill. Most likely its modern name Keutenberg refers to ‘kuit’ (calve), it is the steepest hill in the Netherlands and a climb to the top makes your calves work. Since Roman times marl (mergel) has been mined here.

A further attack on another camp, Velt-Ciceronis (modern day Velzeke), held by Quintus Tullius Cicero, nephew of the famous orator, was thwarted by timely intervention of Labienus, one of Caesar’s most trusted generals.


The Romans finally defeated the Belgae in 57BCE, of the 60,000 original forces and the Council of 600, only 500 men survived and 3 of their Council leaders.

The final battlefield took place, according to the Bello Gallico near the river Samber, but some historians argue this must have been near Saulzoir on the river Selle. This is close to the current border between France and Belgium. Julius Caesar wrote about the Belgae: Of all these peoples the Belgae are the most courageous, because they are the most removed from the culture and the civilization of the Province, and least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities that make for effeminacy: and also because they are nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhenus (Rhine), with whom they are continually at war.

He allowed the survivors to go back to their oppidum (Bavai) and ordered their neighbouring tribes not to attack them.

In the following year Caesar himself entered the country of the Eburones, and Ambiorix fled before him and Cativolcus poisoned himself. As we have seen above the country of the Eburones was difficult for the Romans to conquer, being woody and swampy in parts; and utilising the good old Germanic tradition of raiding, Caesar invited the neighbouring people to come and plunder the Eburones, in order to save his own men, and, also, with the aid of great numbers, to exterminate the nation. The Sicambri were the main raiders.

While Caesar was ravaging the country of the Eburones, he left Quintus Tullius Cicero with a legion to protect the baggage and stores, at a place called Aduatuca, which he tells us had been the fatal quarters of Sabinus and Cotta, though he had not mentioned the name of the place before. He places Aduatuca about the middle of the territory of the Eburones; and there is good reason for supposing that the place is Tongeren. Caesar burnt Aduatuca and every village and building that he could find in the territory of the Eburones, killed 4,000 of their men and drove off some 53,000 survivors and all the cattle, which he sold by auction in one lot. His men and beasts consumed all the corn that was on their fields and what the war effort and the autumn weather had not yet destroyed. He left those who had hid themselves, if there were any, with the hope that they would all die of hunger in the winter.

Their country was soon occupied by another German tribe, the Tungri. However, the survivors of the original tribe settled further along the Scheldt and many also integrated with the Tungri and with the Batavii.The name Eburon is thought to be eebe and bauer. Eebe = yew (an indigenous conifer), which is the best wood for making bows; yew growth best on sandy soil. Bauer = boer (= farmer). The Latin word for yew is taxus, Toxandria is Latin for the land of yews. The Gaul had a special word for this wood: eburo.

In 49BCE Cesar left Gaul and famously crossed the river Rubicon (near Rimini), which lead to a a civil war what would result in him becoming a dictator. However, he didn’t disband the Senate but shaped it to his liking and extended the size from 600 to 900 members, most of whom close aligned to him. After Caesar’s assassination by Senator Brutus assisted by Cassius in 44BCE on the steps of the Senate it took the Romans another 40 years to return to northern Gaul and properly annex the tribal lands originally conquered by this emperor.

The devastation of northern Gaul is hard to imagine. Tribes were sometimes annihilated to near extinction; such as we saw was the case with the Eburones . While estimates are very difficult to verify Plutarch wrote that of the estimated 300 tribes with 4 million people living in Gaul, a quarter was killed and another quarter taken into slavery; 800 settlements were also annihilated.

Based on hoards buried by the local people Dutch and Belgian archaeologists have estimated that between 58 and 51BCE over 220,000 gold and silver  coins were minted in this region, no local coins were minted after that time. Nearly all the wealth of the region was taken away by Caesar. The Roman writer Suetonius wrote that after the war  Caesar had so much gold that he didn’t know what to do with it, he exchanged the coins from Gaul to Roman currency at deflated prices with led to a inflation of the gold price in Rome and resulted in a temporary financial crisis.

What this also shows is that these so called Barbarians had a well established civilisation that not only was able to create wealth but also had the institutions that were needed to offer some form of governance  with administrative and commercial structures. The  little evidence there is also indicates that the Huns and the Goths were also more ‘civilised’ than what their conquerors give them credit for.

Germanic tribes defeat the Romans

It took several decades for the Germanic tribes to recover from these massacres.

Since 7BCE the Roman Viceroy of Germania was Publius Quinctilius Varus. In 9AD he led three Roman legions (approximately 6,000 soldiers each) into war with the Germanic tribes. One of the most famous battles was the one in the Teutoburg Forest. Here, the Germanic tribal chief Hermann (Arminius), leader of the Cheruscen, tricked the Romans into a narrow valley and they totally annihilated the Romans. Varus was reported to have committed suicide shortly after this battle.

It was until the 1990s that the actual site of the battle was established; the Germanic tribes used an area in the shape of a funnel. On one side the slopes of a hill (Kalkrieser Berg) and on the other side a swamp (Grosses Moor). The German warriors had built an earthen wall with a timber defence system in the forest on the slope from where they attacked the Roman legions. In 1999 I visited this site at Kalkriese, near Osnabrück.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Teutoburg – German defense line build on the edge of the forest.

Retaliation expeditions

The Romans under Germanicus were looking for revenge and launched two campaigns one in 14CE and another one the following year. They crossed the Rhine at Xanten and trashed the Germanic tribes of the Usipetes, Marsi, Bracteri, Chamavi and Tubanti.

Legend has it that they destroyed the temple of the fertility goddess Tanfana near Oldenzaal, however, historians deny that there ever has been a temple here.

Other attempts to conquer ‘free’ Germania where undertaken in, 15 and 16CE, from Velsen, a temporary Roman port on the North Sea in the Netherlands. From here Roman ships were send to the Weser and the Ems, however while Arminius was defeated the Romans were unsuccessful in annexing the territory into the Empire.

There is however, an increasing level of evidence that the Romans were able to extend their influence all the way to the rivers Ems and Weser, recent excavations have unearthed what might have been Roman fortresses in this area.

Romans establish the boarder

The fierce and warlike nature of the Germanic tribes forced the Romans to built a strong boarder on the northern side of their newly captured territories. The natural boarder of the that had also been of influence to the human activities during the Bronze and Iron Ages – and would do so till well into modern times – also played a key role during the Roman period this is the river system that splits the Low Countries in a northern and southern half.

The northern part being the territory of the free Germanic tribes. The boarder brought large number of Roman military personnel to the region and this had a great influence on the development of the farming communities along the river system on the southern part of the border (including that of Oss as will be discussed below).

The region below the Lower Rhine was now properly annexed into Gallia Comata (long haired Gaul), with since 15BCE Nijmegen (Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum) as the major military basis for the region to the west, other castra’s were built in Velsen and Xanten.

In 12BCE Drusus troops started the Germanica campaign from Nijmegen.

Ceasar recognised three distinct people in the Gallia:

  • the Belgae (in the north),
  • the Aquitanians (southwest) and
  • the Celts who he called the Gaul (in the middle).

However, they left the region largely alone for another 40 years. Tiberius also decided to retreat to the river Rhine and from that time onward they never ventured again into Germania. He also tried to take on the rich landowners in order to get Roman people back to the land. Most of the Romans had moved to the capital and the other large cities and it were the slaves who worked the land. Live in the cities was often very miserable and Tiberius wanted to address this by giving the people back access to the land.  The nobility of course opposed this and the Senators had Tiberius murdered. Another turning point in Roman history as from here on political violence started to be a common aspect and in can be pinpointed of the start of the decline of the Republic.

His successor Caligula – who gained power by the assassination of Tiberius and most of the rest of his family – also ventured north on a quest to conquer Britain – and around 40CE was at the Roman fortress Lugdunum (Katwijk) where he declared victory over the sea and ordered his troops to collect shells as the spoils of war.

Travel across the Channel usually took less than a day, but could also take three days or more depending on the often unpredictable weather.

His successors indeed did conquer Britain, however, in 47CE Emperor Claudius, officially declared not to move any further north into Germania. His military leader Gnaius Domiticus Corbulo – in order to keep the conquered territories in Gaul and Germania occupied – used the troops and the time to built a 35km long canal between the rivers Rhine and Maas. Because of subsequent floods in the Low Countries the original canal has been lost, however historians believe that the current river Vliet between Rotterdam and Leiden might be a remnant of that canal.

In 52CE, soon after the decision to halt further expansion, the Romans also retreated from their frontier position in Velsen. Already around the year 40 they had started a defence castra at the mouth of the Rhine, Praetorium Agrippinae (Valkenburg), some 40 kms to the south of Velsen. There was an estimated 320 men strong infantry and a 60 men strong cavalry. The so called Roman Limes formed a 5,000 km long e border between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes to the north. From 50 onwards the Romans started to build the ‘Lower Germanicus Limes’ from the mouth of the river Rhine (modern day Oude Rhine). From here they built their castras approx 6.5 km apart from each other.

Roman castra

The northern castra and castellum along the Rhine included the North Sea base of Lugdunum (Brittenburg/Katwijk), Praetorium Agrippinae (Valkenburg), Matilo (Leiden), Albaniana (Alphen aan de Rijn), Nigrum Pullum (Zwammerdam), Bodegraven, Laurium (Woerden), Fletio (De Meern), Traiectum (Utrecht), Fectio (Vechten), Levefanum (Rijswijk), Mannaricium (Maurik), Carvo (Kesteren), Randwijk, Driel, Herculis (Arnhem), Duiven, Carvium (Bijlandse Waard). The southern route along the rivers Maas and Waal included: Hadriani (Voorburg), Tablis, Caspingio, Grinnibus (Rossum), Ad Duodecimum, Oppidum Batavorum (Valkhof/Nijmegen), Ceuclum (Cuijk), Blariacum (Blerick), Catualium (Heel) and in Belgium: Feresne (Dilsen), Atuatuca (Tongeren) and Traiectum ad Mosam (Maastricht). Along the coast: Flevum (Velsen), Helinio (Oostvoorne?), Goedereede (?), De Roompot (?), Rodanum (Aardenburg), Maldegem, Oudenburg.

Ceuclum is the only town in Brabant of which the Roman name is known.

Ceuclum - Peutinger Map
Ceuclum – Peutinger Map

The current Grotestraat in Cuijk – were Louise’s maternal parents lived – follows the same route as the old Roman road. It was part of the military road from Tongeren via Maastricht to Nijmegen. The first phase of this settlement (vicus) dates back to between 50-100CE, strategically built on a river dune. A layer of burned material could indicate that this settlements might have been burned down during the Batavian revolt.

The vicus was rebuilt immediately there after – perhaps under Emperor Trajanus, it now also had a castellum. The above mentioned family house stood actually within the old parameters of the castellum (see videoclip). The vicus flourished until 150CE, but lost in importance after that time.

The third phase starts at the start of the 3rd century and by 275 the place is more or less deserted. The town was built along the road and was approx 600 meters in length (and 40 meters wide). The vicus had houses with workplace and shops as well as two temples. Just outside the town was a large burial site with between 1,000 and 2,000 graves. See also video clip Cuijk.

Ceuclum Museum - Cuijk
Ceuclum Museum – Cuijk

The Lower Germanicus Limes were abandoned at the same time perhaps a bit earlier in 260CE. Because of the war with Persia and internal civil wars the Legions along the Limes were called back to defend other parts of the Empire. The Limes were now open to the Germanic tribes and there is evidence of violent attacks on the now unprotected Roman farms and settlements.

However, Ceuclum remained an important military communication centre with (since approx 350) a bridge crossing the river Maas, there were only two other bridges in the Low Countries one was built in the 1st century in Maastricht and perhaps even an earlier one near Venlo. At the time the Romans rebuilt their castrum in Ceuclum, they also built one in Maastricht. These two militarily outposts were finally abandoned in 402 when the troops were order to move to Italy in order to defend the core of the Empire.

