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The Romans in Switzerland: for some 400 years, what is now Switzerland was part of the Roman Empire. That heritage includes everything from roads to town names, language to the spread of Christianity--and archaeological riches. Swiss News takes in the highlights.

Their interest was strategic: military, agricultural, commercial. The Romans built roads across mountain passes--the Grand St Bernard, Splugen, Julier and Maloja--and arrived in progressive incursions from 58 BCE, slowly consolidating their presence from Geneva in the west to the northern part of Switzerland and beyond the Jura Mountains and Rhine River.

The Celtic tribes (Celts in this part of Europe were referred to by the Romans as Gauls) that inhabited the land were certainly not a country or federation, and were not defending it as such. Gradually, they became Romanised.

Like the Celts, the Romans never settled completely, just here and there; territory that today holds some 7.5 million, then had a population between 100,000 and 200,000.

In some ways, Switzerland under the Romans--co-existence under one organising aegis of various cultures and ethnicities, with language differences--was not dissimilar to Switzerland today.

The Romans left a big mark. Their names for places are still pervasive there are the ones that evolved over time into what we know today, like Turicum (Zurich) and Basilea (Basel), but there are far less obvious links, like the names of villages ending in "wil" which can be traced back to the Latin word villae, for big farming estates.

The main Roman transport axis in the plain is today traceable in Switzerland's Al motorway and railroad--drawing a line from Geneva, through Lausanne, Bern and Zurich up to Lake Constance, with a branch going off towards Basel. This article will proceed along it to explore former Roman settlements and what they offer modern visitors.

Geneva, Nyon and Lausanne

One of the most important Roman settlements was in Nyon (VD), located between Geneva and Lausanne. Its name comes from Noviodunum, and it was the lakeside urban centre of Colonia Julia Equestris founded around 45 BCE, while Julius Caesar was still alive.

A copy of a sculpture of Caesar graces the entrance of the town's renowned Roman museum, housed in remains dating from the 1st century CE of the basilica (not to be confused with a church--in Roman times, this was a government building located in the public area of the forum).

The museum's well-displayed collections include sculptural remnants, fragments of mosaics and murals, oil lamps and coins, jewellery, and vessels of all kinds ranging from blown-glass perfume flasks to earthenware amphorae for storing fish sauce.

On display are also models of various constructions that impart a sense of just how impressive Nyon was--one of the largest Roman settlements along with Avenches (VD), Martigny (VS) and Augst (BL).

The town's signature Roman columns--monumental Corinthian columns topped by an elaborately carved entablature, perched on a hill above the road from Geneva--were placed there in the late 1950s, and are thought to have originally been a part of the portico of the forum's area sacra. In the forum, the sacred area, which may have contained a temple, was adjacent to the public area, along with the baths (thermes) and market (macellum).

Nyon also has the remains of an amphitheatre not presently accessible to the public "but plans for its refurbishment and opening for visits--and possibly even the occasional performance--are presently in the advanced stages and are under consideration by municipal authorities," says museum head Veronique Rey-Vodoz.

Like Geneva (Genava) to the south of Nyon, Lausanne or Lousonna to the north was a major port site on Lacus Lemannus (Lake Genera)--and the contents of its 'Musee romain' are particularly interesting for what they reveal about Roman trade. It is also pleasant to stroll through the park with its ruins of the old forum. Those visiting between Easter and the end of October can get an extra glimpse of Roman life by driving to the nearby town of Orbe to view the ancient mosaics that feature divinities and activities of the area.


In the Age of the Romans, the 'capital' of what is now Switzerland was Avenches (Aventicum) in Vaud. Renowned for its amphitheatre, where an opera festival is now held every summer, Avenches also has a fine museum where a signature piece is the gold bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius dating from the 2nd century CE.

The archaeological site, which includes vestiges of a temple, baths, a theatre, gates and more, is open year round and may be visited free of charge.

Site and museum director Anne Hochuli-Gysel points out that those attending the opera have free access to both guided site tours that begin at 17:00 and the museum, which stays open later on performance nights. During the opera festival in 2007, the museum will be featuring an exhibition of incised Roman gemstones, which were frequently set into rings or used as seals.

Visitors to the Avenches museum should note that their admission fee includes access to the Roman museum in nearby Vallon (FR), which offers extensive insight into life on a country estate, and boasts two large mosaics featuring hunting scenes and the Roman god of wine, Bacchus.

Moving north

Big plans are afoot in Windisch (Vindonissa), near Brugg (AG), for the site of a Roman legionary camp--a 6,000 man strong military base in the 1st century CE and the only Roman military camp on what is now Swiss soil.

Objects found at the site--arms and armour, objects of daily life, and more have been in Brugg's Roman museum, about 20 minutes on foot from the campsite, since the early part of the 20th century.

Now the archaeological site itself is undergoing major refurbishment as part of Canton Aargau's ambitious 'Vindonissapark' project to present its global cultural heritage as a coherent tourism ensemble.

In 2006, a first stop on the 'Legionarspfad', or legionnaire's trail, was launched when the excavated kitchen of a high-ranking officer was opened to the public. Says project manager Thomas Pauli: "Only Pompei has such a well-preserved kitchen as this. We even found remains that tell us what types of foods were prepared in it." The diet of the elite remained essentially Mediterranean, with imports varying from olives and figs to seafood.

Three-dimensional virtual reconstructions give visitors a sense of what the kitchen was like when in use. Paid tours with an expert (also in English) can be organised for groups, but the kitchen is also open Sundays from 10:00 to 17:00, free of charge.

By the spring of 2008, as many as eight other stops are expected to open along the trail. If all goes to plan, there will be as many as 16 stops when the project is completed, including the Roman gates, river port, amphitheatre and baths. The remains of the legionnaires' quarters will be restored and converted to accommodation for visitors.

Along the Rhine

Augst (Augusta Raurica), just a bus or Strain ride away from downtown Basel, is the largest open-air archaeological museum in Switzerland. It has both an amphitheatre and a theatre, a reminder that two very different sorts of spectacles took place in these venues. The former was for gladiator fights and executions, while the latter was reserved for drama and dance.

Strolling around the site (there is a handy map), you realise the significant role of underground facilities not only for storage, but also running water and sewer systems. We owe the flush toilet to the Romans--and even hot-air heating under floors.

A vivid feel for the way settlers lived here is also imparted by a reconstituted house and garden. And the museum highlights a trove of valuable silver items. Museum displays date from the 1st to 4th century CE, which was the heyday of Augusta Raurica--the oldest Roman settlement along the Rhine River.

Nearby Kaiseraugst boasts the remains of a castrum. Fortified strongholds such as this, along with watchtowers, farms, burial grounds and tile factories were among the few man-made sites that dotted an otherwise wild landscape in Roman times.

For 12 years now, a summer Roman Festival, replete with toga-clad participants, has been held at Augusta Raurica. Gladiator fights are a major attraction, featuring trained fighters play-acting the different fighting styles (including the gruesome 'net and trident' technique for catching the opponent, then skewering them with the large three-pronged fork).

Festival refreshments may include such Roman delicacies such as honey-sweetened wine, and moratum--cheese mixed in a mortar with garlic and herbs.

Summing up

Why the surge of interest in Switzerland's Roman heritage? In the opinion of Geneva's cantonal archaeologist Jean Terrier, the interest is not specifically Roman, nor even archaeological, but part of the current heritage 'boom' that extends well beyond Switzerland's borders.

"There is increased sensitivity to natural and cultural heritage, and this manifests in terms of policies and programmes," as well as tourism offers and demand, he says.

Also, "over the last 30 of so years, archaeology has become institutionalised in Switzerland," Terrier notes. "There ate now cantonal services that make it possible not only to excavate more, but to do more with whatever is found."

"New technologies enable reconstructions and virtual reality effects that make the past come alive." SFr 2.0 million in private funding recently provided the Roman archaeological site under Geneva's cathedral with just such stunning effects, he adds.

Coming events

July 6, 7, 11, 13, 14, 18, 20 & 21, 2007--Performance of the Giuseppe Verdi opera Aida at the amphitheatre in Avenches (VD).

August 25-26, 2007--12th Annual Roman Festival in Augst (BL),

Check out the concert programme with world-class artists at the Fondation Gianadda in Martigny (VS), during the performance, you can contemplate the remains of the Roman temple around which the museum is built (
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Mangold-Vine, Gail
Publication:Swiss News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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