Having spent last July in eastern Austria participating in the excavation of the ancient Roman town of Carnuntum, in February Prof. Miriam Raub Vivian shared some of her experiences in field archaeology, and explained the historical importance of Carnuntum for the Romans--a history that nicely parallels the rise and decline of Rome's imperial fortunes. As a town on Rome's northern frontier, Carnuntum was part of Rome's borderland experience and thus central to its story of expansion and forced abandonment in the face of invading Germanic warriors. Carnuntum was initially established as a military camp in 6 CE, so by a happy coincidence, the current inhabitants of Petronell-Carnuntum were celebrating their 2,000th anniversary during Prof. Vivian's stay. As was typical in the development of Rome's empire, this military camp attracted locals, who traded with Roman soldiers and sometimes intermarried. Thus an established town grew up near the legion's camp.
Carnuntum's importance continued to grow, both politically and economically. In the early 2nd century it became the provincial capital, and goods from many places found there way there, as it was at a crossroads of the two most important Central European trade routes and was also on the amber route, which ran from the Baltic to the Adriatic. By the later 2nd century, however, Carnuntum was under attack from Germanic tribesman.
The emperor at the time, Marcus Aurelius, spent three years there commanding troops and re-establishing security. Germanic warriors broke through the frontier again in the late 4th century, and Rome--and Carnuntum--never recovered.
Today the town is small, but still sees many travelers--largely tourists--who seek it out for its Roman past. Indeed, the excavation caters to Austria's tourism industry, and the "Archaeological Park" at Carnuntum sports a replica of one of the homes that was excavated--and fully documented--at the site. Tourists can visit two amphitheaters in the area, one for the legion and one for the town. Such amphitheaters remain the model for the modern stadium with its seats on a grade to enhance the view. These arenas offered gladiatorial games, long popular among the Romans. There are also ruins from two bath complexes in the town. The existence of two of these within an easy walk of one another underscores the Romans' love affair with bathing. They are furthermore a testament to Roman engineering, with its heating (hypocaust) and sewer systems and waterworks. Exploiting gravity, Roman builders ran heated water through the various rooms of the bath complex (hot, warm, and cool rooms), and then this water flowed on through the latrines, whose sewer lines flowed on under the street and, in Carnuntum's case, down into the Danube River. Whereas in the Roman capital some eleven beautiful aqueducts supplied millions of gallons of water to the city each day--for bathing, drinking, cooking, cleaning--it was a well at Carnuntum that brought forth the needed water for the residential bath complex. The at-least-1,700-year-old wooden well casing was exposed during Prof. Vivian's stay last summer.
There were other treasures discovered last July as well: numerous coins, fragments of wall paintings, a die (for dice games), and a fallen altar to Silvanus (a god of agriculture and hunting). The altar may very well have been pushed over and broken in half after Emperor Theodosius I issued his edict in the late 4th century outlawing all pagan practices. Perhaps the most beautiful find was this small bronze vessel (pictured above), perhaps used at the baths to hold olive oil, used in lieu of soap.
For the Romans, Carnuntum was just one corner of their vast world, but it can nevertheless--even today--provide a rich picture of life on the outposts of their empire, as Prof. Vivian illustrated in her History Forum presentation.