Historical story

Gold treasure shows last convulsions of Roman authority

Last updated:2022-07-25

Archaeologists found a complete Roman gold treasure in a field in Echt, Limburg. The treasure consists of gold coins and very expensive cut silver dishes. The latter in particular shows how desperately the Roman rulers tried to control the areas on their northern border.

For centuries the Romans ruled over large parts of Europe. The border of their vast empire ran right through the Netherlands. Roughly speaking, the Romans in these areas kept the river Rhine as their northern border, although they also operated outside this border and undertook military expeditions against the Germanic tribes living north of the border.

For a long time the Romans managed to maintain control over important rivers such as the Rhine and the Meuse in the low countries. They did this on the one hand by building strong border fortresses and watchtowers and waging wars against peoples who wanted to cross the border. But they also put their fate in the hands of local Germanic warlords by forging alliances. Not infrequently, the Romans had to buy the loyalty of these tribes by digging into their pockets. In exchange for gold or other valuables, Germans wanted to fight for a while instead of against the Romans.

As early as the third and fourth centuries, this regularly went wrong and the Romans were not always able to maintain their border defences. At the beginning of the fifth century, Roman rule along the Rhine came to a definite end. In 406, all kinds of Germanic tribes, including Vandals, Burgundians, Alans and Sueves, massively crossed the Rhine at the German town of Mainz and penetrated deep into Gaul, present-day France.

A little further north, in the area where the gold treasure has now been found, the Romans managed to maintain their border a little longer. According to VU archaeologists who have examined the treasure, the collection of gold coins and cut silver crockery was (ritually) buried there by such a bribed Germanic officer in Roman service. This probably happened shortly after 411 AD. BC, when the army of Western Roman Emperor Constantine III suffered a major defeat in southern Gaul, and the Germanic allies were left alone at the Rhine.

This Germanic received the treasure for the services rendered by him and his soldiers to the Romans. Numerous such buried treasures have been found near the upper reaches of the Rhine. They reflect the ultimate efforts of Constantine III and his legions to maintain their authority by binding as many Germanic warriors to them as possible.

Cut into pieces

What makes the treasure of Echt especially special is the silverware cut to pieces, also known as chop silver. The combination of high silver and gold coins has never been found in the Netherlands before. It probably comes from a very precious silver bowl, with a diameter of at least 70 centimeters and a weight of up to five kilos. It was the kind of bowl given to lower governments in the empire by circles around the emperor as a way of guaranteeing their loyalty. These particularly richly decorated bowls were an important status symbol.

With the crisis at the borders at the beginning of the fifth century, there was a great shortage of gold and silver to be able to continue to pay all hired Germans. Even the most precious silverware was therefore transported to the border in order to be able to make payments. The bowls were given in their entirety to Germanic warlords, who then had them cut up and distributed among their supporters. Germanic soldiers did not care much for the beautiful bowls, for them only the value of the silver mattered. Just by cutting this large bowl, 125 Germans could be rewarded with a piece of silver.

After the desperate efforts of Constantine III, who was murdered in 411 after an emperor of less than five years, Roman rule in the lower reaches of the Rhine also no longer stood. A true civil war had broken out in which many emperors fought each other and Germans plundered the country. The special treasure of gold and the cut-to pieces testify to the very last attempts to postpone the inevitable fall of the Roman Empire.

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