Celts, Romans & Anquincum

The Celts

In ancient times, Pannonia, bounded on the north and east by the Danube River, on the south by Dalmatia, and on the west by Noricum and parts of upper Italy, including parts of modern day Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It received its name from the Pannonians, a people presumably of Illyrian blood who populated the entire Transdanubian region in ancient times. The Illyrians were conquered in the early third century BC by another Indo-European group, the Celts.

The Celts that occupied the Transdanubian region brought with them the La Tène culture characterized by a geometrical ornamentation in its art. The Celts established many settlements and engaged in agriculture, manufactured iron implements, and became proficient in pottery making. After 60 BC, the Celtic tribe of Eraviscan populated much of the area of modern Budapest. They settled in what is today called Békásmegyer and Tabán, north of Gellért Hill. Great fortresses, called oppida in Latin, were the feature of the settlements the Celts built all over Europe, used for defense and as religious and economic centers where coins were minted. The Budapest oppidum, discovered in the 1990s, is one of the earliest townships discovered in the region.

The oppidum initiated a separation of class in society as houses were built in the oppidum apart from those of the agrarian population. The Celtic society evolved into quite an advanced culture that allowed individuals to build fortunes that can be seen by the riches and clothing found in tombs. Houses were built in a rectangular shape from wood or wattle. They were supported with a pole in the center of the house supporting the gable roof. The houses were recessed in the ground or carved into caves.

These Celtic settlements were eventually subjugated by the army of Augustus Caesar around the time of the birth of Christ. The Romans remained in the region for more than four hundred years, during which time Roman defenses were built along the Danube. The line of defense built by the Romans where known as limes, which would take on a special importance by the end of approximately 40 AD.


Romans & Aquincum

Along these limes where built camps such as Aquincum that can be seen in present day Óbuda, which was one of the four legions built by the Romans in the Province of Pannonia. Between the larger camps, auxiliary camps were set up twenty to thirty kilometers apart. The ruins of two of these have been discovered in Albertfalva and Nagytétény. In 106 AD, East Transdanubia became an independent province called Pannonia Inferior, with Aquincum as its seat. Pannonia Inferior played a very significant role as a frontier against barbarian attacks. Several governors of the region were to become emperors. The first was Hadrian, who ruled the province between 106 and 108, when he constructed the governor's palace on the Danube Island near Óbuda. In 124, Hadarin made the town of Aquincum a municipality that made many of the Celtic subjects Roman citizens. The rule of Roman law was quickly established in Panonian cities such as Aquincum. Aquincum was overseen by a governor, responsible for the army and public administration. The governor lived on the Danube Island in a two-storied palace.

The center, or castrum, of the legion camp in Aquincum once stood where present-day Flórián Square in Óbuda now stands, near Árpád Bridge. The camp was home to nearly six thousand troops. The civilians in Aquincum came from places such as northern Italy and western European provinces. Many were educated in literature, mythology, and law, bringing with them much of Roman culture. The Roman army sought not only to conquer, but also to spread their culture and civilize all with whom it came in contact. Many of the remains from the legionary camp and the civilian town of Aquincum can be found all throughout Óbuda such as the pedestrian underpass at Flórián Square. High and very thick walls and a double moat surrounded the castrum. Inside the walls were barracks, assembly halls, officers' quarters, stores, arsenals, workshops, the baths, gymnasium and infirmary, a network of streets, and in the middle was the headquarters of the commander. On the southern edge of the town was the larger of the two amphitheatres of Aquincum. With a capacity of over ten thousands, the monumental structure with its tiered seating testifies to the fondness of the Roman populace for bloody animal and human contests.

Two kilometers north of the legionary camp was the civilian town, containing some fifteen thousand inhabitants. A municipal council of one hundred members conducted its administration. The town officials, two mayors, the supervisors of public buildings and public works, and the financial counsels, were chosen from among them. The public officers had to have private fortunes-the minimum of which was set-since they received no remuneration for their function. When Aquincum was conferred municipal status, the local Eraviscan aristocracy, wealthy landowners, rose to acquire significant influence in town government. The interiors of the villas unearthed in the area show the splendid lifestyle of this section of the population.

