Once a frontier, always a frontier. That was my thought as a friend and myself crossed the Austria-Slovakia-Hungary frontier. This frontier was ancient history for us since it existed during the Roman Empire. Presently the area is where the tips of east-central Austria, southwestern Slovakia, and northwestern Hungary touch. While we were within 15 minutes of Bratislava and half an hour from Vienna, the area was not overly developed except for the crisscrossing of motorways. With border controls abolished between the three countries after Hungary and Slovakia acceded to the European Union in 2004, it was hard to know which nation we were in if not for the language used on road signs.
The actual point at which all three borders met was in an anonymous field between Rajka, Hungary and Deutsch Jahrndorf, Austria. Gazing at the map, this border seemed almost arbitrary. Of course, I knew better. The post-World War I peace treaties had demarcated dividing lines that were still in effect today. Any place where frontiers meet in Eastern Europe (especially regarding Hungary) was once a point of contention, but another World War and then a Cold War had proved decisive. No one really argued about these borders anymore, economic prosperity in the form of EU membership had largely ameliorated extreme nationalism, at least along what was fast becoming an invisible frontier.
Carnuntum – The Imperial Centuries
Two thousand years ago, this area was also a frontier. One where the Danube Limes of the Roman Empire abutted the Germanic barbarian tribes. To the north was the Danube River which acted as a dividing line between the Roman and Barbarian worlds for over four hundred years. My friend and I were both ancient history buffs, so we spent an afternoon exploring this borderland. We first stopped in the Slovak town of Rusovce and visited Ancient Gerulata, the remains of a Roman military camp. The military had a formidable presence on the border, as well as a formidable task in fighting back barbarian incursions. From Rusovce we traveled by car just south of the Danube. venturing further west and crossing the Austrian border as we made our way to the spa town of Bad Deutsch-Altenburg and the Museum Carnuntinum.
Unfortunately, it was already getting late in the afternoon. When we discovered that the museum would be closing in 30 minutes, we headed another kilometer down the road to Petronell-Carnuntum, which had open air Roman sites. We were lucky enough to grab a map and guide at the Romisches Stadtviertel, a reconstructed quarter of the civilian city that grew up beyond the Roman legionary fortress that made Carnuntum one of the most powerful places on the frontier. The open air museum had some impressive ruins of the civilian city. This was only a sample of what once stood here. The population of the entire complex was upwards of 50,000. That would put it as the 10th biggest city in Austria today. Carnuntum may have been on the frontier, but it was it at the center of historic events on several occasions. During Emperor Trajan’s reign, at the height of the empire in the early 2nd century AD, Carnuntum became the capital of the province of Pannonia Superior, which sprawled across parts of what are now five separate countries.
Several different Roman legions were stationed in the military fortress for over four hundred years. No less a historical personage than Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent three years at Carnuntum where he wrote part of his seminal work, Meditations. Carnuntum was also where the historic meeting brokered by Diocletian between the Four Tetrachs (Junior/Senior Emperors of the Western/Eastern halves of the empire) took place in 308 AD. The fortress and civilian city also helped facilitate trade. When the Romans were not fighting barbarian tribes, they were trading with them for amber. The Amber Road crossed the Danube at Carnuntum. Another import into the empire, the barbarians, eventually took Carnuntum in 430 AD. Much of the former fortress and civilian city fell into ruin. In many cases, the materials from abandoned structures were used by new settlers to the area for use in building their own homes. In a few cases, the ruins were preserved by a combination of neglect and reverence. The latter explains the most striking artifact that me and my friend would visit, the Heiden tor or Heathen’s Gate.
Emerging Triumphant – Portal to the Ancient World
It was getting late. The day was moving slowly, but inexorably toward dusk. The sun had begun to sink lower in the sky. At best, there was half an hour of daylight left. We had just stopped to visit a reconstructed gladiator school. It was located on the same spot as the original. We also were able to visit the civilian city’s amphitheater which at one time would have seated up to 8,000 people. Now there was just stone and silence. For an area that had seen all too much war, in both ancient and modern times, the serene and peaceful state of the place as night closed in was a welcome respite. The serene setting had a calming influence on us, but I knew we had one last place to visit before we headed back across the border to Hungary. The map led us up a side road not far from the amphitheater. In a couple of minutes, we were pulling up in our car to a freestanding arch, standing alone and austere in a field. We had come to the Heidentor or Heathen’s Gate. It had been given the name many centuries after Carnuntum’s demise. Locals believed it was the remnants of a pagan leader’s tomb. That was far from the historical truth.
This arched monolith was the ultimate outlier, standing solidly in the earth and flanked by nothingness. It was a strange sight to behold, lacking any other similar structures to place it in the proper context. The Heidentor was the remnant of a four sided triumphal arch, that had been constructed in the mid-4th century to honor Emperor Constantius II (337 -361 AD). There was a plinth where a statue of the emperor would have likely stood. After parking the car, my friend and I approached the arch with a hint of trepidation. This feeling was mixed with a magnetic curiosity. It felt like we were approaching a sleeping giant, one whose presence had to be respected. The arch had stood up too much greater human and natural forces over the centuries. Its survival had been a freak of preservation, an improbable act that defied all threats to its existence. The actions of modern man had little effect upon it.
Passing Through – An Almost Religious Kind of Reverence
I reached out and touched the arch’s stone surface to make sure my eyes did not deceive me. The arch glowed in the waning light. Here was an ancient piece of the past that had somehow survived all the way to the present day. A spectacular, stand alone artifact of an ancient frontier city. Everything around the arch had disappeared, except the frontier on which it still stands today. And so, we passed through the Heathen’s Gate with an almost religious kind of reverence. Such was the homage we paid to its past and our present.
Click here for: The War That Will Not Go Away – Geza Nagy & Damak: Honoring Mystery & Memory (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #27)