Saalburg on the north Germanic Limes

In 2010 I visited the castrum Saalburg this was part of the north Germanic Limes in the Taunus. These Limes were operational between 83 and 260AC, after Emperor Domitian had waged a war against the Chatti. The Taunus section covered 153 kms and had 200 watch towers, 35 larges forts and 18 small ones. Saalburg was a larger, so called cohort fortress with an occupation of 500/600 soldiers and was situated a few hundreds meters from the Limes it also had to look after a protected boarder passage. The reconstructed site is part of UNESCO World Heritage. Click here for a video clip of the Roman Limes in the Taunus and the military fortress Saalburg.

After 300 a different defence strategy was deployed involving fewer castras inland from the seashore with rapid cavalry forces that could be deployed when necessary. However, they were not sufficient to stop the many Germanic raids which during the 4thcentury became an ongoing event.

Batavii Rebellion

There had been a few smaller rebellions against the Romans by the Frisii in 28 and 47CE, but they were in no comparison to the one from the Batavii which took place in 69CE. Roman historians are talking about the Batavii, despite this major uproar they were in general loyal Romans and fierce members of the Roman Legions.

In Nero’s time towards the end of his reign, the Roman Empire went through a tumultuous year. During this period some of the Batavii army leaders were falsely accused of an attempt to overthrow the Emperor. One of these high-ranking Batavii, Julius Paullus, (his Roman name), was executed by Fonteius Capito on a false charge of rebellion.

Another Batavii nobleman and Roman army leader, Gaius Julius Civilis was paraded in chains in Rome before Nero; though he was acquitted, he was retained at Rome. After the death of Empire Nero in 69CE, in which there were no less than four rival emperors. Many Roman troops were recalled from their expeditions and within the army there were fractions supporting the various contenders to the throne. During the turmoil Julius Civilis was able to return home.

The anarchy in Rome allowed for the opportunity of widespread uprising especially along the north-western boarders of the Empire.

Surprising the Batavii were amongst the first to revolt. They had so far be very loyal to the Romans, most likely it were high new taxes that triggered the revolt. The revolt was launched by the newly returned Julius Civilis. In order to not to make it look like a rebellion Julius Civilis had proclaimed that he was supporting one the four challengers in Rome the Syrian general Vespasian and he was fighting this battle on his behalf. He also did send messages to neighbouring tribes such as the Canenefates and the Frisii who happily joined the rebellion.

Gallic tribes in the meantime had also joined the overall rebellion. The start was very successful with the defeat of the Romans in the castras of Katwijk, Nijmegen, Xanten, Mainz and Trier. Within a few months all Romans had fled the area.

Trouble started when Vespasian surprisingly won the challenge in Rome and became the new Emperor. Julius Civilis and his Germanic and Gallic allies had no inclination to hand their power over to the new Emperor. By 70, new troops were on their way and re-conquered lost territories in Germany. By now there was severe disunity amongst the Batavii and its allies and this made it easy for the Romans to defeat the rebels.

Following the uprising, the famous Legio decima Gemina (Tenth Twin Legion), was one of the four legions used by Julius Caesar in 58 BC, for his invasion of Gaul. There are still records of the X Gemina in Vienna in the beginning of the 5th century. The legion symbol was a bull. They occupied the castrum in Nova Magusanus  – 2 kms from the current city of Nijmegen – from 71 to 104 to keep an eye on the Batavians.

It was during this period that the castrum received the name: Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum. There was already a significant military base (42 hectares) established here in 15BCE and it became the most important base for the early military expeditions into Germania such as those in the years 9 and 15/16CE. During the expeditions into Germania there might have been a military strength of around 12,000 men. This was dramatically reduced over the following years. After the rebellion in 69CE an estimated force of 5,000 men occupied the castra. A more serious attack on Roman civilisation in the region came from the Chaukes in 174, they arrived by sea most probably from Belgica, this might have caused the Romans to start shifting their defense line from the rivers to the coast.

Self – Romanisation of the region

After the rebellion, the Batavii, once again, became one of Rome’s most staunch supporters and were praised for their bravery, horsemanship and swimming skills. Before and after the rebellion they fought in the Roman army all over the empire, they were last mentioned as such in 355. After 25 years of service these soldiers would receive Roman citizenship and a small piece of land.

IX Cohort Batavorum

The IX Cohort Batavorum, was led by the Batavian Flavius Ceralis, his family had received Roman citizenship by Emperor Vespasian in the year after the rebellion. In 95 he arrived with 480 Batavii legionnaires at the Roman Fortress Vindolanda (Britain), this later on became part of the Hadrian Wall fortification. The fortress was built in 92 by the IV Cohort Gaul from modern day Belgium. During excavations of this fortress wooden tablets were discovered with many letters, many of them written by Flavius. They also found correspondence regarding a birthday party invitation between the wife of Flavius, Sulpicia Lepidina and her sister Claudia Severa the wife of Aelius Brocchus the commander of the next Roman Fortress. This is the oldest known writing of a Roman woman found in Britain. Flavius was ordered in 105 to move to Dacia (modern day Romania) where the Romans fought severe battles with are immortalised on the Trajan column in Rome.

Germania Inferior remained far from Rome and like other parts of the Empire they were able to maintain their culture and tribal leaderships. Key for the Romans was that they adhered to the Roman principles of governance and above all payed their taxes and supplied their soldiers.

Nevertheless Roman rule, law and administration would become an integral part of the Celtic and German tribes who lived in these areas. Also the Roman systems of agriculture and trade were rapidly adopted and integrated in these societies.

What we see at the higher levels of society is that the locals start to copy the habits, fashion and way of life of the Romans, this is done without any pressure; it happened from within the conquered countries, again this phenomena is widespread throughout the Empire from Africa to the Danube and Britain and also in the area along the Limes in the Low Countries. The advantages of integration with the Roman society also resulted in increased economic activity and political stability.

As we saw above, once the Romans had subjected the tribes, they started to provide warriors for the Roman armies. This resulted in many locals travelling the than known world. We find them back in Britain in France, Italy and all the way at the Black Sea. This must have made an enormous impact on these people and the stories they brought back with them will have done the rounds for many generations.

Many Romans married local women and also many soldiers from the auxiliary (non Roman) legions married local women during their 25 year stint in the Roman army.

The more senior officials were able to live on extensive villas and exerting significant local military power.

All of this might indicate that this northern Batavian region did not prosper as well as other regions of the Empire an important reason for this might have been that the agriculture lands here were not well suited for grain production (which made Northern Africa and Spain for example more wealthier). The river lands produced cattle but that was not sufficient to significantly lift the economy of the region. There were no major Roman projects and investments into the region.  The majority of the villas in our region are situated in Limburg, a only very few  in the more southern regions of  Brabant  (e.g. Hoogeloon).

After the administrative changes implemented since 212 the Romans extended Roman citizenship to all of its inhabitants. Its society became more and more multicultural, not only did we see large number of non-Romans taking up senior positions in the Roman army but increasingly even emperors came from the new Romanised territories. Wealth was equally spread throughout the (top layer) of the Roman society and trade delivered benefits to large sections of the various local societies. It was not introduced for the benefit of the citizens, but to create a new way to increase the tax basis. Only those with full Roman citizenship were required to pay tax.

At the same time this became also one of the elements that lead to the downfall of the Empire. Barbarians became more and more powerful and by the 5th century most military generals had a Barbarian background as had the majority of the troops. With competing emperors and generals fighting each other the empire disintegrated and the Barbarian troop and their leaders filled in the vacuum and started to carve out their own kingdoms.

Military camps fueled the local economy

Another important element of interaction was the fact that these military camps required the supply of large quantities of agriculture and other products. This resulted in an economic boom and attracted many new people to the region.

Two kilometers west of Novia Magusanus, a shriving city developed known as Ulpia Noviamagus, it was established soon after the uprising and at its heights in the 2nd century there might have lived between 3000 and 500 people, but it was abandoned one hundred years later. Noviamagus means New Market and could well refer to the market rights this city received perhaps to differentiate if from the old Oppidum (settlement), next to the castra itself, which had been abandoned around 120CE.

Also around the other castras, farming and trading communities – the first vici – started to emerge, they might have had a market function, there would have been some trades people and they would also have functioned as religious centers  While the population of these places varied between 260 and 500 people, many of these vici became the first villages were the missionaries tore down local pagan shrines and temples and started to build the first churches during Merovingian and Carolingian times.

Noviamagus received city rights in the 2nd or 3rd century and as such received a civil administration based on the Roman model, with council members (decuriones), two burgomasters (in charge of taxes) and Aldermen in charge of public works and finances. Its jurisdiction basically compromised the total territory of the Batavii (Civitas Batavorum).

In 356 during his first campaign Caesar of the western provinces and the later Emperor Julian the Apostate led an army to the Rhine, to re-establish control of the northern boarder. He engaged the local inhabitants and won back several towns that had fallen into Frankish hands, including Colonia Agrippina (Cologne). Also Nijmegen profited from this campaign as a new fort was built at the Valkhof (Falcon Court –see video clip). In 406 the Romans permanently retreated from this outpost as the troops were send back to Rome as the city was now regularly under the attack of the Goths.


Gallo-Roman Temple at Kessel

Some 35 kms west of Nijmegen and 10 kms north of Oss is the small village of Kessel, strategically positioned where the rivers Maas and Waal often formed just one river system. This was the site of one of the largest Gallo-Roman temples in the are. It measured 24×24 meters and stood 6 meters tall. This was larger than the temples on Cuijk and Empel (near Den Bosch) . It was built around 100AC and was dedicated the Roman God Hercules and his Batavian equivalent Magusanus. The Batavii were a Germanic tribe loyal to the Romans. After the Romans left the area the temple was demolished around 275 and some decades later the building materials were used to built a castellum (fortress) and from this word word the name Kessel evolved. (See video clip: National Museum Leiden)

Reconstruction Roman Temple Empel
Reconstruction Roman Temple Empel

While at this time we still see most settlements based on their natural environment, by now also new settlements evolved especially along the military road system, typically at cross roads and river crossings, their existence based on communication and trade.

The more fertile regions of the river valleys in Germania Inferior were used for agriculture, while the less fertile sandy grounds of Toxandria were used for cattle. During Roman times many of the local young men were recruited into the Roman army and this has a significant impact on the local farming communities.

During this period there was a shift from agriculture to cattle breeding as that was less labour intensive. The Roman frontier army required large quantities of leather, tents, armour, boots, saddles and horse gear, this no doubt did create a ready market for many local produce. However, also wheat and meat was sold to the Roman Army.

Along the border formal and spontaneous relationships where established between the Romans and the ‘free’ tribes. Roman money also circulated outside the empire as far away as Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Through these military posts Roman trade reached these outer areas.

However, while these places were all influenced by the Romans, the lands outside the Empire didn’t see a similar development in relation to road and water infrastructure, town building, house building; there was no centralised laws, taxation or administration. It would take a thousand years before those developments also started to take of further north and ended the age old tribal period.

Semi industrial activity started to evolve in these regions around salt mining, building materials, pottery, etc. There obviously also started to develop an economic dependence, this became very clear after the collapse of Roman empire, when both free and previously occupied parts of Europe entered the period of the Dark Ages. Click here for a video clip of the Roman Limes in the Taunus and the military fortress Saalburg.

Golden helmet in the Peel

The Peel helm known as the Golden Helmet, is made of thin gilded silver. The helmet is very fragile and it can hardly have been used in battle, because it would have been useless as protection for the head. Its style is clearly one of Roman military helmets and the inscription incised in it confirms this observation. It says that the helmet “was made by Marcus Titus Lunamis, using nearly 370 gram of silver sheets. Its owner belonged to the sixth cavalry unit of the Equites Stablesiani. On the right side of the helmet cap it says Stablesia VI”.

