This paper studies rural populations in the Roman frontier province of Germania inferior, employing a perspective that allocates more space to the exploitative and repressive aspects of Roman rule. We draw attention to an alternative series of topics than the ones currently presented in rural archaeology. This includes attention to situations of crisis and instability, to fundamental reordering of rural populations, to issues of migration and to the interconnectivity of rural developments and imperial power structures. While these topics are usually considered as ‘historically given’, they are rarely the subject of serious archaeological research. This attempt at a more historicising approach does not mean a simple return to the traditional paradigm of historische Altertumskunde. Much better equipped than our predecessors of two or three generations ago, we archaeologists of the 21st century are able to engage in a critical and creative dialogue with historical sources and models.