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Hungary’s Roman Past
Hungary’s Roman Past


Before the Magyars arrived on the plain of Hungary over a thousand years ago, the area was already settled and for a long time was a province of the Roman Empire. The pre-Magyar period has its own fascinating history. As Anthony Everitt writes in his book on the Emperor Hadrian, back then, "Pannonia was as far away from civilization as it was possible to reach within the boundaries of the Empire in Europe." It was a place famous for the fact that beer was brewed instead of wine, and there grew a famous plant called saliunca that the Romans used for its sweet smell, especially effective for people with bad breath and smelly armpits.Aquinicum (spelled “Aquincum” today, located within the boundaries of today's Budapest) was home to one of the four legions stationed in the province, the II Adiutrix Pia Fideliae, or the 2nd Reserve Group, Loyal and True. Hungary comprises, especially pre-1920, the ancient Roman province of Pannonia. This ancient Roman province linked the Danubian frontier with Illyricum, Noricum and Moesia. It was home of a varied people, with a mainly agrarian lifestyle, ethnically comprised of Celts and Thracians, but mostly Illyrians in the east and south. Former Governor of Pannonia Superior, historian Dio Cassius, wrote that its people were brave, bloodthirsty and high spirited, and you can still see a measure of this spirit in the cuisine of modern Hungary, in the lifestyles of its people and in the characteristics of its relationships. Some say the name of the province derived from the habit of cutting old clothes and sewing strips of the garments together to patch up holes in what they wore. The word pannus means piece of cloth, rag or patch in Latin, whereas the word pannosus means ragged. The country of Pannonia, as the Romans referred to it, was thus named, in part, from the frugality of its people in industriously making use of what they had, recycling through use of repair that which had been discarded, or for what the growing Roman elites at the time would find little use.

 Roman policy did not include the country until the time of the Emperor Augustus. In 35 BC, he launched a punitive expedition, with the aim of subduing the local tribes, rife with internal squabbles and instability. He thus initiated a Roman presence that would come to define the civilization of the troubled area which was in the center of competing barbarian efforts. These included Germanic peoples, pre-Gothic forces and the tribes coming from Asia. Prior to the consolidation of his authority as first citizen, Augustus was in need of preparing for his battles with Marcus Antonius.

 In 13 BC, Marcus Vinicus was dispatched by Rome to conquer the territory and was later joined by Agrippa and Tiberius, who ultimately decimated the opposition, tribe by tribe.

 It seems that by the year 8 BC, the area was relatively pacified by barbarian standards, and Tiberius was succeeded by Sextus Appuleius, who commanded the area as its governor. In 8 AD, the area once again rose in revolt under the chieftain Bato, and was matched by Tiberius who returned with a slow and methodical strategy that brought the dominion under Roman governance. At the time, Tiberius had been engaged in a campaign to fight Germania, when he was diverted to Pannonia. The Romans were being inundated with attacks, from Macedonia to Germany. Augustus feared an invasion to Italy, and even informed the Senate that such a risk was possible. He moved his court to Rimini as the combined threats to Rome were the worst since Hannibal.

 When they were attempting to decide what to do with this new border land, the proposal to add Pannonia to Illyrium (roughly modern Croatia) was met with protests, and it was agreed that the best course of action was to manufacture an actual provincia. Pannonia was divided into two parts by the emperor Trajan in 103 AD: Pannonia Superior and Pannonia Inferior. This division plays rather large in the history of the area, even up to the 20th century, marking great cultural differences between Pannonia Superior (which today would be around Bratislava and that region), and the area of Pannonia Inferior (which would be modern Budapest, south into Yugoslavia).

Pannonia was first and foremost a military encampment. Legionary camps were placed there following the partial stabilization of the area, and camps sprung up around these bases that formed the initial Roman communities. These supportive communities were called canabae. Subsequently, colonies of veterans were formed in the province, and these veterans, along with their families, were rewarded for prior service by being granted large tracts of land on which to farm and live the remainder of their days in the countryside. This stabilized Rome the city, while ensuring a measure of imperial support away from Rome, and also ensured the spread of the Latin language and culture.

Emperor Hadrian promoted the cities of Carnuntum (capital of Pannonia Superior) and Aquinicum (Pannonia Inferior) to full city status or “municipium”. With this came various provincial rights within the law and the religion, and visiting dignitaries from these cities were accorded a measure of standing when traveling throughout the Empire.

Pannonia Superior - occupied the west from Carnuntum to Aquinicum.                                              Initially, it was the main seat of government for the legate. The capital city boasted theatres, ampitheatre basilica and forum.

Carnuntum was a city east of Vindobona (Vienna), and was an area originally settled by a Celtic people. It was of strategic importance because of its proximity to barbarian invaders. It had the largest ampitheatre in the province.

Pannonia Inferior - included Aquinicum and Sirmium                                                                       Pannonia was home specifically to legionary auxilia, where soldiers received Roman citizenship after 25 years of service. They served on the frontiers, patrolling, watching, holding the limes (borders) and assisting the legions in battle. Sirmium was near modern Belgrade and was the center of naval operations. Emperors Domitian and Trajan took up operations here during the wars with Dacia, and so did Aurelius during the Micromannic Wars, of which he wrote in his “Meditations”. The city boasted notable brick structures, baths, granaries and palaces.

 Some notable personalities in the history of pre-Magyar Hungary Aelius - Lucius Aelius Verus Caesar. He was Hadrian's heir apparent named in 136 AD. He was appointed governor and died here in 138 AD.

Hadrian was commissioned military tribune in Aquinicum, where he served prior to becoming Emperor.

Septimius Severus – Emperor, 193-211 AD, was governor of Pannonia Superior. During his reign he quelled revolts in Britannia, repaired Hadrian's Wall, brought stability to Roman politics following Commodus and the auctioning off of the principate. He was father to Caesars Caracalla and Geta.      

Aurelian - Lucius Domitius Aurelianus 270-275 AD. Born of humble parents in Sirmium, about the year 207. Aurelian had a successful career, becoming a great general through his skills and courage. He was a cavalry commander who was proclaimed Emperor by his troops at Sirmium. During his short reign, he completely restored the Roman Empire to its former extent, with the exception of Dacia (modern Romania), which was finally regarded to be hopeless, and so the Roman troops withdrew from there. He destroyed the Palmyrian Empire in the east and the Gallo-Roman Empire in the west. He celebrated a triumph in Rome, and built a strongly fortified wall around the city, most of which still stands today. He fell victim to a conspiracy by his officers, and was assassinated in Turkey. 

Marcus Aurelius Probvs – 276-282 AD. Also born in Sirmium in 232, he became a leading general. Following the deaths of Tacitus and Florianus, he became undisputed master of the world. He attempted to restore the economic life of Rome and achieved great success. He introduced viticulture into the west, and had he been able to carry on his reforms, the State may have recovered much of its ancient power and prestige. However, he was murdered in the fall of 282 AD by a group of mutinous soldiers who were angry for having to work on public works projects, such as roads, etc.

 Following the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Empire fell into complete chaos and disorder for over 50 years, until the reign of Diocletian, who divided the empire into two parts. The Roman influence over Pannonia faded, but reminders of it surface even today as new construction crews dig deep for foundations of modern buildings.

 Luis Bevilacqua has a great love of history, and works as a government administrator. He is a former spokesman for the Bridgeport City Council. He has promoted ethics reform and good government in the State. As National Committeman, he re-founded the Young Democrats of Connecticut , representing the group in Washington DC. He has traveled to Rome twice.

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