Noviomagus (Nijmegen)


Nijmegen: city in the Netherlands, where several Roman settlements have been discovered.

Batavian horsemen

The word Nijmegen is derived from Noviomagus, the name of a Roman city that existed in the second and third centuries. Like many urban centers in Antiquity, it was in fact a set of settlements, some of which existed at the same time.

Chronology of the Nijmegen settlements

The fortress at Nijmegen-Hunerberg (map) was used as a military base during the offensive across the river Rhine by the Roman general Drusus, a stepson of the emperor Augustus, in 15-12 BCE (although the first Roman presence is datable to 19, which makes Agrippa, the governor of Germania Inferior in that year, the founder of Nijmegen). With a size of 650x650 meters, it offered accommodation to two, perhaps three legions. The fortress was situated on a hill overlooking the river Waal, one of the branches into which the Rhine divides itself before emptying itself in the North Sea. From one single graffito, we can deduce the presence of soldiers I Germanica.


To the west of the Hunerberg was a civil settlement (map), which was probably occupied by the Batavians, a Germanic tribe from the Lower Main area that had in the recent past been resettled to the banks of the Waal. This civil settlement, sometimes called Batavodurum ("marketplace of the Batavians") or Oppidum Batavorum ("hillfort of the Batavians"), was on the hill known as Valkhof and a bit more to the east. Several scholars have argued that Batavodurum and Oppidum Batavorum were two towns. However, other cities did have two names, so we probably do not have to accept that there were two Batavian settlements.

The Hunerberg base was used for only two or three decades, because after two campaigns on the east bank of the Rhine, Drusus had reached his war aims and could transfer his legions to Oberaden on the Lippe. However, occasional visits by the armies of Rome are attested until 16/17 CE. Several temporary bases (e.g., at the Trajanusplein) appear to be connected to Germanicus' retaliatory campaigns after the Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest (9).

While the Hunerberg had been abandoned, a smaller fort on the Kops Plateau (map) remained in use; it is a bit farther to the east. The house of the commander was very luxurious, which suggests that many officers inhabited the place. The settlement has been interpreted as the headquarters of a Roman army, as the residence of the Roman prefect responsible for the Batavians, or as some sort of "house of Batavo-Roman friendship".

The history of the foundation of Nijmegen as a "double settlement" is more or less parallel to that of Xanten. Here, Germanic settlers were living next to a Roman military base as well. Even Nijmegen's double name has a parallel, as Xanten was known under the two names of Municipium Cugernorum and Cibernodurum.

Victory monument found at Nijmegen: victorious Roman sacrificing to Tiberius Caesar

To these years dates a victory monument dedicated to the Roman emperor Tiberius. It has been discovered at the Valkhof and is interesting because it shows several Roman deities and a man in Roman dress - probably Tiberius. Did the Batavians understand the monument, or, stated otherwise, were they sufficiently acquainted with the Roman way of life? (It is possible that the monument was erected earlier, when Tiberius was personally campaigning in the area. That would suggest a date in 8 BCE or 5 CE.)

So, for more than half a century, there were two settlements: the Kops Plateau fort in the east, occupied by important Roman officials and - later - by a Batavian cavalry unit, and Batavodurum in the west, the civil settlement. Both were destroyed during the Batavian Revolt (69-70).

After that war, the Roman legions returned to Nijmegen. The Second Legion Adiutrix briefly stayed in the center of the city, but when it moved on to Britain, it was replaced by the Tenth Legion Gemina. It stayed at the Hunerberg. A large commercial center (perhaps never completed), an amphitheater and an inn have been discovered in the vicinity of the Hunerberg base. It was rebuilt from stone in c.95, but the X Gemina was almost immediately replaced by a vexillation from Britain, which consisted of parts of VIIII Hispana and other units. After 120, subunits of XXX Ulpia Victrix were the residents of the Hunerberg.

Inscription of a grain trader

Also after the war, the civil settlement of Nijmegen was rebuilt to the west, near the river Waal (map). From a Roman point of view, it was a small town of some 5,000 inhabitants; but from a local perspective, it must have been a big city. It was too large to be fed from the hinterland; grain and other food had to be imported. An inscription has been found that mentions the Nervian grain trader Marcus Liberius Victor.

Because Noviomagus was close to the river, its northern wall will never be found again. And because there are many houses on the southern part of the city, excavation will be difficult. Still, two temples in native style have been excavated and pottery from the kilns of the Twenty-Second Legion Primigenia at Xanten has been exacvated on several places. There was also a bridge across the Waal, which led to the sanctuary of Elst.

It is often claimed that Nijmegen received market rights at the beginning of the second century, when the town was renamed Ulpia Noviomagus. The first element is a reminder of the name of the emperor (Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, or simply Trajan); the second element is Celtic and means "new market". This argument is simply wrong. As capital of the Batavians, the town already had the privilege of nundinas habere organizing markets as early as the days of Agrippa. (It may be noted that the name Batavodurum can be read as "Batavian market".)

Rooftitle from NIjmegen with the words "When Didius Julianus was consul"

What probably happened is that Nijmegen changed its name twice. First, the town was rebuilt in the west, near the Waal, and was renamed Noviomagus, because it was, indeed, a new town; later, the emperor Trajan awarded the surname Ulpia. To the best of my knowledge, there are no examples of a town that simultaneously changes its main name and receives a surname. Usually, honorific surnames like Claudia, Flavia, Ulpia, and Aelia were given to cities that were already well-known and could no longer simply change their name. It has nothing to do with priviliges.

The second century is poorly understood. One reason is that the number of written sources diminishes; another is that this appears to have been an age and area of tranquility and prosperity, which did not attract the emperor's attention - and therefore the attention of Roman historians. Still, we know that Noviomagus was surrounded by a wall in the 170s, and that the city suffered from a big fire in c.180. It appears that she never fully recovered.

A silver agraphe (to tie a hair-ribbon) with a christogram.

Probably, Noviomagus suffered even more from the Frankish invasion of 275, which put an end to the Roman presence in the lower Rhine area for almost a generation. In the fourth century, however, the Valkhof - the site of old Batavodurum - was fortified by the emperors Constantine I the Great and Valentinian I. It became an important castle, surrounded by two ditches. A second settlement was between the Valkhof and the river; the remains of one of its impressive walls have been discovered near the Waal. This was probably the settlement that kept the name Noviomagus (map).

The twin town was a natural target for the Franks, who took over the settlement in the early fifth century. It cannot have made a big difference, as there was already a Frankish settlement in the neighborhood, and most soldiers were already Franks. Although this was a small settlement with only some hundreds of inhabitants, it was sufficiently important to mint its own coins, with the legend Niomago.

Roman spolia in the Aula Regia of Barbarossa's palace

The castle remained occupied for a long time. In 777, Charlemagne celebrated Easter in Nijmegen, and ordered a palace to be built over there, which was expanded by later emperors. It was demolished in 1797, but the late tenth-century chapel of Saint Nicholas and a part of an aula, built by German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, survive. The site is now a charming park, where archeology is impossible.


The archaeological remains of the settlements at Nijmegen are on display at the Museum Valkhof; it is among the most beautiful museums in the Netherlands. Other finds can be found in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. The mansio near the Hunerberg was reconstructed in the Archeon.