The helmet was found with some other objects, among which were coins dated from 315 to 319 AD. So the disposition of the helmet in the swamp of the Peel (the name of the region) probably took place in or shortly after the year 319 AD. We do not know exactly why the helmet was deposited in the swamp in the Peel. At that time the area must have been difficult to cross and even for Roman soldiers it might not have been a safe place to go through.

For a long time the prevailing hypothesis was that a Roman soldier left the army at the Rhine after successfully serving in it for many years. As a farewell gift he was given the Golden Helmet, but in the Peel swamp he drowned and his precious possessions sank away to be buried for the next 1600 years. Recently, another hypothesis was put forward. It could be that the helmet, and the accompanying objects, was in fact ritually deposited as a thanksgiving to the Gods since its owner had successfully completed his military service. (See video clip: National Museum Leiden)


Oss a settlement on the Roman Limes

With the influence of the Romans increasing in Europe, massive social and economic changes occurred in the lands concurred by them. Even at the edges of the Empire changes are filtering through. At that point in time Oss did find itself in an interesting position, close the boarder region where lots of military activity was taking place with a large Roman settlement in Nijmegen and other military camps in Cuijk and perhaps in Emplel and Kessel as well.

Since the Bronze Age farmers had settled the area north of Oss and cattle raising was their key activity. Now, right in the middle of an emerging new market environment we see these garming settlement growing into what perhaps can be called a proto-village. We start seeing a significant increase in population in the Iron Age settlements in Ussen (north west of the current city centre) as well as in the settlements in other parts of the Maashorst, such Mun, Gaalse Heide, Loo.

Increasingly Roman artefacts are becoming more common and towards the end they basically had started to replace many of the native implements. Pottery was much less made locally and replaced by imported Roman earthenware. Roman fibulae and coins are also becoming more common. This not only signifies the Roman influence but also a change in economy as many of these goods were imported from other parts of the Empire.

The people in Oss and the region Maashorst would have been classified by the Romans as the above mentioned Batavii. Historical Roman documents talk about the importance of the cattle trade and the salt mentioned before was an important element in tanning.

The farm houses could easily house 30+ cattle and most probably these boarder settlements also had a lively trade with farmers further north of the Roman boarder all keen to profit from the demand from Roman cities and other army boarder posts along the Limes. Farms are becoming more permanent and several of the small settlements were surrounded by a ditch.

The names Ussen, Oss as well ox (Oss=ox)in the coat of arms of the early nobility in the Middle Ages all show a strong possible link between cattle and the local settlements. The closely linked hamlets in Ussen – currently known as Westerveld, Vijver and Zomerhof – could therefore well have been a centre for the cattle trade. The linden tree under which the ox is standing has, as we know, a deep Germanic religious/cultural meaning.

However, another explanation is that the name Oss is a hydronime which has to do with the water that has been flooded the river plains here and that this was a place laying above the water, indeed the town centre is called the Hill (Heuvel).

The three settlements in Ussen also had a (combined) urnfield, in total some 400 people have been buried here, the site includes a row of six large tumuli – most likely for the owners of the large house – dating from between 60 and 150CE.

A rather compact burial site on the Gaalse Heide (heath) near the Hellenmolen (mill) near the current hamlet of Mun (Schaijk) contained 63 Roman burials with perfectly preserved jars as burial gift. [1. Verleden van een bewogen landschap, Richard Jansen, Klaas van der Laan, 2011]

Other possible Roman trading links in the Brabant region include settlements in: Lith, Teeffelen, Macharen, Nistelrode, Bladel, Someren, Riethoven, Hoogeloon (one of the very few known houses that would come the closest to a Roman villa) en Cuijk. [2. Onder heide en akkers, Evert van Ginkel and Liesbeth Theunissen, 2009, p 188]

It is likely that also people from this region fought in the Batavii Rebellion of 69CE. Soon after the Romans established their ‘Lower Germanicus Limes’ , the Scheldt and Rhine rivers became the official and protected northern boarder of the Empire, this was completed by 83CE. This became the start of a 100 year long period of peace (Pax Romana) that resulted in a further increase in population and a further grow of the settlements.

The Batavii influence largely disappeared after the 1st century and the area was now fully Romanised. Westerveld seemed to be the most prosperous ; it is one of the largest known settlements from the Roman period west of the military base of Nijmegen (distance approx 30 kms). This settlement had a double ditch around it as well as most likely a pole foundation and inside the ‘protected area’ archeological evidence shows remnants of luxury pottery, fibula, wine barrels (used as the casing for a water put) and glassware.

None of this was accessible to the local population with strong links with the military depots. The main building was perhaps housing an indigenous merchant/tribal leader, whose house seems to have had a veranda (porticus), as well as perhaps as much 8 or 9 (supporting) farms. Perhaps it could also have functioned as a feasthall (mead hall)? Some of these solid farmhouses was very large between 20 and 30 meters and even 40 meters long, some of the stables in these farmhouses (long-houses) could have as many as 30 cattle, on average they would hold between 15 and 20 cattle. In Nisterode, 9 kilometers south of Westerveld, was a similar house with a portica, also here a wine barrel was used for a water put. Not far from this settlement a real Roman treasure was unearthed.

Treasure of Nistelrode

In the early spring of 2004, archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery in Nistelrode in North Brabant. No fewer than thirty ornately decorated bronze pitchers, bowls, wine decanters and candelabras were exposed. It was a Roman wine service, unique to the Netherlands.

They also exposed a portion of a Batavian settlement. This dated from the period from the end of the 1st to the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. In addition to the wine service, they also found shards, roof tiles, coins, broaches and – via tracks – the plots of three farms. It is not clear if this concerns a ritual offering or a quick burial of luxury goods to avoid it being raided by invading Germanic tribes. [3. De schatvondst van Nistelrode Romeinse luxe in het Bataafse Land, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, 2010] (Nistelrode treasure see video clip: National Museum Leiden)

At the start of the 2ndcentury, Tacitus reports some interesting changes to the social system.

In the boarder regions wealth (arable land) was now distributed on the basis of status and perhaps the above mentioned Westerveld settlement is an example of that. By mid 2nd century Westerveld seemed already to have lost its important status. This could have coincided with the regular insertions from the Germanic tribes on the other side of the river. By 175 they had well and truly established themselves in Brabant.

The three settlements in Ussen remained occupied, however, population seem to have halved by that time. This coincides with the destruction and/or abandonment of the other important Roman sites such as Hoogeloon, Empel, Kessel and Ceuclum also Nijmegen was targeted with Roman temples being burned down. Suddenly, after a total period of 2000 years of occupation, the from origin early Bronze Age settlements in Ussen were suddenly abandoned around 225AC. Empel followed a decade later, most sites linked to the Roman era were abandoned before 250, Ceuclum was perhaps the last stronghold it was destroyed around 275. The Roman fortresses in Lugdunum (Katwijk) on the North Sea and Nijmegen were also abandoned around this time. This all happened during the Turbulent Third Century (see below).

Empel site of Roman Temple
Empel site of Roman Temple

It has also been argued that water levels had risen sharply which made occupation no longer feasible here. Also in 275 the region was struck by a severe plague epidemic, perhaps coinciding with the devastation of war?

It remains a puzzle what happened with all the people who once lived there, did they fled with the Roman troops, was there wholesale murder involved, was it the plague, nobody knows. In less than 15% of settlements that were occupied during the Roman period, archaeological evidence shows any continuation of farming activity, again more along the river Maas (Macharen, Lith, Teeffelen, Grave, Heusden) than elsewhere .

In Oss it looks like the people who stayed moved to the Heuvel (a 6 meter high hill) where the medieval city started to evolve; only slightly south from where the old settlements had been.

Also in places such as Nijmegen, Tongeren, Cuijk, Maastricht settlements continued be it at a very severely reduced numbers.

After the reorganisation of the Empire under Diocletian and most likely after Emperor Julian had reestablished control in the region after his victory over the Franks and Alimanni at the battle of Strabourg in 357, late Roman fortresses were rebuilt in Kessel (using the remnants of the old temple) and Ceuclum.

In 358 the Salian Franks were given autonomy over the region (Toxandria) and as a result of new multicultural policies these fortresses were now defended by Frankish Romans.

When in 402 the Romans definitely abandoned the Lower Germanicus Limes, the Franks took full control of the region between the Rhine and the Scheldt and the Alamanni took over the fortress Wiesbaden on the Rhine. The whole boarder region rapidly depopulated after a total collapse of the local economy.

Ground water levels only started to drop at around 800, which made farming in the fertile river plains possible again. However, it wasn’t until the Late Middle Ages that the area around Ussen was reoccupied, most probably more seriously only after dykes started to be built along the river Maas from 1100 onward.

New provinces in the north

After his visit to the region in 27BCE, Augustus divided Gallia in three part, as a result of this Gallia Belgica came into existence. Gallia Belgica included most of what later became the Low Countries (incl. Luxembourg), northern France and the Lower Rhine region. Its territory started from the Garonne in what is now northern France and ended along the northern boarder of the empire along the river Rhine and included the Rhine land. The initial capital was Durocortorum – Reims. The other main cities were: Camaracum (Cambrai), Nemetacum (Arras), Samarobriua (Amiens), Divodorum (Metz) and Augusta Treverorum (Trier).

Porta Nigra - Trier
Porta Nigra – Trier

The province was further split in Belgica Prima (eastern section with capital Augusta Treverorum, Trier) and Belgica Secunda (Reims). Similar to the earlier split, the divisions were led by the geography of the region. The border between Belgica Prima and Belgica Secunda was approximately along the River Maas. The most important Roman city in the region since 16BCE was Trier. A position sometimes challenged by Cologne. Metz – at that time the capital of the Belgian Tribe the Mediomatric – was in 52BCE occupied by the Romans and became the cross roads of two important Roman roads; the north-south one from Trier to Marseille and east-west from Strasburg to Reims. The city grew to 40,000 people at the height of Empire (2nd century). A few centuries the city later became the capital of the new Frankish country of Austrasia. The influence of Metz on Brabant is significant, but not all that well understood.

Saint Pierre aux Nonnains

Metz Saint Pierre aux Nonnains – 2009

One of the most amazing buildings in north-western Europe that dates back to Roman times and whereby that building is still in use is Saint Pierre aux Nonnains in Metz. It started as a basilica (building for public meetings) or a palestra (gymnasium) around 380-400 it became a store for carriages and than in the 6th century it became a church and abbey for women and an arsenal in the 16th century. It survive the attack of the Vandals in the 4th century, Attila in 451 and the siege of the city in 1552. It has been magnificently restored and is used for occasional exhibitions; we visited this special place in 2009. The beautifully decorated stone choir enclosure (balustrade) of the old Merovingian church has been preserved and is on display in the museum of La Court d’Or. Another amazing remnant of the Gallo-Roman period is the Jouy-aux-Arches Aqueduct just outside Metz where it crossed – in those days – the river Mosel.

In 38BCE the German tribe the Urbii, came to an agreement with the Romans an settled on the left bank of the Rhine and at the same time became an important Roman military camp. In the year 15 Agrippa the granddaughter of Emperor Nero was born here, she married Emperor Claudius in 49. She arranged for her birth city to be promoted to Colonia Claudia Ara Aprippinensium (CCAA – Cologne), this provided its inhabitants with Roman citizenship. In its time the city was known as ‘Ara’ and its citizens called themselves Agrippinenses. The military governor and his civil administration were also seated in CCAA.

