Around Basel: Augusta Raurica – Castrum or Kaiseraugst – first visits

Kaiseraugst near the Rhine is, where the Roman Castrum Rauracense was established around 300 AD. The people retreated here to withstand the growing attacks of the Germanic tribes from the north. In the charming village centre of Kaiseraugst, we find remains of the Castrum and of late antiquity.

 

A look at the map to see, where the Castrum is

This is the map of Augusta Raurica, “our” Roman city, with the centre and the more “remote” sights, amongst them Kaiseraugst or the Castrum.  

 

Source: Tourism map on homepage of Augusta Raurica

The brown line shows the whole city of Augusta Raurica, with the centre (numbers 1-7, e.g. forum, theatre, museum) and the more “remote” sights Kaiseraugst (19-21, baths, castrum wall and church), 10 (craft house), 14-17 (brick manufacture, tomb, east gate, animal park), 18 (cloaca and cellar), 12 (outer amphitheatre) and 11 (Grienmatt temple).

After having looked at the history and legends around Augusta Raurica and after having visited the centre of the Roman city, we next look at Kaiseraugst with the Castrum near the Rhine, leaving other more remote sights for later.

 

Mouth of the Ergolz, the river that marks the border between the cantons Aargau and Baselland  

After about an hour of cycling from my home, I arrive near the mouth of the river Ergolz. Well, I do not intend to continue to Rotterdam or Nantes, as Eurovelo proposes. Let us start our tour around Kaiseraugst here.

When I am here for the first time, it is November 2020. The school boat is practicing on the Ergolz and on the Rhine.

At this place, the Ergolz is the border between the cantons Baselland (to the west, village Augst) and Aargau (to the east, village Kaiseraugst).

This is the view of the power station in the Rhine; left, the Ergolz flows into the Rhine, and I stand under the golden leaves of an “Argovian” oak tree.

Now I have zoomed in the power station.

The buildings of the power station are in Germany. It is possible to cross the dam to Germany, on foot or by bike. 

The book edited by Berger contains a map that shows three Roman bridges, one of them above the modern power station. Two more bridges crossed the Rhine, where Kaiseraugst is located today.  

I walk through the park along the Rhine. Now, in November, it is in hibernation, the benches are being overhauled. This bench says: “I am under renovation and will appear shining all new in two months time.”

Also the swimming pool near the camping site is awaiting the next summer.

Where the park ends, I start my round tour to the Roman past. The Roman sights are well marked.

I have to follow the column with the brown arrow to discover the Roman Castrum.

 

Part of the defensive Castrum walls has been preserved (see map #19)

The western defensive walls of the Roman fortress or Castrum have been preserved. 

We can see the layout of the Roman western gate on the pavement. The main street of the modern village centre of Kaiseraugst starts here, and this was also the main street of the Castrum.

The panel provided by the Augusta Raurica Foundation shows, what the Castrum might have looked like with the western gate (left) and the surrounding wall and ditch. 

The Thermae or Rhine Baths are highlighted on this panel.

 

Thermae or the Rhine Baths, where the Romans met (20)

What looks like the entrance to an underground garage behind the community centre is the access to the Rhine Baths (Thermae). 

Under the ground, the bath rooms have been preserved, some cold, some warm, and one hot. I stand on the base of the floor heating (hypocaust). We cannot see the heated “real” floor, where the Romans walked. It has disappeared.

The panels explain that in the warm or tepid rooms, the Romans would sit, chat, have light meals and play games. 

The vitrine explains that wooden sandals were needed to walk in the hot bath – here, the floor was hot!

I wonder, how well I would have seen my hair in this mirror to fix the hair pin. 

It is amazing, with how much care the baths have been set up to give the visitors a picture of Roman life. The access to this gem is free.

 

The village church St. Gallus (see map #21) – early residence of the bishop of Basel?

So far, I had never taken notice of the church St. Gallus at Kaiseraugst. Now I discover it with Guido Facciani. On the cover page of his document, he shows, how the building evolved from Roman times until today. In Roman times, it was a profane building, then it became a meeting hall with an apse that, probably in the 4th century, was remodelled to become the first church (Facciani, p. 149/173). I always admire, how archaeologists can read ruins. 

Some say that the church St. Gallus was the seat of the bishopric “Raurica”. However the existence of the bishop mentioned for the 4th century, Justinian, cannot be confirmed (Facciani, p. 173). The first proven evidence of a bishop goes back to 600 AD: Sources mention Ragnacharius as the bishop of Augustudinae et Basiliae (Facciani, p. 178, Vita des Eustasius). Facciani suggests that Ragnacharius started his mandate at the Castrum Augusta Raurica/Kaiseraugst and then moved to Basel (Facciani, p.179).

