Mainz: The Roman Provincial Capital

By Domenic Städtler (Research Assistant)

The legacy of the Romans is traceable in few German cities as well as it is in Mainz, what the Romans called Mogontiacum. Even the narrow streets remind us strongly of the strictly symmetrical routing of the former legion camp and take us back to the time of the Roman general Drusus. Street names such as "Drususstraße" or "Römerwall" meet everywhere in Mainz. Near this city, the Roman Emperor Severus Alexander (222-235 AD) also took his last breath when he was slaughtered by the rage-ridden Roman legionnaires – an event steeped in history, which ushered in a new era with the era of the so-called soldier emperors. Are you ready for a journey back in time to the time of the ancient Romans, in order to get to know better the history of Roman Mainz with the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek?

"Armored statue of Drusus the Elder". Etruria, early 1st century AD, height: 213 cm, Art History Institute in Florence, Max-Planck Institute , photographer: Alinari (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

The Drusus Stone

In 13/12 BC, the elder Drusus, stepson of the first Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), had a legionary camp built in a strategic location – the nucleus of the later provincial capital. A second Roman legionary camp was established in the Weisenau district of Mainz. When the general fell off the horse a few years later on the way back from his campaign on the Elbe and died of his injuries, there was a lot of grief.

Is it not owed to this great founder of Mainz to at least build him a memorial here – even if his body itself had to be buried in Rome? The monument, a so-called cenotaph for the older Drusus, is said to have been 30 metres high. This memorial, better known as the Drususstein (Drusus Stone), has been gnawed by the ravages of time in the Middle Ages. Above all, however, its valuable exterior cladding and ornamental advice were urgently needed for the construction of houses. Due to its external appearance, the monument, which was severely damaged, was later called "Eichelstein" (Acorn stone). In the late 17th century, the Drususstein or "Eichelstein" (a little pragmatism never hurts) served as an additional watchtower for the Mainz Citadel: a viewing platform was created on the roof.

"Drususstein". Mogontiacum, late 1st century BC / early 1st century AD, Deutsche Fotothek (German Photo Library), photographer: Joseph Partsch (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

The Jupiter Columns

The civil settlement (vicus) in the area of the Roman legion camp quickly gained in importance. This is testified not least by the Jupiter columns built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD). According to the pedestal inscription "for its well-being" (pro salute), this had been donated by "the inhabitants of the civil settlement" (canabarii): After all, it was intended – not entirely unselfishly – to demonstrate the immeasurable loyalty to the imperial house in the provincial city of Mogontiacum as well. In addition to Jupiter himself, the plinth stones show several other Roman deities and personifications as well as the dioscuri Castor and Pollux, begotten by Jupiter, and the famous hero Hercules. On the top of the column was a giant statue of Jupiter in gilded bronze, demonstrating the boundless power of the supreme Roman God. Of course, only fragments of this statue are preserved. Our Germanic ancestors could not resist the precious material and melted down this pagan statue of the gods. 

The Jupiter Column in the Mainz State Museum, Mogontiacum, ca. 58 – 67 AD, Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (German Documentation Center for Art History - Image Archive Photo Marburg) (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

The reliefs of the column, which is over nine metres high, show Roman and Celtic deities side by side, thus proving that Roman culture had also gradually arrived in the Germanic provincial cities. How could the fusion of Roman and indigenous religions be better manifested than in this wonderful ensemble of reliefs? No wonder, then, that this magnificent column also inspired other Jupiter columns, such as were popular in the north-west provinces, especially in the 3rd century AD. The original of the Mainz Jupiter column can now be admired in the local state museum. A detailed copy was made until a few years ago before the state parliament and is currently being renovated.

"Copy of the Jupiter Column in front of the State Parliament", Mainz, 20th century (photograph: 1970s), Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, photographer: Michael Jeitner (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff).

In addition to the Jupiter Column and its reliefs, the fusion of Roman and indigenous culture is also evident in the probably most famous tomb monument from Mainz: the tombstone of the shipwright Blussus. The grave relief dates to the middle of the 1st century AD and shows a man and a woman in local costume – but the two appear with full self-confidence just like well-heeled Roman citizens. One would almost think that this wasn't the grave of a provincial, but that of a wealthy Roman aristocrat.

Through the shipping traffic, Blussus and his wife have reached prosperity with which they – just look at the wallet on the grave relief, which Blussus holds in his left – still flaunt after their death. The depiction of a ship on the back of the tombstone is also not an approximation, since shipping and maritime trade played an important role in the continuously growing Roman military base and its civil settlement. Even Blussus' job, which hat apparently made him rich, is given on the tombstone: He was a "nauta" - German: Schiffer (sailor).

"Gravestone of the Ship Blussus: Plaster cast from Münster (front)", Mogontiacum, c. 50 AD, Archäologisches Museum der VWU Münster (Archaeological Museum of the University of Münster), photographer: Robert Dylka (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The so-called Roman stones

Under the Roman Emperor Vespasian (69 – 79 AD), the 9-metre-long Roman aqueduct was finally built, which supplied the legionary camp with fresh spring water. And fresh water was particularly important to the Romans: it was the only way to ensure a high standard of living in the legionary camp and in the civilian settlement. With a maximum height of 25 metres, the aqueduct reached a record height: It was the highest aqueduct north of the Alps. Even today, the so-called Roman stones are a reverent reminder of the former prestige building. These then served as pillars of the aqueduct and fortunately survived time.

"The so-called Roman stones". Mogontiacum, ca. 70 – 80 AD, Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

Roman Theatre

In antiquity, a Roman stage theatre was an absolute must in every provincial town that had something to offer – just as today there is a church in almost every small village. No wonder that Mogontiacum also had a Roman theatre. The Roman author Sueton, who is famous for his imperial biographies, mentions a wooden stage theatre that is said to have been located in Mogontiacum around the year 40 AD. The remains, which are still visible today, date back to the 2nd century A.D. 

The stage theatre in Mainz was not just any small provincial theatre – it was the largest Roman theatre north of the Alps. A five-digit number of spectators found space in it and marveled at classical comedies, tragedies and comedies. It is quite conceivable whether parades to commemorate the older Drusus took place in the theatre, as is often assumed. In short, it was a theatre worthy of the provincial capital of the Roman province of Germania Superior. The sheer extent of the theatre proves that the civil settlement flourished in the 2nd century AD: it was a century of peace and prosperity.

"Reconstruction drawing of the Roman theatre in Mainz". c. 1920 (drawing), Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

Dativius Victor Arc 

The prosperity in the provincial capital Mainz continued even in the 3rd century – and yet the threat of the Germanic people was already omnipresent at that time. The Germanic campaign of Severus Alexander ended before he had really begun – with the cruel murder of the emperor and his unpopular mother. In the following years, the areas on the right bank of the Rhine were increasingly threatened. Those who could afford it settled in the safe areas to the left of the Rhine.

"Gold coin (Aureus) of Severus Alexander". Rome, 233 AD, Landesmuseum Württemberg (State Museum of Württemberg), photographer: Adolar Wiedemann (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Thus also a certain Dativius Victor, councillor (decurio) from today's Nida-Heddernheim (civitas Taurensium). Probably as a thank you for his reception in the supposedly safe left bank of the Rhine in Mainz, he donated an honorary arch and a porticus. The 6.5-metre-high arch of honour is, as the inscription above the passageway gate reveals, dedicated to the Jupiter Optimus Maximus Conservator, a very specific manifestation of the supreme Roman God. The original of the Arch of Honour today draws Rome enthusiasts to the Landesmuseum Mainz (Mainz State Museum), a copy of the monument has been decorating Ernst-Ludwig-Platz for some time.

"Copy of the Dativius Victor Arch". Mainz, 1962, Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, photograph: Walter Schröder (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

Late Antiquity and Migration Period

Roman Mainz had experienced a second period of growth under Constantine the Great (306-337 AD). In view of the obvious threat posed by the Teutons, it is not surprising, however, that in the 4th century AD a reconstruction of the city wall was necessary. As is customary elsewhere, the late antique city walls were built from remnants (spolia) of demolished buildings.

Since the theatre was now outside the protective city walls, the theatre was opened in the end of the 4th century. Mogontiacum was also not spared the turmoil of the Migration Period and was at times under the influence of the Burgundians, the Huns and the Alamanni. In the early 5th century, the majority of the Roman occupation was withdrawn, and the Roman border defense temporarily collapsed. In the late 6th century, Mogontiacum finally belonged to the dominion of the Merovingian Franconian king Chlodwig I (481 – 511 AD), but the Roman period was long gone and Mainz arrived in the Middle Ages.

„"Copper engraving with Frankenkönig Chlodwig I". Nuremberg, 1576, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg (German National Museum of Nuremberg) (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugriff)

Many other traces of Roman times bring the past back to life in the city of Mainz. Consider, for example, the Roman Gate from the 4th century in Mainz-Oberstadt on the Kästrich, the famous sanctuary of the Isis and the Magna Mater, or the cemetery from the 1st century in the Weisenau district of Mainz. A visit to the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum (Roman-Germanic Central Museum) is also always worthwhile to experience the heritage of antiquity in Mainz. Or, you can browse through the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, be inspired by the versatile visual and text material on Roman Mainz.




K. Allihn, Zeitreise ins römische Mainz, in: Archäologie in Deutschland 4 (Okt.–Dez. 1998), hrsg. v. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (WBG), Mainz 1998, S. 66-67:

Aquädukt und Römersteine:ömersteine


Drusus stone:

Bickel, E., Der Eigelstein, die Drusus-Lei im keltischen Mainz, in: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie. Neue Folge 98, H. 1, 1955, S. 96:

Teichmann, M., Das römische Theater von Mogontiacum (Mainz). Typologische Überlegungen mit Blick auf den regionalen Kontext, in: Thiasos. Rivista di archeologia e architettura antica 10, H. 1, 2021, S. 123 – 135:

Jupiter column:ße_Mainzer_Jupitersäule

Roman Theatre:

Neeb, E., Das römische Theater zu Mainz, in: Korrespondenzblatt der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission des Archaeologischen Instituts 1, hrsg. v. Koepp, F.; Krüger, E.; Schumacher, K., Frankfurt am Main 1917, S. 54 – 58: