Inside Tongeren’s Gallo-Roman Museum is a gloriously detailed a 3D town plan of the Roman town of Atuatuca Tungrorum. The Roman villas, temples, amphitheatres, bath houses and other civic buildings that once covered a large part of modern Tongeren are perfectly planned into a typical Roman grid system. The museum details Roman life and tells the epic story of Ambiorix, King of the local Eburones tribe, and the defeat of the army of Julius Caesar in 54 BC.
The ancient walls aside, today there is little physical evidence of this once important Roman town, but there is a lovely walk into the surrounding countryside that takes you across the now overgrown former aqueduct that supplied Roman Tongeren with water. My walk finished on the edge of town at the 1st century Gallo-Roman temple complex dedicated to the god Jupiter.
The temple is partially reconstructed in modern materials and requires a reasonable amount of imagination to visualise what once stood here. There’s good information on the role of the temple in Roman Tongeren though, and it definitely gives a sense of the size of the original building. It’s a short walk from the temple into the Grote Markt, where a statue of Ambiorix, axe in hand, defiantly stands.
The story of Ambiorix and the revolt he led against Roman colonialism is still celebrated in these parts. While ultimately doomed, in 54 BC local tribes united in their hatred of Rome managed to destroy large Roman forces wintering in the region. It was a major blow to Roman power and prestige, but the arrival of Caesar with several legions soon ended any hopes of success, and Roman revenge was severe.
It’s believed that Ambiorix survived and slipped across the Rhine into modern day Germany. He was largely forgotten until Belgian independence in 1830. Searching for heroes and a national narrative, Ambiorix was resurrected and his deeds glorified. The statue in Tongeren was erected in 1866 and he has gone on to feature in that most sacred of Belgian media, the comic book. He even features in the French comic books of Astérix.
Aside from its Roman history, Tongeren is a rewarding town to spend a day wandering around. For such a small place, it has two excellent museums, the Gallo-Roman Museum (which also tells of the region’s pre-Roman history), and the Teseum. Housed in the Gothic 13th century Basilica of Our Lady is one of the richest church treasuries in the Low Countries. An indecent amount of ecclesiastical bling, often incorporating human body parts, is on display.
As a major religious centre in the medieval period, Tongeren is also one of those Flanders towns that can claim a share of the collective UNESCO World Heritage designation of thirteen Flemish Beguinages, the women only lay religious communities. A small stream defines one edge of the Begijnhof, but unlike others I’ve visited this one isn’t walled off from the rest of the town. It’s still a pleasure to walk the cobbled streets.
Unfortunately, the Museum Beghina in a 17th century house has limited opening hours and was closed the day I was there. Leaving the Begijnhof, I found myself at the 14th century Moerenpoort. The only surviving medieval city gate is close to a large section of the original city walls – part Roman, part medieval. I walked beside them before heading back into the centre for lunch in the main square.
Sitting in the shadow of the Basilica of Our Lady, I ordered beer and traditional Flemish stew and drank in the view. Built on the foundations of a 4th century church, the Basilica took over 300 years to complete and is a magnificent building. Its 64-metre high belfry tower shares an UNESCO World Heritage listing with 55 other belfries across Belgium and France.
This small Flemish town of only 30,000 people is said to be Belgium’s oldest. It has two UNESCO sites, a wealth of Roman history, two great museums and, if you’re here on a Sunday, it hosts one of the largest antique-cum-flea markets in Europe, with upwards of 350 stalls taking over the streets. Well worth a visit, I’d say.
1 thought on “Tongeren, Roman history in Belgium’s oldest town”
2,000 years of history, give or take… Not bad…
Happy week-end Paul.