Netherlands – Harking Back To Caesar

THREE weeks would not suffice for the artist, the historian, the archaeologist, the mere summer-dreamer in Middelburg. The town is too rich in historical associations, too charming from an artistic standpoint, too interesting, as the record of the Ages, to antiquaries, too perfect as a resting-place for the summer months to leave, after a short stay, with any degree of satisfaction.

The Abbey of St. Nicholas alone may claim a week — and one calls it well spent. It is most interesting, historically and architecturally. Its gates are different in style, and all of them beautiful. Its towers are unique; its irregular circle of buildings affords constant surprises; the carvings and sculptures on its walls are like a missal in stone, and the gay shutters to its windows, in connection with the time-worn walls, produce a charming effect. These shutters are to be seen all over Middelburg, and they lend to the little city a brightness that bespeaks a southern temperament in the introducer of them as a municipal ornament. This shutter of wood is painted vermilion and white, in four triangles that have a common centre; two of these triangles are red and the other two white. I can conceive of no lovelier combination than the walls of the Abbey seen between the great trees of its court, and enlivened by this multitude of richly-colored shutters that shield the fascinating little dormers as well as the larger windows. Add to this the six towers that shoot their pinnacles above the tops of the elms and acacias, seeming to aspire to Long John, who rises, rich in bells and fantastic trappings, like a Spanish hidalgo, two hundred feet above them, and you may form some idea of the unique charm of this place that captivates all who rest for a night within its walls.

Over one of the Abbey gates is cut in stone this proud device:


The Senate and the People of Middelburg— a copy, with all the importance of a small city’s dignity, of those old Roman initials that hark back to Caesar: THE SENATE AND THE PEOPLE OF ROME!

Who shall say, after reading this on the walls of Middelburg’s pious heart, that the Dutch are not aware of their own municipal dignity ?

We smiled as we read it one morning, for it did seem such a far cry from little Middelburg to the Roman Republic; but an hour or two later we had good and sufficient reason to change our minds, and to feel that Rome with its grandeur was not such a very distant connection of this same little Dutch capital.

We came across in Wagenaar Straat the rooms of the Zeeland Scientific Society, and to the courteous curator we owe much of our enlightenment in regard to the Roman “finds” near Middelburg on the coast of Walcheren. These finds bring one very near to that same Roman Empire-Republic, and, after examining them, a trip to Domburg down on the island is full of interest.

Motley, in his introduction to The Rise of the Dutch Republic, says: “These islands [meaning the islands of Zeeland] were not known to the Romans.” I may not dispute John Lothrop Motley, for I am an ignoramus, and he is a charming erudite; but this was written many years ago, and there has been found since then such indubitable evidence of Roman occupation on this island, at least, that with the small map, which the curator made with his own hand and gave to me, and the evidence of our four eyes, James’ and mine, to prove that the “finds” are real, I may, perhaps, be permitted to write a few words on this subject, which both of us found intensely interesting, without arrogating to my-self either the knowledge or the privilege of the historian and archaeologist.

The steam-tram runs down to Domburg — the jumping-off place for the southern part of the Nether-lands. The journey is made in something like forty-five minutes, and every foot of the way is full of interest. There are many little towns along the route, and the island life and the island costumes are seen in full force and glory — for the whole population turns out to meet the train, the event of the day in these isolated places. After passing West Kapelle we soon come to Domburg, at present a small sea-coast hamlet which is struggling into prominence as a summer resort — save the name and the place!

Burg signifies primarily stronghold or citadel, and Dom signifies cathedral or minster; but the citadel was often incorporated in the city and the minster of old was the temple; hence we find in Domburg, The City of the Temple. The topography of Ancient Domburg, plus the “finds” to be seen in the rooms of the Society, lead to the conclusion that in Roman times there was here on this desolate coast — not far from the shores of France and England — a Roman city and Roman Temple.

If the reader will turn to the Plan of Ancient Dom-burg, he will see at once the reason for this statement. It shows the sea-shore of the Island of Walcheren and the remains of an ancient Domburg, long lost beneath the waves, and the site of the old Roman Temple.

The dunes here are not so very high, but they form at the present time a bulwark against the ever-threatening North Sea. To the southeast you will find that the dunes have been nearly washed away, and, if you will follow along the road marked “to West Kapelle,” you will come to the spot where there are no dunes and the greatest piece of sea-dyke engineering in the world begins and extends for three kilometres till it meets the dunes again.

The chain is as strong as its weakest link. One is reminded of this when one sees the life of Zeeland dependent on the strength of this dyke and the staying power of the ever-shifting dunes.

