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Germania inferior (13)

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Oceanus, personification of the Ocean. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Oceanus, personification of the Ocean (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne)
Germania inferior: small province of the Roman empire, situated along the Lower Rhine. Its capital was Cologne.

The first part of this article can be found here.

The Franks

No visitor of Germania Secunda in the year 400 could have guessed that the end of the Roman presence in the Low Countries was near. The fleet of the Rhine was functioning, the frontier castles were occupied by loyal soldiers, the cavalry armies in the hinterland were well-trained. Military installations were perfectly maintained (e.g., the Roman bridge at Cuijk was repaired in 393). Frankish peasants in Toxandria were producing cereals for the soldiers, and treaties tied the Franks outside the empire with Rome. They were no longer regarded as a threat, and the Roman orator Libanius could claim with some justification that they had finally become romanized (Oration 59.132).

However, the Roman peace was not to last forever. In 405, one of the Germanic tribes crossed the Danube and attacked Italy. The emperor Honorius and the supreme commander of the Roman forces in Europe, Stilicho, transferred the cavalry armies of Gaul to northern Italy. They knew that other tribes would cross the Rhine, but Stilicho reckoned that he could deal with them later. It had been done before: in 70, after 240, in 256-259, in 277, in 355-358 - the Romans had always been able to expel the invaders.

Conquest and defeat
Tribes and languages
Romanization I
Romanization II
The legions
The western border
Caligula and Corbulo
The Batavian revolt
The limes
The towns
The towns (cont'd)
The countryside
Taxes, trade and crafts
The third century
The fourth century
The language boundary
The Franks


In the winter of 406/407, several tribes invaded the Roman empire. The Franks remained loyal to the central government and defeated the Vandals, but were in turn defeated by the Alans. If Stilicho had been been able to concentrate his forces on Gaul, the crisis might have been averted, but this did not happen. The Roman troops in Britain panicked, proclaimed their general Constantinus emperor, and crossed to the continent, where the British emperor was recognized by the Gauls. The Romans never returned to Britain, and the Germanic tribes benefited from the civil war between Honorius and Constantinus. Without opposition, they continued to Hispania, where Andalusia still has the name of the Vandals. In 410, the Visigoths even sacked Rome.

Frankish pottery. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Frankish pottery (Römisch-Germanisches
Museum, Cologne)

Eventually, order was restored in Hispania and central Gaul. The invaders received land and were swiftly assimilated by the native population. However, the Rhineland was now lost and Frankish warlords seized several towns. Krefeld and Deutz became the residences of new leaders, and the same happened in Nijmegen. The old coastal defenses were lost too, and Saxonian pirates could settle in Flanders, which they used as a base for attacks on Britain.

During the fifth century, the Frankish warlords added new territories to their chiefdoms. One of them, a man named Chlodio, was able to move from Toxandria to the southwest, to the Somme river. To be acceptable to his new subjects, he presented himself as a Roman leader. As late as 463, his grandson Childeric considered himself governor of Germania Secunda. They were sincere. Often, the Frankish leaders sided with the Romans when the Roman armies fought against other Germanic tribes (or rival Frankish warlords).

The Lord of Morken, a Frankish warrior buried in c.600 CE. Model at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
The Lord of Morken, a Frankish warrior buried in c.600 CE. (Model at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Many Franks went to the south, where they settled in the old villas on the other side of the language boundary. Childeric took Tournai as his capital, and Cambrai became the residence of another Frankish king. Along the Rhine and Meuse, other leaders controled parts of the former province Germania Secunda. Because the new leaders were forced to use the services of the old bureaucrats, the inevitable result was that the Franks were assimilated by the native population, were converted to Christianity, and started to speak the language of the Gallo-Roman population. The proverbal lingua Franca is Latin.

Frankish fibulae. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Frankish fibulae (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne)

In the 460's, Roman power in Gaul started to disintegrate. The last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 and the Frankish kings enlarged their territories in all directions. In the last quarter of the fifth century, the Frankish states of Le Mans, Cambrai, Tournai, Trier, and Deutz were united by the son of Childeric, Chlodovech or -to use a name that has been invented by French scholars- Clovis. About 486, he added the remains of the Roman province Lugdunensis Secunda, and twenty years later he conquered the Alsace. In 507, he crossed the Loire and took all country north of the Pyrenees from the Visigoths.

