Römisch-Germanischen Museum (RGM): Arch from the Northern Gate of the town; (inset) inscription CCAA (Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium)
In the town house are six Latin inscriptions about the platform before it. (..) There are some Roman inscriptions in the arsenal and a fine stone coffin.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The Museum contains a large collection of pictures, principally of the old German school. (..) In the lower story are many Roman antiquities, some of which are curious as having been found in or near Cologne; besides these are several busts and statues. (..) They formed part of the collection of Professor Wallraff, who bequeathed it, with the larger portion of the pictures now in this museum, to his native city.
John Murray - A Hand-Book for Travellers on the Continent - 1838
In 1941 excavations for air-raid shelters led to the discovery of a luxury Roman house in the centre of Cologne. In the 1970s it was decided to build a modern museum on the site of the house; its collections include the Roman exhibits of the former city museum which was founded in 1824.
The museum is also a small archaeological area because it preserves in its original location a large floor mosaic with images related to Dionysus/Bacchus. It embellished the triclinium, the formal dining room of a Roman house, and its overall design with geometric bands framing octagonal and square medallions with figures is similar to mosaics found at Nennig, Vichten and Trier.
Mosaic of Dionysus: details: (left) Dionysus and Ampelos, a young satyr; (right-above) Silenus; (right-below) a satyr and a maenad, a female follower of Dionysus
Both the landlord and the mosaic maker were aware of how popular the myth of Dionysus was in Rome and in the major cities of the Empire, especially after Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius embellished the monuments they built and their own palaces with statues and reliefs depicting events of the god's life. Silenus riding a donkey and a thiasos, a procession of satyrs and maenads, female followers of the god, were favourite subjects for expensive sarcophagi.
Mosaic of Dionysus: details on the fringe of the mosaic
Small images surrounded the main ones; they all referred to abundance and agriculture. The Four Seasons, a typical subject for depicting farming activities were symbolized in a very original way by birds carrying chariots with grapes (Autumn) or harvesting tools (Summer). Maybe the mosaic maker sent a drawing of these birds to a friend in Sicily. The mosaic has some particularly brilliant tones of green and blue which were obtained by using waste fragments of the glass industry which flourished at Cologne.
The house was finely decorated also with frescoes depicting scenes of grape harvesting, candelabra, fantastic sets of vertically aligned objects which resemble a chandelier, and fake architectures. Red or black backgrounds were used, similar to what was done in houses at Rome.
This large mosaic was found in 1844 and it is dated ca 320. It depicted seven wise men: the medallions bear the names of Cleobulus, Diogenes, Sophocles, Socrates, Chilon, Plato and Aristotle, but the last two are modern additions which filled empty spaces. The names are written in Greek and this testifies to the importance of classical culture in Roman Germany at a time when in other parts of the Empire it was beginning to be disregarded. This mosaic can be associated with one found at Autun where the name of each Greek writer is accompanied by one his sayings and to one found at Trier which shows Latin and Greek poets. A relief at Trier suggests the presence of Greek teachers in the region. The portrayal of seven sages can be seen in other parts of the Empire, e.g. at Baalbek in Lebanon and in a disrespectful manner at Ostia.
Mausoleum of the Poblicii: (left) the whole monument; (right) details of its upper part with a triton and a cast of a statue of Aeneas from the Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn
A number of ashlars, some of which had mouldings, inscriptions and reliefs, were found in 1884 in the southern part of Cologne, outside the Roman walls. In 1965 a larger amount of similar ashlars was discovered during the enlargement of a private house in the same area. The landlords unearthed 70 stones which they partially assembled. A flooding might have caused the collapse of some tombs into the mud, thus preserving their stones. These were bought in 1970 by the RGM and in 1974 an imposing mausoleum was reconstructed, although not all archaeologists fully agree on how the operation was carried out. The statues were most likely housed in niches and the dating of the group of Aeneas (IInd century AD) does not match with that of the whole monument (ca 50 AD) and it most likely belonged to another tomb. The reconstruction was modelled around two standing mausoleums: that of the Julii at Glanum near Avignon with statues inside a small temple and Igeler Saule (Column) near Trier with a pyramidal sloping tip.
The mausoleum was erected by Lucius Poblicius, a veteran of Legio V, of the tribe Teretina (they lived south of Rome) and the statues portray him, his daughter Puella (or his unnamed wife or a statue from another tomb) and Lucius Poblicius Modestus, a freedman.
Mausoleum of the Poblicii: reliefs on the side of the monument: (left) Pan; (right) a maenad
The reliefs which decorate the sides of the mausoleum are related to the worship of Dionysus and a fragment of a relief showing feet and a paw might have represented the god with a satyr and a panther (a subject you can see in a mosaic at Arles). The shepherd god Pan was often associated with Dionysus and he was portrayed in the best preserved relief. Both Pan and a maenad are shown holding a killed small animal.
It is most likely that Poblicius, after having retired from the army, undertook a new very profitable activity which allowed him to erect such an expensive mausoleum.
The headquarters or main camps of the legions had spaces where ceremonies were held in front of statues of the emperors (see the barracks of the vigiles at Ostia); other statues were placed in temples/halls dedicated to the imperial family (see the Augusteum of Herculaneum). The memory of Nero was damned and its statues were smashed so that the head found at Cologne is one of the few surviving portraits of this emperor. Usually the statues were made in Rome or other large cities and then sent to the provinces. The "official" portrait of an emperor was made at the time of the proclamation by the Senate and Gordian III was only 13 when this occurred in 238. It is unlikely the legionaries on the Rhine frontier were too happy to see his boyish face which reminded them of that of Emperor Alexander Severus whom they had killed at Mainz three years before and who also became emperor at 13.
(left) A funerary mask; (right) spout of a fountain in the form of a river god
Cologne had strong ties with Lyon, the capital of Gallia Lugdunensis to which it was linked by a road opened by Agrippa which passed through Trier. In winter, when the Alpine passes were closed, this was the only line of communication with Rome. Some of the exhibits at the museum of Cologne reflect iconographic patterns which were developed at Lyon, in particular larvae, funerary masks which protected the tombs.
Many legionaries chose to be portrayed attending their funerary banquet, but Titus Flavius Bassus and others preferred to be remembered in full action, actually in a pose similar to the statues of Jupiter which stood on many columns in Germany. He was a cavalryman from Noricum, approximately today's Austria, a province which was continuously under threat of being invaded by tribes who were much more bellicose than those on the Rhine border. He died at 46, after 26 years of service, most likely of natural causes.
The IVth century tombstone of Viatorinus shows a very different fate: he was killed in action at 30 by the Franks at Divitia (Deutz), the Roman outpost opposite Cologne which protected a bridge over the Rhine. The tombstone was erected by the deputy commander and its inscription refers to the territory on the right bank of the river as barbarico. Its poor lettering is in strike contrast with that which celebrated Marcus Caelius, another Roman officer who was killed in action in 9 AD.
During the IInd century AD the practice of inhumation gained ground versus that of cremation owing to a general move of society towards beliefs which implied some forms of resurrection. The use of sarcophagi spread to the whole Roman Empire and a major trade developed between the regions having marble quarries and those where this material was not available. Because of transportation difficulties very few sarcophagi reached Germany. Severinius was a veteran of Legio XXX Ulpiae Victrix, a legion established by Emperor Trajan in 105 for the conquest of Dacia which was relocated to Xanten in 122. He and his relatives might have come from areas where the use of sarcophagi was customary. The sarcophagus was found in 1671 near Severin Tor, a medieval gate of Cologne.
According to the myth Hercules presented himself at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi as a suppliant seeking purification for a murder. Apollo refused to cleanse him of his sin, so Hercules in anger tried to steal the tripod. Zeus eventually restored order with his thunderbolt and punished Hercules. The episode was depicted also on the Temple to Apollo built by Emperor Augustus near his house on the Palatine.
(left) Relief depicting a warship; (right) gravestone of Horus, son of Pabecus (early Ist century AD)
The military campaigns inside Germany and later on the defence of the territories on the left bank of the Rhine were supported by a fleet of warships. Its use peaked in the initial phases of the Roman conquest until the end of the Ist century AD when a sort of peace was established between the Romans and the German tribes on the right bank of the Rhine. The fleet was strengthened again towards the end of the IIIrd century when the pressure on the border increased (see some warships of this period at the Museum fur Antique Schiffahrt of Mainz). The warships carried supplies to the Roman outposts and trading centres and patrolled the river to discourage attempts to cross it. The relief shows a bearded oarman, most likely a German, but not necessarily a slave. Other more frequent reliefs show merchant ships carrying barrels of wine and other commodities (e.g. The Mosel Boat at Trier).
Horus was a bow officer of the fleet from Alexandria. He died 60 so he served many years, perhaps 40. The Romans recruited skilled men for defending the Rhine border from all parts of the Empire, as shown by other gravestones found in Germany.
This sarcophagus was found in in 1903. It had a lid with small portraits of the dead. The Roman society was a pyramidal one, but it was also an urban society and prosperous towns created many job opportunities for those who were born in the lower classes. Desideratus Curmilli did not belong to the upper Roman layer of Cologne's society, he most likely was a manumitted slave, but by using his skill as stonecutter he managed to become a trader in this field. The sarcophagus was most likely one which he had imported and he used it for Verecundiniae Placid(a)e (..) coniugi / dulcissimae quae vixit XXVIII ann(os), his beloved wife who died at 28 and their son Vericundinius Desiderius.
