Forum Hadriani, a failed town.


Antony Kropff


(Updated summary in English of two contributions: Kropff, A., 2009. Forum Hadriani. Een aanzet tot urbanisatie? Westerheem 58, 98-111, and Kropff, A., 2010. Forum Hadriani. Een geslaagde ‘mislukte’ stad. Westerheem 59, 220-227).



Forum Hadriani, a Roman settlement near the Dutch coast, is the result of an unsuccessful attempt to apply the well-tried Roman model of occupation and administration to the Civitas Cananefatium. In the Roman Empire, local government was based on urbanization of the area.

I will discuss urbanization and other conditions that had to be met to achieve effective administration and I will try to analyze the relevant circumstances in the area of the Cananefates.


1. Preconditions for successful Roman administration


The Roman Empire was in fact a confederacy of local units of administration. The Romans used the local elite to govern and tax communities. While 90% of the total population lived as farmers in rural areas, the Empire was administered through towns and cities. The local elite dominated town councils and used their wealth to finance local public works: baths, temples, etc. This structure of locally governed units enabled the Romans to limit the size and cost of  central government (Drinkwater 1987, p. 354).

Three important preconditions had to be fulfilled before this concept could be applied. The first condition was proto-urbanization, the existence of a central place before Roman conquest. Second, agricultural production should be above subsistence level and yield a surplus. The third condition is the willingness of the local elite to settle in town and to participate actively in local administration (Groenman- van Waateringe 1980, p. 1037-1044).

2. Surplus production?



Following the Rhine downstream, we find large scale arable farming and successful urbanization as far as Xanten. Further down the river animal husbandry is an important factor in local economy and urbanization becomes a difficult process. Especially the Dutch River Area was pre-eminently suitable as pasture land (Roymans 1996, p. 51; Willems 1984, p. 264-266). Arable farming played a role in mixed farming in this area but yielded results on subsistence level or possibly a small surplus margin (Bloemers 1980, p. 167; Willems en Van Enckevort 2009, p. 156). The civitas Cananefatium was no exception: local economy was also based on mixed farming with an important role for animal husbandry (Bloemers 1980, p. 160, 167). The lack of a sizeable surplus production for this type of farming was noted for the Kromme Rijn area (Kooistra 1996, p. 126), for Tiel-Passewaaij (Heeren 2009, p. 190) and the civitas Batavorum as a whole (Willems 1988, p. 244; Willems en Van Enckevort 2009, p. 156).


The conclusion should be that in the civitas Cananefatium also, a sizable surplus production, first condition for the successful implementation of the Roman model  of  local government was lacking.

For more examples of difficult urbanization related to economical factors we will have to look at the northern part of Britannia, where animal husbandry also formed the economic basis. In this part of the Roman Empire planned towns did sometimes not succeed, as can be seen in Brough-on-Humber, Roman Petuaria (Wilson 2003, p. 258-269; Wacher 19952, p. 399). In British archaeology, this is called a ‘failed town’.


To feed the army in the Dutch River area, cereal had to be imported from the villa zone in the south, as it witnessed by the Woerden barge (see figure 1), with a remnant of cereal mixed with weed seeds from that zone (Roymans 1996, p. 86; Willems en Van Enckevort 2009, p. 156-157).

Graanschip Woerden

 fig. 1. The Woerden barge (Woerden I).

A different kind of surplus production


From Roman viewpoint, the civitas Cananefatium produced a surplus of quite a different nature: that of recruits for the auxillia. The Dutch river area has been called ‘a kind of reserve for breeding soldiers’ (Willems 1984, p. 270). The Roman administration probably saw recruitment as a tribute, possibly partially or fully substituting taxation in kind or in money (Roymans 1996, p. 86). The pressure of recruitment rested heavily on the Cananefates: nearly a thousand men were under arms on a total population estimated between 6.500 and 19.000.

This pressure of recruitment delayed a modest economical growth up to the first half of the second century (Bloemers 1978, p. 103-104, 111-112, 116; Bloemers 1980, p. 169).


