Bâle-Münsterhügel, c. 374 apr. J.C. Photo: www.archaeologie.bs.ch

Basilia, the Roman vicus without a name

After Julius Caesar’s (100 -44 BC) victory over the Celtic leader Vercingetorix at Alesia in 52 B.C., Gaul, more or less present-day France, was ruled by Rome.

The western and north-western parts of today’s Switzerland also came under the direct influence of the Roman Republic. The Celtic tribes in this region were allies (foederati). Geneva (Genava) was incorporated into the Roman Gallia Narbonensis in 122 BC. 

Moreover, the Romans founded two cities in 44 BC: present-day Nyon (Colonia Iulia Equestris) and Augst/Kaiseraugst (Colonia Augusta Rauracorum). They founded these two cities as strongholds against Germanic tribes.

The Romans finally conquered the whole area of today’s Switzerland in 15-13 BC. For a time, the Rhine was the natural border of the Roman Empire.

The administrative organisation of the Roman Empire changed under the reign of Augustus (emperor from 27 BC to 14 AD). The area around Basel became part of Gallia Belgica, which extended from present-day Belgium and Eastern France up the Upper Rhine to Lake Geneva (lac Lemanus).

The Romans founded new towns, such as Avenches (Aventicum), settlements, for example, Baden (Aquae Helveticae) or military camps, among others in Windisch (Vindonissa).

The Romanisation (the cultural, economic and social changes of the Celtic population and the adaption of the Roman way of life), which had already begun several decades earlier, accelerated with the integration of the Celtic areas into the Roman Empire.

This Romanisation was not yet immediately noticeable in today’s Basel. Although there was a Celtic settlement, an oppidum, on the hill of today’s Münster, it stood in the shadow of the Roman city Augusta Raurica.

Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) reorganised the Empire. Basel became part of the Roman province of Germania Superior. This province stretched over the Alsace, Northern Switzerland, the Black Forest, and the Rhine and Main Rivers.

However, the small settlement of Basilia does not appear in Roman sources. Even the detailed Roman road map of the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Peutinger map after a copy from the Middle Ages, does not mention Basilia. It was a vicus sine nomine, a settlement without a name. 

The name Basilia appears in the fifth century when the bishop from Augusta Raurica  to the hill on the Münster.

Basel became important as an episcopal city during Charlemagne (748-814), especially after its incorporation into the Holy Roman Empire in 1032. The German emperors made Basel an important religious and administrative centre. The cathedral’s construction in the 11th century reminds us of their commitment. The bishop was a powerful prince of the Holy Roman Empire. But that is another story.

The Celtic name of the oppidum was Basilia. The origin of the name Basel is still the subject of (scholarly) debate, but the name has nothing to do with a (Greek) queen (basileus/basilea is the ancient Greek word for king/queen). 

(Source: A. Hagendorn, ‘De la frontière à l’arrière-pays: la naissance d’un vicus’, dans Archéologie Suisse, Bâle, 2015).