Forty hours on a Romanian bus, or 80 days on a Roman road, Part 3: Illyria

The road from Aqueleia to Maribor

The Lipizzaner stallions during a US presidential visit in 2008 to Brdo Castle, Slovenia. Photo by Eric Draper via Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly after 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, May 26, the Saiz Tour bus crossed into Slovenia and pulled into the first rest station near the exit to Lipica, home of the Lipizzaner stallions of Viennese fame.

The rest area was modern, definitely post-Yugoslav, but serviced mostly cars still coming from Italy, at least it did on that Saturday afternoon. All around it, the countryside appeared smooth and rolling, the trees covering any sinkholes or caverns that might have been inserted into the hills. The geography of this area was the archetype of what around the world would be called karst terrain, where cracks in limestone layers below would easily erode away with water infiltration, creating huge holes that could swallow a house whole. Spectacular caves with stalagmites and stalactites could be found by the patient spelunker in terrain such as this.

Politically, the country was an important emerging republic when I first came to Europe in 1991. It was in Ljubljana that the Slovenes, for many years unhappy with being the economic support for the rest of the Yugoslav republics, finally became fed up with Slobodan Milosevic’s seizure of a second term in the rotating presidency of the Yugoslav Federation (that year, the term was supposed to have gone to a Croat), and decided to declare independence. Naturally, Belgrade sent tanks to restore the unity of the federation, but as civilians overturned trams to block the center of Ljubljana, it became clear throughout Yugoslavia that this meant the beginning of the end. A couple weeks later, the tanks pulled away, the helicopters stopped attacking cars exiting the tunnels from Austria, and the war shifted southeastward into Croatia and Bosnia.

I still thought back to how much life might have been different if I had gone south from Bonn instead of north in that week before the opening shots were fired. As a journalist student, I had followed the Slovenia situation as what I predicted would be the break in the iron curtain. I had been wrong in that prediction, as the break actually took place when Czechoslovakia refused to halt the exit flow of East Germans fleeing through its territory to the West. Their escape eventually inspired people in Berlin to tear down the wall put up by the East German communist government to keep fellow Germans who lived in the police state that surrounded them from crossing into the more liberal other Germany. As 1989 turned to 1990, the two post-World War German states reunited, East German leader Eric Honneker and leading members of his Stasi secret police were arrested, and after a brief period of rejoicing, West Germans began grumbling about the new tax burden that was involved in modernizing their newly liberated compatriots.

If I had gone south to Ljubljana, instead of north to Britain, my mind shouted that clearly I wouldn’t be an out-of-work civil engineer trying to sell a farm in western Hungary. But could-have-beens aside, this was Slovenia today. It was a very clean and green country, already a member of the Euro zone, and a culturally advanced nation, advertisement for “Afro-Coffee” complete with cartoon images of black Americans sporting retro 1970s versions of Afro hair styles notwithstanding.

After the rest stop, the motorway passed through what appeared almost showcase reconstructions of villages, with rebuilt churches towering overhead. A road construction crew was at work on a Saturday afternoon, and it almost looked as if it were a state crew that was doing the repairs on the motorway, rather than a state-hired contractor. Eventually, the hills flattened into plains as the town of Maribor, the easternmost Slovene city, appeared in view. There would be no further stops in this new state as the bus passed a roadside marker showing Budapest to be only 335 kilometers east.

The road from Aquileia to Poetovio

Remains of Emona in present Ljubljana. Photo by Ziga via Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman road system extended out of Italia from Aquileia toward Emona and the Pannonia plains beyond. Emona was founded in year 15 as the Colonia Iulia Aemona, a defensive castrum or fortification manned by the Legio XV Apollinaris in what is today the southwest part of the old town of Ljubljana. This was the year after the Celtic kingdom of Noricum to the north fell to the Romans.

The city was the easternmost extent of the Diocese of Italia Annonaria, and played a role in the young Emperor Theodosius I’s victory celebration after defeating the usurper Magnus Maximus in the Battle of the Save River in the late 380s. However, this celebration marked the heyday of Emona. By 452, Attila marched with his horde of eastern barbarians and had the city destroyed. It was rebuilt shortly after the leaderless Huns were repelled following his death, but then was again destroyed during the Ostrogoth attack on Oadacer in 493, and finally in the Lombard invasion of Italy in the sixth century. Shortly after the Lombards left it a smoking ruin, the ancestors of the Slovenes moved in and built their own nation from this one-time corner of the Empire, eventually defending it as a tributary state of the Franks against Magyar invasion.

By 1144, Castrum Leibach, or in Slovene, Ljubljana, emerged at the edge of the ruins of Emona. In 1335, Ljubljana became the capital of Carniola in the Holy Roman Empire. Under the Hapsburgs, the city would be renamed Laibach until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. When World War II partisans restored pre-war Yugoslavia as a communist state, Tito apparently regarded the ruins of Emona to be of little value, and finally ordered the walls of the ancient city destroyed by 1963.

Further along the Roman road, the path entered into the actual Diocese of Illyricum in the southernmost part of Noricum Mediterranum Province. The Celtic Kingdom of Noricum was formed into a Roman province in 16 B.C., and was much valued for its source of hard steel, used to create highly sought after swords. The hills north of the road marked the start of this ore producing region.

The road eventually emerged from these hills at Poetovio (present Ptuj, regarded as the oldest city in Slovenia), not far from where the medieval “March Castle” of Styria would eventually be built in today’s Maribor.

The road from Maribor to Budapest

A view of Badacsony on the western end of Lake Balaton, from Balatonmariafurdo. Photo by Thomas Orth via Wikimedia Commons.

The evening sun shown down as the bus crossed the border into Hungary. Again, the ticket required staying on board the bus through this country, and finally getting off in Romania. So it was with alert, but bitter, attentiveness that I watched the rolling farmland pass by, and after the exit for Balatonszentgyorgy (Balaton St. George), Lake Balaton finally come into view.

Shortly after that exit, a couple Shell stations straddled an overpass, marking a rest area that the bus would not stop at. The overpass carried Highway 71, the road that connects Balatonmariafurdo (Balaton Maria Baths) with Marcali, the nearest big town to the village that I was trying to get to.

The main concern at this point was the apparent speed at which the bus was moving getting to its destination. Back in Madrid, the girl selling the ticket had said that the bus would arrive at 8 a.m. in Timisoara. This apparently was supposed to have been “by 8 a.m.” as the sun was only setting by the time that the bus passed Siofok, the vaunted “party capital” of Hungary. Darkness had not fully settled in when the bus pulled into a rest stop south of Budapest, on the road to Szeged, and the Romanian frontier.

The road from Poetovio to Sirmium

The excavation of the former palace of Sirmium (present Sremska Mitrovica), capital of ancient Pannonia. Photo by sm022 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman road system did not continue on from Poetovio to Lake Pelso, present Lake Balaton (Ptuj’s connection with the Slavic Balaton Principality would not begin until 840), but instead followed southeastward down the Dravus River to the Danubian frontier in present Serbia, past cities Mursa (present Osijek, Croatia) and Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (present Vinkovci) to the very capital of Illyricum, the city of Sirmium.

Described by Amiannus Marcellinus as the “glorious mother of all cities,” Sirmium held a great importance, one that should have been enjoyed by a city of 100,000. However, modern archeologists suggest this to have been an exaggeration, as their work in present Sremska Mitrovica show the existence of a city capable of holding only 7,000. One legend suggests it was named for a King Syrmus, who founded the city, but most modern explanations say that the city was named for the flow of the nearby Sava River.

By 14 B.C., the city was taken by Rome with the help of the Celtic Scordisci tribe and gained colonial status in the following century. By the rise of the post-Diocletian tetrarchy of 293, Sirmium became one of the four capitals of the Empire, a dizzying rise for an Illyrian city. By 379, as Illyrium was divided into a western Pannonia and an eastern Dacia and Macedonia, its importance was diminished, though it still remained the capital of that portion of Illyria under the Western Empire. More than a century before the Ostrogoths invaded this part of the Empire as a client state of the Huns, Sirmium had become an important Bishopric in the late days of Rome, and it was here that the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire, Theodosius I, accepted his title in 378. Before the Byzantines briefly restored control over the city in 567, Sirmium had become the capital of Gepid King Cunimund. By 582, however, the Byzantines lost the city to the Avars, who left the ancient city in permanent ruins.

