Aquincum, Roman ruins, history of the museum

Regular archaeological excavations have been carried out in the territory of Budapest for more than 150 years, but new archaeological monuments still appear during constructions. The history of Aquincum can only be reconstructed with the help of excavations, as few historical sources mention Pannonia and the cities along the Danube.

History of Aquincum

02_128913.jpgAround the beginning of our time, Emperor Augustus pushed the borders of the Roman Empire to the Danube, by occupying Transdanubia. The conquered territories were inhabited by poor and underdeveloped Illyrian and Celtic tribes compared to the Romans, who were regrouped by land changes and relocations. This was also the case in Aquincum, where the Eravasci inhabitants of Gellért Hill mostly settled in Óbuda and the plain of Albertfalva, whose task was to supply the Roman army.

03_237171.jpgThe Romans had to fortify the crossing point around Gellért Hill and several other crossing points on the Danube with a military camp. The legionary camp of 6,000, located on the banks of the Danube opposite the Hajógyári (Shipyard) Island, was inaugurated in 89. We count the founding of Aquincum from this date. Pannonia soon began to develop, and trade routes leading to it formed. The incoming imports met the needs of the local military. Romanization (mixing of the customs, language and religion of foreign and local people) reached the border area of the province by the end of the 1st century.

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Aquincum took over the achievements of civilization at an incredibly fast pace: it was supplied with utilities and its water supply was provided by plumbing. In addition to the army, the affluent citizenry also developed a certain need for comfort and abundance. This is evidenced by the wall paintings of living rooms, stucco decorations, heating system, sewerage, plumbing and many objects found among the ruins.

Aquincum lived its heyday in the 2nd century, when it gained the status of a city (municipium) and already had a municipality. This period of peaceful development (Pax Romana) was interrupted by the Marcomannic wars between 167-180. The city was set on fire several times by enemy troops, a large part of the population was taken prisoner, and another part was financially ruined. The fortresses of Transaquincum and Contra-Aquincum (today Március 15. Square) were built as a lesson of the wars.

Magyarország, Budapest V., Március 15. tér, a római romterület (Contra-aquincum) feltárása

Hungary, Budapest V., Március 15. Square, excavation of the Roman ruin area (Contra-aquincum), 1970 – Fortepan / Hlatky Katalin-Főkert CC BY-SA 3.0

Aquincum was rebuilt from the ruins at the beginning of the 3rd century. The population of the city was swollen significantly after the devastation. In addition to the locals, many artisans and traders from Asia Minor, North Africa and the Balkans appeared to make the population more colourful. In the 4th century, Emperor Diocletian divided the province of Pannonia into four parts, Aquincum became the military seat of the new province of Valeria, and so only the military commander remained here.

Because of misery and civil wars, the population of the empire turned to mystery religions that promised a resurrection after death and redemption for all. Also in Aquincum, the followers of the Persian sun god Mithras were in majority in the 4th century. By this time, there were already fightings between the sects that had destroyed “pagan” values in the name of Christianity. In Aquincum, the god statues of the former shrines were destroyed during this period.
Due to constant attacks, the population gradually left Aquincum and moved to the interior of the province, or even farther away, so less Romanized barbarians (Germanic and Sarmatian ethnic groups) had to be settled in their place. However, Rome could no longer resist the expansion of the Huns; in 433, the territory of Pannonia was handed over to the Huns under a treaty. When the Romans officially left Aquincum, the once flourishing civilization no longer had a trace within the decaying walls of the city.

Aquincum ruins

When we hear Aquincum, we mostly think of the fenced ruins next to Szentendrei Road, which belongs to the museum, but we can also find other ruins in many other places, in today's Óbuda area and in different parts of Budapest. The ancient city consisted of three parts: a military city, a legionary camp (its headquarters are located on the site of today's Flórián Square) and a civic city. Some of these have already been excavated and are free to view.

Magyarország, Budapest III., Óbuda – régészeti ásatás a mai Aquincum Hotel területén, szemben az Óbudai zsinagóga és a Lajos utca 131. számú ház. 1979

Hungary, Budapest III., Óbuda - archaeological excavation in the area of today's Aquincum Hotel, opposite the Óbuda Synagogue and the house at 131 Lajos Street.  1979 – Fortepan / Szalay Zoltán CC BY-SA 3.0

The first remains of the city, a piece of the famous Roman underfloor heating, was discovered by a vine-grower in Óbuda in 1778, but professional excavations did not begin until the late 1800s, when the excavated objects and building remains were also preserved.

Along Szentendrei Road, between Aquincum and Kaszásdűlő, you can see the restored section of the aquaeductus (aqueduct), which provided the inhabitants of the civic city, but also the legionary camp and the military town in some periods with running water. It obtained its water from 14 springs unearthed in the area of today’s Roman Baths, which were piped to the military amphitheatre.

The smaller of the two amphitheatres of Aquincum, the so-called Civic Amphitheatre, is located outside the northern wall of the city. The circular amphitheatre hosted various sports competitions and gladiator fights. This building had the largest capacity in the city, so it was also used for more serious public affairs, such as political meetings or city festivals.

Magyarország, Budapest III., Aquincum – polgárvárosi amfiteátrum. 1940

Hungary, Budapest III., Aquincum - civic city amphitheatre. 1940 – Fortepan / Somlai Tibor CC BY-SA 3.0

The military amphitheatre at Pacsirtamező Street was built in the middle of the 2nd century and was the seventh largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. Its oval arena is even larger than the Roman Colosseum is. Its ruins were discovered relatively late in 1925 because no one would have thought that there were two round theatres in the city.

Kép az Óbudai Amfiteátrum kiásásáról, 1937

Picture of the excavation of the Óbuda Amphitheatre, 1937 – Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum CC BY-NC-ND

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Cella trichora is an early Christian tomb chapel built around 360, the remains of which can be visited today at the intersection of Körte and Raktár streets. The Latin name means three-leaf clover-shaped cell, three small buildings. The early Christian population was buried in such chapels. The one in Óbuda, which was built on the remains of earlier houses, was excavated in 1930.

The Praetorium, a palace complex of Roman governors, is located on the Hajógyári Island of Óbuda. The ruins excavated so far represent an outstanding value in the Roman heritage of Budapest owing to the interior decorations, wall paintings and mosaic floors. The most important finds from the site are presented in the permanent exhibition of the Aquincum Museum.

Aquincum Museum

On 10 May 1894, the exhibition building of the Aquincum Museum opened its doors to the public, and valuable artefacts unearthed in the territory of Budapest became available for viewing. It is interesting that Lajos Nagy excavated the fire brigade of the civic town in 1931, and found the remains of the water organ of Aquincum here.

During the bombings of the Óbuda Gas Factory in World War II, the museum building was damaged in 40%, the area of ruins was hit by 12 bombs, and almost half of the finds were destroyed. The permanent exhibition reopened in 1948, and then during the 1950s and 1960s, the Camp City Museum and the Hercules Villa were opened to the public as well. In the 1970s, 80s, 90s, research and reconstruction work was carried out continuously. The ruin garden belonging to the museum is one of the largest Roman archaeological parks in Hungary, which shows about a quarter of the civic city of Aquincum.

Magyarország, Budapest III., Aquincum – romkert és múzeum. 1975

Hungary, Budapest III., Aquincum - ruin garden and museum. 1975 – Fortepan / Ed Sijmons CC BY-SA 3.0

The expansion of the Aquincum Museum was completed in late 2000, when the office building and warehouse base were handed over. In 2007, the former transformer house on the museum grounds was attached to the Aquincum Museum, and it became the new main building of the museum. The new building gives place to the permanent exhibition “Rome in Aquincum”, one of the special features of which is that it presents the museum’s world-famous musical relic, the Aquincum water organ, in worthy conditions, more than 75 years after its discovery.

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The so-called Painter’s house, which is the reconstruction of a Roman civic house from the 2nd-3rd centuries, can be found on the ruin area. The authentically restored Sanctuary of Mithras is also located here, where visitors can gain an insight into the religious life of Romans.

Based on the cobbled streets and the excavated and preserved foundation walls of the buildings, we can get an idea of the characteristics of Roman urban architecture, the size and location of the most important public buildings of the former Roman city, such as the forum, the basilica (house of legislation) and the public bath. The lapidary houses the largest collection of Roman stones in the country. Most of the collection of more than a thousand pieces also have inscriptions; a significant part of its tombs contains depictions in relief, often showing whole pictures of the deceased.

Alexandra Bognár
student of ELTE BTK Institute of Library and Information Science

Translated by Zita Aknai


Cover picture: Hungary, Budapest III., Aquincum – ruin garden and museum. 1920 – Fortepan CC BY-SA 3.0

Sources:

History of Aquincum:

Ruins:

Museum:

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