Around Basel – Augusta Raurica. Foundation legend and history

One of my favourite destinations near Basel is the Roman city Augusta Raurica. It is carefully restored and panels explain all the places of interest to make the Roman times revive. The homesite of Augusta Raurica gives an excellent overview of “our” Roman city and the activities provided to children and adults.

Let us explore Augusta Raurica in three blogs:

  • the foundation legend with Lucius Munatius Plancus and the history of the Roman city,
  • the city centre with the museum, the “inner” theatre with the temple Schönbühl and the forum,
  • the more “remote” sights from Kaiseraugst to the “outer” amphitheatre. 


The foundation legend with Lucius Munatius Plancus; it happened 2064 years ago 

It is said that Lucius Munatius Plancus is the “founder” of the city of Basel, well not precisely of Basel, but of nearby Augusta Raurica. Under Cesar, Munatius was a successful Roman army commander in Gaul. During the turmoils after Cesar’s assassination in 44 BC, he managed to keep his position in the noble society, even under the emperor Augustus. I believe that this sometimes required sitting on the fence. 

The inscription on the tomb of Munatius in Gaeta (Naples) says that he founded Augusta Raurica in 44 BC. In the 16th century, Munatius was reinterpreted to be the founder of Basel; his statue stands in the courtyard of the city hall of Basel.

Hans Michel from Strasbourg sculptured the statue of Munatius in 1580 and donated it. Around that time, the theatre in the centre of Augusta Raurica had been uncovered (Facciani, p.18), which might have motivated Michel from Strasbourg to create his Munatius. 

Let us compare Michel’s Munatius with the representation of the Roman warrior of the days of Cesar (“Res Romanae”, p. 46). 

Look at the shoes, the plaid and the helmet – not exactly the same. Furthermore, Munatius wears something like leggings, pink with golden laces. Very peculiar, and also not really an outfit typical of Romans.

To top it all, Hans Michel has decorated the helmet of Munatius with a basilisk. Basilisks already “existed” in Roman times (Plinius the Elder mentioned them), but the basilisk of Basel was born in the 15th century, when a cock laid an egg (well, this is also a legend). Ever since, basilisks have proudly carried the coat of arms of Basel, and they are present all over in Basel, for instance decorating fountains or, as we see, topping the helmet of Munatius (see my earlier blog about Basel and the basilisks).

It is unclear, whether Lucius Munatius Plancus founded Augusta Raurica or re-established the former Celtic settlement, where the centre of Basel is today (on the Münsterhügel, remains of the earlier Celtic oppidum have been uncovered). Furthermore construction work at Augusta Raurica started later than the reported date of foundation, not in 44 BC, but around 15 BC. Although Basel seems to be older than 2064 years, the legend continues to be told: Lucius Munatius Plancus is the founder of Basel, and that happened 2064 years ago.

Why 2064 years ago?

In 1957 or 64 years ago, Basel celebrated its 2000 years’ anniversary. Then I was 6 years old, and I remember, how proud I was of the long tradition of “my” city, when watching the parade. The mayor of Gaeta had come to Basel, as the tomb of Munatius Plancus is in Gaeta. The anniversary medal shows Lucius Munatius Plancus with the basilisk on his helmet – I found various such medals on sale on ebay.

Well today, we have to add 64 to 2000, which means, Munatius Plancus founded Basel 2064 years ago. Now, Basel would celebrate its 2064th anniversary. We have learnt that these 2064 years are not exactly a historical fact. Nevertheless, in 1956, Basel found 2000 years to  be a good opportunity to celebrate, and I do hope, we will have more such opportunities soon again. 


The history of Augusta Raurica: A thriving city for some 200 years and around 300 AD a fortress near the Rhine

After construction had started in 15 BC, Augusta Raurica became a thriving trading and commercial city with about 15’000 inhabitants. The border of the Roman empire was 200km north, far away from the border with the “dangerous” Germanic tribes. 

The model in front of the central Roman theatre shows, what the city looked like around 200 AD.

We can see the central theatre opposite of the temple of Schönbühl and, out of town, the “outer” amphitheatre. 

Hence, Augusta Raurica disposed of the usual amenities of a Roman city: Forum, theatres, baths and blocks of houses allowing to live and do commerce. The city decayed in the 3rd century AD, due to growing pressure from the north. To defend themselves, the Romans built the Castrum (fortress) bordering the Rhine, where Kaiseraugst is located today. 

Now, many ruins of the once flourishing city Augusta Raurica as well as of the later Castrum near the Rhine have been excavated and documented. 

Source: SALVE_Tourismusplan_2020.indd ( 

It is the Foundation Pro Augusta Raurica that promotes the Roman heritage performing research, conservation, documentation and education. I am impressed, how well the ruins are presented and how well they are explained on the panels. Access is free, except for the museum. Signposts allow to find the places of interest. 

Let us walk around the centre of Augusta Raurica and visit the more remote sights around the centre in my next blogs. 


Strasbourg and its impressive cathedral

In 2016, I spent some warm September days in Germany. With Ursula I visited the Palatine, the middle Rhine and the Mosel/Nahe area. On day 15, we went from Bad Bergzabern to Strasbourg, and stopped at the Moulin de Wantzenau near Strasbourg to stay overnight.  I had drafted the blog about our 16th day at Strasbourg without publishing it. I am doing so now.

Today is Thursday, our 16th day traveling. The swooshing of the river Ill made us sleep well under the roof of the Moulin de Wantzenau. This is the view of the Ill from our window.


After a clear night with stars, the sun welcomes us again in the morning.

P&R IS P&R in Strasbourg
Our plan is to visit Strasbourg today. Our hotel is not far from the final tram station of Höhnheim with a huge P&R parking. The parking PLUS the tram tickets for up to six persons costs some 4 Euros. What a bargain! We understood this, after having bought our tram tickets in addition to parking ticket. We may be just too impatient to get to Strasbourg…
Again and again, the bilingual Alsace has been tossed between Germany and France 
Look at the street signs: “Rue de la Hache” translates to “Axtgässel” (yes, la hache = die Axt).
Other examples are “Rue des Echasses/Stelzengass”, “Rue des Juifs/Judegass”, “Quai des Moulins/Müehlstade” (all exact translations) or “Impasse du Tiroir/Münstergässel” (not an exact translation). These bilingual street signs remind us of the fact that the Alsace/Elsass has been tossed between France and Germany in the past centuries. I love to listen to the soft Alsacian dialect that mixes French and Alemannic words and resembles our dialect in Basel.
The Cathedral of Strasbourg is a gem 
Building the cathedral that we see today lasted from the 12th to the mid 15th century or from early to late gothic style (source: Hans Reinhardt, “das Strassburger Münster”, Lescuyer – Lyon and Susanne Tschirner,  “Elsass”, Dumont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 2000).

We approach the cathedral from the north, through the Rue du Dôme. The late gothic northern gate is devoted to Laurentius, a martyr that was burned on an iron grill in the 3rd century.


This is the (older) western portal with the tower (142m high) and with the rosette.


Maria with her son and the passion of Christ is decorating the west gate, as the cathedral is devoted to her.


On the side portal we find the wise and the foolish maidens. These are the foolish maidens that are being seduced by the man on the left… he shows off, but his back is covered with snakes indicating that he cannot be trusted. A very similar seducer is also decorating the cathedral of my home town Basel. Strasbourg served as the model for Basel (and other churches in the area).


Inside the western gate is illuminated by the colours of the rosette with its 16 “leaves” and 12 windows.


Ursula has taken this photo of one of the northern windows (from the 12/13th century)…

… and of the organ (“swallow’s nest organ” made by Silbermann 1716) that hangs in the nave.


I am very impressed by the engineering skills that went into building the astronomical clock. It counts the minutes, hours, week days, months and years (including calculating the correct date of Easter), based on the heliocentric system of Copernicus. In addition various installations illustrate the passing of time (and life) and the life of Christ. E.g. an angel turns a sand watch every hour. Or a cock waves his wings performing his cock-a-doodle-doo, while the apostles walk past Christ one by one. The first astronomical clock was built in the 14th century and broke down in the 16th century. A second clock was then built that broke down in the late 18th century. This second clock was repaired and modernized between 1838 and 1842 (source: Th. Ungerer, “Die astronomische Uhr des Strassburger Münsters”, Societé d’édition de la Basse-Alsace).


The angels’ column from 1225, near the astronomical clock, is a master piece of sculptural art. The 93 year old godfather of my husband Ernst remembered it and asked me later, whether I have noticed this column.


A man stands on the gallery and watches us silently. Or does he not watch us? Legend says that he was one of the governors of Strasbourg who had doubts about the angel column being stable. He was petrified to wait here, until the angel column collapses – which obviously has not happened so far.



The half-timbered houses, especially in La Petite France

Strasbourg is full of romantic corners with half-timbered houses.


The  Maison Kammerzell is not far from the cathedral – the wood carving is from Renaissance times, 1589.


These are houses in La Petite France where the Ill divides up into several channels.


The channels were used for medieval industry. For instance the tanners (in French “tanneurs” and in Alsacian “Gerwer”) lived and worked here.


Nowadays the channels are more used for leisure.


We had lunch in the small restaurant Coccinelle (or “ladybeetle”). I enjoyed my snails.

Full of impressions we take the tram back, pick up our car and enjoy the warm summer evening in the wonderful park of our hotel Moulin de Wantzenau. Ursula discovers this snail on the beans cultivated in the hotel garden.


We think of coming back to Strasbourg by train to visit the museums around the cathedral.


Returning home with a short stop in Hunawihr

On Friday, our 17th day, we return home with a short stop in Hunawihr (source: “L’église fortifiée de Hunawihr”, SAEP edition 1990) the history of which goes back to the 7th century, when Hunon settled here and his charitable wife Huna washed the clothes of the sick. The church that we see today dates from the 14th/15th/16th century, the tower being the oldest part.


Under these vaults, catholic and protestant service are held – this is called “simultaneum”. Hunawihr followed Zwingli in the reformation, as it belonged to Württemberg then, and the catholic belief was restored under French rule by Louis XIV.


Before returning home, I buy some Riesling and Gewürztraminer from Sipp-Mack. Then we say good-bye to the pretty village of Hunawihr.


We have felt like these fish in the fountain for almost three weeks – just great – and we plan to return to the Alsace soon for some one day excursions.