It is said that Szombathely is the oldest town in Hungary. There is both truth and fallacy in that statement. Truth in that the earliest predecessor of Szombathely, known as Savaria, was founded in 45 AD, before any other town in what would eventually become Hungary. In the first century AD Hungary did not exist, the Magyars were eight and a half centuries away from occupying the Carpathian Basin. Proto-Magyars were lost in space, in effect roaming the vast steppes of Eurasia. Meanwhile Pax Romana was conquering more and more territory. The Romans occupied, created and administered a territory known as Pannonia Superior taken from land in the northern Balkans, Austria and western Hungary. Savaria became the provincial capital. Little did anyone realize, or care at the time, but this would end up being the first known town in Hungary.
There is also fallacy in declaring Savaria as the first and oldest town in Hungary because by the 890’s, when Hungarians first appeared in the area, Savaria was a mere shell of its former self. A settlement filled with Roman ruins, reminders of the town’s once exalted status. Its former self, swept away by human and natural disaster. There were Hun, Goth and Longobard invasions. In 456 AD a coup de grace was delivered by an earthquake that caused the city’s sturdier structures to crumble. The ruined buildings were transformed into prime archaeological sites from antiquity, a glorious era for the city that modern Szombathely has never been able to match. That lost prominence can be gleaned from a smattering of notable Roman sites, one of which I went to visit.
Emperors & Saints Of Savaria – The Great Unknowns
Roman Savaria stimulated my curiosity because it maintains a notable place in history. Savaria was a substantial city by Roman provincial standards, placed along the Amber Road trade route which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. Several Roman Emperors deemed Savaria worthy of a visit, staying at an imperial residence located there. The most famous of these was Septimius Severus, who rose to power as the governor of Pannonia Superior. He made Savaria his home for several years during his rise to power. In 193 AD he was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire, some sources state that this occurred in Carnuntum on the Danube, others that it took place in Savaria. Whatever the case, his final rise to emperor took place during his residency in Savaria.
Having the most powerful man in the most powerful empire up to that time in world history as a resident is worth noting. An important occurrence in a place most people – Roman scholars included – spend little time in considering while studying the empire. Other famous people from Roman Savaria include two Saints, Martin of Tours who was born in the city and Quirinus. The latter was murdered during persecutions of Christians in the early 4th century by having a millstone tied around his neck and then being tossed into the local stream, the Perint.
Rome In Ruins – Conquered By Christianity
Savaria was too close to the frontier for comfort, a situation that would eventually lead to its demise, but not before the Romans left posterity much to consider. One of the Roman sites I came across was only a five-minute walk from the main square (Fo ter) in Szombathely. Just beyond the Szombathely Cathedral was the Romkert (Roman garden), which held ruins that included the Roman Governor’s Palace. The site could be interpreted as a reminder of how Christianity, which sprang from the empire, came to dominate then supersede it. Here were the foundations, walls and stones of the Roman Governor’s Palace and other structures. Where Septimius Severus and other imperial leaders ruled omnipotently with unchecked power.
Power though is fleeting. The Empire was now resigned to the shadows of Szombathely. Romans like Septimius Severus would have been shaken and astonished to find that Christianity had not only outlasted the empire, but also conquered it. Men such as Saint Quirinus, who had lost their lives in adherence to a forbidden faith, set an incredibly powerful example. Quirinus self-sacrificing martyrdom was an excellent example of how personal power can overcome position power. The Romans had the latter in spades, but by the 4th century the Empire offered a less than stable present and little hope for a more secure future. Christianity, on the other hand, offered the hope for both.
Ancestors of Greatness – Remember Us
Viewing ancient Roman ruins is always a strange experience. Even the least impressive ruins deserve reverence for surviving two thousand years of wars, conquests, progress and regress. On the day I visited the Romkert my viewing was proscribed by the site being closed. Even then, I was still able to see many ruins. While looking at them I tried to imagine “what once was”. That is difficult without knowledge of Roman architecture and urban planning, something I lack. My experiences with these ruins like all the other ones I have seen was melancholic. I saw them as “what will never be again”. A feeling of intense loss overcoming me. Ruins like these always make me wonder what, if anything, our own civilizations will leave behind. The scattered membrane of a smart phone, shrouds of mass produced cheap clothing or the remains of a few buildings that were not meant to last, but somehow did.
Rome was the most powerful civilization in world history until its decline and fall. What little of it still survives today, at least physically, relies to a large extent for its preservation on cities like Szombathely. The city values the Roman legacy because it brings prestige to this relatively unknown provincial hub along with tourist dollars. It drew me like a magnet from the train station, through the main square, past the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace to the Romkert. I just had to see what was left, even if I was disturbed when contemplating its true meaning. To be an ancestor of greatness is better than not ever being great at all, but powerful empires all eventually falter. Greatness wanes, power ebbs, cities crumble, populations disappear and all that is left are some barren stones, cracked walls and vague mosaics. These are visited by people like you and me who want to understand it all. Oddly enough, we end up realizing that the way ancient societies are remembered today, will be the same way we are remembered in the future. That is a humbling thought.