3. The role of the local elite


Urbanization in the area of a local tribe facilitated local administration, taxation and law enforcement by the tribal elite (Wacher 1975, p. 36-37). The local elite was encouraged to take up residence in town and to participate in local government. However, the prominence of the elite of the Cananefates was based on the ownership of cattle and cattle breeders are because of their power base, lifestyle and mentality (cattle owner/warrior) not very suited for the cultural aspects of romanitas (Roymans 1996, p. 73-76) and for city life.


In the civitas Cananefatium this is apparent: the owner of the main house in the settlement Rijswijk- de Bult (a few miles from Forum Hadriani) very probably was a member of the elite. And still, he did not live in Forum Hadriani but in the settlement, close to the cattle. This can be deducted from the house itself (see figure 2). During the last phase of occupation part of the house was built in stone, with a hypocaustum and wall paintings. The house lost its original stable: it had become a private residence with Roman luxuries (Bloemers 1978, p. 52).

Huis Rijswijk-de Bult

fig. 2. Plan of the main house in Rijswijk- de Bult.


In the Dutch River area we do not find large scale landownership and villae (Bloemers 1980, p. 173). And typically the landlords, enriched by the surplus production from large scale arable farming could choose to live in the towns and participate in local administration. Their absence seriously hampered the implementation of the Roman model for local government.

We find the same situation in the neighbouring civitas Batavorum. Two decuriones are known to us by their name and occupation. Both were merchants, which was very unusual, because members of this profession were normally excluded from ordo membership (Willems 1988, p. 244-246). In the civitas Batavorum the usual elite of wealthy landowners was not available (Van Enckevort en Thijssen 2003, p. 64). The same must have applied to the civitas Cananefatium, with the complicating factor that even the Gallo-Roman merchants seem to be absent.


4. Proto-urbanization


It is clear by now that for the Romans, urbanization was not an easy task in the Lower Rhine area and in Gallia Belgica. A proto-urbane development before the conquest had not taken place. In the Lower Rhine area, civitas capitals did not have native precursors (Schalles 2001, p. 434). Urbanization in the area was an imposed development and had a very slow start (Perkins en Nevett 2000, p. 237; Vanderhoeven 1996, p. 190).

Oppidum Batavorum was burned down during the Batavian revolt by the insurgents. The settlement built after the insurgence, Ulpia Noviomagus, in fact also was quite ‘artificial’. Willems characterized Noviomagus as ‘a town that never quite made it as such’ (Willems 1984, p. 268). Veterans, Gallo-Roman merchants and other immigrants lived there. The members of the Batavian elite still lived on the land, as they had always done.


In the villae area (Northern France, Middle Rhine- and Mosel area) with its large scale arable farming, urbanization was a relatively quick and successful process.


5. Were the preconditions met?


We have seen that the preconditions for a full and successful socio-cultural and administrative integration of the civitas Cananefatium  in the Roman Empire were not met. We do not find a substantial agricultural surplus production, no proto-urban development before the conquest and no wealthy elite, willing and able to take part in local government. The only surplus production important to Roman government was that of recruits for the auxillia.

As none of the preconditions for urbanization was fulfilled, we now need to discuss the role and functions of the settlement in some detail.


6. Forum Hadriani, an important market town?


Forum Hadriani has been called a market town, probably on the basis of the (presumed) name, because no material remains of a forum or other market facilities have been found. Does the local economy provide a basis for a market function?


In the past, the army was supposed to buy food on the free market against the going price (Van Es 1981, p. 236-237). However, this would only have been possible in an area with a substantial surplus production, which was lacking in the civitas Cananefatium. So the army could not have operated as an important party on the demand side of a market.


What type of market could be envisioned for Forum Hadriani? Three types of markets can be distinguished: a market for local, ‘horizontal’ exchange, a market for ‘internal trade’ and a market with a role of ‘central place’ (De Ligt 1993, p. 6-7).

On a market for ‘horizontal trade’, farmers exchange products in their direct environment.

On a market for ‘internal trade’ farmers will sell their surplus production to the inhabitants of a town.

A market with the function of a ‘central place’ is also town based and is frequented by buyers from the surrounding rural area, to obtain goods and services not available in the countryside.


