A Roman road on the campus of Radboud University

Date of news: 27 November 2020

overview radboud campus

Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands. The ancient settlement was located on the edge of the Roman Empire. That enormous empire had a widespread road network that made travel possible. What few people know is that the Roman road between Cuijk (Ceuclum) and Nijmegen probably passed though the current campus of Radboud University. Stephan Mols tells more about this road and its history.

The earliest urban settlement in the Netherlands, Oppidum Batavorum, was founded around 10 BC near the city centre of today’s Nijmegen. Like all Roman cities, it had to be easily accessible. The city covered a site that roughly corresponded to the area where Valkhof, Kelfkensbos and Sint Josephhof are now located. Oppidum Batavorum was the administrative centre of the region of the Batavians, which had recently become part of the Roman Empire.

stephan-mols-roman road
Stephan Mols on the route of the Roman road, where it coincides with the Toernooiveld on the Campus of Radboud University. Photo: Dick van Aalst.

Some years earlier, probably in 19 BC, the first Roman troops had settled near here, on the Hunnerberg: from their military camp on the high moraine, thousands of soldiers and their retinue had a panoramic view that extended far into the Germanic region, which was not part of the empire. Of course, they needed all kinds of supplies that had to be transported from the Roman hinterland to the south and south-east. The same applied to the residents of the administrative centre that arose to the west of the military camp.

Recent research has shown that the Romans had probably advanced north via the Maas river (Meuse) and that the supplies were initially transported on the river. After mooring their boats, they must have taken shortest possible route over land in the direction of the camp. It is not yet clear exactly where the oldest road was located, but if the route was as straight as possible, then it would have started at the bank of the Meuse or Maas river, just north of the current town of Cuijk, from which it is only about eight kilometres to Nijmegen.

In the late third and fourth century AD, Cuijk again became an important location when the bridge across the Maas was built there, of which remains have been found. Not far from the route of the road that was then used to reach Nijmegen from Cuijk, the Roman watchtower was built in Heumensoord. This road probably followed the modern route of the Lindenlaan and Beukenlaan (also in Heumensoord) from the Maas, and the Driehuizerweg and Toernooiveld in Nijmegen, east of the Huygensgebouw on the campus of Radboud University. Due to the excavation of the railway cut (spoorkuil) in the nineteenth century, it is difficult to follow the route further north, but if the straight line of the Driehuizerweg and the beginning of the Toenooiveld is continued, it is very likely the Roman road followed the route of what is now the Heyendaalseweg from the roundabout and crossing with the Groenewoudseweg and the beginning of the Coehoornstraat. The construction of medieval Nijmegen, with city walls and canals, and the demolition of those city walls and the filling in of the canals in the nineteenth century, ultimately led to a completely different topography than that in Roman times. However, if a straight line from the Coehoornstraat is imagined, its end point is the Kelfkensbos, where the late Roman castellum was built in the fourth century. This was also where the predecessor of the oldest city in the Netherlands, Oppidum Batavorum, was located about three hundred years earlier.

This of course gives food for thought. Couldn't that road from the fourth century have been built much earlier, possibly in the first century AD or even earlier, at the time when large numbers of Roman soldiers first entered the present-day Netherlands?

Text: Stephan Mols. This article previously appeared in Dutch on the Radboud Erfgoed website.