Roman gods in Cologne – DW – 09/06/2023

English-speaking tourists come to the west German city of Cologne for two reasons: To see the 775-year-old Cologne Cathedral and to explore the city’s history, which harks back to Roman times, says Alfred Schäfer. The archaeologist works at Cologne’s Romano-Germanic Museum, which houses treasures that stand testimony to the city’s Roman roots.

“Oppidum Ubiorum,” Latin for “City of the Germanic Ubii tribe,” was founded by the Roman military around 38 B.C. In 50 A.D., Caesar Claudius elevated the city to the rank of a colony at the behest of his Cologne-born wife, Agrippina. The city was consequently named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.

A liberal state religion.

Cologne’s status as a colony also meant that the cult of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus became official. But despite being institutionalized as the state religion, its principles were liberal, says Alfred Schäfer, who has written the book, “Götter, Gaben, Heiligtümer: Römische Religion in Köln” (German for “Gods, Offerings, Sanctums: Roman religion in Cologne”).

A collection of small stone figures of Roman gods
Families often had an altar of gods in their homesImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan /DW

“Naturally, there were certain things that the Roman state, represented by the Caesar, prescribed, but these rules were minimal,” Schäfer says. For example, the Roman state demanded from its colonies that they venerate the highest god, Jupiter. “So they demanded that Jupiter be venerated in the big celebrations for inaugurating, for example, the Capitol in Rome or the Capitol temple in other colonies,” the scholar adds.

Together with Jupiter, Juno, the queen of heaven and the protector of Rome as well as Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war, symbolized the holy trinity, with temples and altars often dedicated to the three. In Cologne, a temple to this trinity was built on the site where the Catholic Basilica of St Mary’s in the Capitol now stands. The remains of the Roman temple were found in the aftermath of WWII. The temple’s proportions were retained for the nave of the church.

According to Schäfer, temple remains have also been found northwards of this church in Cologne, but it is unclear, which gods were venerated. The architecture is magnificent and the temple complex was large with a diameter of 27 meters.

A stone carving of the goddess Virtus, from Cologne, 3CE
Virtus, the goddess representating the bravery of soldiersImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan /DW

“The Roman Caesar was revered as a god and was compared to Jupiter, the highest god, which gave rise to the ruler cult,” Schäfer explains, adding that these cults attracted people from the capitals and countryside alike. People also sent offerings from the province to the Caesar on celebrations for his birthday.

These religious celebrations were also festivals for the senses. According to Schäfer, these were festivals where one celebrated, ate and drank well and listened to good music. The sense of smell, taste and hearing were all part of the festival that was also being a feast for the eyes. 

A personalized god

The top of a Roman column with the statue of a seated Jupiter on top
A Roman column from the 2nd century with a statue of Jupiter on top Image: akg-images/Bildarchiv Steffens/picture alliance

“The Romans ultimately had a very open system, as far as religion was concerned. Naturally, it grew over centuries, but it was based on the idea that gods could be represented in human form,” Alfred Schäfer explains. The fact that they looked like human beings and had different spheres of influence, like health or wealth or relationships, meant that individuals had freedom of choice about how they wanted to pray to a certain deity and for what purpose. In other words, they could have a personal relationship with their idols.

People living in and around Cologne often interpreted the gods and their offerings to them in their own ways. If they fell sick, they prayed to a certain god and then for example built a statue in his or her name once the illness had passed.

Typical for the Rhineland region, according to Schäfer, were stone pillars or columns dedicated to Jupiter. These columns were sculpted to represent the leaves of a tree, perhaps an oak, and had a statue of Jupiter placed at the top. These could be seen for example on streets, at a crossing or even in the countryside.  If someone traveled along the Roman-built roads, they could perhaps identify a farm if there were a pillar near it. Maybe it meant they could find something to eat or a place to rest, Schäfer explains.

From local to global gods

Other gods like Fortuna — goddess of luck, Virtus — goddess of bravery, Nehalennia — goddess of the seafarers and Neptune — god of the sea, were venerated in public and private shrines. But while local Germanic tribes took on the customs of their colonizers, Roman settlers in turn adopted some local customs and gods too. 

A statue of Mithras from Cologne, 3CE
Mithras, the oriental godImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan /DW

The Rhineland area, in which Cologne is situated, also had a cult of “matrons.” Named “Matronae” by the Romans, this cult comprised of three goddesses and was of Celtic-Germanic origin. The goddesses, depicted as a seated triad with two women wearing hoods seated on either side of a third figure wearing her hair open, were the most venerated by the locals together with the Roman gods. Many temples and shrines were built in their honor and they were revered as family deities and as goddesses of fertility both by locals and the Roman settlers.

And that’s not all. “Foreign” gods like the Egyptian Isis and the oriental Mithras were also venerated by cults throughout the Roman kingdom and in the Rhineland. Isis, the goddess of birth, rebirth and magic was also revered by seafarers. Archaeologist Alfred Schäfer points out to ancient remains of a Roman fleet, which is only three kilometers away from Cologne. There could have been, he surmises, a boatman from Egypt, who was brought in by the Romans for his vast experience at sea who brought along the cult of Isis with him. Many shrines to Isis and her male counterpart, Serapis, are located at ports, says Schäfer.

A carving showing the three goddess of the cult of the Matronae.
This stone sculpture of the three Matrons was created between 1 and 4 A .D.Image: Goldmann/picture alliance

There were also several cults around Mithras, god of friendship, law and contracts. Mithras finds mention in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Zend Avesta, in the ancient Hindu Vedas, and in 14 B.C., in the contract text in from Hattusha, capital of the Hittite empire that had spread to northern Syria and Anatolia in Turkey by 2 B.C.

In 2008, scholars discovered eight temples, including two in Cologne, dedicated to Mithras in what was known as Germania Inferior. Several cults developed around this ancient god, although scholars have been unable to tell why.


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