Blick in die Ausstellung. © Ruedi Habegger, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig

Ave Caesar. A greeting from the Celts

The exhibition “Ave Caesar! Römer, Gallier und Germanen am Rhein” shows the relations between the civilisations of the Mediterranean and the tribes of the Celts (or Gauls) and Germans along the Rhine.

The Host Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and his successors. Bust of the statue, legionary camp near Nijmegen, marmor, late 1. Century BCE. © Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden

The Celts are a name for many tribes that lived in central and western Europe. They had a common culture with many regional differences. They had no written culture and were not a political unity. Germans are the name for the tribes on the right bank of the Rhine.

The direct sources are archaeology and Roman and Greek authors. Nevertheless, a good picture of Celtic society exists today. The terms Gauls and Celts are both used and come from Greek (Keltoi/Galatae) and Roman (Galli/Celtae) authors.

This exhibition focuses in particular on the Celts on the left bank of the Rhine in the Basel region in the period from 500 B.C. to 260 A.D. It is part of the project ‘The Rhine. 3 countries –  38 exhibitions’

The Tabula Peutingerian and Rhine cities in blue

The Rhine has always been a frontier and a battlefield, a communication- and trade route and place of exchange of people and cultures. Until the arrival of the Romans, however, there were no bridges. While shipping on the Rhine already existed, it only flourished during Roman rule, from Basel to Nimwegen in the Netherlands.

Model Rhine pram, scale 1.22.5, c. 150 AD Original from Vleuten-De Meern. On loan : D. Usher

The arrival of the Romans dramatically changed Celtic societies along the Rhine. After their departure around 400-410 AD, a Gallo-Roman culture remained. The Alemanni and Franks filled the vacuum left by the Romans, but that is another story.

The Celtic Princes

The first part of the exhibition the Keltischer Fürstensitz deals with the Celtic society around 500 B.C. The Celts already maintained close contact with the Mediterranean (Greek and Etruscan) world at the time, centuries before the arrival of the Romans.

The Celts imported wine and luxury goods and mainly exported metals, salt, furs and slaves. The Rhone and its tributaries Doubs and Saône were important rivers as well. Trade was not limited to goods; there was also a lively cultural exchange

The smallest archaeological finds often have the greatest significance. The discovery of writing utensils and seal rings in Basel confirm the use of Greek script by merchants. This was already known from merchants from Genava (Geneva), inhabited by the Celtic tribe of the Allobrogens. After 52 BC and especially after 15-13 BC, Latin increasingly took over this function.

Seal ring and writing utensils, 2nd-early/ 1st century BCE, Basel Gasworks. Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt.

The Celtic settlement

The second part is about the Celtic settlement (Celtic Siedlung). Julius Caeser called this fortified settlement an “Oppidum” in his de bello Gallico. In Basel, the oppidium was located on the Münsterhügel (next to the Cathedral).

The Murus Gallicus, an archaeological site on the Münsterhügel.

Hundreds of larger and smaller oppida existed, including in Avenches or on Mont Vully in Switzerland, Bibracte in France or various places in Germany and Austria. The Celtic pile dwellings, so beautifully reconstructed at Wauwil and in the Laténium at Hauterive, show another Celtic history.

Between 58 and 52 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) took advantage of the battle between the Celtic tribes and extended Roman rule to the Rhine. He defeated the tribes from Switzerland at Bibracte in 58 BC and conquered all of Gaul in 52 BC. The Romans founded the cities of Colonia Augusta Raurica (Augst) and Colonia Equestris Noiodunum (Nyon) around 44 BC.

In the years 15-13 BC, the Romans conquered all of the territory of present-day Switzerland and the Romanisation of the conquered peoples began. The Romans established numerous military camps on the left bank of the Rhine to secure the occupied territories, also in Vindonissa (Windisch).

Tens of thousands of Roman officers, soldiers, administrators, merchants and civilians lived along the Rhine. They stimulated the local economy and trade and expanded the infrastructure along the Rhine with bridges, roads, ports and warehouses. A modern road network guaranteed the supply of troops and supplies to the frontier.

The Roman legionary camp

The third part (Römisches Legionslager) shows the daily life of legionnaires lived and the campaigns against the Germanic tribes on the right bank of the Rhine. From about 85 AD, the conquered areas became Roman provinces. The Romans also occupied large (German) territories on the right bank of the Rhine by this time.

The Roman estate

Agricultural development is the next topic. More than 90% of the inhabitants lived outside the city. The elite also owned estates in the countryside, large villas with agricultural activities. This society is discussed in the section Römischer Gutshof.

The Roman colony

The last part of the exhibition (Römische Kolonie) shows the impact of the Roman presence and the romanisation of Celtic society. Cities were built, often ex nihilo,  based on Roman city planning, with stone buildings, theatres, amphitheatres, bathhouses, temples and other public buildings, an efficient water supply and a road network.

The Celtic elite was the first to adopt the Roman way of life in just one or two generations. It had an added value and offered interesting (economic, military, political and governmental) possibilities, prestige and status.

Lucius Giltius Cossus, son of Celtillus. Priest of the imperial cult. Augusta Raurica, 50-150  AD.  Augusta Raurica Museum.

The first known inhabitant of Basel was the Roman soldier Titus Torius, 20 BC-20 AD. Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt.

Augusta Raurica, for example, had between 15 000 – 20 000 inhabitants around 200 AD, a thousand years later only a few hundred! It illustrates the growth, flourishing and prosperity along the (Upper) Rhine in Roman times.

And Augusta Raurica was just one of many new cities in the Roman Empire and along the Rhine. Basel was just a small settlement at the time and became important after the bishop settled on the hill in the fifth century.

After 260 AD

The economic and political situation deteriorated due to Germanic invasions, inflation, Roman civil wars and epidemics at the end of the 2sd and in the third centuries. Around 400-410 AD,  the last Roman legions left the area north of the Alps for good.


The trilingual (English, German, French) audio guide, the catalogue and the plan of the show guide the visitor through this exciting history. For learning and entertainment purposes, a card game Vade Mecum is also available.

Source and further information: Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig