Travel: Hadrian MCM

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David J Breeze visits Aquincum in Hungary to celebrate its connection to a famous emperor.

The conference delegates explore the south gate of the legionary fortress and the replica columns flanking the road into the fortress in the archaeological park.

The 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s accession as emperor on 11 August 117 has been celebrated in style all year in Aquincum, the Roman town and military base next to Budapest, Hungary. A special exhibition was mounted in the museum, dedicated books and leaflets were produced, and modern art was commissioned. The year of celebration was rounded off by a conference in November, under the chairmanship of museum director Orsolya Láng.

Aquincum has much to celebrate. Hadrian was twice based there. In AD 95/96 he served as tribune in the Second Legion Adiutrix, presumably for the normal period of one year, returning ten years later to govern the newly created province of Lower Pannonia. In 118, Hadrian was in the area once more. It was presumably on this occasion that he witnessed the feat of the Batavian soldier Soranus, who swam the Danube fully armed and fired one arrow into the air and split it with a second before it fell, boasting that no one else had achieved this. At some stage, Hadrian granted municipal status to several towns in the province and established a veteran colony at Mursa (modern Osijek), the last to be created in the empire.

A replica Roman house has been built to display the plaster found at the site during construction of a shooting range.

The museum at Aquincum was opened in 1894 and soon extended. It was built to display the finds from the surrounding Roman town, which is now an archaeological park. In recent years, with the strong support of the municipality of Budapest, the park has been extended, a new permanent exhibition opened (in another historic building), and a replica house built to display the Roman plaster found when part of the site, then an army base, was turned into a shooting range in 1941. Several boxes of painted plaster were recovered by the excavator Tibor Nagy, but re-examination of the artificial banks created round the shooting range has produced more than100 additional boxes. Aside from this, the army was thorough in their removal of the Roman remains, so it was possible to erect the replica house on sterile ground. Other new buildings house the staff running the museum, archaeological park, and excavations, which continue almost seamlessly; the archaeological remains at Aquincum cover a vast area, now within the expanding city of Óbuda.

The hotel where I stayed had been erected in 1991 on the site of a 1st-century cavalry fort and late Roman fort at the southern end of the archaeological complex, but only after excavation had been conducted; today some of the walls of the later fort are marked out beside the hotel.

Towards the centre of the archaeological zone, which stretches for at least 4km along the right bank of the Danube, sits the legionary base. Today, two of its gates, a centurion’s house, and the legionary baths are visible, incongruously displayed below the junction of two flyovers. Elsewhere, two amphitheatres are open to the public, as well as the ‘Hercules villa’.

The 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s elevation to emperor has been a source of celebration in Aquincum. Here David Breeze examines a modern take on the emperor’s familiar face which was commissioned for the anniversary.

Limits of empire

The early history of Aquincum was one of the subjects of the conference on Hadrian. It would appear that the earliest civil settlement was on the bank of the Danube at the point where the road leading east through the Buda hills met the river. The buildings, including Grubenhausen, spread along the road and were over time converted into a Roman town. Visible in the archaeological park is the east–west road and a second crossing at right angles. Along the roads are houses, shops, baths, and a market. The military bases were established some distance to the south. Recent excavations have located a rural settlement at Lágymányos, even further south, beyond the hills of Buda and Gellért.

A legion was first based here in the AD 90s as part of a gradual shift of military deployment from the Rhine to the Danube, culminating in the conquest of Dacia, modern Transylvania, in 106. It is not surprising, therefore, that Romanian colleagues came to Aquincum to offer discussion of issues in that province, including the evidence of inscriptions and what they can tell us about military deployment, and, of particular relevance in view of the actions of Hadrian, who withdrew from territory north of the Danube, consideration of how we evaluate the evidence for the abandonment of forts.

Hadrian’s actions in Pannonia drew us back to local considerations, such as the development of the towns of Brigetio, Mursa, Scarbantia, and Savaria, as well as Aquincum itself. In these papers, the results of new excavations were presented and old views challenged. For me, one of the more interesting coincidences of evidence was that for the abandonment of civilian communities outside several legionary bases in the late 3rd century. At Brigetio (modern Szőny), it appears to have been an ordered evacuation with the houses systematically abandoned, only rubbish having been left. It might be presumed that this was in the face of invasions from beyond the Danube, but exactly the same phenomenon has been recognised in the civilian settlements along Hadrian’s Wall. For instance, at the Roman fort at South Shields, civilian buildings to the south-west of the fort appear to have been deliberately demolished in the late 3rd century and the area turned over to agriculture. What was happening that would produce the same result on two very different frontiers?

Today the legionary baths at Aquincum lie beneath the curving carriageways of a flyover.

Hadrian was a great traveller, and it was no surprise that the papers of the conference embraced many of the provinces he visited, from Dacia to Britain and Egypt to Algeria. The eclectic mix of papers was one of the joys and stimuli of the conference. All members of the conference were impressed by the vitality of archaeological life in Aquincum. This was emphasised in the final two papers, which focused on the behind-the-scenes activities that led to the highly successful year, appropriately branded HADRIAN MCM, supported by the mayor and municipality of the third district of Óbuda, with visitor numbers substantially raised and work continuing on the site to improve visitor facilities.

If you have not been to Aquincum, do go and you will see not only fascinating archaeology, but also what must rank as one of the top 100 artefacts from the Roman empire: its water organ. This was donated to the collegium of textile dealers by Gaius Julius Viatorinus in AD 228, before being damaged in a fire and ending up in a cellar, where its surviving parts were found in 1931.

This article appeared in issue 87 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Images: O Láng and D J Breeze

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