Facciani found evidence of an early Romanic church built in the 10/11th century (Facciani, p.180). The church was rebuilt again in the 14th century (after the Basel earthquake, Facciani, p. 183). The tower has been preserved from that time.

In the 18th century, the church was renovated adding baroque elements (Facciani, p. 185). Is the “undulating” gable of the nave not almost too graceful above the bricks marking the edges of the nave and being so close to the tower from the 14th century?

By the way, the baroque façade is inclining towards the Rhine, as the ground is sinking here.

 

Why is Kaiseraugst called Kaiseraugst?

I had always wondered, why Kaiseraugst is “Kaiser”-Augst or “Imperial”-Augst. Perhaps due to the Roman emperors? No, it is due to the Habsburgians. They were emperors or “Kaiser” and they acquired Kaiseraugst in 1442 to become part of “Fore” Austria (Vorderösterreich). In the Congress of Vienna (1815), Kaiseraugst became part of the canton Aargau and Switzerland. Across the Ergolz is “plain” Augst that had been acquired by Basel and now belongs to the canton Baselland.  

 

Fortification to protect the bridge (22)

I am back in June 2021. The ferry across the river Rhine runs. In his work life, the captain headed cargo ships between Basel and Rotterdam. Now retired, he still works on the river Rhine managing and running the ferry of Kaiseraugst. He even offers Fondue evenings on his boat. Very creative. I might consider that.

We enter the ferry and ride to the German side of the Rhine, where the Romans had built this fortification to protect their bridges across the Rhine. 

Remains of the three northern towers (inland) can still be seen, the territory above the Rhine collapsed.

A signpost guides us to the remains of the fortification called “Römischer Brückenkopf”.

We follow the small path and find the three towers amidst trees and bushes. This is one of them.

Through the trees, we can see Kaiseraugst and the Saint Gallus church. Storks are breeding in the nest on the church tower.

Having returned to the Swiss side, we admire the white swans that do not take any notice of us.

They are cleaning their feathers, how beautiful. 

Let us return to Kaiseraugst to visit the show room between the church St. Gallus and the Rhine in the next blog. 

Sources:

  • Website of Augusta Raurica
  • “Salve – Plan”, Augusta Raurica 2019.
  • Guido Facciani et alii: “Die Dorfkirche St. Gallus in Kaiseraugst. Die bauliche Entwicklung vom römischen Profangebäude zur heutigen christkatholischen Gemeindekirche”, Forschungen in Augst, Band 42, Augst 2012.
  • Ludwig Berger (Editor), “Führer durch Augusta Raurica”, Schwabe Verlag Basel 2012; contributions by Thomas Hufschmid, Sandra Ammann, Ludwig Berger und Peter-A. Schwarz, Urs Brombach

Around Basel: The centre of the Roman city Augusta Raurica

After having looked at the foundation legend and history of Augusta Raurica, we now walk through the centre of the Roman city of Augusta Raurica, and I will convey some of my personal impressions. I return regularly to Augst. For instance, I was here in November 2020, again in spring and once more in summer 2021. And I will soon return again.

 

The museum with the rich Roman treasure

This poster stands right near the central parking. It shows citizens in the 1960’s that hold silver plates in their hands.

“Do not miss it!” the panel says, “the largest silver treasure of the ancient world in the museum of Augusta Raurica.” I assure you, the silver treasure IS impressive. It is already amazing, how it was discovered! In the 1960’s, a digger accidentally uncovered the treasure, when preparing a field for construction, and the operator did not notice what he had uncovered. People from the village found the treasure later. Some kept their findings (that happens even in Switzerland) and some took them to the museum. Most of the stolen silver pieces were given to the museum later (this is nevertheless Switzerland). The archaeologists assume that in the 4th century AD, a Roman citizen, scared by the attacks of the Germans coming from the north, hid his silver treasure in a wooden box, which remained under the ground for about 1600 years, until the digger came in the 1960’s.

The treasure is on permanent display in the museum. I pick out two examples. This is the so called “Archilles platter” from 330-340 AD. 

The following platter shows a villa near the sea (330-350 AD). Whenever I visit the museum, I say hello to this finely engraved medallion showing the sumptuous villa and the fish in the sea with the people in the boats hunting them. In the middle, there is even an octopus.

In addition, the museum illustrates what a Roman atrium house looked like.

This is the dining table. 

