Cologne: A secret Roman city

Cologne: A secret Roman city

by Lauren Bernasconi
Stripes Europe

Beautifully situated on the banks of the Rhine River, the German city of Cologne is often associated with medieval sites like the grandly Gothic Cologne Cathedral, and cultural perks such as its many Kölsch beer breweries. However, unknown to a great number of people who walk its streets, deep underground lies another facet of this historic city.

In 38 B.C., the first urban settlement of Oppidum Ubiorum was established on the Rhine by the Roman General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The military outpost continued to grow and was eventually elevated to a colony status under Emperor Claudius in A.D. 50. He re-named the area, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (“Colony of Claudius and the Altar of Agrippina”) after his wife Agrippina the Younger who was born there. From the colony’s shortened name Colonia Agrippina, thus came the modern name Cologne. Due to its strategic location on the Rhine, the colony grew both militaristically and economically and was eventually made the capital of the Roman province Germania Inferior.

While a large portion of Cologne’s Roman ruins remain underground, like most ancient cities, remnants of its past are discretely scattered throughout its expanse. Pieces of Roman walls, aqueducts, gates and towers either stand independently in open areas or have been repurposed as parts of more modern structures. Although this is a great reason to explore Cologne with walking trips, many of the remains blend in with the city’s landscape. Additionally, many are not specifically marked, making it difficult to find and appreciate their historical significance. Luckily, Cologne offers a number of unique opportunities to further explore the city’s Roman history through detailed re-creations and well-preserved displays.




Ancients blades in the Roman-Germanic Museum | Photo by Steve Estvanik 

Situated in the heart of the city, is the world-renowned Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum). A good starting point for those looking to explore Cologne’s past, the museum houses a substantial assortment of artifacts pertaining to the settlement of Colonia Agrippina, including the world’s largest collection of locally produced glass from the Roman period. Although it showcases many notable displays, such as its selection of Roman jewelry and everyday items, one of the museum’s most impressive features is its additional role as an archaeological site.

In 1941, construction of an air-raid shelter led to the discovery of a 3rd century villa on the premise. Its magnificent mosaics on the floor of the main room, now named the Dionysus mosaic, prompted architects to design a museum around the excavations, rather than risk the potential damage of moving it. Today the Roman-Germanic Museum maintains the villa’s stunning mosaic and has even re-created the museum’s inner courtyards to imitate the layout of the ancient structure.

In addition to its museum, Cologne houses a number of other projects meant to preserve and re-create Roman structures and culture. The Praetorium and Roman Sewers, located 200 yards from the Roman-Germanic Museum, offers a look into the everyday Roman life. Originally discovered under Cologne’s city hall, the site contains the foundations of the palace that housed the colony’s governors from the 1st to the 4th century. Considered the most important Roman palace on the Rhine, the area acted as the political and administrative cradle of the region.

Its significance is shown through the architecture with an imposing octagonal main room, large gallery opening out onto the banks of the Rhine, and multiple spacious courtyards stretching to the west. For those interested in the everyday systems of ancient Rome, entry into the colony’s sewers is also available from the lobby of the Praetorium. A modern tunnel takes you 10 meters underground to one of the historic sewer canals with public access up to 150 meters. Monumental in its functionality and durability, the structure displays the extraordinary engineering and architectural skills of an era past.


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