At Sirmium, travelers could cross one of two bridges over the Sava River, either the Ad Basanti or Artemida bridge, to head southward into the western part of Moesia Prima, or continue eastward on the Via Militaris toward the ancient Dacia Traiana province and Thrace. The next city along the old military highway was the ancient wool mill town of Bassinae, today a rural ruin near the village of Donji Petrovci, west of Belgrade. During the Hunnic invasion of the Roman Empire, Attila’s son Dengizich laid waste to this important economic center in Pannonia Secunda province. However, after the Ostrogoths rose up against the Huns, Dengizich suffered a stunning defeat against the Amal clan leader Valamar in 468. This plunged the city into a period of endless fighting between barbarian successors to the Huns until the Byzantines established control of the city by treaty in 510. As with Sirmium, it fell to the Avars by the end of the 6th century.

Where the Via Militaris crossed the Sava River one last time before finally entering Moesia was the city of Singidunum, located in the present capital of Serbia, Belgrade. Although it was never as important as its neighbors, Sirmium in the west and Viminacium in the east, Singidunum and its Pannonian neighbor Taurunum (present Zemun) nonetheless were highly important military fortresses protecting the Sava River communities from the Iazyges tribes of the Banat plains (the location of present Timisoara) after the fall of Dacia. In the year 86, the city became the headquarters of the legion designated for the defense this section of military road, the Legio XIV Flavia Felix. Its veterans populated the city (the orientation of the streets later dictated the orientation of streets in Belgrade), and its engineers built masonry walls around the legion’s fort in present Kalemegdan as well as the bridge over the Sava, one that no doubt collected tolls.

Long after the fall of Dacia to the Daco-Getae and Gothic alliance in the third century, in 441, the city and legion fell to the Huns, who sold off all its inhabitants as slaves. Singidunum was raised as Attila’s son pressed westward into Illyrium. After the Hun horde collapsed in 454, the Sarmatiae claimed the city as their territory until the Ostrogoths seized the region in 470. After 16 years under the Gepid Kingdom, the Ostrogoths evicted King Cunimund and held the city until the treaty of 510, when it was given over to the Byzantines. By 535, the Eastern Empire had restored the city, holding it for a half century before the arrival of the Avars. As with many Roman cities in the area, Singidunum was sacked and left a ruin in 584. By 630, the Byzantines brought in the Slavs to drive away the Avars, and these Slavs eventually formed modern Serbia. A couple centuries later, the Serbs would build their “white city” on the Roman ruins, creating the “Beligrad” or Belgrade we know today.

But before the Huns under Attila’s son Dengizich destroyed it, beyond Singidunum, the Roman road fully pressed onward into Moesia, the first province in what would after Diocletian become the Dacia Diocese. It passed the town of Monsaurcus on its way to the gateway of Dacia Traiana, the city of Viminacium. Situated in present Kostolac about 90 miles southeast of the Moesia frontier fortifications on the Sava River, Viminacium was a city of 40,000 protected by a major Roman military camp, the headquarters of Legio VII Claudia, built at the junction of the westernmost road into Dacia with the Via Militaris. From this city, Trajan carried out his campaign to subdue Dacia, and it was back to here that the Roman soldiers withdrew in the third century. Its history after the fall of Dacia Traiana mirrors that of its westward neighbors.

The last stop on the Roman road into Dacia was the military camp at Lederata. Here, the road came to the bank of the Danuvius River, the modern Danube, beyond which were the riches of ancient Dacia itself, the furthest extent of Rome in the direction of the Ukrainian steppes. For nearly two centuries, its mines contributed to the wealth of the Empire, until the western Goths helped put an end to the subjugation of the Daciae in 270. This was where legend has it that the very Romanians on the Saiz Tour transport held their very ancient ancestry, in the mix of Daciae and Romans that were created in those years of Roman occupation. They shared with England this ancient commonality, of having hosted the Romans as subjects, and having eventually evicted them.

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