In addition to information on the military and on trade, some gravestones shed light on more intimate aspects of Cologne's society.
The dies lustricus or nominalia was celebrated on the 8th or 9th day after birth and on that day an infant received his/her name; for this reasons Cassius Tacitus, son of Vernaculus who lived nine days is regarded as the youngest child to be mourned in a Roman inscription. Because Vernac(u)lo is not the genitive case of Vernaculus the inscription could be translated also as Cassius Tacitus made (the gravestone) for an unnamed born-in-the-house child who lived nine days, because vernaculus is usually a noun meaning domestic or a home-borne slave. Regardless of the uncertainty about its meaning, the inscription shows the piety for the death of an infant, although this event was highly frequent because the mortality rate in the first year of life in the Roman society is assessed in the region of 30%.
A long inscription in the form of the poem has attracted the attention of historians since it was found in the XVIIth century. It mourns the death of two young slaves. Xanthias, one of them, was a young stenographer as he was able notare currenti stilo quod lingua currens diceret (to write as fast as one speaks). His master regretted he would no longer be able to share his thoughts with the boy. Perhaps he had in mind Cicero who dictated his letters to Tiro, one of his slaves; a friendship developed between the two men and Cicero was worried when Tiro fell ill. Tiro was eventually freed and assumed the name of his master (Marcus Tullius).
Cologne had a cosmopolitan society; some of its inhabitants descended from the tribe of the Ubii and they continued to worship some female ancestral deities who are not dissimilar from those who were worshipped in Gaul. A similar altar at Bonn was dedicated to the Aufanian Matrons, whose name is associated with abundance; those at Cologne were originally goddesses of victory, but most likely when the altar was erected they were regarded as protectresses of cities.
Semele was the mythical mother of Dionysus, who died before delivery because she wanted to see Zeus as a lightning and was frightened to death (see a fine relief in Rome showing how Dionysus was rescued). At Cologne she was worshipped by a community chaired by a priestess who erected the altar.
Bronze artifacts: (left) Dionysus wearing a panther skin and sandals (contrary to the traditional barefooted iconography of gods); (centre) a "statera" (steelyard; according to St. Isidore of Seville they were first developed at Capua); (right-above) military certificate of Peducaeus Marcianus (ca 160) (see other military certificates found in Britain); (right-below) case containing a surgeon's outfit
Many Romans chose to depict in reliefs on their tombs the equipment they used in their jobs. Marcus Ulpius Amerinus, a doctor from Porto did so and others with him, but the bronze case found at Cologne provided much more information on the actual equipment of a surgeon.
The case contained a phlebotome (an instrument for venesection), a chisel, and some fragments of other instruments of steel, two forceps and two sharp hooks in bronze, and a small ivory pestle-like instrument. (..) This is a most interesting and important little find. The phlebotome is by far the best preserved and best authenticated example which we possess of this instrument. Probably the same may be said of the chisel as a purely surgical instrument.
John Stewart Milne - Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times - 1907
The Museum has the worldwide largest collection of Roman and Frankish glass. (..) Soon after the town was founded shrewd traders came to Rhineland to offer their fragile, luxurious wares to demanding Roman customers. These traders were followed by specialized craftsmen. Initially, after the middle of the Ist century AD, immigrant glass-makers from the Mediterranean produced vessels from imported raw glass ingots. Soon it was realized that the local sand was eminently suitable for the production of glass. Due to the danger of fire, the glass works were located outside the city walls.
From the Museum website publicizing the exhibition: Fragile Luxury: Cologne, a Glass-Making Centre in Antiquity
Vessels decorated with threads of coloured glass were characteristic "Made in Cologne" products, as were the vessels decorated with blobs of coloured glass. Great skill, care and patience were required for enamel painting on glass - a goblet depicting scenes from the Achilles legend provides evidence of perfect craftsmanship. Museum website
"Diatreta" (reticulated cups) which were most likely made at Cologne at the Archaeological Museum of Milan (left) and at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen of Munich (right); they bear inscriptions wishing to drink for many years (Bibe multis annis or Bibe vivas multis annis
The image used as background for this page shows a fragment of a decorative architectural frieze.
Return to the page on the Roman town.
Plan of this section:
Ahrweiler and its Roman Villa
Bad Kreuznach and its Roman Villa
Boppard (Bodobrica) and the Rhine Gorge
Cologne (Colonia Agrippina)
Igel, Nennig and the Mosel Valley
Trier (Augusta Treverorum)
Xanten (Castra Vetera and Colonia Ulpia Traiana)
Aachen: Palatine Chapel
Cologne: Romanesque Churches
Limburg an der Lahn