I first visited Aquincum in 1976, nearly 60 years ago, and I was bowled over by the archaeological remains, outside as well as inside. I have been back many times and am still enchanted – and each time amazed – by the wide range of archaeological sites spread across this north-western suburb of Budapest. They can be explored in shopping malls as well as the wonderful archaeological park, all helping to create one of the Roman Empire’s most spectacular and fascinating sites.
My first visit was as a member of the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, which was being held in Hungary. We were introduced to Aquincum by Klára Póczy, director of the museum. She was the first of the celebrated female museum directors of the site that I have met. Klára was succeeded by Paula Zsidi. The current director is Orsolya Láng, who runs not only the museum and the archaeological park, but is also responsible for the Roman-period archaeological investigations in its wider territory, and represents the Roman frontier archaeology of her country within the international archaeological community. These renowned women continue to ensure Aquincum’s place on the map through their stewardship and leadership of the ongoing and widely respected programme of archaeological research.
The 1976 Congress was my first visit, but I have returned, leading my own groups and attending the regular conferences organised by museum staff. One such conference was held to mark the 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s visit to the Danube provinces, focusing on that emperor’s activities in the area (see CWA 87). Publication of its proceedings is expected shortly.
Aquincum was established as a military base nearly 2,000 years ago, during the reign of the emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79). At first a cavalry unit was stationed here in 73, but in 89 the military installation was upgraded when a legion took up residence. Thereafter, until about 409, Aquincum was the home of Legion II Adiutrix. Vespasian raised this unit in 70, following the civil war ignited by the death of Nero. After the legion spent a spell serving in Britain, the volatile situation on the Danube in the 80s led to it being sent eastwards and participating in Trajan’s Dacian Wars of 101-106. Thereafter, Aquincum became its permanent base, and at the same time the governor of Lower Pannonia took up residence in the city. The relationship between the legion and its new base is one of the powerful stories of Aquincum.
Early archaeological research
It was in February 1778 that the first Roman ruins were found in Aquincum – and they were published in the same year! The digging of a lime-pit in Óbuda led to the discovery of part of the legionary baths, the first historic monument to be protected and go on display in Hungary. The ruins were preserved on the orders of Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary, who insisted that the remains were not backfilled but left open, with a protective cover, for the public to view. Two hundred years later, further remains of the building were uncovered and the whole of the baths complex revealed. The Baths Museum was extended, and is still open to the public, albeit now sitting under a motorway flyover.
The focal point of Roman Aquincum today is its museum and archaeological park. These, however, do not lie in the military quarter, but in a Roman civilian town some 2km to the north. The museum was founded in 1894 to house and display the artefacts uncovered in excavations undertaken as modern buildings spread northwards during the industrial development of Budapest.
The foundation date of the museum is significant. The 1890s were one of the most-important decades in Roman frontier studies. In Scotland, in 1890, the Glasgow Archaeological Society started investigating the Antonine Wall, while its sister-body, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, commenced its programme of examining Roman forts in Scotland. In 1892, the Reichs-Limeskommission was founded in Germany and started its research programme on the Roman frontier there, to be followed by a similar institute in neighbouring Austria. On Hadrian’s Wall in England, too, 1892 was an important year, as it marks the start of modern scientific excavations on the frontier. So Aquincum was, and is, part of a great international movement.
The civil town
Yet the museum is only part of the story. The Classical-style museum building sits within an archaeological park. The Roman buildings displayed here are houses, shops, and a market, facing on to two streets crossing the town; beyond lies the civilian amphitheatre. This town was one of two civilian communities at Aquincum. The second lies immediately beside the legionary fortress and was more closely dependent on it. Here you would find some soldiers’ wives, children, and in-laws. This settlement would be a fertile recruiting ground for the legion. Evidence from other provinces indicates that by about the year 200, half the recruits for the local legion would hail from the adjacent civilian community: they were born castris, meaning ‘in the camp’.
The northern town at Aquincum lay on an important route. In 194, the emperor Septimius Severus raised both towns to the status of a colonia, the highest municipal rank. Severus had a particular link with the people of Aquincum, because in 193 he was governor of the neighbouring province of Upper Pannonia. In the disturbed conditions that followed the murder of the emperor Commodus on the last day of 192, Severus made his bid for the purple. Support from the legions in both Pannonian provinces allowed him to secure victory over his two rivals: Clodius Albinus in Britain and Pescennius Niger in Syria.
In the second half of the 3rd century, the town fell into decline and eventually appears to have been abandoned. This was part of a pattern recognised across the empire from the north-west coast of Britain to Egypt. The reason is not understood, but may relate to the Cyprian plague, which swept across the eastern and central provinces in the 250s and following decade.
The legionary base
While the legionary bathhouse had been uncovered in the 18th century, it was not until the 20th century that details of the fortress itself were elucidated. It was only in the 1970s that the area of the base could be defined. These discoveries were made as new housing estates were constructed and an improved transportation system created. Moreover, the military history of the site assumed a greater complexity. It is now known that there were two 1st-century auxiliary forts, two legionary fortresses, and a 4th-century base built under the emperor Constantine the Great.
The nature of the redevelopment of the area of the fortress allowed several of its buildings to be retained and put on public display. These include two of the enormous fortress gates, internal buildings, and sewers, as well as copies of inscriptions. There is also a second amphitheatre, this one for soldiers.
Conservation at Aquincum
The cultural resource managers at Aquincum long ago faced the issue of presenting the archaeological remains to the visiting public in a manner that would make them more understandable. They therefore took the significant step of adding some stones to the walls to raise them to a relatively uniform height. But – and it is an important but – a red line made of plaster was inserted between the top of the genuine Roman masonry and the modern additions. Aquincum was not unique in its approach to ‘restoration’. The Marquis of Bute, who rebuilt the medieval Castell Coch and Roman Cardiff Castle, used a course of slate to distinguish between the original and the replaced stones, while at St Andrews Cathedral his restored buildings incorporated stones of a different colour from the originals.
While we might not use the same technique at an archaeological site today, it is now impossible to conceive Aquincum in any other way. And, importantly, the modern stones serve the purpose of protecting the original stones below them.
Modern Aquincum remains true to the vision of its founders 130 years ago. The museum not only has an internationally important collection of artefacts, including its world-famous Roman water organ, but a regular round of temporary displays. The buildings in the archaeological park obviously require maintenance, but it has also been possible to extend the remains on display and erect new laboratories and storage facilities for the important collection of finds. The archaeological staff continue to research and publish the material in their care. Regular conferences are held. In these ways, public interest in Roman Aquincum is maintained and enhanced, while the archaeological world is kept informed of new discoveries and interpretations. At the same time, the staff of the museum maintain watch over new development projects in the area of the forts and towns, and undertake rescue excavations when required.
In fact, the interests of all parties are satisfied. This is achieved not least through the range of material on display, in the museum, in the collection of inscriptions and sculpture, in the civilian and military buildings, and, for the real aficionado, the different conservation techniques used to preserve the Roman remains of this remarkable site for future generations. This is a real success story and, 57 years after my first visit, I offer the director Orsolya Láng and her colleagues my congratulations on maintaining the vitality of one of the Roman Empire’s frontier stations.
Margit Németh (2013) The Aquincum Baths Museum and the Relics of the Legionary Fortress (Budapest: Aquincum Pocket Guide 3).
Paula Zsidi (2016) Archaeological Monuments from the Roman Period in Budapest (Budapest: Aquincum Pocket Guide 4).
Orsolya Láng (2011) ‘The Civilian Town of Aquincum’, in Zsolt Visy (ed.) Romans on the Danube (Pécs: Regeszet Tanszek), pp.29-36.
Zsolt Visy (2003) The Ripa Pannonica in Hungary (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado).
Andreas Mócsy (1974) Pannonia and Upper Moesia (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
Nick Hodgson and David Breeze (2020) ‘Plague on Hadrian’s Wall’, Current Archaeology 365: 28-35.
All images: courtesy of Orsolya Láng, unless otherwise stated