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: