Aquincum: Exploring the Ancient Roman City Under Modern-day Budapest
The ancient Roman city of Aquincum, now located under Budapest in Hungary, was once the capital of Pannonia on the northeastern border of the Roman Empire. From its strategic location on the banks of the Danube, its ruins are now one of Hungary’s main archaeological attractions. The determined effort of teams of archaeologists working over more than a century have uncovered its historic significance. From the remains of its impressive aqueduct, which ran where the busy roads of modern-day Budapest function today, to its amphitheaters and Roman baths, Aquincum acts as a reminder of the greatness of the Roman Empire.
The location of Aquincum within the Roman Empire. (Public domain)
The Roman Fort of Aquincum Drew a Crowd
Aquincum started out as a settlement for the Celtic Eravisci tribe, but when the Roman legions came they chose to use the same site as their main military fort ( castrum) marking their northern border on the Danube. Aquincum was a very important Roman fort, performing the task of creating an additional protective barrier along the borders of the empire, part of the system the Romans called the limes.
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Around 41 to 55 AD, a 500-strong cavalry unit, or alae, was stationed at the site. This was soon reinforced when an entire Roman legion was sent there no later than 80 AD. This legion comprised a considerable force of around 6,000 men, along with all their military equipment. As the fortress grew in size, so too did the city surrounding it expand to become a city of import.
The province of Pannonia was crucial to the Roman Empire, providing the Roman Army with a secure base. It was also close to the river Danube which was a tactical location allowing the Roman Navy access to patrol the banks of this critical waterway. By 106 AD the Roman Empire decided to bring about changes in Pannonia and Aquincum became the capital city in the region they now called Pannonia Inferior.
Aquincum started out as a Roman fort, which grew in importance over time. At one point there were about 6,000 men stationed there. (vukkostic / Adobe Stock)
The Rise and Fall of Aquincum as Pannonia’s Roman Central City
Due to its strategic location close to the Danube, the city became one of the most vital crossing points, allowing the Romans access to both banks. Towards the close of the 2nd century AD, Aquincum had a population of between 30,000 to 40,000 people living within it. Archaeologists have discovered that houses had central heating and there were public baths and shops. There were even amphitheaters close by, where Romans could hold celebrations to mark social events.
It was during the time of Emperor Tiberius that the cavalry camp was founded. By the time of the rule of Domitian, it had become a fortress for the use of Roman legions. When Aquincum became the new capital of what was now Pannonia Inferior around 106 AD, the civilian town of Aquincum was given the title of a Municipium by 124 AD. It was to rise even further in status, and by around 194 AD it had been deemed a Colonia.
During the 2nd century AD, the Romans built not one, but two Roman fortresses on the left bank of the Danube, across from the campsite of the 2nd Adiutrix legion. This legion had been moved from Chester in Britain where it had recently just completed building its permanent fort around 124 AD. These fortresses were named Transaquincum and Contra Aquincum. The last fort was built during the period of Diocletian.
It was around this time that Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman general remembered for much of Rome’s conquest of Britain, had completed his task of taking the Roman legions into Scotland. He was then asked to return to Rome. Much of the information we have about these events come from the Roman historian Tacitus, who also happened to be Agricola’s son-in-law. In his work De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (which translates as The Life and Character of Julius Agricola), Tacitus explains that Britain was no longer in need of four Roman Legions, so the 2nd Adiutrix was moved to the region of the Danube to bolster the area.
By the 4th century AD, the people called the Sarmatians were regularly attacking the area around Aquincum, putting the Roman fort under increasing pressure. As a result, by the years 374 to 375 AD the latest Roman emperor, Valentinian I, had overseen a range of new watchtowers and fortifications built along immense stretches of the Danube in his effort to control the invaders. But during the cold and stormy winter it was reported that he could not find ways to alleviate the sufferings of the city’s population from those effects.
Towards the end of century this area was given over to Gallia, the Latinized version of Gaul. But more changes were coming, so that by the early 5th century AD both the Germanic tribes and the Huns had arrived in Pannonia. Although the records state that the city was overrun, the Romanized peoples remained in the area. By the time the Huns took over the city, the Romans had deserted Aquincum.
Ruins of a dwelling within the civilian town of Aquincum. (Fekist / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Roman Foundations of Buda and Pest
By the Middle Ages, it appears that Buda had developed and grown from the Roman fort of Aquincum, while Pest had grown from the fort of Contra-Aquincum. Today the ruins of this magnificent legionary fort lie beneath heavily populated parts of the area known as Obuda, also the ancient site of Buda. At the end of the 19 th century, archaeologists began to excavate the remains of the ancient city. While there are some excellently preserved elements of Aquincum still visible, they are dispersed throughout the city, many of them lost over time, covered by roads and other modern constructions as the city of Budapest has expanded. These days, in many locations, only the outlines of the Roman architecture remain.
The ruins of both the Aquincum civil amphitheater and the Aquincum military theater can still be seen today in the Obuda district of Budapest. Nearby, visitors can also visit the Aquincum Museum and Archaeological Park, first opened in 1894, where relics of Aquincum are now on display. These include a mosaic and wall painting collection made up of floor mosaics, wall painting fragments, terrazzo sections and decorative marble wall slabs.
The excavations of the civilian town that was once located here has unearthed a wealth of information about what was once a busy town center filled with houses, shops, public buildings, and sanctuaries. There is even a long section of the decumanus (the east-west-oriented road) and cardo (the north-south street) visible, along which there were once rows of shops, public baths and sanctuaries, as well as the forum with its basilica. There are smaller streets with two shrines to Mithras, a sanctuary to the Goddess Fortuna, plus the ruined remains of workshops and dwellings.
Visitors to the museum can get a real feel of life in Roman Aquincum. (Civertan Grafik/ CC BY-SA 2.5)
Aquincum – City of Waters
Excavations in Budapest have uncovered the remains of as many as 25 ancient baths that were once part of Aquincum. This is understandable when considering that bathing culture was important to the Romans and bearing in mind that the word Aquincum meant “city of waters” in Roman times. Hidden under a mesh of overpasses beneath the Flórián Square transit station, the Thermae Maiores spa complex was used by the legions stationed at Aquincum. These baths provided a place for bathing, exercising and toilets for the thousands of soldiers who lived there.
Although it was common in most Roman forts for the baths to be built on the outside of the building in case of fire, at Aquincum they were placed inside the fort and opposite the headquarters building. There was also an exercise ground, or palaestra, where the soldiers of the legion would keep fit by exercising. The inside of the baths included the usual hot, cold and tepid rooms, plus a large pool where the soldiers could swim. During excavations, archaeologists found an inscription with the name of these baths, the Thermae Maiores or “Great Baths”. Today the majority of the ruined baths remain, but during modern roadwork some sections were damaged and lost.
Bust of the centurion Claudius Victor, one of the officers at Aquincum. (Bjoertvedt / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Remembering the Romans: Artifacts of Roman Aquincum
Inside the wonderful museum at the main site of Aquincum are the stunning remains of a portable organ made of bronze. This was found to be a musical instrument, and while known to exist in the Roman world, this is a rare example. It was found by archaeologists close to the south gate of the town. It seems that perhaps as many as three people would have been required to make it produce sounds. Inside the museum is a model which shows how the parts were all put together to make it work.
A plethora of artifacts have been discovered during excavations of the ancient Roman city. One example is a brass plate, gifted by a Gaius Julius Viatorinus to the local fire station in 228 AD. Another unearthed artifact was that of the coffin of a young female. The inscriptions tell of a 25-year-old Sabina, a very accomplished singer with a lovely voice, whose husband was the organist to the legion and was paid as such by the legion.
The Aquincum Museum includes a lapidarium, which contains a collection of about a thousand stone artifacts, including tombstones, sculptures and everyday objects. The museum also boasts a wood collection, made up of building materials such as beams, as well as a collection of coins filled with coins discovered during the many excavations.
