Roman News

The Latest Headlines from

the Roman Rhineland

In late July, the Roman Rhineland made the headlines, not just once, but twice.  First the discovery of a Roman library in Cologne was made public. And a few days later a Roman sarcophagus found in Zülpich (approx. 50 km south west of Cologne) was presented to the media.

Cologne – a long-lost love of books rediscovered

The Roman history of the city, which evolved into the Cologne of today, began in 20/19 BCE.  Then Marcus Agrippa, a Roman general and the right-hand man of the Emperor Augustus, settled the Ubii, a Germanic tribe, there.  At that time, it was called Oppidum Ubiorum (town of the Ubii), although its population increasingly included people from other parts of the Roman empire.   Agrippa was also responsible for building many of the Roman highways (see below).

The town’s real upswing came in 50 (or 51) CE, when Agrippina, who was born in the town, convinced her husband, the Emperor Claudius, to make it a Roman colony.  This is reflected in its later name, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippinians), from which today’s ‘Köln’, ‘Cologne’ etc is derived.  Forts and fortifications were erected for the protection of the settlement, which now received the rights of a city.  Its inhabitants became Roman citizens.  The Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) made it the capital of the province Germania Inferior.  As a result, it was decided that the city had to reflect this high status.  It was redesigned and many new public buildings were erected, a trend which continued over the next centuries.

Last year, during excavations for the new community centre of a Lutheran church, the foundations of one of these Roman prestige buildings were found.  They were located in the south western corner of the Roman forum, measuring 20 by 9 metres with an apsis.  Two small polished pieces of the floor have also survived.   The walls were thick and solidly built.  Due to its location, it was initially thought to have been a public meeting hall.  However, there were niches in the walls, approx. 80 cm by 50 cm.  They were too small for statues, so what was their purpose?

After comparing the walls to buildings in Ephesus, Pergamon, Alexandria or Rome, it became clear that this must have been a library.  The niches would have contained chests or cupboards full of scrolls of parchment or papyrus.  It has been estimated that the library would have been large enough to contain thousands of texts, maybe as many as 20,000.

Given its location on the forum, it was probably a public library, built by public funds, rather than by a private person or the provincial governor.  The idea of public libraries, as opposed to private ones, was first introduced by Julius Caesar, though he did not live to see it implemented.  However, the idea did not die with him and was taken up by later emperors.  By the 2nd century CE, public libraries were more wide-spread.  The one in Cologne, which has been dated to between 150 and 200 CE, fits right into this movement.  Their purpose was ”to make the works of  writers available to as wide an audience as possible” (Affleck, p.41) and to educate.  They did this not just by making texts accessible for reading, but they also “served as a setting for authors’ recitations of their works, a fundamental form of “publication” in the ancient world”. (Dix, p.287)

The library in Cologne is the first Roman library found north of the Alps, which led to it being called Germany’s oldest library.  It has been assumed though that there was one in Trier, and possibly others in Augsburg, Mainz and Xanten.

The thickness of the foundationssuggests that  the building was between 7 and 9 metres high.  The apsis might have contained a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the keeper of knowledge.

The discovery made a change to the original plans for the community centre necessary.  Parts of the Roman foundations will be visible to the public in the underground carpark of the centre. The rest will be preserved underground.

During the dig a medieval font was also found.  As the pastor of the Antoniter Church pointed out, although holy water is not a feature in the Lutheran church, it does nevertheless show the long tradition of Christian worship on this site.  The font will be displayed in the church.

Roman News

Side portal of the former Roman northern gate, re-erected next to Cologne Cathedral

Zülpich – a lady and her beauty products

While the find in Cologne was large and public, the one in Zülpich is much smaller and of a private nature.

Tolbiacum (Zülpich) was located on one of the most important highways of the Roman empire, the Via Agrippa, which led from Cologne to Trier, and from there on to the Mediterranean.  This was one of the highways built by Agrippa, who had settled the Ubii in Cologne.  The Via Agrippa met at Zülpich with roads to Reims, Xanten, Bonn and Jülich, making it an significant intersection of some of the most important trade routes in Germania Inferior.

In addition, the town was a day’s travel from Cologne.  A Roman milestone was found in the town, which said the distance was 30 leagues .   Therefore the town evolved into something like the Roman equivalent of a motorway service area.  Among the amenities it provided for travellers were well-equipped and extensive baths, which were found in 1931.

Last year, a local business park was to be extended, which is located next to a highway, the B 265.  In this area, part of today’s B 265 follows the same route as the Roman Via Agrippa, except for the present bypass around the town centre.  The Roman road would have been through the centre, along today’s Römerallee (Roman Avenue). (Sorry, you will have to toggle a bit with the map below.)

A Roman estate had previously been detected nearby.  In situations like this, it is usual that archaeologists first examine the site, before actual digging with heavy machinery is to start.  The dig started on Monday, 4 September 2017. The researchers quickly found traces of a Roman path and next to it a large, grey-violet sandstone slab.  This type of stone came from the Eifel Hills, probably close to Nideggen.  The slab turned out to be the lid of a stone coffin, measuring 2.30 metres by 1.10 metres.  This in itself was remarkable as this is the first time in more than 10 years that a Roman sarcophagus has been found in the Rhineland outside of Cologne, where more people had the means to afford such expensive burials

It took five days to excavate the coffin carefully and to study the grave pit.  At night there were guards watching the site to protect it from uninvited guests.  On Friday, 8 September 2017, the complete coffin, weighing 2.5 tons, was lifted by crane and carefully transported to the LVR LandesMuseum in Bonn.  There it was analysed and the contents documented and restored.  The find was only announced now to avoid amateur archaeologists invading the dig site, where other Roman burials were still being excavated.

