Matilo (Leiden)

Porta Decumana, eastern gate of Matilo.

People who almost 2.000 years ago took the Limes road from Praetorium Agrippinae and travelled east for some eight kilometres would eventually arrive at the next castellum protecting the Rhine border. According to the Peutinger Table (Tabula Peutingeriana), this castellum was called Matilo(ne), a name of unknown origin. The precise location of the castellum is fortunately known with certainty. Nowadays we find an interesting archaeological park at this spot, which was declared a national monument as early as 1976. The (modern) Limes road still runs straight through the camp and every few metres we can see the word limes as part of the pavement. Earthen ramparts mark out the terrain of the castellum and three of the original four gates have been reconstructed. At the moment, there are no excavations at this site. Archaeologists need a good reason to excavate – they do not just pick up a spade and start digging – and they are anyway waiting for better technologies to bring objects to the surface without damaging them.

History of Matilo

As a castellum, Matilo is probably some 30 years younger than Praetorium Agrippinae further to the west. In 69 CE, the Batavians rebelled against Roman rule and the Cananefates who lived in South Holland then joined them. When the revolt had been ended the next year, the Romans started building extra forts and fortlets on the Rhine border. One of these forts was Matilo, which must have been constructed around the year 70. Matilo occupied a very strategic position. It was located directly on the river Rhine and on the so-called Fossa Corbulonis, a canal dug by Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo’s men. Corbulo was a Roman general who served under the emperor Claudius (41-54). After the emperor had ordered his general to withdraw to the left bank of the Rhine in 47, Corbulo had his legionaries dig a canal that had to ensure good connections with the hinterland.[1] The Fossa Corbulonis linked the rivers Rhine and Meuse. The native Cananefates profited from the canal as well: along the Fossa they founded a settlement which became known as Forum Hadriani and is now called Voorburg.

Interior of the camp.

Matilo’s architectural history shows roughly the same developments as that of nearby Praetorium Agrippinae. The fort was originally made of wood, but was given stone walls, gates and towers in the final quarter of the second century. Like all other castella, Matilo had an adjacent vicus or civilian settlement. Both the fort and the vicus were abandoned during the so-called Crisis of the Third Century, roughly between 240 and 260. The former army camp later became a stone quarry, from which the local population took the valuable tuff to use it in other buildings. Chunks of tuff have, among other things, been used for the Citadel of Leiden, some two kilometres northwest of the archaeological park.


Roman cavalry mask, found at Matilo (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden).

The fort had space for a cohort of soldiers, so about 480 men. Since large quantities of terracotta balls that were used for catapults have been found in the vicinity, we may assume that some of these soldiers must have been artillerymen. Were they perhaps part of the Fifteenth Cohort of Volunteers (Cohors XV Voluntariorum), a unit composed of Roman citizens that was once stationed here, as is evidenced by tile stamps? And to which unit did the cavalryman belong who threw his beautiful bronze face mask into the water close to the fort, possibly as an offering to the gods? These are all questions that are difficult to answer. The cavalry mask, which was found in Corbulo’s canal in 1996 and can now be admired in the National Museum of Antiquities, is in any case a splendid piece of work. It was presumably made in the early second century. Because of its (fake) curly hair and uncanny resemblance to a well-known Dutch singer, it was dubbed ‘Gordon’. The mask is featured in a Dutch thriller which is set in Leiden.

Up until quite recently it was widely assumed that face masks such as the one found near Matilo were only used in parades and ceremonies. The mask, which was attached to a helmet using straps and hinges, can never have been very comfortable. It was awfully hot behind the bronze of the mask, and the mask limited the cavalryman’s vision as well. But cavalry masks have been found on former battlefields as well (for instance Kalkriese in Germany), and there is no reason to assume that they were not used in battle. A cavalry mask made a horseman more impressive and intimidating. It also offered some protection to the vulnerable face. If a cavalrymen wanted to catch his breath after a charge, he could simply flip the mask up.[2]

Life in and around Matilo

De Limes runs straight through the camp.

The many information signs in the archaeological park offer visitors a lot of facts about life in and around Matilo in the Roman era. The signs are usually in the shape of an object: an army standard, a Germanic sword, a catapult (ballista), a horse, a surveyor (groma) and a sower (seminatrix). The surveyor symbolises the Roman idea of imposing one’s will on a landscape, while the sower represents the way the Germanic tribes saw the organic relationship between man and nature. The cow (vacca), which can be found in the former vicus, tells us more about food in the Roman era. The Romans were for instance not interested in the locally grown barley and emmer (in South Limburg, for instance in Coriovallum, they did consume products made of spelt). The soldiers stationed at the castellum did like to buy cattle from the local farmers, as beef was very popular in Matilo. The Romans also introduced the chicken in these parts of the Ancient world and made poultry an integral part of the Dutch cuisine.

Although the space inside the ramparts is mostly taken up by an empty field of grass, the plan of the former castellum can be reconstructed fairly well. One entered the camp at the Porta Praetoria (the main gate), possibly after crossing a bridge over the canal. Then one followed the Via Praetoria to the centre of the castellum. The residence of the commander (praetorium) and the military headquarters (principia) were located there. One exited the camp again on the east side, via the Via Decumana and through the Porta Decumana. In the centre, the Via Praetoria and the Via Principalis intersect, and in Matilo, the right part of the latter road has been reconstructed, as well as the Porta Principalis Dextra. The left part and the left gate (Porta Principalis Sinistra) are missing.

Replica of a Roman cargo ship.

Close to the bridge across the water we find a small-scale replica of a Roman cargo ship. It is a traditional flat-bottomed boat, the type of vessel that was used to transport all sorts of goods by water, in this case using the Rhine and the Fossa Corbulonis. Transport by water was much cheaper than transport by road, but it was not very fast. The flat-bottomed boats had a maximum speed of some five kilometres per hour, so they were not much faster than pedestrians.

The archaeological park has its own website which provided a lot of information for this post.


[1] Ancient historian Jona Lendering assumes that Matilo was founded at around the same time as the canal was dug (see his website). The castellum would then have been destroyed during the Batavian Revolt and subsequently rebuilt. In this post, I follow the information from the website of the archaeological park, which assumes that the castellum was only built after the Revolt.

[2] For cavalry face masks, see Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army, p. 12, 111 and 141.


  1. Pingback:Matilo (Leiden) – – Corvinus –

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