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RHENUS (Ῥῆνος), one of the largest rivers in Europe, is not so long as the Danube, but as a commercial channel it is the first of European rivers, and as a political boundary it has been both in ancient and modern times the most important frontier in Europe. The Rhine rises in the mountains which belong to the group of the St. Gothard in Switzerland, about 46° 30′ N. lat. There are three branches. The Vorder-Rhein and the Mittel-Rhein meet at Dissentis, which is only a few miles from their respective sources. The united stream has an east by north course to Reichenau, where it is joined by the Hinter-Rhein. At Chur (Curia), which is below the junction of the Hinter-Rlein, the river becomes navigable and has a general northern course to the Bodensee or Lake of Constanz, the Lacus Brigantinus or Venetus. This lake consists of two parts, of which the western part or Untersee, is about 30 feet lower than the chief part, called the Lake of Constanz. The course of the Rhine from the Untersee is westward, and it is navigable as far as the falls of Schaffhausen, which are not mentioned by any of the ancient geographers. It is interrupted by a smaller fall at Laufenburg, and there is a rapid near Rheinfelden, 10 miles below Laufenburg. The course is still west to [p. 2.707]Base (Basilia), where the Rhine is about 800 feet above the sea, and here we may fix the termination of the Upper Rhine. The drainage of all that part of Switzerland which lies north of the Lake of Geneva and the Bernese Alps is carried to the Rhine by the Aar, which joins it on the left bank at Coblenz, one of the Roman Confluentes.

From Basle the Rhine has a general north course to Bonn, where it enters the low country which forms a part of the great plain of Northern Europe. This may be called the Middle Rhine. In this part of its course the river receives few streams on the left bank. The chief river is the Mosel (Mosella), which joins it at Coblenz (Confluentes). On the right bank it is joined by the Neckar (Nicer), the Main (Moenus), which joins it at Mainz (Moguntiacum), and the Lahn (Laugana), which joins it at Niederlahnstein.

Below Bonn the river has still a general north course past Cologne (Colonia Agrippinensis) as far as Wesel, where it is joined on the right bank by the Lippe (Luppia), and higher up by the Roer or Ruhr (Rura). Between Cologne and Wesel it is joined on the west side by the Erft. From Wesel its course is NW. and then west to Pannerden in the kingdom of the Netherlands. At Pannerden it divides into two branches, of which the southern is called the Waal (Vahalis), and the northern retains the name of Rhine. The Waal has the greater volume of water. It runs westward, and is joined at Gorcnu on the left bank by the Maas (Mosa). The Maas itself divides several times after its junction with the Waal. The main branch is joined on the right side by the Leck, a branch which comes from the Rhine Proper at Vyck by Duurstede, and flows past Rotterdam into the North Sea.

The Rhine, which was divided at Pannerden, runs north to Arnheim (Arenacum), above which town it communicates with the Yssel at Doesburg by a channel which is supposed to be the Fossa Drusiana, the canal of Drusus. [FILEVO LACUS.] The Yssel runs north from Doesburg to the Zuider Zee, which it enters on the east side below the town of Kampen. The Rhine runs westward from Arnheins, and at Wyck by Duurstede, as already said, sends off the branch called the Leek, which joins the Maas. The Rhine divides again at Utrecht (Trajectum): one branch called the Vecht runs northward into the Zuider Zee; the other, the Rhine, or Old Rhine, continues its course with diminished volume, and passing by Leiden enters the North Sea at Katwiyck. The whole course of the Rhine is estimated at about 950 miles.

The delta of the Rhine lies between the Yssel, which flows into the Zuider Zee, and the Maas, if we look at it simply as determined by mere boundaries. But all this surface is not alluvial ground, for the eastern part of the province of Utrecht and that part of Guelderland which is between the Rhine, the Zuider Zee, and the Yssel contains small elevations which are not alluvial.

This description of the Rhine is necessary in order to understand what the ancient writers have said of it.

The first description of the Rhine that we possess from any good authority is Caesar's, though lie had not seen much of it. He says (B. G. 4.15) that it rises in the Alpine regions of the Lepontii, and passes in a long course along the boundaries of the Nantuates, Helvetii, Sequani, Mediomatrici, Triboci, and Treviri, in a rapid course. The name Nantuates is corrupt [NANTUATES]. If we make the limits of the Treviri extend nearly to the Netherlands or the commencement of the low country, Caesar has shown pretty clearly the place where the Rhine enters the great plain. On approaching the ocean, he says, it forms many islands, and enters the sea by several mouths (capita). He knew that the Rhine divided into two main branches near the sea; and he says that one of the branches named the Vahalis (Waal) joined the Mosa (Maas), and formed the Insula Batavorum [BATAVORUM INSULA]. He speaks of the rapidity of the river, and its breadth and depth in that part where he built his wooden bridge over it. (B. G. 4.17.) He made the bridge between Coblenz and Andernach, higher up than the place where the river enters the low country. He crossed the Rhine a second time by a bridge which he constructed a little higher up than the first bridge. (B. G. 6.9.)

