The Path of Empire – The Ruin of Ancient Rome in Budapest

In 1873 the city of Budapest was formally created. It is often assumed that the city was formed by combining Buda and Pest. That assumption is only two-thirds correct because there was also a third city added, Obuda. The name basically means Old Buda and consisted of the area north of Buda along the Danube’s western riverbank. Obuda as an independent city may now be all but forgotten, but it has a much longer history than either Buda or Pest. It was the site of the first urban development of an area that would eventually make up a part of Budapest. Known as Aquincum, this Roman city had a population of 40,000 people at its height between the 2nd and 4th century AD. To put that figure into perspective consider that Budapest did not attain that number of inhabitants until the 19th century. In other words it took over 1,500 years for another city in the exact same area to grow as large as its ancient predecessor. The urban recovery can be measure by millennia rather than centuries. This fact illustrates how long it took East-Central Europe to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire.

Ruins of Aquincum & Housing of Obuda

Ancient & Modern – Ruins of Aquincum & Housing of Obuda (Credit: VinceB)

At the “Limes” – Roman Pannonia
In the first century AD the Romans conquered the Celtic tribes living throughout what is today western Hungary. They followed this conquest by erecting a major military post along the Danube at what was the northeastern boundary of the province of Pannonia (it would later be split into the administrative units of Pannonia Superior and Inferior). Aquincum developed as a major city on the empire’s fringes. It was a place of great strategic importance, acting as a stronghold and marshalling ground for imperial forces preparing to strike the Barbarian tribes located just to the north. This made it a quintessential frontier outpost, but not by any means was it a backwater. Because of its strategic location Aquincum demanded the attention of the Roman political and military elites. This can be seen by the fact that numerous emperors starting with Domitian in 86 AD up through Valentinian I in 374 AD visited the city.

Numerous military campaigns were prosecuted out of Aquincum. The city played host to multiple Roman legions because it was always close to the “limes” or limit of the empire. The Danube was also a formidable obstacle that helped protect the Roman frontier, but the legions were just as vital in maintaining peace. These natural and human barriers helped keep the Germanic tribes to the north and east at a safe distance for several centuries. The legions stationed at Aquincum also led to economic benefits for the area. Their presence spurred commerce. Outside the military quarters, Aquincum expanded as a large civilian population settled nearby to take care of supplies, food and other necessities for the soldiers. The relationship was mutually beneficial for both sides and led to a thriving trade in the imperial hinterland. The military gave a huge boost to the local economy. The numerous ruins of Aquincum which can still be seen today bear testament to the level of development the city attained.

Ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre at Aquincum

Ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre at Aquincum (Credit: Chad K)

The Importance of a Frontier In Roman History
It is a shame that most visitors to Budapest are unaware of the city’s Roman legacy and thus do not make the short trip north of Buda to see what is left of Aquincum. The remnants of the ancient city can be scattered throughout the 3rd district which constitutes much of what was once Obuda. The ruins are not on the main tourist trail. Truth be told, visitors do not come to Budapest seeking its Roman history. Most westerners generally equate the Ancient Roman legacy in Europe with one of the following: Italy, Gaul (modern France) or Hadrian’s Wall in northern England (much further on the frontier than Pannonia).  The Roman Empire’s presence in Pannonia was just as important. Like so many of the Empire’s frontier areas this was where it expanded to its furthest extent, fell into chaos and then collapsed, eventually bringing the rest of the Empire down with it. The Empire that existed in what is today Italy, France and Britain would not have lasted nearly so long if not for places such as Aquincum where the barbarian tribes were held back hundreds of kilometers from the empire’s core areas. That is why at one point the Romans saw fit to station four of their twenty-five legions in Aquincum. When the barbarians finally did break through in the late 4th and early 5th centuries it was just a matter of time until Rome fell.

Ruins of Aquincum from above

Foundations for an Empire – ruins of Aquincum from above

Discerning Patterns: Ruins & Empires
The ruins at Aquincum do not elicit jaw dropping impressions. There are lots of broken pillars and random, yet sizable pieces of concrete. It takes a healthy imagination to envision what the city must have really looked like. Fortunately Aquincum has a very well done museum with new exhibits. There is also a viewing scope that overlooks the ruins. A look into the apparatus is not at the actual ruins. Instead, the scope shows a fascinating depiction of how the city might have looked 1,800 years ago. Here is a window into the deep past, a fleeting glimpse.

Without the aid of that scope, the most striking aspect is how far removed the ruins look from what we now call civilization. This is the past only partially recovered, a vague, historic netherworld. The maze of foundations, an odd, cracked column standing among them brings to mind an inescapable question: Is this where the path of empire leads, to this mosaic of ruin? Aquincum offers an opportunity to ponder the prosperity, wealth and power of Rome. It also serves as reminder of the path all empires eventually take, decline, dissolution and ruin.

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