Under Emperor Tiberius, in the year 17, the Roman Province of Belgica was renamed and divided in tho military regions: Germania Inferior and Germania Superior (Lower and Upper Germania). Under Domitianus – between 82 and 90 – they became official provinces. Here the Emperor had the sole rights to appoint the governors. Until that time the governors were appointed by the Roman Senate. Germania Superior included what is currently Switzerland and Alsace. It was at this time that the Roman Empire reached its size that it would remain for most of its existence, until the final decline started to set in the 5th century.

Germania Inferior under military rule

This new province consisted of modern day southern Netherlands, east part of Belgium and a western part in Germania. CCAA became the capital of the new province. Other major cities included Tongeren, Xanten and Maastricht.

Xanten – Roman Cemetery

Early settlement dates back to 2000 BCE and perhaps on tribal grounds the Roman’s built at 15 BCE Castra Vetera – as part of the Limes. The fortress was destroyed during the Batavian Revolt in 70 AD, at that time it had a military occupation of between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers.

A new fortress was built nearby which was known as Castra Vetera II. A nearby created settlement, which was inhabited by 10,000 to 15,000 usually former legionaries, was given the rights of a Colonia in 110 by the Roman emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus, who renamed the city into Colonia Ulpia Traiana.

After the Roman period a new town was rebuild near the Roman cemetery, legend had it some martyrs from the 3rd century, had been buried here – soldiers who had refused orders from Emperor Diocletianus to stop the heathen Christian methods. The new town lay ‘ad sanctum’, near the saint and that name evolved in Xanten.

Pentaspastos crane Casa Vetera - Xanten 1980
Pentaspastos crane Casa Vetera – Xanten 1980

The boarder region remained largely out of the hands of the civil administration and was directly ruled by the military (Exercitus Germania Inferior). They had several legions in operation here of which two were permanent: I Minervia and XXX Ulpa Victrix. It also had its own navy the Classis Germaniawhich operated from Castra Vetera (Velzen) and later from Agrippinensis (Valkenburg).

The local leaders (military and bureaucracy) were initially all appointed by Rome and most of the time only stayed for relative short periods in the various places within the empire. There was little or no local civil organisation in the area, the administration was purely military. This however, rather rapidly started to change, once Roman occupation became more permanent.

Third Century Crisis

The Roman Empire was largely built around its military power. After it had secured power in Rome it gradually extended its regional power in order to secure its homeland and its need for its own society (e.g the food supplies from North Africa). Later Empires followed the same developments and currently one could replace foodstuff with oil and place it in a similar context. So the empire was more or less in a permanent state of war. Part of such a powerful system are its politics and at many times political intrigues, murders, executions, revolts and power struggle were also a permanent feature. On top of that it had its ongoing natural disasters such as floods, droughts and plagues. The empire was more or less permanent state of crisis.

The African food bowl

One of the most prosperous regions of the Roman Empire was North Africa and the coastal region along the Mediterranean was during this period and integral part of Europe. Even land that currently is part of the Sahara dessert (300-400km inland) was fertile and a very productive area. Without North Africa the Empire would not have been bale to feed its citizens.

With the usual Roman efficiency the area was divided in provinces with flourishing regional centers of which Carthage was the main capital. The provinces were: Egypt, Cyrenaica (eastern part of Lybia), Tripolitana (rest of Lybia), Africa (Tunisia), Mauritania (land of the Moors) and Numidia (Morocco/Algeria). The main cities were: Cyrenaica, Carthage, Utica, Cirta, Leptis, Magna and Hippo Regius. For more than 600 years Rome depended on the import of grain from North Africa and other areas outside Italy. Times of crises often disrupted the provision of food and this led to a decline in the population of Rome.

The start of the Crisis is often linked to the assassination of Emperor Serverus Alexander. Between 235 and 284, there were no less than 50 different emperors, some only lasted days or at a maximum a few months. One of the key reasons for this turmoil was that throughout the 1,000 of the Empire nobody had ever been able to establish an ordinary process of succession.

In 253 this led to a co-emperor-ship, Valerian addressed the problems in the east and Gallienus those in the west. This became the start of a period that continued to final collapse, during these times there were 3 and sometimes 4 military c0-emperors and within that system sometimes led to near-secession (for a few years there was the Gallic Empire and Britain was also ‘independent’ for decade or so).

It wasn’t until Diocletian before – at least for some time – more stability arrived. For the first time in its history Rome received – in 272 – its own fortification and a defense wall was built around the city; the city was no longer invincible.

When confronted with military crises, Roman Emperors often had to respond by debasing the silver currency and trying to raise new funds.

The third century crises forced the emperors to double the size of the army and increase both the size and complexity of the government. To pay for this, masses of worthless coins were produced, produce was commandeered from peasants, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive (up to two-thirds of the net yield after payment of rent). Inflation devastated the economy. Lands and population were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. Communities were held corporately liable for any unpaid amounts.

While peasants went hungry or sold their children into slavery, massive fortifications were built, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, provincial administration was made more complex, large subsidies in gold were paid to Germanic tribes to stop them from invading and to entice them to join the Roman army; furthermore new imperial cities and courts were established. With rising taxes, marginal lands were abandoned and population declined. Peasants could no longer support large families.

As we will see below, in order to avoid oppressive civic obligations, the wealthy fled from cities to establish self-sufficient rural estates. Ultimately, to escape taxation, peasants voluntarily entered into feudal relationships with these land holders. A few wealthy families came to own much of the land in the western empire, and were able to defy the imperial government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources; producing lands and peasant population . [5. Getting down to earth, Joseph A. Tainter, 1996]

Climatic changes, as we mentioned above in relation to the situation around the rivers in the Low Countries, large part of the northern border flooded and the Lower Germanicus Limes were abandoned. This allowed the Germanic tribes – who had already started to put a lot of pressure on the northern frontier – to take over the higher grounds within the abandoned areas, these were largely very fertile agriculture lands.

From here raids now started to occur deeper into the empire. Archaeological evidence starts to underpin the notion that the Roman culture started to disappear from these boarder regions, the invading tribes perhaps with the assistance of the local population abandoned the Roman structure and also the language started to change.  The destruction of places such as Nijmegen And Cuyk and also temples inElst, Empel and Kessel night indicate a rather rapid Germanisation of the region.

On the eastern border the empire came under pressure of the emerging Persian Empire who had just defeated the more loosely structured Parthians, with whom the Romans had more or less lived in peace. The Persians however, had other plans and started push westwards. The Goths– who will play a key role in the final faith of the empire – used the crisis to grow its own force on the north-eastern border (along the Danube). All of these troubles also led to internal strive, various leaders squabbling over the best plan of actions. However under Diocletian and Constantine the Roman power would be restored thanks to massive reorganisations in the administration and the army supported by a significant increase in taxes.

The reorganisation of Diocletian

Over time more and more administrative staff was recruited from the ‘foreign’ provinces and locals slowly even started to replace even most military staff. Increasingly also ‘free’ Germans started to take part in these functions.

Local administration developed also in the provinces itself, we already saw how that developed in Noviamagus. The Emperor who succeeded the range of short lived emperors, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus ( Diocletian) (284 – 305) ,was born in Salone (Split – Croatia) than the Roman Province of Illyricum. He reorganised the Roman Empire which led to the developments of a tetrarchy with four autonomous regions: Italy and Spain in the west, Britain (with London – see clip) and Gaul in the north, Illyricum and Persia in the east and North Africa and the remainder of the Empire.

On a regional level over 100 provinces were established., He also appointed a co-emperor: Maximian. However, they both didn’t reside in Rome, the city had by that time already started its decline. Diocletian made his capital Nicomedia (now Izmit, Turkey) and Maximian established himself in Milan. This also led to a decrease of the power of the Senate which remained situated in Rome, decisions were increasingly made elsewhere. Diocletian only once visited Rome at the 20th anniversary of his reign and only stayed here for six weeks.

Following the diarchy two assistants (ceasars) were appointed Galerius for Diocletianus and Constantius Chlorus for Maximian. Constantinus was the military leader in Britain and Gaul (based in Trier) – his son Constantine would later become the first Christian Emperor . The fourth region was ruled by Galerius from Sirmium (Serbia). Relations between the four rulers were strengthened by intermarriages.

Diocletian furthermore divided the provinces into dioceses The smallest administrative centres were in and around the cities. The so called civitas were divided in pagi, which included vici (rural centres), and villae (estates). Originally these villas were largely operating as large estates rather than local farms. See also video clip Roman Villa de Tellaro Noto Sicily. In Gaul, this system was progressively applied to all of the 17 provinces and became the origin of the modern pays, cités, cities, città, ciudad, villes and villages. Pagus was the Latin name for the smallest administrative district of a province, more or less equivalent to a modern county (canton). This word gave in French pays (country), paysan (farmer, through paganus), paysage (landscape), and gau (gouw). Previously a pagus had been an informal designation of a rural district, with rather flexible (natural) boarders as they were seen by the local people. The people in these outlaying pagi often clanged to their traditional believes (pagans). The concept itself dates back to the Etruscan, they divided the rural area in pagi. Rome was the ‘urbs’ with centralised jurisdiction.

Most of these civitates attempted to emulate the great capital at Rome, and it was indeed a poor place that did not possess an impressive public buildings with law courts and temples (basilica), an amphitheatre for play-goers, and a racetrack. The civitas would also boast a public bath, busy markets, and as much in the way of civic amenities as the rich land-owners of the pagus could afford to endow the city. Local government and local life throughout the empire was centred upon such communities, and a Roman could move from the frontiers of Scotland to the mountains of Syria and still feel pretty much at home.

Titles such as count (comes) and duke (dux) are also dating back to the Late Empire. They were given to holders of substantial, strategically situated territories.

Diocletian proclaimed himself ‘dominus and deus’ (Lord and God); established Mithraism as the official state religion and forbade Christianity, this led to one of the most severe persecutions. In order to protect his absolutism, he employed a large secret police. This significant increase in bureaucracy required new taxes. In exchange he provided the large landowner certain rights under public law in this way governance, justice and tax collection were linked to landownership. In this way private property title resulted in rights under public law. As we will see below, for fiscal reasons farmers were linked to their land.

The Empire could no longer maintain its global scale and with these developments around the landowners we now see a localisation of power. It is here that we find the roots to following feudal systems. During Carolingian times there were some 400 counts (large landowners) that were of significant importance to maintain the integrity of the Frankish Empire. Many of these Roman legal and administrative systems were also adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as by the Merovingians and Carolingians.

However, the borderlines of these territories were certainly not well defined. Diocletian doubled the size of the army and instigated far reaching military reforms. Basically changing the army, as it was established by Augustus, from one based on conquest to one based on defence .

One group the ‘limitanei’ occupied a buffer zone along the Danube and the Rhine. The second group known as ‘corps’ was a mobile force usually stationed close the headquarters of one of the four rulers, wherever they were on campaign. Along the Rhine lightly armed boarder troops on horseback were deployed, often recruited from the new German invaders. They were only deployed as a first level of defense with the aim to deploy larger units for assistance if so required. By deploying locals (as a result of the rapidly changing multicultural policy of the Empire) they successfully avoided large scale attacks. Nijmegen, Kessel and Ceuclum were, as mentioned above, key fortresses during the 4th century along the far northern boarder of the Empire.

Thanks to Diocletian and his successor Constantine law and order was restored and the empire recovered. However, its structure was fundamentally different from the one that existed before the Third Century Crisis and its impact was relatively short-lived.

Economic power moving to the east

Both Deocletian and Maximian abdicated peacefully in 305 and handed their power over to Galerius and Constantinus. After the death of Constantinus, his son Flavius Vaterius Constantinus (Constantine) became co-emperor in 306. Also he was also born in the Balkan, in Nis. After a campaign against his co-emperor in 312 he became the undisputed sole ruler again of the Roman Empire in the west.

Co-emperors Constantine I and Licinius signed  in 313 the famous Edict of Milan that granted religious freedom to the Christians.

The decline of Rome had continued and the economic activity started to shift from the agriculture based west to the trading based east.

During this battle Constantine had noticed the strategic fortress of Byzantion in the middle of the north-west cross road between the Black Sea (Central Asia) and the Mediterranean and on the east- west axis between the Middle East and Europe. Both from a commercial and a military position this was a far more strategic position than that of Rome in the declining western part of the Empire.

Rome’s total decline never happened because of the wide accepted – but dubious – belief that the apostle Peter had been martyred here. Peter was called the ‘rock’ by Jesus on which the church would be built. Rome therefore was the logical choice to become the capital of the Christian empire.

Population development of Rome

Period Population
5BCE (height of power) 800,000 – 1,000,000
4th century 600,000
490 300,000
590 150,000
800 30,000

The political power of the empire moved to east where Constantine renewed the city wall of the town of Byzantion and in 328 started the new capital that two years later would be called Constantinople. The new Rome which would have all the cultural and architecture as well as the lifestyle trappings of the old city.

The book innovation

In the 4th century we also saw an innovation that would have far reaching consequences and was immediately sized upon by the emerging Catholic Church. In the codification of Roman Law the 12-foot long scrolls started be replaced by the book. The Codex Book as it was called referred to the reason of its use. The new format was far more easier to navigate and far easier to store and to read and retrieve information from.

It can not be underestimated how important catholicism became for the transition from the Roman period to the Middle Ages and into our own modern times; socially, politically, economically and administrative.

The disintegration of the Empire

The Romans owed their strong position in Europe to their superior (military) organisation skills. As we saw above, its downfall however started perhaps as much as 200 years before the actual collapse. There are a number of reasons why the Roman Empire finally came to its end.

It has been argued that the Roman economy to a large extend depended on slaves; in the first century BC there were an estimated 1 million slaves in Italy alone. This also led to ‘laziness’ in relation to innovation and technologies as there was less need for efficiency and productivity. This has undermined the Roman civilisation for most of its existence and perhaps formed part of the reason that it didn’t have enough resistance built into its social and economic structure

Amazingly at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire the Romans did not have a significant technological advantage, either in agriculture or in the military, over the Germanic tribes.

The move of the capital from Rome to Constantinople in 325 was as much another milestone in the decline of the western part of the Empire. While it remained the largest city during the 4th century, the once powerful Senate was not much more than a local council. It also for the first time since 168BC had to pay taxes. The power was moving from the center to the periphery to cities such as Constantinople, Trier, Milan. Antioch and Sirmium, with soldier emperors fighting each other.

As mentioned above, during the Third Century, the Empire raised taxes (as high as a third of  income) but this impoverished the population and the Empire increasingly failed to generate sufficient taxes to maintain its army, this resulted in a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, slowly regions slipped back into self sufficiency, the economy declined further and trade all but disappeared. This in turn led to a disastrous decline of the cities with merchants and the middle class disappearing from that scene. The large land owners  became so powerful that they were able to operate independently  from the Empire, under Diocletian they were appointed to collect the taxes as long as a third of that was send to Rome. However, in the end very little of it did find its way to Rome.

In 212 the Romans extended Roman citizenship to all of its inhabitants. Barbarians now became more and more powerful and by the 5th century most military generals had a Barbarian background as had the majority of the troops.

In the late 3rd and throughout the 4th century the Romans had signed foederati treaties and this opened up their borders to let Germanic tribes settle within the Empire. In exchange they had to provide military services for the Romans, they became the most important reservoir for the Roman army and won many battles with and for the Romans. Their leaders became part of the wealthy upper (tax collecting)  layer of society and  their foederati territories became semi-independent regions.

Thanks to these treaties the Roman army remained still very powerful throughout the 4th and early 5th century. It won many battles a very important one in 357 near Strasbourg were the army of 13.000 under Emperor Julianus defeated a confederated army of 35,000 of Alamanni.

However at the same time another major problem was the continuous rivalry between competing emperors, co-emperors and often their powerful generals – usurpation now became the norm – this often led to civil wars and the various foederati often participated in these usurpation developments and than consequently negotiated the best deals before choosing who to fight for. During one of such periods many (independent) Franks had been able to cross the river Rhine and flooded deeper into the Empire. It was a Frankish foederati leader Arbogastes who in 393 was able to stop the invaders. This also shows the double loyalties that existed. Many people as members of foederati had lived within the empire for a long time and often felt themselves as Roman citizens

A few years later we see that Stilicho – the partly Vandal, partly Roman general under Emperor Honorius – had full control over all of the troops in the west. In 396 he visited the Rhine boarder and renews treaties with the Alamanni and the Franks.

A major invasion, pushed along by the advancing Huns, took place on December 31st 406 (or 405?) when a huge barbarian confederation of Vandals, Suevi and Alans crossed the frozen Rhine near the military town Castrum Mogontiacum (Mainz). The invaders totally overran the Rhine army, which consisted of very loyal Roman troops made out of the Franks and Alamanni.

Reports from St Jerome written two years later indicate that the Huns destroyed the city and that many people were massacred, the bishop, Aureus, was put to death by the Alamannian chief Crocus. After this event they sacked Trier and over the next three years – with their wagons with women and children and all of their belongings, workshops and loot – they slowly moved further south into Gaul.  Jerome lists the cities now known as Mainz, Worms, Rheims, Amiens, Arras, Thérouanne, Tournai, Speyer and Strasbourg as having been pillaged by the invaders.  After this invasion Rome lost control over northern Gaul, the administrative seat moved from Trier to Arles. Trier remained in name still the capital, but without effective military control there was no stopping the  disintegration of the western empire.

In a very short period Arles shot up as a super military and administrative centre.  It obtained a serious status and the city also wrestled itself into the catholic power system with led to a long period of hostilities with the bishop of Marseilles.

Without any support from Emperor Theodosius – who had appointed the child emperor Honorius in the west – civil war continued and the Barbarian armies plundered Gaul, they were joined by other Barbarian armies such as the Visigoths, under the leadership of  Alaric   – from 410 onward – we now also regularly see them  entering Italy and plundering their way to Rome.

The whole period remains one of wars raging within the empire. Between 425 and 430 it was the military general Aëtius was able to drive the Franks back towards the Belgica in the north. But equally there were ongoing battles with the Visigoth in southern Gaul and in Italy, between supporters of the various emperors.

This is also the period where we see a changeover from the so called soldier emperors to child emperors, whereby control of the empire is no longer in the hands of the emperor, but the power brokers behind the child.

The situation further deteriorated in the 5th century because of a lack of money to pay the troops as a result the Roman Army was often missing in action. There were no supplies and weapons and they had to stay in their camps, sometimes they were paid by local bishops to keep their cities safe. In general we see increased secular leadership from bishops after the collapse of the central administration of the empire.

This all weakened border position led to an increase in incursions and invasions.  Although the outer edges of the Empire were traditionally well defended, there was no defense within the Empire. This meant that once the invaders had broken through there was nothing to stop them marching to Rome. The Roman network of roads allowed invaders an easy route to Rome.

With the Barbarian tribes now largely in control of the northern regions the boarder became dysfunctions, this had a great effect on the villages and towns whose economy totally depended on the supplies to the military camps. As an indication of military decline, it was in 453 Pope Leo I who negotiated with the invading Huns and not the Emperor. We also see in other situations bishops and even monks becoming involved in trying to keep social and economic activities going.

The final phase started of the Barbarian invasions ended with the actual final sacking of Rome in 476 by the Visigoth, as in 410 there were no armies to protect the people of the city. For the Visigoths there was simply no other way that to win as they were literally starving to death. While they rampaged through the city, they didn’t destroy it as such as they came here to stay.

Like the Goths before them they had entered the land as refugees , were maltreated, revolted and started to take over the land. The great urban Roman civilisation disintegrated. The above mentioned social and administrative changes undertaken by Diocletian and Constantine, in hindsight, hastened the decline. With the imperial overstretch it also became more difficult to keep the supply of slaves going. Landowners started to free their slaves but made them hereditary bound to the land they worked. There were two categories:

  • Coloni- (farmers using the land of the landowner in exchange for part of the produce – interestingly one of my forebears, Josef Budde in Wietmarschen, Germany was registered as a colon as late as 1850) – and;
  • mancipia (farm workers)

Without effective central control the power of the landowners as well as other powerful local people increased. The Empire could no longer maintain its global scale (over stretch) and with these developments around the local landowners we now see a localisation of power. They started to take the law into their own hands, though their ‘patronage’ over weaker individuals.

Already by mid 5th century the Franks controlled most of Gaul, be it still more or less still under the Roman umbrella. The position of the local (Barbarian) political and military elite changed, from being participants in the Roman Empire they started to independently take over the power. But importantly, with the exception of the Huns, they were not set out to destroy the Empire, they simply wanted a larger part of the spoils.

Ultimately it were the Visigoths under the leadership of the Germanic/Hun leader Odoacer who sacked Rome and deposed of the last Roman (child) Emperor of the West Romulus Augustulus. Also after the collapse of the empire, the Gallo-Roman upper class remained in place , however, they had no structural power, nor did they try to assert such powers.

Central power collapsed and this had a devastating effect on the economy, money disappeared and the large Roman villas wittered away, cities crumbled and disappeared after their city walls.

A similar level of depopulated had already started earlier after the collapse of the Germanica Limes, first around 250AD and permanently after 410AD. There has  been a lot of debate about the nature of the depopulation of the norther region along the rivers Rhine and Maas . There is for example clear evidence that the farming settlements in Oss were largely abandoned and also other regions along the rivers show evidence of similar developments. However, there is also evidence that climatic changes might have played a role, large parts of Zeeland got flooded and perhaps floods were also the reason why most of the settlements along the coast were abandoned.

However, in most of the rest of the former Empire, population growth continued, people effected by the collapse of the Roman defenses and/or by the climatic changes might perhaps have dispersed further over the land but they didn’t disappear. Other (smaller) communities that also existed in those times perhaps as small as one or two family farm complexes grew slowly but steadily into many of the towns and villages as we know them nowadays.

Nothing much changed in the east, where the Emperor remained operating from Constantinople. He continued to call himself Roman Emperor (the names East Roman Emperor and East Roman Empire were only established in modern times). As mentioned the Catholic Church also stepped into the vacuum and took over many tasks that were formerly conducted by the Roman bureaucracy.

During the 5th and 6th centuries other tribes such as the Visigoths, Burgundians, Sueves, Vandals and Franks took over the western Roman provinces. By 500, Italy was ruled by the Ostrogoths, Gaul by the Franks, Spain by the Visigoths and North Africa by the Vandal. The influence of the ‘Barbarians’ in Roman Europe has been much larger than generally has been thought, also the change over from Roman times to Middle Ages, has been far less ‘dark’ than the Dark Ages suggest. Many elements of the Roman society were adopted by the newcomers and the transition was far more seamless than often has been depicted.

Barbarians in charge

For the next 53 years after the sacking of Rome we see a rapid continuation of the further disintegration of centralised Roman power and there was not enough or very little civic authority to fill this vacuum. This allowed the many Germanic tribes who lived alongside the boarders, to now finally gain control and further invade the collapsed empire. They concentrated their efforts on taking over Roman castras.

In 486 Clovis succeeded in conquering the last remaining remnant of Roman Gaul, now known as the kinglet of Soissons. The Roman military commander Syagrius had been able to maintain Roman control over this region, after the battle he escaped to the Visigoths in Toulouse. Amazingly the Franks took control over most of Western Europe within only a few decades, which further supports a much more ‘natural’ change over from Roman times to Middle Ages.

Nevertheless large scale depopulation of the area- that had already started around 250 along the northern boarder – accelerated in the 5th century, nevertheless most villages were able to survive be it with significant lower population levels. Also the nature of the economy changed. The central monoculture developments in relation to agriculture (Roman villas) disappeared and with it the trading which is a key element of such an economy. Instead subsistence farming arrived with many small farms operated by the villagers.

Without trade also the Roman roads rapidly fell into disrepair. After the collapse of centralised governance it took centuries before new strong centralised governments were re-established. Anarchy, poverty, raiding, and murder became the norm. The Merovingian, Carolingian and Holy Roman Empire attempts to re-establish permanent central control all failed. They all missed the administrative machinery to keep their empires together. Out of necessity the level of organisational rapidly declined into the feudal system that ruled Europe for well over a millennium and in some part to well into modern times. It can even be argued that the the level of political stability and long lasting peace in Europe still hasn’t reached the level people enjoyed during Roman times.

There is evidence that Toxandria (Brabant) received new emigrants from both directions. The Salii from the north, but equally there is archaeological evidence to argue that the southern influence from the Moselle and Rhine regions and perhaps from even further south has been as significant. The influence from the Moselle region (with Metz as the main centre) will become an interesting reoccurring event in this region.

The importance of the Roman era for what later would become Brabant was that some towns, villas and infrastructure were established, which would later on, develop into some of the places that would play an important role in the early history of Brabant.

Also the above mentioned infrastructure played a key role in further developments of these areas. During Roman times the population – in what became Brabant – might have increased to around one hundred thousand inhabitants. However, a dramatic depopulation took place around 250AD which coincided with a weakening of the Roman Limes and the decrease in military personnel and thus a decline in the local economy. The chaotic situation started to settle with the Germanic tribes stabilising their position in the west and Emperor Justinius coming to power in the East.

Over the following centuries – led by the Franks – a new centre of power started to develop in the Maas and Mosel valleys. Further activities started to occur a bit further south and east along the river Rhine in Germany and in what is now northern France. Slowly we started to see the emergence of what would later become the kingdoms of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

By 500 a range of new Barbarian kingdoms had established themselves throughout the western part of the empire, interestingly they all paid homage the emperor in Constantinople, Roman law remained in place and whatever money was still used showed the emperor. Jeroen Wijnendalen in his book Romeinen en Barbaren, describes this as Roman Commonwealth.

However, the emperor had no role to play within these kingdoms and therefor what these kingdoms missed was that ultimate arbiter and decision maker.

Roman Institutions

Imperial system

According the Roman tradition the power to govern was transferred from the people (that is the free men) to the emperor, according the rules of the Roman Republic.This included to military power (imperium) and the civil power (potestas). The Emperor was the first among equals (princeps). Initially the free people were represented in (voting) tribunals, however over time the Senate took over that role.

The Romans believed that their governing system was given to them by the gods and that authority was later passed on to the Senate. However, in real life this body was ruled by a select, small and highly influential number of senatorial families. In name the Emperor ruled on behalf of the senate and the people (Senatus Populusque Romanus – SPQR) but in all reality the senate and the people were seen by the rulers as one and the same. At regular intervals the Senate was put aside by an emperor who was able to gather enough power to rule as a dictator.

The Emperor was at the same time also the high priest with sacred powers (pontifex maximus). This also provided him with elevated powers (maiestas). Ultimate deification took place when Emperor Diocletian proclaimed himself ‘dominus et deus’ (lord and god). This led to idolisation of the emperor already before his death.

The Empire had its absolute zenith under Marcus Aurelius (161-180AD). During this century the Senate functioned at its best and there were in general great emperors.

The Emperor could also delegate some of this power to others, this concept was known as ‘regnum’ linked to ‘rex’. The regnum had also geographic limitations (dominium) and the person in charge here was the dominus. Dominus related both to land ownership as well as to the power over the people who lived there (subiecti).

The smallest administrative centre was the civitas (plural: civitates) concentrated in and around the cities; as will be further discussed below. They established their own councils, they were represented by imperial officers. There were also strong links here with certain senatorial families. On of the flaws of the imperial system was that the Romans never developed a satisfactory succession system, this often led to rivalry between the imperial family, the senate and the army.

After Constantine moved the capital to the east, the role of senate started to diminish. Interestingly after the fall of Rome in 476, the senate gained in power as they  became the defacto law makers for the west, but in all reality their power didn’t extend much further than Rome itself.

The army

The Romans had a standing army of 300,000 men. However, this was too small for the total defense of the empire. Soldiers signed up for 25 years and were often stationed at the same place for long periods of time . There was a lack of mobility and the structure of the army with soldiers loyal to their generals were a very powerful force in the empire and many emperors came from the army. Eventually this led to a military state where the army made and unmade emperors – as we will see in the 3rd Century Crisis. The Senate was totally bypassed and Rome became a backwater rather than the center of power. Greater mobility was created during the reign of Diocletian however, this also led to rivalry between the separate units.

Roman Law

Nearly 2,500 years after its early beginnings Roman Law is still having its impact on modern societies. It dates back to the semi legendary Twelve Tables which were written by ten prominent Roman citizens in 451BCE upon their return from Athens where they had studied the work of the 6th century BCE Athenian legislator Solon.

The Romans developed a legal system based on professional interpretation of law (something the Greek didn’t do). Legislators started to write statues with judges deciding on precedents. These were professionals operating separately from the Roman Senate, the latter was not the legislative body as is the case in modern times. Roman Law developed around decisions that settled disagreements between citizens who were obliged to bring their disputes to annual elected officials known as Praetor Urbanus.

The body of law that thus was developed over centuries became know as ‘edictal law’. Famous jurists include: Julian, Papinian, Gaius, Ulpian and Cicero. [4. Justinian’s Flea, William Rosen, p122]

During the 1,000 years of the Roman Empire the often unwieldy ‘edictal law’ needed reviews, reorganisation and reinterpretation. New Codexes were developed at several times, especially during the latter years of the Empire. Perhaps the most famous one is the Justinian Code from 529 (see below).

Roman Religion

The Roman religious system was based on eclectic paganism of a polythestic nature. People selected from the various doctrines, methods or styles those parts they consider the best. They believed in multiple deities assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own mythologies and rituals. This was very similar to the religious believes of the iron age people around them and in its origin dates back to the Germanic and Slavic people in the Bronze Age. It continues into the modern period in traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Chinese folk religion, etc.

While of course not totally correct I have put this system under the Administration sector because of two other other characteristics of the Roman religion: emperor worship and civil polytheism as evidence in the many public ceremonies and festivals. By Law, strict adherence was required to all of these aspect.There were however, local variations which didn’t apply to the whole empire but which locally carried the same obligations.

The religion missed the spiritual elements and that resulted in a range of mystery sects or cults, which required initiation and secrecy and included certain rites e.g. sacrifices, ritual meals, ritual purification. They were not in conflict with the civil religion but complemented it, people could follow more than one cults.

Mystery cults include the perhaps 2,000 year old Eleusinian Mysteries (dating back to the Bronze Age), the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries. Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, so for instance Egyptian Isis, Persian Mithraic Mysteries (see above) , Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, and Phrygian Cybele. Originally Christianity was also treated as a cult. However, as Christians were not allowed to worship the emperor nor other (civil) gods next their own god, they were often also persecuted. See also: Religiously – who where the Romans?

When Diocletian proclaimed himself ‘dominus and deus’ (Lord and God) and established Mithraism as the official state religion Christianity was forbidden and this led to one of the most severe persecutions.

Co-emperors Constantine I and Licinius signed  in 313 the famous Edict of Milan that granted religious freedom to the Christians. However it was Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the state religion.

A couple a pagan bastions however remained such as the Senate in Rome and the Academy of Athens.


Once religion started to develop at the time people started to change theior societies from hunter gathers to agriculture settlers, temples started to occur Göbekli Tepe, located in southern Turkey, is the oldest-known, existing temple in the world. It was built approximately 11,000 years ago.

This continued during the Mesopotamian period in Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian civilisations. The most common temple architecture of Mesopotamia is the structure of sun-baked bricks called Ziggurat, having the form of a terraced step pyramid with flat upper terrace where shrine or temple stood.

The Egyptian temples were meant as places for the gods to reside on earth. They were also of economic significance as they stored and redistributed grain.

Though today we call most Greek religious buildings “temples,” the ancient pagans would have referred to a temenos, or sacred precinct. Its sacredness, often connected with a holy grove, was more important than the building itself, as it contained the open air altar on which the sacrifices were made. The building which housed the cult statue in its naos was originally a rather simple structure, but by the middle of the 6th century BCE had become increasingly elaborate. The Greek temple architecture was also influential in the development of the Roman temples, with the Etruscan being the first to introduce them in Rome, they built in 509BCE  the Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus (OMC) on the Capitoline Hill. It remained the chief temple of ancient Rome and became the basis of all future temples in the Empire. It was sacred to the Capitoline Triad consisting of Jupiter and his companion deities, Juno and Minerva.

Roman temples usually faced east or toward the rising sun, but the specifics of the orientation are often not known today; there are also notable exceptions, such as the Pantheon which faces north.

The differences between the Greek and Roman temples were not major. The Greek temples had staircases around the total complex, the Romans only in front of the facade. Their podiums are lower and in the early stages they were already built in stone, this only started to happen in Rome after the sacking of the city by the Gauls in 386BCE, until that time the Roman temples were built out of wood, mud brick and terracotta. The Greek temples also had a free standing colonnade around the complex.

The Romans started to built coloni outside Rome such as Cosa, Norba, Folari and Novi, where they replicated the architectural and city and road  structures of Rome.

Key centres of ancient learning

Academy of Athens

The Academy was founded by Plato in ca. 387 BC. Aristotle studied there for twenty years (367 BC – 347 BC) before founding his own school, the Lyceum. The Academy persisted throughout the Hellenistic period as a skeptical school, until coming to an end after the death of Philo of Larissa in 83 BC. Although philosophers continued to teach Plato’s philosophy in Athens during the Roman era, it was not until AD 410 that a revived Academy was re-established as a centre for Neoplatonism, persisting until 529 AD when it was finally closed down by Justinian I. Several of its lecturers went to Persia where they continued a centre of classic learning in Ctesiphon.


The Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest and most significant  library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major centre of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).


Pergamon’s library on the Acropolis is the second largest in the ancient Greek civilization. When the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus, partly because of competitors and partly because of shortages, the Pergamenes invented a new substance to use in codices, called pergaminus or pergamena (parchment) after the city. This was made of fine calfskin, a predecessor of vellum. The library at Pergamom was believed to contain 200,000 volumes, which Mark Antony later gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present


A formal education started to evolve during the Roman Republic, indications are that these were for paying students only and for both boys and girls. This system was highly influenced by the Greek system as that existed in Athens and other cities. Schooling was limited to the higher classes of Roman society.

Differences between the Greek and Roman systems emerge at the highest tiers of education. Roman students that wished to pursue the highest levels of education went to Greece to study philosophy, as the Roman system developed to teach speech, law and gravitas.

The Roman education system arranged schools in tiers, starting at the age of 4 and organised very much along modern school systems (play school, primary, secondary, college, university).

Some of these schools continued after the fall of Rome and were continued to be used by the senatorial families and also by the Church.

Infrastructure key to centralised power

City planning

The Greek Hippodamus (c. 407 BC) has been dubbed the “Father of City Planning” for his design of Miletus; Alexander the Great commissioned him to lay out his new city of Alexandria, the grandest example of idealised urban planning of the ancient Mediterranean world, where the city’s regularity was facilitated by its level site near a mouth of the Nile. The Hippodamian, or grid plan, was the basis for subsequent Greek and Roman cities.

The ancient Romans used a consolidated scheme for city planning, developed for military defense and civil convenience. The basic plan consisted of a central forum (marketplace) with city services, surrounded by a compact, rectilinear grid of streets, and wrapped in a wall for defense.

All forums had a Temple of Jupiter at the north end, and also hosted other temples, as well as the Basilica (law court); a public weights and measures table, so customers at the market could ensure they were not being sold short measures; and would often have the baths nearby. At election times, candidates would use the steps of the temples in the forum to make their election speeches, and would expect their clients to come to support them.

To reduce travel times, two diagonal streets crossed the square grid, passing through the central square. A river usually flowed through the city, providing water, transport, and sewage disposal. Many European towns, such as Turin, preserve the remains of these schemes, which show the very logical way the Romans designed their cities. They would lay out the streets at right angles, in the form of a square grid. All roads were equal in width and length, except for two, which were slightly wider than the others. One of these ran east–west (Decumanus), the other, north–south (Cardo), and intersected in the middle to form the centre of the grid. All roads were made of carefully fitted flag stones and filled in with smaller, hard-packed rocks and pebbles. Bridges were constructed where needed. Each square marked by four roads was called an insula, the Roman equivalent of a modern city block.

Road system

During Roman times the area of what now is Brabant was traversed with one of the key Roman roads, coming from Italy, via France (Bavai, the capital of the Nervii near Valenciennes) linking Tongeren (Aduatuca) via Geminiacum to Cologne. Geminiacum was a vicus (Roman village); a relay for the Roman troops. This vicus developed overtime in the now Belgian town of Liberchies in Hainaut. The unsealed road was built in the period of Emperor Augustus (27BCE – 14CE). The Roman settlement of Metz grew at the crossroads of two important Roman roads. The Lyon, Dijon, Metz, Trier, Cologne axis was known as the Road of Agrippa because Augustus charged his son-in-law, Agrippa, with structuring the route.

Roman roads

The Roman army is still the single largest civil engineering organisation that has ever existed. Their road building activities started in 312BCE (Via Appia) Their all-weather road system remained in place until well into modern times. It was until the Napoleonic era that road building on any significant scale was restarted again. In all over 85,000 kms of road (via) was built by the Romans and extended into Turkey, Romania, Jordan, Spain, North Africa, Britain and Germania.

Roads were designed by architects and surveyed by ‘agrimensores’, a ditch (fossae) was dug out and filled with layers of rubble and sand and finally with gravel or paving. They also used concrete. All roads were between 2.4 (minimum) and 9 meters wide, some had extensive shoulders and/or drains. There were timber bridges and ferries (pontes).

Officially all roads led to the golden milestone near the temple of Saturn in Rome. Traffic already was a problem in Roman times; under Julian Municipality Law (45BCE) commercial carts were restricted to night time access to the cities. Roads were divided into miles (millia passuum meaning 1000 paces) or around 1500 meters. At regular intervals milestones (road signs) were installed. Official ‘staying stations’ (mansions) were established every 25 to 30 kms (sometimes they were military camps, villas or townships).

Furthermore there were places for civilians to stay tabernae (hostels), cauponae (inns), mutationes (horse relay stations, complete with blacksmith, veterinarians and cartwrights) and post offices. Passports were required to travel. In an emergency situation in 9BCE Emperor Tiberius was able to travel 800 kms in 24 hours to catch up with his dying brother Drusus. Of course rivers such as Scheldt, Rhine and Meuse played an even more important role as major military, raiding and trading routes. Control over these roads and rivers became also again important in the following centuries. Despite its great roads it has been estimated that transport by ship was ten times cheaper than transport over land. This would continue to be the situation for nearly two millennia.

Metz Gorze Aquaduct – 2009

Another feature of Roman infrastructure are their aquaducts. We visited the remains of the system that supplied the water for this Roman city that it it heights had a population of 20,000 people.

Sewerage systems were also built by them, the most well known being the Cloaca Maxima – the largest and most important one in Rome. It is partly still in use.

Some of the places of occupation in the wider region are starting to become a bit more visible during Roman times they include: Utrecht (Trajectum), Nijmegen, Oss,  Empel, Esch, Halder, Gennep, Cuijk, Zundert, Diessen, Hoogeloon, Grobbendonk, Elewijt, Nivelles, Tienen, Neerhespen, Braives, Namur and Maastricht.


The Late Roman era had a very sophisticated communication system that operated over great distances and on different layers of society. The systems extended into northern Africa and the eastern part of the Empire. Elements of this system continued well after the collapse of the Imperial structures. Bishops and soon after that also the emerging Merovingian and later the Carolingian kings build their communication systems on top of the old Roman structures.

Obviously the road system was a critical element of this but obviously the key is what sort of communications systems were using the infrastructure. Long distance communications included : conversations, letters, persons, gifts. In this respect the message bringers were important persons, the importance of the message, depended very much  on the status of the message bearer. Often the person was more important than the actual letter and in many situations the messengers was also the message; in other words the messenger had the authority to convey the message from its superior the king, a bishop, a merchant and so on.

A gift was more of symbolic rather than of monetary value and the more personal the gift was the more valuable it was, it could include food, hospitality as well as valuables. Big gifts were aimed to impress and to show how powerful the sender is.

As mentions these systems and structures continued well into the Middle Ages.

Obviously these systems also had its problems and its breakdown, be it of a different nature in essence similar to current communications problem.

In Roman and Medieval times , governments blocked communications or certain forms of communications. Time was another problem, despite that the road system was very effective with most places being able to be reached within days – as shown above – there still were many instances when the news reached after the event had gone. In order to overcome some of these problems the more senior the messenger the more room there was for the messenger to negotiate without going backwards and forwards to the sender.

Often similar messages were send to different persons, especially those who could influence the key party the message was addressed to.

Another important development was the arrival of the apocrisiarus. This function became fully developed in the Eastern Roman Empire.  The apocrisiarus was a cleric who served as the representative  of a patriarch or other bishop to the Byzantine imperial court of Constantinople. The office existed since the 5th century, but was institutionalised by law only under Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565). Several of the more important ecclesiastical sees maintained permanent apocrisiarii in the imperial capital. The most important of these were the papal apocrisiarii (circa 452 till 743). The title was also used for the representative of a metropolitan archbishop at the court of his “territorial” patriarch in either Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, or Jerusalem and for secular officials carrying correspondence of the Byzantine emperor.

Also here we see that this development continued a function  modeled on it – be it a a lower level – was also used at the Frankish Court of Charlemagne.

Romania – Eastern Roman Empire – Byzantine Empire

With the sacking of Rome the Roman Empire in the West had disintegrated. However, in the east the Roman Empire flourished. After – as we saw above – the tetrarchy instituted by Diocletian in 293, the city of Byzantion in Thrace – which had been founded by Greek settlers from Megara, near Athens in 657BC –  became the seat of one of the co-emperors. However, immediately after the death of Diocletian the tetrarchy collapsed and the next Roman Emperor Constantine became to sole emperor of the whole empire again. He was born in the region and only briefly stayed in Rome, he moved the centre of the empire from Rome to the new city that was building and that in 330 was named Constantinople (formerly known as Byzantion).

The names ‘Byzantine Empire’  and ‘ Eastern Roman Empire’ are  inventions of the 19th century, the people at that time called themselves Romanoi and referred to their land as Romania; they saw themselves as the followers of the Roman tradition. For the next 1,000 years smaller and larger parts of the western territories remained part of the Empire.

The site of the city on the peninsula known as ‘Seraglio Point’ (Sarayburnu in Turkish) was strategically chosen because it dominated east west land travel between Europe and Asia and north south maritime travel between the Black Sea and The Aegean Sea. It also had a well protected harbour known as the ‘Golden Horn’ . A serious downside was the lack of fresh water and for that purpose a 40 km aqueduct was built to bring in water from the hinterland.

Golden Horn and Galata

Constantine build a set of formidable walls around the city. It was only when canons arrived that in 1453 the walls started to gave in. These walls – which also include the Theodosian Walls  -most likely forced the Arab conquest to take the long route to Europe through Africa and Spain. Europe could have looked different if the Arabs had been able to conquer Constantinople and thus been able to take the shorter route into Europe.

Theodosian Walls - Istanbul

For what ever reason Constantine suddenly totally abandoned Rome. He had started a grand building program, including the Saint Peter Basilica. On the way of his only visit to Rome he killed his wife and two sons for reasons that remain unclear.

Constantine had not arranged for a successor and the following decades saw a near collapse of both the eastern and the western half of the empire. Under Emperor Julian military unity was restored, but this pagan emperor tried to stop Christianity and this led to civil unrest, also he was followed by totally impotent successors who lost the western part of the empire; thanks to Emperor Zeno at least the eastern part was a saved a similar result.

Already well before the slow decline of the empire in the west the eastern part had become increasingly more important for both political and trading purposes. As was the case with Rome, also Constantinople depended for its major food supplies on North Africa and in particular its relationship with Alexandria in Egypt was of great importance.

The view from Constantinople westwards was daunting for anyone looking at recreating the Roman Empire, the Vandals in North Africa, Visigoths in Span, Franks in Gaul, Ostrogoths in Italy and the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy in Britain. At the same time these ‘barbarian’ tribes  started to increased pressure, breaching the borders of the the financially better positioned eastern part. It could only  keep its borders intact by paying tribute to some of their enemies. This situation only pushed East and West further apart as East Roman politics were aimed at keeping the ‘barbarians’  as far as west possibly. They did the same when the Huns arrived at the gates of Constantinople and huge sums were paid out, eventually the Huns moved westwards where they created enormous havoc before their chief Atilla, suddenly died in 453. Interestingly it was Emperor Theodosius II who after this defeat built up a relationship with the remaining Huns and they became one of the most feared parts of his army. He also built the famous six kilometres long Theodosian Walls which together with walls already build by Constantine would protect the city for over 1000 years against the numerous invasions from the north and the south.

Theodosian walls

After the Ostrogoths had captured most of Italy, Emperor Zeno negotiated a deal with them that basically provided them full control over the lands they had conquered with a nominal supremacy of the Roman Emperor. Without any decisive leadership in Rome –  the Ostrogoth capital was in Ravenna – the senators of Rome asked the Pope to take care of both the secular and ecclesiastic affairs of the city and this led to the birth of the medieval papacy.

The people of Constantinople

With all the investments going on in Constantinople the city became a magnate. First of all everybody who depended on the Emperor for power and work had to reestablish themselves from the West and at the same time a whole new army of middle class people were needed to run the new city.

The rapidly increasing commercial importance of the city attracted merchants and trades people and another army this mainly of poor people including soldiers, sailors, laborers of which many at significant intervals were unemployed.

Nevertheless this didn’t stop Constantinople to create one of the largest entertainment centres in the world, mainly concentrated along the ports of the town. This area where at the same time the house of the working class were concentrated also became a political hotbed of unrest and the place where most of the many rebellion started.

While the Emperor and the Church  tried to impose laws directed towards limiting the sorts of entertainment n the area  (prostitution and pimping) they were never successful.

 Brief unification under Justinian

From 530 onwards, under Emperor Justinian the Great and his enormously successful  general Belisarius, Italy –  and in particular Rome –  Sicily, a coastal part of Spain and the previous lost territories in North Africa were reconquered. It took just one years to conquer the Vandals in Africa, however the conquest of the Goths in Italy took 20 years (553) and inflicted by far the most damage to Rome than the previous Barbarian assaults on the city. He was less successful in the Balkans where he was unable to defeat the Slavic tribes who had moved southwards toward the boarder of the Roman Empire. In the end he signed a treaty with them, which provided the Romans with free passage over the river Danube (the former boarder of the Empire). However, the emperor didn’t keep his eye on the ball in the east. The Persians launched their attacks and basically as quickly as he had conquered the west he and his successors also lost it again, already in 540- at the zenith of Justinian glory –  the 2nd largest city of the Empire, Antioch, was lost to them.

Corpus Juris Civili – Justinian’s Code

Justinian became universally famous because of his legislative work, remarkable for its sweeping character.In 529, a ten-man commission chaired by John the Cappadocian revised the ancient Roman legal code, creating the new Corpus Juris Civilis, a collection of laws that came to be referred to as “Justinian’s Code”. It was finished in just 5 years.

The same intellectual Justinian closed the famous Academy of Athens – founded by Plato in approx 380BCE – as part of his imperial ban against pagan education. Its most illustrious teachers where recruited by the Persian Emperor Khusro I  (Khosrau, Chosroes) and recreated the academy at the Sassanid Capital of Ctesiphon, where the works of Plato and his successors translated into Persian and as such they were kept for humanity.

In 554 Justinian issued a Pragmatic Sanction, a far reaching piece of legislation that covered the repossession Ostrogoth property, the restoration of the hand out of free grain to citizens of Rome, agriculture prices, excise taxes and research grants. Interestingly for Rome he also declared that its governors from now should be nominated by local bishops and all property previous owned by the Arian Catholic Church was granted to the Orthodox Catholics.

In 565, Justinian died of old age and was succeeded by his nephew Justin (the mad) and his wife Sophia. Already weakened by the Justinian plague that had ravaged the lands, a severe economic and political downturn followed. During his 13-year reign the Lombards moved into Italy, the Avars took over the Danube region and the Slavs moved into Greece and the Balkans. This also undermined the dominant position the Byzantine Empire had in the east Mediterranean trade.

After the death of Justin  in 578 his general Tiberius became the next emperor but was equally unable to stop the tide. His successor Emperor Maurice was able to at least stop a further collapse. However, under his rule the army rebelled and killed the emperor and his family. The new ruler – Phocas – was one of the most brutal in Roman history.

Period of decline 565 – 717

After the death of Justinian, it became clear that the Empire had reached a situation of over-stretch.  They were attacked by the Persians in the East, the Lombard in Italy and the Avars and Slavs  in the Balkans. They could only just hang on to some of the island possessions in the Mediterranean and to parts of southern Italy.

Emperor Heraclius, who ruled between  610–641, reorganised the old (Roman-based) system. He effectively established a new state after reforming the army and administration and changed the official language of the Empire from Latin to Greek.  By the time of his arrival,  Constantinople  had over half a million inhabitants. Over the following years  we do see regular recapturing of old Roman territories. In 626 the Persians, Avars and Slaves combined forces and attacked Constantinople from the north and from the east. Miraculously the city was able to fend their enemies off, legend had it that this was done by putting icons on their walls and as such they were saved by their saints. The Persians were so weakened by these wars that they became a very easy target for the Arabs, the invaded this once mighty empire without any significant resistance. Only a few years also later large parts of the Roman Empire were also  lost to the Arabs namely  Syria, Palestine and North Africa.  Historians use these events as a break with the Roman institutions and see from now on the Byzantine Empire as a new one rather than a continuation of the Roman Empire.

In 663 Emperor Constans II visited Rome, it was for the first time in 200 years that an emperor had entered Rome again, it would at the same be the last time that an emperor would ever visit the old capital of the Empire. On rumours that Constans had plans to move the capital from Constantinople to Syracuse on Sicily, he was assassinated in 668.

From now on the eastern Empire would be ruled by Greek Overall the empire kept shrinking some parts of Italy remained on and off under the domination of Constantinople until the 11th century.

The Arabs  besieged Constantinople but thanks to the use of ‘Greek Fire’ the city remained unassailable during the sieges of 674 and 717. This stopped the Arab Conquest.

  Reconstruction of the Empire 717 – 834

After the successful battle with the Arabs, the Empire was able to start rebuilding itself. They reorganised the administration based around military districts. These distracts had their own armies and these armies relied on the labour and the taxes of the local people. This turned out to be a successful formula.  They reconquered the Balkans and forcefully resettled large number of Slavs to the under-populated  eastern territories . People were given land in exchange for military services.

This period also saw the destructive religious conflicts around iconoclasm. This was started by Emperor Leo III who blamed the military losses on his people not obeying the Ten Commandments  where it said ‘thou shalt not worship false idols’. Subsequent the Emperors started to play a key role in this as we see ongoing battles between those in favour (iconophiles) of it and those against (iconoclasts). As had been the case with various heresies around the true nature of Jesus, the difference with the Pope in the west was that the Eastern Emperors took a hand-on approach in the religious dogmas. They tried to arbiter but the nature of these conflicts often is that people prefer to martyr themselves rather than to accept a compromise, so in these conflicts the Emperors were never able to win. The Patriarchs were close aligned with the Emperors their palaces were next to each other and obvious with the secular power and might on their side the Patriarchs played a submissive role in these religious struggles.

The split between East and West

After a range of inept rulers the Merovingian Mayor  Pippin decided in 751 to dispose of what would be the last Merovingian King Childeric. This became a decisive moment in history. Kingship was a divine institution and to dissolve this in a legitimate way required the authority of the ruling pope  Zacharias. The good relationships that the Carolingians had  with the wandering monks played a key role in this process. Bishop Boniface went to Rome and established the contact between Pippin and the Pope. To authenticate this move,  Boniface successfully argued that it was better to have a king that had power and the authority rather than one without it. This approval arrived and it was Bishop Boniface who in the following year crowned Pippin King of the Franks.

The following year the Pope travelled to Paris to ask Pippin for military assistance against the Lombards as his previous protector the Byzantine Emperor had been unable to assist and refused to give him his assistance.

In 753 the Lombard king Aistulf conquered Ravenna and thus ended the last remnant of the Byzantium empire in Northern Italy (however, the bishop of Ravenna did hold on for a bit longer to the Byzantium flavour of Catholicism). The lack of a strong military power that had kept the balance in place since the fall of Rome, was a major set back for the new Pope Stephen II. The Langobards followed Arius’ version of the catholic faith and were seen as heretics, they in turn had little respect for the pope and his version of that same catholic religion.

With the Langobard threat the pope again had to turn to the new upcoming power in the west of Europe and this would result in a total shift in European politics.

It was not until 773 before the Franks responded to a call from Rome this time from Pope Hadrian I. The new king Charlemagne took his troops over the Alps, outside the normal campaigning season, established a winter camp near Pavia and starved the Langobards into a peace agreement that he didn’t get until the summer of 774. Charles donated large parts of Italy to the Pope, this  was the start of the Papal States and made the Pope a secular ruler as well. The Papal States survive till to day, be it at a largely reduced format in Vatican City.

However, the dramas with the various popes continued, there were assassinations, competing families who claimed the papal throne,  double popes and so on. Charles despised these activities and tried to make changes by implementing new laws (they included canon laws).

Another drama unfolded in 799 when an assassination attempt on Pope Leo III failed, the gravely harmed pope was bandaged up and escorted to Paderborn for safety. The Byzantine emperor, the first female to reign in her own right in Constantinople, Irene, was bypassed, she had murdered her son and above all as women  she was unworthy of being asked for  assistance. So again it was Charles who was again asked to assist, however he didn’t want to take part in the feud. In the end he travelled back with Leo III to Rome and had him officially under oath declare that he was not part of the family feud that had resulted in the attack. For Charles that was the end of the affair.

It looks that rather unexpectedly the opportunity was used to, on Christmas Day 800, officially crown Charles Emperor of the Western Roman Empire (included Rome).

This was a momentous event in the history of Europe, as this was a total rebuke of the official Roman Empress residing in Constantinople.  There were now rather suddenly two Roman emperors one in the west and one in the east. Obviously the ‘official’ Roman emperor in Constantinople was furious about this decision. However, the reign of Irene had ruined the country and the internal iconoclast battles had weakened the empire and Irene was in no position to challenge the decision.

Charles, aware of the situation, wanted to use his crowning as an opportunity to reunite the two parts of the empire and suggested a marriage between him and  Empress Irene. She was interested as she saw this as an opportunity to strengthen her position, her rivals in Constantinople however, saw this as a further insult and disposed of her and imprisoned her; this ended the attempts the unite the empire.

While the Eastern emperors made further attempts to invade parts of the western empire they never gained any serious traction and the empire remained split.

Last period of expansion 843 – 1071

This was a period of great splendour, the internal fights were over and a revival led to an increase in education, cultural activities.  Icons were back in favour and some of the most beautiful ones (in the Hagia Sophia) were made during this period. While icons were in favour again, statues were forbidden, so there is no sculpture heritage from the Byzantine period.

Istanbul hagia Sophia

This period also saw large scale conversion of Slavs and Bulgars and from now on there was a far more distinct different catholic flavour and this in 1054 led to an official schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Catholic Religion. There was no papal hierarchy and the main centers that developed in Constantinople , Greece and Russia all had their own Patriarch who operated independently from each other.

In 1071 disaster struck with the unexpected and calamitous defeat of the imperial armies at the Battle of Manzikert in Armenia.  The Emperor Romanus Diogenes was captured. The peace terms demanded by Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, were not excessive, and Romanus accepted them. On his release, however, Romanus found this enemies at home had placed their own candidate on the throne in his absence; he surrendered to them and suffered death by torture, and the new ruler, Michael VII Ducas, refused to honour the treaty. In response, the Turks began to move into Anatolia in 1073. The collapse of the old defensive system meant that they met no opposition, and the empire’s resources were distracted and squandered in a series of civil wars. Thousands of Turkoman tribesmen crossed the unguarded frontier and moved into Anatolia. By 1080, a huge area had been lost to the Empire, and the Turks were within striking distance of Constantinople.

Long period of decline 1071 -1454

It was also during this time that Italian cities such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice started to emerge as early trading centers with military powers. In 1061 a Genoese- Pisan fleet defeated the Arab (Saracen) fleet near Sardinia.  In 1187, the Empire lost Serbia and Dalmatia. They now controlled the trade in the eastern Mediterranean and this resulted in economic depression in the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore trade started to move away from the Mediterranean towards northern Europe

The most destructive attack on the city came from its allies the Franks. The crusaders of the 4th campaign took – as a payment for the transport to the Holy Land  provided by the Venetians – Constantinople in 1204, the city was totally looted and many treasures and valuable ancient manuscript were lost during a four day rampage.  They established the Venetian-led Latin Empire of Constantinople  which lasted till 1261. The rest of the Empire started to disintegrate with independent territories such as the Kingdom of Thessaloniki, The Duchy of Athens, the Kingdom of Achaia, the Empire of Trebizonde, the Empire of Nicaea and others.

The Emperor of Nicaea, Michael VIII Paleologus  succeeded to recapture Constantinople in 1261.

When the Eastern Empire finally collapsed  in 1453 under the invading Ottoman Turks, there was very little left of its formal glory, just the city of Constantinople and its surroundings. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was last seen casting off his imperial regalia and throwing himself into hand-to-hand combat after the walls of the city were taken. Some of the court was able to flee to Trebizond, and this last bastion of the Empire was finally conquered by the Ottomans in 1461.The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Interestingly The Ottoman Empire – similar to the Parthians – never had  a strongly centralised structure, nevertheless it was able to maintain its Empire together for 450 years.

The Long Middle Ages (500- 1800)

Putting the fall of the Roman Empire in the broader global context, it is interesting to note that throughout the Eurasian region we see similar stagnations and even periods of decline around that same period. It looks like this indicates that the agriculture societies that started to develop after the last Ice Age peaked during the 1st millennium BCE. They had reached the maximum level of their capacity. The period that we are entering now is sometimes called to long Middle Ages which lasted till the 19th century, when the industrial revolution started to break through these boundaries and heralded a period of unprecedented economic growth and social developments.

During these long period of Middle Ages there were several attempts to break through this cycle – in the west for example the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires, similar developments also happened in the East but none of these attempts did not provide long lasting breakthroughs. During this middle period however the East was able to operate on a slightly higher level of social development than the west, however by the 19th century the west took over that lead but all indications are that in the 21st century the East is catching up again.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)