Those persons, and Caesar of course, who said that the Rhine had more than two outlets were criticised by Asinius Pollio (Strab. iv. p.192) ; and Virgil (Aen. 8.724, Rhenique bicornis) follows Pollio's authority. But if the Mosa divided as it does now, Caesar was right and Pollio was wrong.

Strabo, who had some other authorities for his description of the Rhine besides Caesar, and perhaps besides Caesar and Pollio, does not admit Pollio's statement of the Rhine having a course of 6000 stadia; and yet Pollio's estimate is much below the truth. Strabo says that the length of the river in a right line is not much above one-half of Pollio's estimate, and that if we add 1000 stadia for the windings, that will be enough. This assertion and his argument founded on the rapidity of the stream, show that he knew nothing of the great circuit that the Rhine makes between its source and Basle. He knew, however, that it flowed north, but unluckily he supposed the Seine also to flow north. He also made the great mistake of affirming that the county of Kent may be seen from the mouths of the Rhine. He says that the Rhine had several sources, and he places them in the Adulas, a part of the Alps. In the same mountain mass he places the source of the Aduas, or Addua (Adda), which flows south into the lake Larius (Lago di Como). [ADDUA]

The most difficult question about the Rhine is the outlets. When Pliny and Tacitus wrote, Drusus the brother of Tiberius had been on the lower Rhine, and also Germanicus, the son of Drusus, and other Roman commanders. Pliny (4.14) speaks of the Rhenus and the Mosa as two distinct rivers. In another passage (4.15) he says that the Rhine has three outlets: the western, named Helium, flows into the Mosa; the most northerly, named Flevum, flows into the lakes (Zuider Zee); and the middle branch, which is of moderate size, retains the name Rhenus. He supposed that there were islands in the Rhine between the Helium and the Flevum; and the Batavorum Insula, in which were the Canninefates also, is one of them. He also places between these two branches the islands of the Frisii, Chauci, Frisiabones, Sturii, and Marsacii. The Flevum of Pliny corresponds to the Flevo of Mela [FLEVO LACUS], who mentions this branch and only another, which he calls the Rhenus, which corresponds to Pliny's Rhenus. Mela mentions no other outlets. He considered the third to be the Mosa, we may suppose, if he knew anything about it

Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 2.6) observes that the Rhine [p. 2.708]divides into two branches at the head of the Batavorum Insula. The branch which flows along the German bank keeps its name and its rapid course to the Ocean. The branch which flows on the Gallic bank is broader and less rapid: this is the Vahalis (Waal), which flows into the Mosa. (Hist. 5.23.) [BATAVORUM INSULA] He knows only two outlets of the Rhine, and one of them is through the Mosa. The Rhine, as he calls the eastern branch, is the boundary between Gallia and Germania. East of this eastern branch he places the Frisii (Ann. 4.72); and herein he agrees with Pliny, who places them between the Middle Rhine and the Flevum. Accordingly the Rhenus of Tacitus is the Rhenus of Mela and Pliny.

This third branch of the Rhine seems to be that which Tacitus calls the work of Drusus (Ann. 2.6), and which Seutonius (Claudius, 100.1) mentions without saying where it was: “Drusus trans Rhenum fossas novi et immensi operis effecit, quae nunc adhuc Drusinae vocantur.” Germanicus in his expedition against the northern Germans (Tac. Ann. 2.6), ordered his fleet to assemble at the Batavorum Insula, whence it sailed through the Fossa Drusiana, and the lakes into the Ocean and to the river Amisia (Ems). This course was probably taken to avoid the navigation along the sea-coast of Holland. On a former occasion Germanicus had taken the same course (Ann. 1.60), and his father Drusus had done the same.

Ptolemy (2.9.4), who wrote after Tacitus and Pliny, is acquainted with three outlets of the Rhine. He places first the outlet of the Mosa in 24° 40′ long., 53° 20′ lat. He then comes to the Batavi and to Lugdunum, which town he places in 26° 30′ long., 53° 20′ lat. The western mouth of the Rhine is in 26° 45′ long., 53° 20′ lat. The middle mouth is in 27° long., 53° 30′ lat.; and the eastern in 28° long., 54° lat. His absolute numbers are incorrect, and they may be relatively incorrect also. His western outlet is a little east of Lugdunum, and this should be the Old Rhine or Rhine Proper. The middle mouth is further east, and the eastern mouth further east still. The eastern mouth may be the Yssel, but it is difficult to say what Ptolemy's middle mouth is. Gosselin supposes that Ptolemy's western mouth may have been about Zandwoord. He further supposes that the Middle Mouth according to his measures was about the latitude of Backkum, about 4 leagues above Zandwoord, and he adds that this mouth was not known to those writers who preceded Ptolemy, and we may conjecture that it was little used, and was the first of the outlets that ceased to be navigable. The third mouth he supposes to correspond to the passage of the Vlie. But nothing can be more vague and unsatisfactory than this explanation, founded on Ptolemy's measurements and pure conjecture. So much as this is plain. Ptolemy does not reckon the Mosa as one of the outlets of the Rhine, as the Roman writers do; and he makes three outlets besides the outlet of the Mosa.

This country of swamps,rivers, and forests through which the Lower Rhine flowed has certainly undergone great changes since the Roman period, owing to the floods of the Rhine and the inundations of the sea, and it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the ancient descriptions agree with the modern localities. Still it was a fixed opinion that the Rhine divided into two great branches, as Caesar says, and this was the division of the Rhine from the Waal at Pannerden, or wherever it may have been in former times. One of the great outlets was that which we call the Maas that flows by Rotterdam: the other was the Rhine Proper that entered the sea near Leiden, and it was the stream from Pannerden to Leiden that formed the boundary between Gallia and Germania. (Servius, ad Aeneid. 8.727.) Ptolemy places all his three outlets in Gallia, and it is the eastern mouth which he makes the boundary between Roman Gallia and Great Germania (2.11.1). If his eastern mouth is the Yssel, he makes this river from Arnheim to the outlet of the Yssel the eastern limit of Roman Gallia in his time. This may be so, but it was not so that Pliny and Tacitus understood the boundary. Whatever changes may have taken place in the Delta of the Rhine, D'Anville's conclusion is just, when he says that we can explain the ancient condition of the places sufficiently to make it agree with the statements of the ancient authors.

The floods of the Rhine have been kept in their limits by embankments of earth which begin at Wesel, in the Prussian province of Düsseldorf, and extend along the Rhine and its branches to the sea. The Romans began these works. In the time of Nero, Pompeius Paullinus, to keep his soldiers employed, finished an embankment ( “agger” ) on the Rhine which Drusus had begun sixty-three years before. (Tac. Ann. 13.53.) It has sometimes been supposed that this “agger” is the “moles” which Civilis broke down in the war which he carried on against the Romans on the Lower Rhine. (Tac. Hist. 5.19.) The consequence of throwing down this “moles” was to leave nearly dry the channel between the Batavorum Insula and Germania, which channel is the Proper Rhine. The effect of throwing down the “moles” was the same as if the river had been driven back ( “velut abacto amne” ). This could not have been effected by destroying an embankment; but if the “moles” of Drusus was a dike which projected into the river for the purpose of preventing most of the water from going down the Waal, and for maintaining the channel of the Rhine on the north side of the Batavorum Insula, we can understand why Civilis destroyed and why Drusus had constructed it. Drusus constructed it to keep the channel full on the north side of the Batavorum Insula, and to maintain this as a frontier against the Germans; and so we have another proof that the Rhine Proper or the Middle Rhine was the boundary between Gallia and Germania in this part, as every passage of Tacitus shows in which he speaks of it. Civilis destroyed the “moles” to stop the Romans in their pursuit of him; for they were on the south side of the island, and had no boats there to make a bridge with. Ukert understands it so, and he is probably right.

Another great Roman work in the Delta of the Rhine was the canal of Corbulo. The Roman conquerors left durable monuments of their dominion in all the countries which they invaded, even in the watery regions of the Rhine, where they had to fight with floods, with the tempests of the ocean, and a warlike people whose home was in the marshes and forests.

The Rhine was the great frontier of the Romans against the German tribes. All the cities on the west or Gallic side, from Leiden to Basle, were either of their foundation or were strengthened and fortified by them, In the time of Tiberius eight legions guarded the frontier of the Rhine. [p. 2.709]


(D'Anville, Notice, &c., “Rhenus” ; Penny Cyclopaedia, art. “Rhine” ; and Ukert, Gallien,--who has collected all the ancient and many modern authorities.)


hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Tacitus, Annales, 13.53
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.6
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 5.19
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 4.14
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 2.9
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