It was freed slaves who had managed to acquire a fortune of their own who made up the class of those engaged in trade and finance and the order of priests. The lowest municipal order was that of the artisans, who formed corporations, or collegia, to protect their interests and carry out public duties. One such corporation was responsible for fighting fires. From the ruins of their headquarters a singular archaeological find, a portable water organ, has been discovered.

The civilian town also had it amphitheatre, though it held a mere three to four thousand spectators. Adjacent to it are the foundations of the quarters of those who had the chief role in the contests-the gladiators.

Villages close by with a Celtic population were considered suburbs, and their inhabitants were without Roman citizenship. The administration of these was assigned to the civilian town. Such outlying settlements were Vindonianus (present day Békásmegyer) and Vicus Basoretensis (present day Kiscell).

From the late second century on the composition of the civilian town, and its leadership, changed. To joining the original Celtic and Eraviscan population and subsequent settlers, mostly from Italy, Gaul, and Germania, cam immigrants from the east, Syrians and Jews from Asia Minor who later became the majority in the government of the town.

This same change also led to the spread of eastern cults and mystery religions, such as the cult of Mithras. The remains of seven shrines have been uncovered. Behind the altars and sculptures of Mithras with one knee on the bull as he sacrifices it. He is surrounded by numerous symbolic images, including the Sun, Moon, a Snake and a Scorpion. Not much is known about the cult, apart from its popularity with the army and the fact that there were two grades of initiation its followers had to pass through.

From the beginning of the third century Christianity spread in Aquincum, with an early Christian basilica erected around the middle of the century. Its spread affected the lifestyle. The bloody contests in the amphitheatre were discontinued, and valuable artistic objects connected to the earlier cults, such as sculptures of the gods, fell prey to the new religious enthusiasm.

For more than four centuries, the region had flourished as part of the world's most developed and organized civilization. Yet by this time the Empire, including most of its cities, were under siege by invasions from the east. By the beginning of the fifth century, the civilian town of Aquincum had been destroyed; only a garrison of Huns and Germans remained in the fortress on the Danube shore. In the fortified military town, which offered protection to the civilian population, the local inhabitants were joined by newly arriving Germans, Sarmatians and, sometime later, the Avars. Houses were shared by several families, the large rooms were subdivided, and the altar slabs were plastered with mud to be used as fireplaces. While the Roman lifestyle disintegrated, the new settlers found themselves in a vastly more civilized way of life wit the buildings and equipment of which they were in possession. The workshops of the Roman town were still in operation during the Hun occupation, and it was in these that they manufactured their daily implements and women's jewelry.

The Huns, let by Attila, could not adapt themselves to living in stone dwellings. They refused to settle in Aquincum for quite some time. The name Buda (originally designating what later became Óbuda) through legend stems from Attila's younger brother who, while Attila was in the West, renamed Aquincum after himself. Although the name probably came later in the eleventh century after the Árpád dynasty settled in the region.

In the late 430s, the first wave of Hun invaders destroyed everything in the town that could have been used in its defense. For a century afterwards, Pannonia, Aquincum, and the area Budapest occupies today were continual battlegrounds. A succession of bloody skirmishes was fought on horseback, with one band barely distinguishable from the next. The Avars ruled in the area from the last third of the 6th century, and under them the region recovered some of its former importance. Initially they settled only on the Pest plains, their chieftains making their seat on the north of Csepel Island. Later arrivals established their main settlement on the Buda side.

Source: Géza Buzinkay, "An Illustrated History of Budapest" (Corvina Books Ltd., Budapest: 1998).
Image: A mosaic floor depicting the story of Hercules and Deianeira. Museum of Aquincum, Budapest.