From now on, Gaul was united under a Frankish king. According to a famous medieval legend, Clovis was the first Frank to become Christian. This is probably untrue, but the close cooperation between the Church and the Frankish state is a fact. The creation of a Christian state with strong Roman traditions under a Frankish dynasty was the predictable outcome of processes that had started in late Antiquity in Germania Secunda.

Mithras killing the celestial bull. Relief from Dormagen, now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Mithras killing the bull. Relief from Dormagen, now in the Rheinisches  Landesmuseum, Bonn


  • Tilmann Bechert, Römisches Germanien zwischen Rhein und Maas. Die Provinz Germania Inferior (1982 München)
  • Tilmann Bechert & Willem Willems, Die römische Reichsgrenze zwischen Mosel und Nordseeküste (1995 Stuttgart)
  • Maureen Carroll, Romans, Celts & Germans. The German Provinces of Rome (2002 Stroud)
  • J.F. Drinkwater, The Gallic Empire (1987 Stuttgart)
  • Wim van Es, De Romeinen in Nederland (1981² Haarlem)
  • Stephan Fichtl, Les Gaulois du Nord de la Gaule (1994 Paris)
  • Thomas Fischer, Die Römer in Deutschland (1999 Darmstadt)
  • M. Gysseling, "Germanisering en taalgrens" in: Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden 1 (1981) 100-115
  • Danny Lamarcq & Marc Rogge, De taalgrens (1996 Leuven)
  • Jona Lendering & Arjen Bosman, Edge of Empire. Rome's Frontier on the Lower Rhine (2012)
  • M.E. Mariën, Belgica Antica (1980 Antwerpen)
  • Nico Roymans, Romeinse frontierpolitiek en de etnogenese van de Bataven (1998 Amsterdam)
  • W. Schlüter, Kalkriese - Römer im Osnabrücker Land (1991 Bramsche)
  • Simon Wynia, "Gaius was here. The Emperor Gaius' Preparations for the Invasion of Britannia: New Evidence" in: H. Sarfatij, W.J.H. Verwers, P.J. Woltering (eds.), In Discussion with the Past. Archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (1999 Amersfoort). 

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 treasure of Xanten. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
The treasure of Xanten (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Visiting Germania Inferior

If you want to visit the Roman remains in the Low Countries, you can see the most important monuments in five or six days. The following museums are not to be missed. The sequence offered here is crucial. It is useless visiting Cologne before Tongeren or Archeon before Xanten, because that spoils part of the effect.
Day 1
Day 2
  • Tongeren, Gallo-Romeins Museum: one of the two most beautiful museums in Belgium (the other one is the Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum van Zuidoost Vlaanderen at Velzeke).
  • The ancient road to Maastricht: even today a straight line.
  • Maastricht, Museumkelder Derlon: impressive ruins of late-antique Maastricht, situated in the basement of a modern hotel. Only accessible on Sunday afternoon, unless you have breakfast at the hotel, which is served in the basement.
Day 3
  • Heerlen, Thermenmuseum: museum dedicated to the bathhouse of ancient Coriovallum. Largest visible ruin in the Netherlands.
  • Cologne, Römisch-Germanisches Museum: largest and most fascinating collection in Germania Inferior.
  • Cologne, Praetorium: the residence of the governors of Germania Inferior, situated in the basement of a modern building. Here, you can also walk through an ancient sewer.
If you have more time to spend, use Cologne for a trip to the lovely Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn and the Westfälisches Römermuseum at Haltern
Day 4
Day 5
  • Alphen aan den Rijn, Archeon: modern reconstructions of iron age, ancient and medieval buildings. Fun.
  • Leiden, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden: the Dutch national collection, reorganized in 2001, famous for the altars of Nehalennia. After Tongeren, Cologne, Nijmegen and Archeon, the exhibition of Roman finds from the Netherlands is a bit of a disappointment, but the Egyptian collection is beautiful.
Additional note: on the east bank of the Rhine, you can spend a day visiting Kalkriese east of Bramsche (more...).

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