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Lugdunum (Brittenburg)

Detail of map of Germania Inferior. Design Jona Lendering.
The location of Lugdunum (2)
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.

Lugdunum was a naval base and fortified military granary at the estuary of the river Rhine. It was probably the location of one of the strangest incidents from ancient history. In 40, the emperor Caligula arrived at the beach with many soldiers, probably belonging to the newly recruited Twenty-second legion Primigenia. What happened next, is told by his biographer Suetonius.

Finally, as if resolved to make war in earnest, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the ocean, placed his ballistas and other artillery, and, no one knowing or able to imagine what he was going to do, he all of a sudden commanded they gather sea shells and fill their helmets and pockets with them [...]. As a monument of this victory, he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the lighthouse of Alexandria.
[Suetonius, Life of Caligula 46;
tr. J. Gavorse]
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The Rhine near Katwijk. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Rhine near Katwijk. The Brittenburg must have been immediately in front of the estuary. (**)
This farce must have taken place on the beach near modern Katwijk Boulogne, which is sometimes mentioned, can be excluded because there are no remains from the age of Caligula.

In the winter of 39/40, a military base was constructed at nearby Valkenburg. It was called Praetorium Agrippinae; the first element of this name means 'headquarters', the second is a reference to the emperor's mother Agrippina. The presence of the emperor at the mouth of the Rhine is certain, because a barrel has been found that once contained wine from the emperor's personal vineyards. As late as the sixteenth century, fishermen from Katwijk called a group of underwater ruins 'the tower of Kalla'. Because there has been continuous human occupation at the mouth of the Rhine, it is tempting to think that the site of the lighthouse was still been remembered.

Brittenburg, etching by Abraham Ortelius (1581).
Brittenburg, etching by 
Abraham Ortelius (1581)

Apart from these stories, Lugdunum is only known to us from drawings from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when the ruins of the ancient settlement (not the lighthouse) became visible on the beach. The precise location of the Brittenburg, however, is still hotly debated.

The drawing by Abraham Ortelius, one of the most famous cartographers of all ages, shows a building that can probably be identified with a horreum or military granary. The heavy walls with round towers suggest a date in the fourth century.

The ruins of the Brittenburg were probably sighted for the last time in the last days of October (or the first days of November) 1954. Unfortunately, nobody has recorded their precise location. Modern archaeologists have been unable to trace the ruins of the 'Brittenburg', which have become one of the most famous and romantic mysteries of Dutch archaeology. The violence of the sea has probably destroyed the remains of the castle beyond recovery.

The Renaissance expression "Lugdunum Batavorum" to describe the nearby town of Leiden is erroneous. In Antiquity, Leiden was called Matilo.


  • D. Parleviet, "De Brittenburg voorgoed verloren" in Westerheem 51/3 (2002)
  • 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)
A satellite photo can be found here.
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)

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