The Great History of Utrecht – Part I

dom plein

When you all faithful readers of ours chose Utrecht as the next city where to settle down, you probably did so charmed by its lovely canals, its dynamic students’ life and its prestigious universities. What you may be unaware of is that you also came to the ancient Trajectum ad Rhenum of Roman foundation, one of the oldest Dutch cities (the record probably still belongs to Nijmegen – Noviomagus), with a history which dates back to almost two millennia ago.

Trajectum ad Rhenum – the passage on the Rhine river – was founded by order of none other than emperor Claudius (oh, what a beautiful name) around 50 AD – or CE if you are agnostic as me. It was a time of turmoil in the Roman Northern provinces, and they needed an outpost to guard the barbarians (poor guys, just because they didn’t speak Latin!) over the Rhine: in that time the bed of the river laid way norther than nowadays, and it passed beyond the current city, approximately where today is the eastern side of the Stadsbuitengracht, the external canal ring which surrounds the Binnenstad – the city centre.

You have to imagine the city – or more correctly the Castellum – as far smaller than today, pretty much centered around what is today Domplein: the axis going roughly west-east through the current Servetstraat and under the Domtoren and then the navel of the Dom was once the via Principalis – the main street (literally) which was in turn intersected perpendicularly by the via Praetoria, which ran north-south along the Domplein proper. If you ever noticed the brass plates on the ground steaming at the entrance of this area, be aware that they are precisely in correspondence of where the original four gates of the city were.

Unfortunately the Batavians, the aboriginal inhabitants of what are today the nether lands, weren’t over-enthusiastic of the Roman presence in the region, and revolted against the latter in the year 69 burning the castellum to the ground: the fact that Utrecht back then was built only with wood and turf didn’t make it exactly resistent.

However the fort was rebuilt immediately after by the Legio IX Hispana, which as the name may suggest had been transferred there from Spain (yep guys, Spanish internationals were living here already some 19 centuries ago), and subsequently the first stone and concrete buildings appeared around the beginning of the III century.

With the general collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the fortifications along the limes  – the roman borders – were abandoned by the soldiers, but the space within the walls was soon to be re-occupied by a new species of tenants, the Christian monks. It was one of them who came from Britain, Willibrord, whose equestrian statue you can see in Janskerkhof, who closed three of the four existing gates, leaving only the western one open: that is to say that you could have entered the city only passing from the mentioned Servetstraat!

It is thanks to the initiative of Willibrord that it was founded the first version of what was to become – and indeed still is – the landmark of this city: St. Martin’s church, or the Dom.

To be continued…

Claudio Agnesa

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