The Roman Temple of Elst

by Eline de Bruijn

The Roman Temple of Elst.
Photo: Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen.1

It is known that since 1947 that the big church of the city Elst, near Nijmegen en Arnhem, is built on two Roman temples. In the Second World War, the monumental church was heavily damaged. So when they rebuilt the church in 1947, they made an important discovery: under the church remnants of Roman stone buildings were found. It turned out to be two so-called Gallo-Roman temples, which had stood after each other on the same place. The last temple was built at the end of the first century, after the Revolt of the Batavian. It is the largest (30,9 x 23,1 m) known Roman temple north of the Alps and is of international importance.

In 2002 another Roman temple was discovered by the preparing of building a new housing estate, named Westeraam. This temple was also rebuilt, so we know these days a total of four temples in Elst, less than 600 metres from each other. That is pretty much, as we know that in the Netherlands only in Empel (near Den Bosch), and in Nijmegen that these temples stood. So, Elst seems to have been an important religious centre.

Before the arrival of the Romans, there was earlier a cult place on the place where the church stands now, from the Batavian people. They were a mix of the Chatti tribe, who came from the German ‘Hessen’, and tribes that earlier lived there. The Romans reveal civilization to the Batavians by building them a temple made of stone.

The temple had the size of 11,5 by 8,5 metres. About the year 100 is the temple probably replaced by order of Emperor Traianus by a bigger one: 31 by 23 metres. The temple was of the Gallo-Roman type, with a high central sanctuary, a cella, within a colonnade. Unlike the average Gallo-Roman, the temple had a rectangular sanctuary and it stood on a platform. Therefore, the building had more the shape of a ‘classical’ Roman temple. Scientists see this as a political-religious act: The Batavians were good friends of the Romans and were therefore considered to be more Roman than other tribes.

For the construction of the temple limestone and volcanic tuff was used. Soldiers of the well-known 10th legion, which was based in Nijmegen, got the limestone from quarries near Metz in present day North France. Tuff came from the Eifel. The foundation of the cella rested on hundreds of oak piles.

The temple was more than 15 metres high and was, like the big church now, visible in the wide surroundings. It stood on a walled area of 70 x 83 metres, the temenos. This was the meeting place for people en gods. For the entrance of the temple was the altar, here sacrifices took place. In the area are several pits found with remains of animals: the skulls of a sheep (ovis in Latin), a pig (sus in Latin) and a bull (taurus in Latin), probably for a suovetaurilia offer: a purification ritual, possibly at the inauguration of the second temple. They are the silent witnesses of what took place here. In the third century, the temple became out of use. The ruins could still be seen until the eighth century.





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