The smaller Aquincum civil amphitheater was used by the town’s civilian residents at the time when Aquincum was an important city within the Roman Empire. (Civertan Grafik / CC BY-SA 2.5)
Unearthing Remnants of Aquincum’s Distinguished History
As befitting an influential Roman fort, the remnants of Aquincum bear witness to its distinguished history. Lying on the outside of Aquincum’s walls, archaeologists have uncovered two amphitheaters, both of which were in use during the time of the Romans. The smaller one of these, the Aquincum civil amphitheater, was used by the town’s civilian residents, while the larger one, the Aquincum military theater, was used by the Roman military stationed there.
Aquincum was fortunate in having an ample supply of fresh water in springs located nearby, more than enough for both their civil and military settlements. The main supply of water came from the springs at Római Lido, where archaeologists discovered what is left of timber spring houses, ceramic catch basins and even temples or altars for thanking the gods for this clean water. From here the main channel carried water south, where it fed into the aqueduct at 107 meters (351 ft) above sea level, running all the way to the legionary fortress which is located at Flórián Square. Aquincum Museum has created a stunning animated video of this water purification process and the Roman aqueduct which is still visible in some parts of the city.
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The history of Aquincum shows us that by the end of the 2nd century AD the city covered a large part of the area known today as Obuda within greater Budapest. Aquincum was to remain the capital of Pannonia Inferior until the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s reforms of its administrative position. When Hadrian was emperor he gave it municipal status ( Municipium), and later the emperor Septimius Severus granted Aquincum the tile of Colonia.
Example of mosaic unearthed in the ancient Roman city of Aquincum. (skovalsky / Adobe Stock)
Status Symbols of a Grand City at Aquincum
Excavations have shown that Mithras was one of the most popular gods in the town, and several such Mithraic temples have been found at Aquincum. The Aquincum Museum has published another fascinating digital reconstruction of the Symphorus mithraeum, a Mithras temple owed by Symphorus in the southwestern part of the civil town. Excavations uncovered a terracotta Mithras taurocotony, altars, frescoes and more.
Another Mithratic temple was discovered next to the home of a noble named Marcus Antonius Victorinus. He was identified when his name was found inside the Mithraeum. It seems that this noble citizen was prosperous, as a Roman villa has been found on the surrounding hills which also belonged to his family. Inscriptions also tell us he was a member of the town council ( decurio).
On one of the islands in the middle of the Danube lie the remains of what must have been an opulent Roman building, quite close to the fortress of Aquincum. It may also have previously been the site of baths for the more prosperous Romans. Many of the finds made at this site were transferred to Vienna which was at that time the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Excavations later uncovered that this was also used as the site for the Roman Governor. It was rectangular in shape with a courtyard, while the main wing looked onto the Danube and there were also two circular towers on each end of the wings. Inside, excavators found luxurious baths, latrines mosaic floors, statues of the Roman emperor, and in the courtyard they found a Dolphin-headed bowl made of marble.
The fortress of Aquincum followed the general layout used by Roman military engineers and builders. It had the central headquarters building and offices for the legate and his staff officers ( tribune), as well as an office for the praetor. The main barrack blocks for the legionaries lay in neat rows running along the east and west side of the fortress. It also had within it the medical hospital, known as the valetudinarium, where soldiers with a sickness or injury could be treated. Of the four original gates, two have been found and preserved, the best one being that of the south gate.
If you find yourself in the regional powerhouse that is Budapest, with its vast history and abundance of things to do and see, you simply can’t miss out on exploring the vestiges of the Roman Empire as it existed in the ancient city of Aquincum. Although much of the original city has been gobbled up by the present-day metropolis, Aquincum is one of Hungary’s top archaeological attractions due to its Roman treasures and the state of preservation of the areas rich Roman history.
Top image: The Military Amphitheater of Aquincum, in the Obuda district of Budapest in Hungary. Source: GezaKurkaPhotos / Adobe Stock
By John S. Richardson
Lengyel, A. & Radan, G. T. B. 1980. Archaeology of Roman Pannonia. Kentucky University Press.
Mocsy, A. 2015. Pannonia and Upper Moesia. Routledge.
Aquincum Museum. 2010. The Roman Period in Budapest.