Within this hierarchy, Forum Hadriani could have functioned as a market for internal trade and as a central place. Forum Hadriani had a limited number of inhabitants -estimated at between 600 and 1.000- (Kropff 2009, p. 106) so the demand on the market for agricultural products might well have been rather small. Looking at a possible function as a central place we will have to consider the lack of substantial evidence of local industry. Of course, travelling merchants selling salt, pottery, metal ware etc. could also have frequented such a market.


Looking at the supply side of a market for the urban consumer, we will have to take into account that markets were important for the urban consumers with enough money at their disposal and for merchants (Morley 2000, p. 212) but that local farmers did not depend on markets. Most farmers produced on a subsistence level and were not in a position to produce for an urban market (Engels 1990; Schalles 2001, p. 453). We already noted before that the civitas Cananefatium as a whole did not produce a substantial surplus.

To conclude, we can find no indications that Forum Hadriani had the function of an important daily or regular market.


7. From a concept for local administration to a successful town?


Before we analyse the role and functions of Forum Hadriani we will look at the relation between the settlement and the surrounding area in the light of what is known of other towns in Germania Inferior.


The socio-economical base


The Roman administrative concept is based on local government by the local elite, residing in town. This was a well-tried concept, but it did not always result in a successful Roman town on a sound economical basis. As we have seen, Roman Nijmegen, Ulpia Noviomagus, was a town that ‘never made it as such’. Now we will consider yet another town in Germania Inferior: Xanten (Colonia Ulpia Traiana) mentioned earlier. The central place which preceded the colonia had a limited economical exchange with the surrounding area. Part of the inhabitants grew their own food. The founding of the colonia did not change much: the economical exchange between town and area was nearly totally absent (Schalles 2001, p. 446-451). And still, Xanten was in a far better position than Ulpia Noviomagus or Forum Hadriani. The area surrounding the town contained two regions: in the north small scale animal husbandry, a recipe for a difficult urbanization process. However, in the south-western hinterland of  Colonia Ulpia Traiana we find villae with large scale arable farming. From inscriptions we know that the elite from this part of the area was willing to take part in the local government in the colonia.

From Roman Xanten and Nijmegen we know that Gallo-Roman merchants arrived with the army and in Nijmegen this group even supplied members of the ordo (Ibidem, p. 434-435; Willems 1988, p. 244-246). In Forum Hadriani we do not find indication of the presence of Gallo-Romans.


Material evidence


On the basis of rather poor material evidence a complete town following Roman specifications has been reconstructed (Buijtendorp 2010) but the conclusion has also been drawn that Forum Hadriani was a ‘poorly developed settlement’ (Esmonde Cleary 2003, p. 77). No remains of a monumental centre were found and in the absence of a monumental centre a settlement cannot qualify as a Roman town (Edmondson 2006, p. 251-252; Wacher 19952, p. 18-19, 23). Furthermore, the size of the settlement should caution us. When the total surface is calculated on the basis of three theoretical boundaries, areas of 5,5 up to 9,5 hectares could be possible, an unusually small area for a Roman town (Bink en Franzen 2009, p. 435-439).




Forum Hadriani cannot be considered a successful Roman town. Urbanization was a precondition to the Roman concept of local government by the elite. Not all attempts at urbanization fully succeeded. When proto-urbanization before the conquest and an agricultural surplus were absent, the local elite would not take up residence in the planned town. Due to the economical situation, the civitas Cananefatium could not ‘carry’ a town.


The precise role and functions of Forum Hadriani are yet to be decided. Military-strategic considerations seem to have played an important role. In the contribution about the military context of Forum Hadriani on this website we saw that Forum Hadriani played a role in the military-strategic concept for the area. Due to wet en flooded conditions, an active defence in some depth on the dry beach barrier area replaced the linear defence based on castella on the by now marshy Lower Rhine limes close to the coast from the beginning of the third century onwards.

The data discussed in the article on the military context of Forum Hadriani indicate a militarization of the settlement: infrastructure, town wall, graffiti on terra sigillata, militaria, the coins finds and the military brick stamps all seem to confirm this development. Also, the small size of the settlement would be more fitting to a mixed civil / military settlement than to a Roman town.

Forum Hadriani failed as a Roman town, but from the beginning of the third century onwards it was a successful settlement within the area with logistical, military and some civil functions.




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