When the coffin was opened, the delighted researchers found that it had not been tampered with in the 1700 years since it was buried.  The chance of finding a stone coffin from that time, which has remained unopened in all those years, has been estimated as 1 in 400.000. So this was a very remarkable find indeed.

The coffin contained the well-preserved skeleton of a petite woman, who had been between 25 and 30 when she died in the 3rd century.  The cause of her death has so far not been established, but researchers are trying to find out.  Her bones were no longer in their anatomical position in the coffin.  The researchers suggest that at some stage water entered it. The bones then floated and, when the water evaporated, they were just left.

She must have been a wealthy lady to be buried in a sarcophagus in the first place.  A stone coffin like this did not come cheap and it was hard work to bury it.  In addition, she was buried with various quality personal objects.  Many of these are items of personal appearance, e.g. cosmetics and jewellery.  It obviously was important to her to maintain her looks in the after-life.

The objects included:

  • Probably the most eye-catching is a kind of flick-knife with a bone handle in the shape of Hercules leaning tiredly on his club. He has one hand behind his back holding a golden apple, which he had stolen from the Hesperides.
  • Exquisite small glass bottles with handles shaped like jumping dolphins, which probably contained perfume.
  • A small silver hand mirror with a handle shaped like two fingers.
  • A slate palette to mix powder make-up and oil with a spatula.
  • A round glass container with the inscription Utere Felix (Use me happily), probably for skin care oil.
  • An oil container, still with its original cork stopper.  This was a rather unusual grave object for a woman.
  • A wooden box inlaid with horn containing various items of jewellery – two finger rings made of jet and silver, a necklace of jet beads and two jet pendants. The stone probably came from the east coast of England.  Jet jewellery was very fashionable in the 3rd century.  It also contained several mother-of-pearl pendants.
  • Several bone hair-pins, one with a golden top, and a comb.
  • A sewing needle.
  • A beautiful glass bowl decorated with white and blue glass threads.  This design is called “Cologne twirl”.  Glass goods were an important export commodity in Cologne.  The glass industry began in the first century AD, soon developing its own individual styles.  In one of them glass threads were directly applied to the outside of glass vessels – “Cologne twirls”. (Gerd Biegel, ‘Das römische Köln, sein Hafen und seine Seeverbindungen‘, Jahrbuch der Hafenbautechnischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 37 (1979/80), p.16)

Where the sarcophagus and the personal objects of the woman who was buried in it will eventually be on display, is not yet known.

Two significant Roman finds in such a short time.  It makes you wonder how much more there is to discover.  Reading about all these new finds – and watching them like in this news clip about the sarcophagus from Zülpich – I can’t wait to go back to the Rhineland to see the period face-to-face.

Further reading:


‚Die älteste Bibliothek Deutschlands‘, AntoniterQuartier.  URL: [last accessed 1 Aug. 2018]

Affleck, M.K., Roman Libraries during the Late Republic and Early Empire: With Special Reference to the Library of Pliny the Elder, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland (2012)

Matthew Bunson, A Dictionary of the Roman Empire.  OUP, 1995, p. 100

Dix, K.T., ‘”Public Libraries” in Ancient Rome: Ideology and Reality’, Libraries & Culture, vol. 29, no. 3 (Summer 1994), pp. 282-296

Flood, A., ‘’Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany’, The Guardian (31 July 2018).  URL: [last accessed 1 Aug. 2018]

Leiverkus, P. & P., ‘Köln – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium: Hat Agrippa auch Köln gegründet?’, in: Die 40 bekanntesten archäologischen Stätten entlang der Via Agrippa in Deutschland, Luxemburg und Frankreich.  Mainz, 2017, pp. 20-25

Oehlen, M., ‘Bei Bauarbeiten: Archäologen entdecken in Köln älteste Bibliothek Deutschlands‘, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (25 July 2018). URL: [last accessed 25 July 2018]


Julia Beil, ‘Das Geheimnis im Sarkophag von Zülpich‘, Welt (30 July 2018).  URL: [last accessed 31 July 2018]

Thomas Kliemann, ‘LVR-Museum Bonn präsentiert 1700 Jahre alten Sarkophag‘, General-Anzeiger (30 July 2018).  URL:  [last accessed 31 July 2018]

Leiverkus, P. & P., ‘Zülpich – Tolbiacum: Ein mordender Kaiser und ein entspannendes Bad am Wegesrand’, in: Die 40 bekanntesten archäologischen Stätten entlang der Via Agrippa in Deutschland, Luxemburg und Frankreich.  Mainz, 2017, pp. 26-27

LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, ‘Archäologisches Team entdeckte in Zülpich einen unberaubten römischen Sarkophag’, Press Release, LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn (30 July 2018).  URL:  [last accessed 31 July 2018]

News clip about the Zülpich sarcophagus (in German): (can be viewed until 30 July 2019)


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