The Romans used to eat lying around the table (called “accubare”). When lying, you can eat more than when sitting on a chair “compressing” the stomach. I am just not sure, how authentic the cane chair is… but I trust the curators of this museum.

In Ravenna, I found the Last Supper, where Jesus and the disciples eat the “Roman way” (photo taken by me in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo).

The atrium house conveys details of Roman life such as these bones with a wooden “booklet” explaining, how to play with them.

I came across such bone games in Mongolia in 2014. These were goat bones, we used for playing. In addition, the Mongolians use sheep bones for playing.

At the end of the atrium house tour, the coach illustrates how the Romans travelled. There are some places around Basel, where the prints of coach wheels can be seen on the Roman paths cut into rock (for instance above Flüh).  

Recently, the curators have added the black dog lying on the sack with the sausage in front of the nose. Whenever I return to this museum, I find some small detail added with much care. 

Just outside the museum, I notice an earthen plate with small stones. What is this? Has someone lost these stones? But – in a plate? 

I look around and, nearby, I discover this triangle, divided into numbered fields. 

Ah, here it is, the wooden booklet lays out the rules of the delta game, the Deltaspiel. You have to throw three stones in turn, and the winner is the one who achieves the highest sum of numbers.

At Augusta Raurica, children are welcome at all places! I do enjoy discovering such small details.

 

The theatre “of nine towers”, the temple “Schönbühl” and the taberna

The central theatre is the dominant place at Augusta Raurica, just next to the museum. To get a good view of the theatre, I usually climb the hill across called Schönbühl with the “Schönbühl” temple (well, “Schönbühl” is not the Roman name, but this is, what it is called today). Carefully the panels are set up to explain all the details about the theatre and the construction periods (see left hand side).  

The citizens of Augusta Raurica reconstructed their theatre a third time around 200 AD. It was a scenic theatre and accommodated for 10-12’000 spectators. The constructors of the theatre made use of the slope across the Schönbühl hill. The sidewalls rounding off the spectator area (cavea) were open in the  middle – the archaeologists are quite sure of this and assume that the theatre and the “Schönbühl” temple were connected such that spectators could watch temple services from the theatre (Berger, p. 113).

When I return mid July 2021, red flags decorate the place. The summer program is on, until mid-August. The footboard in the foreground indicates that some parents show Augusta Raurica to their young son or daughter, and they may now be visiting the temple behind us. They are not alone, many families walk around Augusta Raurica, especially during the summer school holidays.

Having climbed the spectator area (cavea) of the theatre we look across the Sichelen valley to the Schönbühl hill and the “Schönbühl” temple.

Just across the theatre is the taberna with the oven. Berger, p. 226, says, that a family house was planned here. The owner and the foundation of Augusta Raurica agreed swap of territories to preserve the taberna with the oven and make it publicly accessible. The oven is from the mid-3rd century AD. Though the place has been named “taberna” or “restaurant”, the excavators believe, it was rather a private house with a workshop that perhaps sold food as a side business (Berger, p. 230). 

 

Around the forum, the main square

The beginning of the forum “meadow” has been marked by this wooden construction. Perhaps this is , where the forum temple was. A stork nest has recently been added under the middle arch (another nice detail new to me). 

It is difficult to imagine this meadow to be the main forum. Berger, p.46, gives me an idea: The western part was the sacred area with the temple, while, at the opposite end, the public area was closed up by the basilica and the curia (the latter looks like an apsis). Bordering the forum are various insulae or blocks of houses, laid out as rectangular as the hill allows. In the background, the theatre and the “Schönbühl” temple can be seen; due to the topography, the ensemble does not form a straight line as in other Roman cities. 

The victory column must have formed the south east corner of the so called insula 9 (block of houses bordering the sacred area to the right of the forum). Victoria carries the globe on her head. This column is a copy of the original (Berger, p.9). 

On the forum, the July/August summer activities have been installed with much care and taking into regard the hygienic requirements of the Covid pandemic, however, with some eye twinkling. “Desinfectus hygiena” is understood by everybody, no knowledge of Latin required. 

From the forum, parts of the curia have been preserved and partially restored. “Roman puppets” stand around and by looking into binoculars, you can see them in the forum, as it was about 2000 years ago.

Next to the curia I discover some cupboards that hold games for children from 10 to 14 years. The kids are invited to accompany poor boy Nobilianus who is ill and needs distraction. In various languages, among them in English. 

Under the curia, there is a cellar with mosaics. Many of them are currently being restored, amongst them also my favourite one (my photo from 2013).

