Cologne was a thriving Roman city 2000 years ago

I like to explore history, including the Roman Empire and their expansion thousands of years ago in Germany. While doing research, I discovered there were two big Roman settlements, one in Trier, and further north at the Rhine, the city of Cologne. You can still find some remnants of stone houses, roads and gates that have stood there 2000 years ago.

I spend as lot of time at the Rhine and Mosel. This area caught my interest ever since my father did some research and found out his side of ancestral family lived 30 minutes north of Trier. Fortunately my father’s last name is unusual, so we were able to find an ancestry tree going back to 300 years

The Rhine became the border river between the Roman Empire and Germania

Cologne under the Roman Empire
Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) about 200 a.D.

Before the Romans lived in Cologne, the Germanen (Germania) and the Celts, also called Gallier (Gauls), were to the left and right of the Rhine. Gallien (Gaul) was on the left (western) and Germania on the right side of the river. In 58 BC, the Roman general Julius Caesar began a campaign against the Gauls. He made Gaul a province in the vast Roman territory. His successor, Emperor Augustus, also tried to conquer Germania – without success.

The Roads to Cologne

To the left of the Rhine, the Romans began building roads, cities and military camps for their Legions. Where you see the Cologne city center today, the main Roman town came into being. In the year 50 AD Agrippina, the wife of the then Roman emperor Claudius, made sure that this place got the rank of a “Roman colony”. From then on it was called “Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium”, also abbreviated to CCAA. The name Cologne is derived from “Colonia”. The colony became the capital of the province of Lower Germany.

Roman gate Cologne

Remains of Roman architecture. The North Gate used to be a entrance to the city of Cologne

Three main roads led into Roman Cologne: The Via Belgica (Aachener Strasse) ran from the Atlantic to Cologne. Agrippastrasse (Luxemburger Strasse) began in Lyon in Gaul, and the Limesstrasse (Bonner and Neusser Strasse) followed the Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea. Parts of these Roman roads have been preserved to this day.

A Roman tower in Cologne

The ‘Römerturm’ was once one of the former 19 round towers of the great Claudian city wall, which enclosed the area of ​​the CCAA (Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium) and almost four kilometers long. You can still see the expansion of the Roman city wall in the cityscape of today’s Cologne. The construction of the wall shows a uniform picture: The wall rose above a foundation up to 3 m high, 2.40 m wide and at least 7.8 m high.

Outside and inside, a wall was built from grey blocks, and the space in between was filled in layers of ‘opus caementicium’, an extremely durable concrete the Romans had invented. In front of the wall was a 9 to 12 meter wide trench with a depth of 3 to 4 meters. There were 9 city gates and 19 round towers, all with four known exceptions were built according to a design. One of these exceptions is the Roman tower below which is a well preserved part of the city wall and one of the most important Roman monuments. It stands at the former north-western corner of the wall and still shows the original decorations in the masonry today.

The Römerturm is a well preserved part of the city wall and one of the most important Roman monuments

The life of the Romans in Cologne

Cologne had a grid that formed 70 plots, the so-called “Insulae”. There were narrow, two-story row houses some were half-timbered, villas, public buildings, temples and palaces were much larger. The market square in the city center took up four Insulae or plots. This is where the main street. Cardo maximus (Hohe Straße) and Decumanus maximus (Schildergasse) met.

In the daylight, life took place in the streets and squares. At night, however, it was very quiet and only the brave ventured into the dark, unlit streets. A simple city apartment in the row houses was often a workshop, warehouses or a shop on the ground floor. The tiny apartments were in the back and upstairs. Only a few oil lamps gave them light at night.

Roman stone engravings at the North Gate in Cologne

Roman engravings at the North Gate Cologne

Thermal Bath in Cologne

The poorer residents often had neither a kitchen, nor a bathroom. They cooked the food in a public kitchen and bathed in the “thermal baths” which were public bathing houses. Life was very different in the high society city villas.

The Dionysus mosaic
The Dionysus mosaic used to be in a Cologne Roman villa (now Römisch-Germanischen Museum Köln)

A Roman villa with the world famous Dionysus mosaic

A typical Roman villa had 20 rooms located around an inner courtyard with a garden and it’s own bathhouse. The most beautiful room was the dining room with the famous Dionysus mosaic. While eating, the host and the guests lay on the dining sofas and looking up and admiring this mosaic.

Aqueducts, water lines from the Eifel (Nettersheim) to Cologne

The water for Cologne came from the Eifel. The Aqueduct were 98 kilometers long (pictured right) and brought in 20 million liters of spring water daily. It was distributed to wells and households via wooden pipes (aqueducts). The dirty water was flowing through gullies (pictured left) into underground man-high channels and was directed into the Rhine.

The heated thermal baths needed most of the water. From the changing room the Romans went to the warm bath, then the hot bath and finally the cold bath, before relaxing in the swimming pool. They spent hours in the free thermal baths.

The Roman family

A Roman family included all people who lived in a house, mother and father, children, also slaves. The people of the CCAA (Cologne) came from all parts of the empire, for example Spain, Egypt, Bulgaria, England or Turkey. This was revealed by the inscriptions on tombstones. But wherever they came from, they spent their free time in the thermal baths, playing dice or board games and gladiatorial fights or in the theater.

Cologne had a trade route with merchandise from all over the World

Roman people in Cologne had mostly everything: grain, meat, and fruit that came from the farms. Ships brought precious fabrics from Asia, marble from the Mediterranean, olives from Spain, salt from the North Sea, oysters from the English Channel and wine from Greece. The glass came from Cologne and was in great demand throughout the Roman Empire.


Some text is translated of the original from Matthias Hamann and his book „Köln – Kleine Stadtgeschichte für Kinder“, Bachem Verlag”

Also see Roman Villa in Ahrweiler