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Castra Herculis (Arnhem-Meinerswijk)

Detail of map of Germania Inferior. Design Jona Lendering.
The location of Castra Herculis (number 18)
Germania inferior: small province of the Roman empire, situated along the Lower Rhine. This webpage is part of a series of short descriptions of villages in Germania inferior. An overview can be found here.

The "fort of Hercules" (Castra Herculis), mentioned on the Peutinger map and by the Roman author Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman History, 18.2.4), was situated near the bifurcation of the Rhine and the Canal of Drusus. It may owe its name to Magusanus, the Batavian supreme god, who had a large shrine (visible from Castra Herculis) at nearby Elst, and was often identified with the Roman Hercules.

Because of the concentration of phosphate on the site, which is often an indication for the presence of an ancient settlement, the discovery in 1979 was not entirely unexpected. Yet, it caused some sensation, because until then, no forts were known between Vechten in the west and Alt-Kalkar in the east. A gap in our knowledge of the Roman limes (frontier) had now been filled.

Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier.
Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier (order; review)
The site of Arnhem-Meinerswijk. Photo Jona Lendering.
The site of Meinerswijk

A tiny part of the fort (5x40 meters) has been excavated. Several types of early pottery suggest that it was built at the beginning of the first century, possibly when the Roman general Germanicus attacked the Germanic tribes (14-16), or a bit earlier (immediately after the battle in the Teutoburg Forest in 9?). The name is a bit strange: castra was a common name in the fourth century, and it is possible that the fort originally had another name.

It has been argued that Castra Herculis was intended as a Roman bulwark at the entrance of the Canal of Drusus, which connected the rivers Rhine and IJssel and was dug by Roman soldiers at the end of the first century BCE. This has been refuted, since it has turned out that the canal, which is known from literary sources only, is not identical to the canal between Rhine and IJssel, which was dug in the Middle Ages.

The site of Arnhem-Meinerswijk. Photo Jona Lendering. The excavated part of Castra Herculis.

The second level of occupation can be dated to the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero. Probably, this fort was built by Corbulo, a Roman commander who was active in Germania Inferior in 47 and used the Canal of Drusus to attack the Frisians and Chauci in the north. The presence of soldiers of the Fifth legion Alaudae is certain, although the fort must usually have been occupied by auxiliaries. Large quantities of burnt wood prove that Castra Hercules was razed to the ground during the Batavian revolt

It was rebuilt. Parts of a ditch and a road have been identified, and it is clear that ceramics were imported from nearby Nijmegen, where the Tenth legion Gemina owned a pottery.

At an unknown moment, perhaps when the emperor Hadrian visited Germania Inferior and ordered several construction activities (121), Castra Herculis was again rebuilt. Phase four lasted until the early third century, when the military settlement was replaced by a fort that was at least partially made of stone. 

Inscription of the First legion Minervia: I Leg[io] M[inervia] P[ia] F[idelis]. From Arnhem-Meinerswijk (Netherlands).
Inscription of the Leg[io] I M[inervia] P[ia] F[idelis] from Meinerswijk (!!!)

A roof tile mentioning the First legion Minervia and its surname Antoniniana can be dated after 211, because only two emperors can have awarded this title to this unit: Caracalla (211-217) and Heliogabalus (218-222). The second candidate is more plausible, because the legion's surname was immediately dropped when this tyrannical emperor was assassinated. This would not have been necessary when the title had been awarded by Caracalla, who was appreciated by the legions. The fifth level can therefore be dated fairly precisely to the years 218-222. A large stone building inscription (picture) also mentioning I Minervia can therefore be dated to a slightly earlier or slightly later time, when the unit used its title Pia Fidelis.

Like almost all other forts along the Lower Rhine, Castra Herculis was probably left after the crisis of 274, when the emperor Aurelian conquered the Gallic Empire and destroyed the empire's defenses. Yet, in the fourth century, the fort was rebuilt as a strong castle. Perhaps this building phase was as late as 359, when the Roman general Julianus campaigned in the area and rebuilt several castles, according to Ammianus Marcellinus. The fact that stones from the walls were discovered in the ditch suggests that the walls were demolished by humans.

Frankish pottery from the fifth century suggests that the site was still occupied. At that time, it was called Meginhardiswich, "castle of Meginhard".

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