BMCR 1998.06.13

98.6.13, Out of Rome, Augusta Raurica – Aquincum: Das Leben in zwei romischen Provinzstadten

, , , , Out of Rome : Augusta Raurica, Aquincum - das Leben in zwei römischen Provinzstädten. Basel: Schwabe, 1997. 337 Seiten : Illustrationen, Diagramme, Karten. ISBN 9783796510403. DM 54.

Dual biographies, evocative of Plutarch or not, have been in vogue recently. One thinks of Robert Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (1967); Desmond Seward, Napoleon and Hitler (1988); Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin (1991; subtitled Parallel Lives); or Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (1981) and Athanasius and Constantius (1993). The present volume offers a fascinating comparative study of the lives of two Roman provincial cities—Augusta Raurica, near Basel, and Aquincum, on the site of present-day Budapest. The results are engaging and instructive, for these two cities along the Rhine-Danube frontier of the Roman Empire in fact benefit from such parallel presentation.

Augusta Raurica (Augst), in Baselland, Switzerland, was located on the south bank of the Rhine about twelve miles up river from Basel. Inscriptional evidence ( CIL 10.6087) informs us that Lucius Munatius Plancus planned the colony on the site in 44 BCE, likely in accordance with Caesar’s desire to secure protection against incursions into Roman territory from the east. The lack of remains dating to before 15 BCE, however, may mean that the actual foundation did not occur till Augustan times. The territory of the colony was seized from the Raurici. The site gained importance as a military base beginning in the campaigns of Tiberius and Drusus in the central Alpine region in 15 BCE. In the first century CE, it was the base for a division of the legion stationed at Vindonissa and for two legions commanded by C. Pinarius Clemens during his subjugation of the Agri Decumates (73-74 CE). It suffered badly from the depredations of the Alamanni in 260 CE, and by the fourth century had become largely depopulated as Roman forces relocated to other sites in the area.

Aquincum was located at the Danube crossing at present-day Budapest. It, too, was the site of a military base. Beginning in the reign of Tiberius, an auxiliary cavalry contingent ( ala was stationed there, and from the time of Domitian it was the site of a legionary castrum; it became the provincial capital of Pannonia inferior in 106 CE. The civilian settlement acquired colonial status by the end of the second century, when additional fortresses were constructed across the Danube from the legionary camp. The site suffered at the hands of the Sarmatii in the fourth century; Roman troops vacated late in the century and then, in the early fifth century, the town was lost to invading Germans and Huns, though a vestigial Roman population remained. The towns of Buda and Pest developed in the Middle Ages from the Roman installations on opposite sides of the Danube.

The book is a collaborative effort by teams of Hungarian and Swiss museum staff and archaeologists, some thirty-five contributors in all, and is meant to accompany a special joint exhibition at the Aquincum Museum in Budapest and the Römermuseum Augst near Basel. 1 The project-leader for both the exhibition and the companion volume is Karin Kob, of the Augusta Raurica team. The publisher, Schwabe and Co., has turned out a handsome, sturdy volume, working within rather complicated layout requirements. The entire text is printed in both Hungarian (in green print on the left hand page) and German (in blue on the right), though this division could not always be preserved in the case of the consistently full and informative illustration captions, especially on pages that included text along with more than one picture. More than 300 photographs, line drawings, and maps are presented in monochrome (green or blue), with the exception of two splendid four-color overview drawings of the cities (pp. 32-34), reminiscent of the work of David Macaulay. The illustration program as a whole is of high quality, with sharp, detailed images well positioned on the pages. In short, the book is both a fine example of the catalogue genre and much more.

To indicate the extent to which the book surpasses its generic conventions, I will survey the topics covered in each of its six sections. Throughout the volume, text is equipped with appropriate maps, line drawings, and photo illustrations of sites and archaeological finds.

Section 1, “In the Course of Time,” offers a general overview or, so to say, curriculum vitae of the two towns. Commonalities are noted (their location on rivers, along the northern border of the Empire), and the history of the sites is sketched for the periods prior to Roman conquest (the Celtic phase), during Roman occupation, and subsequent to the departure of Roman military forces. There is also a useful sketch of archaeological exploration of the sites in earlier times and at present.

Section 2, “From Drawing-Board to Construction,” approaches the sites from the perspective of city planning. The infrastructure of the city of Rome is taken as a sort of benchmark and both typical and peculiar features of the provincial towns are described. Spatial planning, the insula -system, public monuments and temples, baths, residential architecture, facilities for public entertainment, military barracks, and other installations are given due attention.

Section 3, “The City as Living Space,” focuses on the life styles of the inhabitants and the availability of various essentials, amenities, and creature comforts. Again, brief discussion of conditions at Rome provides a comparative basis for discussion of the provincial cities. Cooking, dining, tableware, and the quality of the menu are succinctly handled. In addition, wall-painting and mosaic work are examined, as are textile production and fashions in dress. The day-to-day lives of soldiers, both infantry and cavalry are outlined as well. XXX   Section 4, “Markets and the Economy,” characterizes the agricultural, commercial, manufacturing, and business aspects of provincial life in the cities and their environs. Concluding the section is a discussion of numismatic evidence, with helpful information about the currency system of the empire and the use of coin types for imperial publicity.

Section 5, “Evidence of Diversity: Religion and Cult,” addresses the complexities of religious belief in the towns, again with preliminary information about the mix of belief systems at Rome itself. Evidence for worship of Roman gods and for ruler-cult is analyzed, but there is also instructive consideration of indigenous deities and cults, and eastern imports, including early Christianity.

Section 6, “Eternal Darkness?” is devoted to burial monuments, grave goods, and necropoleis and to evidence they provide regarding the socioeconomic status of the occupants of the graves.

An appendix provides rather extensive listing of relevant scholarly literature, a list of illustrations with credits, and a roster (with addresses) of the institutions and équipe-members involved in production of the book.

Out of Rome does perform the function of exhibit guide or catalogue, but far exceeds that raison d’être. It is an excellent tool for anyone desiring an up-to-date, professional discussion of the archaeological evidence for provincial city-life along the Rhine-Danube border during the imperial era.

1. A website at announces that the exhibit will run from 28 March to 1 November 1998.