The Unknown Empire – Aquincum, Budapest & the Limits of Rome

A listing of the great cities in the Roman Empire is not likely to contain any that were located within the province of Pannonia Inferior, which covered much of present day Hungary. Rome, Alexandria and later, Constantinople are the most famous Roman cities due to their large populations and outsized influence on the political, economic and cultural life of the empire. Pannonia Inferior was a frontier province, containing a significant border area. Though it was far from a core area of the Empire, the province was vital to Rome’s stability. It contained the Empire’s northeastern frontier, where the Romans confronted barbarian tribes over several centuries. Aquincum was one of the most strategic cities in the empire. It was the major Roman settlement in an area that is today western Hungary. Its size and importance outweighed all other cities and towns in the province.

Aerial view of the Ancient Military Amphitheatre at Aquincum

Aerial view of the Ancient Military Amphitheater at Aquincum

Modern & Ancient – From Budapest to Aquincum
Ironically, this same area in modern times has become part of the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Just as Aquincum was much larger than all other urban areas in Pannonia, Budapest has come to dwarf all other Hungarian cities in size and influence. The ruins of Aquincum are still highly visible and can be visited in their original location, north of Buda, in what is aptly known as Obuda or Old Buda. Few know of these ruins and even fewer know of this ancient city. That is such a shame because Aquincum was one of the linchpins that secured the Roman world for centuries.

Aquincum was the first major city in what would eventually become Hungary many centuries later. During its heyday, between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD, the city had a population estimated as high as 40,000. To put that figure into perspective, consider that Budapest did not attain this number of residents until the 19th century, over 1,500 years later! Aquincum, military hub for the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior, was a major fortress city. The area’s history of ancient settlement predated Roman rule. Celtic tribes had called the immediate area home for several centuries prior to the Romans. Its position along the Danube River, a major trade route, meant that it would inevitably be coveted by the Romans.  In the first century AD, the Romans conquered the Celtic tribes living along the Danube. They followed this conquest by erecting fortresses. One of these outposts grew into Aquincum.

Map showing the location of Aquincum within the Roman Empire

Map showing the location of Aquincum within the Roman Empire

Natural & Human Barriers – Guarding the Frontier
Though for most of its history it was at the outer limits in a peripheral area of the Empire, Aquincum’s location made it a place of critical importance. This can be seen by the fact that a succession of Roman Emperor’s starting with Domitian in 86 AD up through Valentinian I in 374 AD visited it. It is believed that Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 AD) wrote parts of his famous “Meditations” in Aquincum while leading campaigns against the barbarians from the city.  Aquincum was host to several Roman legions by the early third century. The legions gave a huge boost to the local economy. They were stationed in the city due to its strategic setting. It was on the “limes” or limit of the empire in the northeast.

The Danube was a formidable barrier that helped secure empire’s border. It formed a natural boundary that kept barbarian tribes to the north and east at a safe distance. While the Danube acted as natural barrier, the 6,000 strong Roman Legions were a human one. At one time Rome had four of its twenty-five legions stationed at Aquincum. Their ferocious fighting ability kept the Empire safe for several centuries. Truth be told, the Roman Empire would not have lasted as long as it did if not for the martial exploits of the soldiers stationed in Aquincum and other frontier outposts. The legions kept the barbarian hordes far away from the heart of the empire. When the barbarians did finally affect a full breakthrough in the late 4th and early 5th centuries it was just a matter of time before Rome fell.

The ruins of Aquincum - the Roman Empire at its limits

The ruins of Aquincum – the Roman Empire at its limits

The Unknown Ruins – Power & Progress on the Periphery
Aquincum is not on the main tourist path in either Budapest or Hungary, even though thousands of visitors pass within sight of the ruins each day. These can be seen on the suburban railway that takes tourists to visit the beautiful town of Szentendre further north. Visitors do not arrive in Budapest expecting to see Roman ruins or learn about classical civilization. Most westerners equate ancient Rome with either the city of the same name in Italy, Gaul (modern France) where Caesar completed his famous conquests or Hadrian’s Wall in northern England (much more peripheral to the Empire than Pannonia).

The ruins at Aquincum bear some resemblance to other Roman ruins found in central and southern Europe, albeit on a smaller scale. It takes a healthy imagination to envision what it must have been like in this frontier city so long ago. Fortunately for the visiting public, a major refurbishment of the museum at the site was completed in 2012. The exhibits are now world class, but nothing quite compares to the real thing. Looking out over the extant ruins of Aquincum, the concrete foundations, the bizarre mazes of stone, brings an inescapable sensation, of the power and progress of an Empire stretched to its very limits.



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