The shoals beyond the boat-channel were at one time, presumably, connected with the site of an ancient city by the Roman Road, the remains of which have been discovered at low tide. All the finds in the possession of the Society have been made necessarily at low water and found beneath the sand and on the shoals. The altar to the goddess Nehalennia, whoever she may be, is seen in this collection, as well as many beautiful stones from the ancient Temple. The coins, alone, are convincing as circumstantial evidence of Roman occupation or Roman settlement. They are very beautiful; I do not remember to have seen in Italy more perfect ones. The oldest dates from Alexander the Great, and there are many Greek coins. There is one of a late date — it is Nero’s mintage! Between these two periods we find a very thesaurus of telltale coins, most of them in a fine state of preservation. There are also Roman ornaments of gold exquisitely wrought: armlets, and rings, and women’s paraphernalia of hair-dressing. They are too numerous to catalogue — and a catalogue is lacking for this collection.

To stand there on that desolate stretch of dunes, many of them shored with piles to prevent their slipping into the sea that has swallowed so many of their kind already; to know that at low tide some remains of a later city — an Ancient Domburg — have been seen beneath-the waters; to know that in the centuries to come others may stand farther inland, perhaps by the Low Dyke of 1253, and look out to sea upon the waters that have engulfed the very dunes on which we were standing; to know that this watery burial and resur rection, that belongs to the tale of the centuries, is an historical serial story, the End of which no one may foresee, is to have food for thought for many a day, and an understanding of the difficultes that this remarkable land has to face in order to exist. I struggle and emerge; never was there more appropriate device for a drowning land!

It was in Domburg that I was welcomed into the interior of one of the peasant-houses, and made at home by its mistress with that combination of perfect dignity and cordiality for which the Zeeland peasant is noted. It was there I had the delight of seeing one of the little ones — a tiny girl of six — remove her three tiny caps and spirals for my especial benefit; and it was there I had the supreme pleasure of putting them one after the other on the small, smooth, short-haired head. The front locks only are left long, and these are tightly twisted into two hard rolls and made a kind of front cushion on which the caps rest. The little arms and neck were bare. Like daughter, like mother! Like son, like father! Miniature men and women at five and six. I saw a baby of sixteen months walking between two women in the Market-Place of Middelburg on one market day. She was dressed exactly like the hundreds of women that thronged in the place. She could not stand alone; yet she was dressed in a long, full petticoat, or rather several of them, a long white apron of embroidered linen, a tiny bodice that gave to the little woman the figure of a girl of twenty, a white shawl folded over the bodice, low neck and bare arms, silver chain, little white cap and small gold spirals projecting from beneath it at each temple.

The little boys are dressed like men, with the exception of the elaborate belts made of huge filigree silver buttons, and the silver dog-collars of more buttons about the neck, and the rows and rows of silver buttons all adown their waistcoats which the Zeeland beaux affect.

It is always a pleasure to see the peasants and their children walking along the high dykes; they seem to own the world, for there is no background but the seemingly illimitable sky, and no foreground but the green slope of the dyke. Nowhere can one see this strange life so near at hand as on this far-away island; and on the island, it is at West Kapelle that one comes most under its influence.

We went there one afternoon towards evening, and, leaving the tram, climbed the pathway leading across the meadow to the dyke. There is a whole hamlet on this great dyke, and were it not for the lack of all verdure, there are no trees and no flowers, one could not realize that the structure is artificial. The slope of this dyke is very gradual; therefore its two hundred and fifty feet of depth on the sea side do not show. The tide was at half flood when we were there, and we could see down into the water and distinguish the slope of the masonry beneath it for a few feet; beyond that nothing was visible. At one end of the hamlet rises a :sombre Gothic church-tower, huge and lone and desolate. The church is no longer there, and this tower it crowned with a light that is a beacon for this part of tie coast.

“And this, too, is Life,” said James, as we walked back through the one long paved street of this sea-dyke hamlet and acknowledged the many and courteous greetings that were given to us as we passed. It was just at dusk; the sky was gray, the sea was gray, the lone tower stood out black against the grayness of sea and sky, and the forms of the women passing to and fro were dark, too, lightened only by white caps. As we passed the tower the beacon flamed on its summit.

“And that is Hope,” I said.

“And there you have the third person in your trinity,” said James, pointing to a sailor boy and his lass climbing the path to the dyke, the two little fingers hooked together as is the custom with those betrothed. “Life, Hope, Love; they have it all — and having it, they have as much as the world can offer to any one, from Caesar until now. They are to be envied, rather than pitied.”