It is the so-called “Gladiatorenmosaik” that shows a fish pond which is fed by the water game in the jug, as the panel explains. One of the jug handles has been repaired somewhat oddly.

During the current “summer activities”, the cellar has become a workshop for people and children who want to create their own mosaics. Children will never feel bored at Augusta Raurica.

What always impresses me is the elaborated floor heating system of the Romans, the hypocaust. Behind the forum in the slopes of the Viola valley, such a hypocaust has been preserved.  Presumably, it once heated a dining room of 9.5mx6.6m (panel on site and Berger, p. 231).

The raw material for the heating was wood charcoal; the fire was made in the praefurnium or heating room. Hot air circulated in the space under the floor between the columns (pilae). It was like an underground tiled stove, as Berger, p. 232, writes. 

The heating was discovered in 1941, when tank traps were installed here. Surprises await everywhere in Augst.

 

Baths at the Violenried 

In fact discovering parts of Augusta Raurica sounds like a detective story to me. Anyone who owns land here is bound to find remains of the Roman city, when digging up the earth.

The enterprise E. Frey AG runs a quarry at Augst. The eastern part of the Kastelen hill (one third of the hill) has disappeared; on the hill, there was an area of insulae (blocks of houses) that were probably more upscale. When E. Frey AG intended to move away more ground, it soon became clear that they are about to destroy the baths of the Viola valley (Violenried) and a well preserved groundwater well with the underground well-house. The community of Augst agreed to swap territory with E. Frey AG, and now this area is open to the public. The signpost directs visitors to the underground well-house. 

The photo below shows the baths area in the year 2000, as presented by Berger, p. 160. The round groundwater well (Sodbrunnen in German) can be seen in the middle of the photo. You access the underground well-house using the comfortable stairs at the bottom of the photo. A bubbling noise welcomes you in the well-house. The curators make it all clear to us the well-house has to do with water. One of the theories is that this groundwater well provided the Viola bath with water (Berger, p. 161).

Reading more carefully, I learn that the areas marked by red marl above were heated by the hypocaust system. These were the tepid and hot water rooms of the Viola bath. There were two praefurniums or heating rooms here, a large one to the left of the warm bath rooms and a small one to the right of the oval shaped sudatorium (sweating room). The two other “grey” rooms next to the sudatorium have served some economic purposes, as the archaeologists assume. These two “grey” rooms are above the dark and narrow tunnel that gives access to the underground well-house under the fountain. 

The entry area to the Viola bath was behind the thin wall on the left hand side of the photo above. In addition, there were some blocks of houses behind this thin wall.

On the thin wall, a digitised reconstruction painting has been installed that illustrates life behind this wall (Berger, p. 160). I took the photo of the painting from the gallery across.

On the painting illustrating life behind the wall, a man is being massaged in the cold water room. People change clothes in the middle. One man has gone down the steps to have a cold bath in the piscina. To the left, life in the streets is presented: Roman citizens, children and animals.

In the foreground, we see the remains that have been preserved for the public. Behind the groundwater well (round shape), the hot rooms are marked by red marl. The oval shape sudatorium is sided by the small heating room to the left. The larger rooms to the left served some economic purposes. 

I must admit that only now, reading in the book edited by Berger and writing this blog, I understand that the underground well-house is exactly under that round fountain in the middle of the photo. I do not understand, why this was not clear to me before, but for us non-archaeologists it is difficult to interpret the Roman foundation walls in the open landscape.

This is the view of the round opening of the fountain from below, from the underground well-house.

According to Berger, p. 162, it is not clear, whether the Viola bath was a small public bath or a luxurious private bath belonging to a wealthy citizen. The larger main central bath area was farther south and has not been explored and preserved as thoroughly as the Viola bath. 

 

Good-bye for now

This advertisement of the summer activities at Augusta Raurica is a welcoming invitation: “Where do you go to? To Augst, of course”, mixing up Latin with German and Swiss German. The short Swiss German expression “dängg” can be translated by “where else do you think I am going to?” 

I will surely soon return to Augusta Raurica to check out some more details and to see, what has changed in the meantime. In addition, I will later publish my third blog about the sights that can be found more remotely around the centre of Augusta Raurica. 

 

Sources:

  • Explanation panels on site
  • Ludwig Berger, “Führer durch Augusta Raurica”, Schwabe Verlag Basel 2012, with contributions by Thomas Hufschmid, Sandra Amman, Ludwig Berger, Peter-A. Schwarz and Urs Brombach
  • Website of Augusta Raurica

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 (augustaraurica.ch) 

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. 

Sources: