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Sunday, May 22nd, 2005, 03:53 AM
Panonian gladiators

(Esther Vécsey)

The success of the recent movie Gladiator demonstrates continuing public interest in the ancient past. Hungary has some of the richest remains of the ancient Roman Empire. Sites such as Brigetio (Szôny), Arrabona (Gyôr), Aquincum (Óbuda), Campona (Budatétény), Gorsium (Tác), Savaria (Szombathely), Sopianae (Pécs), and Intercisa (Dunaujváros) were just a few of the flowering colonial seats.

After the Via Appia, Pécs has the largest system of Early Christian catacombs. There is a stunning bronze portrait bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius is in the collection of the Museum of Antiquities of Pécs. Ruling from AD 121-180, his conquest of the Germanic tribes in the north is seen in the opening scenes of Gladiator, (with the aging Emperor played by Richard Harris). Known as the "Philosopher-Emperor", Marcus Aurelius wrote part of his Meditations in Pannonia (western Hungary).

Ongoing archaeological digs and research reveal more and more details about the varied peoples who lived in the western part of the Carpathian Basin under the mighty Roman Empire from the first to the fifth centuries AD. For more than 500 years, from circa 30 BC to 495 AD, the area between the Danube and the Dráva Rivers was known to the Roman world as the colony of Pannonia. It was the major northeastern defense-line of the Empire against surrounding Illyrians, Celts, Marcomans, Scythians, Germans and other "barbarian" tribes, a constant threat to the Romans. The crossing point of the valuable Amber Route from Rome to the Baltic was at the Danube, giving it further strategic importance. Pannonia was named for the resident "Pannon" tribes conquered by Julius Ceasar's heir, Augustus. His well-trained legionaires crossed the Julian Alps, pushing northward, along the left bank of the Danube. In his will Caesar Augustus wrote, "I have extended the borders of the Empire to the line of the Danube…" His successor, Trajan, conquered Dacia (Transylvania) in 106 AD. Legionaries were recruited from all parts of the Empire - those who came to Pannonia mostly hailed from Africa, Syria and Iran. At first turf and timber forts with earthen huts as housing formed the military camps surrounded by deeply dug ditches. The Romans were great engineers and developed highly practical and easily reproducible methods of building. They used bricks and concrete to make arches unknown in ancient Egypt and Greece.

They built their colonies on a classical urban plan based on the square and grid, with intersecting roads, the cardo and decumanus, north-south and east-west, and four gated towers allowing access to the walled-in city. The Commander's station, the altar, temple, and religious center, the public market, baths, and Forum were located in a public square in the middle.

The camps were strategically placed at 20 - 30km distances from each other along the limes (boundaries), with 1,260km-long ditches protecting them. These stretched from Siscia (Sisák), Sirmium (Mitrovica), up to Vindobona (Vienna). It was the legionaries' job to build and maintain the forts, aqueducts, and the Roman roads connecting them with Rome, accessible by mounted post-riders in only 11 days.

The Imperial Governor's seat was based at Carnuntum, in present-day Austria. On the Emperor Hadrian's (A.D. 117-138) order, Aquincum became the capital of Lower Pannonia; its Governor resided in a Villa Urbana on an island in the middle of the Danube. The nearby "Hercules Villa" was built circa 150 AD for a high-ranking civil servant. The third century was the golden age of Pannonia, which had been raised to the status of a Colonia in 194 AD. The Romans brought security, highly organized government, a system of roads, literacy, and an elevated standard of living for the local populations. Stone fortifications replaced the wooden huts of the military camps. Semidetached cities with insulae (houses) were constructed for the top brass and their families. Having completed their 25 years of service, many veteran legionaires chose to remain in the colonies where they received their pension, a bequest of land, intermarried and absorbed aspects of local customs.

Sumptuous country estates of the wealthy dotted Pannonia. The Roman villas were built on the classical U-plan, with spacious atrium, cubiculum (inner court, bedrooms) and cenaculum (dining room) giving onto private gardens or natural scenery, they were equipped with state-of-the-art central heating (hypocaust), baths and sanitary facilities.

The hypocaust heating system can be seen at Aquincum, while in rooms V and VI of the National Museum the helmets, swords, cuirasses, armor, bugles, and shields of the Pannonian legionaries are on display, together with an astounding recreation of a quadriga (carriage) used by the gladiators in the fearsome chariot races.

Also on view are stunning jewels of 24 karat gold set with semi-precious gems belonging to the aristocracy and upper classes.

The home-spun textiles shown on the figures include a nice Scotch plaid wool mantle. These were worn by the diverse ethnic groups of Pannonia, where the climate required heavier clothing than Rome's Mediterranean climate. Upper class Romans in the colonies dressed and lived as their peers in Rome, served by slaves. They paraded their status and class in the public forum, and in meetings of the provincial intendants. The men wound their ever-widening white togas, edged with red or imperial purple around their fine homespun white linen tunics, securing the toga on one shoulder with a gold fibula (brooch-pin) set with finely carved chalcedony, garnet, opal, and even precious stones.

The women wore a light tunic, with jewelled belt at the waist, and profuse jewelry, make-up and the latest style of hair-do, in curls piled high, aping the ladies in the Imperial Capital.

While the Roman citizens in the colonies worshiped the Emperor, the soldiers had their own religious traditions. The Parthi-speaking legionaires of Pannonia who hailed from Syria and Iran, observed mysterious Mythraic rites, as witnessed by the carved bull-decorated altars in the remains of the huge military camp found some 20 years ago when the overpass from Árpád bridge was being built, and can be seen in the huge underground museum under Florián tér. Lively portraits and fascinating inscriptions on ancient tombstones testify to the cosmopolitan population of Pannonia, seen in the National Museum's Lapidarium (stone collection) in the interior courtyard and lower level of the museum.

The entire colony celebrated seasonal feasts, like the Floralia which included Greco-Roman theater, bloodthirsty wild animal games and gladiators who fought to the death in the arena, the sand-covered floor of the amphitheaters.

The hefty muscle-bound Pannonian gladiators pictured in the mosaics and frescoes on the walls at Florián tér fought in the elliptical amphitheater (132 meters in diameter), the largest in the colonies, and in the smaller amphitheater nearby in Óbuda.

Gladiators were recruited from the ranks of prisoners of war, slaves, and criminals as well as volunteers with adequate physical and psychic ability. In effect they were slaves with no citizenship, swearing an oath of allegiance to the lanista, their owner and manager, who kept them well fed and in condition. After a fight, a gladiator's life depended on the whim of the Emperor or the Governor as well as the audience, who showed approval or otherwise by holding out a clenched fist with outstretched thumb. (Traditionally it was believed thumbs down meant that they would die, thumbs up meant their lives were granted, although the latest research now suggests the gestures worked in different ways. The symbol for death may, in fact have been an upturned thumb jabbed toward the heart.) The fighters often became the object of adoration.

Gladiators who survived could attain fame and wealth similar to soldiers. Thus they could ultimately buy their freedom and return home, or settle in the colonies with wealth and status.

The colorful annual festival of the Floralia recreates the Greco-Roman rites welcoming spring. Based on scholarly research, imagination and artistic know-how, these festivities are replayed annually at the major ancient Roman sites of Tác, near Székesfehérvár where the festive event is held in late April-early May. At Aquincum-Óbuda the festival takes place this weekend, Saturday-Sunday, May 21-22. (See information box) Featured in the Aquincum program held on the main square in front of the 100-year old museum, are the triumphal procession of the soldiers and citizens, led by the Imperial Regent of the Roman Province of Lower Pannonia, with Vestal Virgins of the goddess of spring, Flora (flower), legionaires, gladiators, sacrificial animals decked with wreaths of flowers, as well as merchants, bakers, beggars and even thieves.

Games, crafts, demonstrations and activities alla Romana take place through the day. The main attraction, a "fight to the death" by fully armed gladiators is followed by a feast of ancient Roman dishes, baked goods, wine and drinks.