On the trail of the Romans in Mainz

On the trail of the Romans in Mainz

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

If you live in the Rhineland-Palatinate, it’s likely you’ve visited its capital city, Mainz. You might have turned an upward gaze to its magnificent cathedral, strolled along the banks of the Rhine or sipped wine in its charming Old Town.

But have you ever explored Mogontiacum?

For more than 400 years, the city we call Mainz today made up part of the Roman Empire. Known back in the day as Mogontiacum, the city’s former name references Mogon, a god of health worshipped by the Celtic tribes living in the vicinity.

The area surrounding Mainz first fell under the sphere of Roman influence as a result of Caesar’s Gallic War, fought between 58 and 51 BC. When Emperor Augustus decided to conquer Germania, the border area formed by the Rhine was occupied by the Roman military and the first base camp was established at a strategically important position opposite the mouth of the Main River in 13 BC. Mogontiacum gradually developed into an important military base for planning campaigns of conquest. Craftsmen came and set up shop, and traders found markets for their goods. For two centuries, Mogontiacum flourished under Roman rule. By the mid-fourth century, repeated attacks by competing tribes had brought the city’s days of splendor to a close, and in 406, the city was captured and sacked by the Vandals, bringing the Roman era of Mainz effectively to its end.

An astonishing number of sights from Roman times hide in plain sight, and those up for an ambitious walking tour could easily spend half a day or more exploring this historical era whose impact is still felt today. The following itinerary will acquaint you with just a few of Mainz’s top Roman sights.

Our trip starts and ends from one of Mainz’s most important train stations, Römisches Theater. For those not using public transportation, parking in the area abounds. From here, it’s only a short walk to our first stop:

Museum of Ancient Seafaring, Neutorstraße 2b

A variety of ancient watercraft, from cargo vessels to naval ships, forms the backbone of the “Museum für Antike Schifffahrt.” Its collection includes wrecks and one-to-one reconstructions of six Roman ships hauled from the depths of the Rhine in Mainz in 1981-82. What life on the water must have been like for the Roman mariners is brought to life by sailors’ epitaphs, relics, letters and other testimonials. One area of the museum offers hands-on activities for children.

Roman Theater

Exiting the museum, turn left down Neutorstrasse and use the underground passageway to cross under the railroad tracks. The path leading uphill and to the right, just above the train station, affords the best views of our next stop, the Römisches Theater. Excavations carried out in connection with a construction project back in 1914 revealed a wonderful surprise: a Roman theater of gigantic proportions. The largest such structure found north of the Alps, it is estimated that it could have held about ten thousand people back in its day.

Drusus Stone, Zitadelle

Continuing uphill toward the large and impressive complex known as the Citadel, walk through the grounds of this old fortress and toward the “Stadthistorisches Museum.” Off to the left, you will see the “Drususstein.” The 65-foot-high piece of masonry honors General Nero Claudius Drusus, considered the founder of Mogontiacum. The adopted stepson of the Emperor Augustus died in an accident as he was returning from one of his conquests in the year 9 BC, and this monument was erected soon thereafter.

It’s time to make way back into the city proper, which can be done by means of several walking routes. The pedestrian-only Augustinerstrasse, which cuts through the heart of the Old Town, never disappoints. Pass through Gutenbergplatz and carry on along Seppel-Glückert-Passage until you reach the Römerpassage, a busy shopping mall.

The Isis and Mater Magna Sanctuary, Römerpassage

Beneath the feet of hundreds of shoppers lies an ancient world that slept undiscovered for centuries. The Isis-Heiligtum is what remains of an ancient temple built sometime in the second half of the first century AD in honor of the Egyptian goddess of Isis and the Mater Magna, or Great Mother. The remains of the temple’s foundation are surrounded by displays of some of the artifacts unearthed upon the site’s discovery in 2000. Dim lighting adds to the aura of mystery. If you’re lucky, an English-speaking guide might volunteer to give you a quick walk-through. Entry is free, but donations are gladly accepted.

While our walking tour of Mainz is now complete, this ramble through history failed to take in another impressive sight. Outside the busy city center stand the remains of an ancient aqueduct. Built sometime after 70 AD to bring water into a bathhouse, the original structure stretched at least five miles from the section of town now known as Finthen. Remains of the arches can still be seen along the street that is fittingly named “An den Römersteinen,” or “at the Roman rocks.”

For many years, Mainz’s Electoral Palace hosted an impressive collection of Roman relics found in this city with such a storied past. In 2017, this museum closed in preparation for moving into more spacious premises. The expanded and undoubtedly fascinating Roman-Germanic Central Museum is set to open on Neutorstraße in 2024—reason enough to return to Mainz for another visit.


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