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.

A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.