Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Crossing the Carpathians

Leaving Hungary: the road from Esztergom

The ÖBB Railjet train passing Mosonmagyarovar, between Gyor and Wien. Photo by Joliet Jake via Wikimedia Commons.

At around 3:45 a.m., I woke briefly to see the first light of dawn, and then fell briefly asleep again until the security guard returned. He asked if I was going back to Budapest, and I told him that I was actually heading on to Gyor, the big city between Esztergom and Bratislava. I figured I had the best chance of getting to the Slovak capital from there.

A couple espressos from the coffee dispenser helped wake me up, as I waited out the morning run to the big city, a major settlement in Royal Hungary during the height of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. The driver came in about 45 minutes before the run, did his pre-drive routines, and finally a few minutes before departure, let everyone aboard. The trip cost about 2000 HUF to my destination.

After the sun rose over village houses on this ancient stretch of river, I dozed off, and didn’t really wake up again fully until the line entered Gyor itself. It passed its signature city hall on the way into the bus terminal.

I’m not sure how it is that Hungarians travel to Slovakia in this post-Trianon age, but apparently it does not involve going to Gyor. There were no Slovak bus runs from this city. I checked on the train, and there was a train that would take me to Wien instead. That would have to do, I thought to myself. I bought my ticket and then used up as many Forints as I could in road food before getting self and baggage to the platform.

The train that arrived from Budapest was an Austrian “Railjet.” Apparently an attempt to compete with airline companies, the Railjet concept was to create a smooth and fast ride with all the features seen on an airline. The train went up to speeds of 160 kph while I was on board. A pitiful would-be steward pushed a drinks trolley every so often up and down the corridor in our Economy car. It appeared that the passengers in the Business Class car were serviced a bit more personably, somewhat like First Class on an airline.

The train passed through very flat Hungarian farmlands in a straight stretch of track. As it approached green hills, it crossed over the modern frontier between Austria and Hungary. As the farming country turned to rolling hills, for a brief moment, a passenger could glimpse southward and see the Nieusiedler See. Had I sold the farm, this was my first intended destination, the birthplace of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths (and briefly the Visigoths). If I have it right, he is perhaps the oldest ancestor to my family that can be traced back on a tree, and for whom a birth and burial place can be located (he is buried in Rimini, Italy, the second location I would have visited had the farm sold).

The hills kept getting larger, along with the buildings, as we approached Wien. Tall towers welcomed us to Meiding Station; construction there had progressed a bit in the 2-1/2 years since I was last here. Shortly after Meiding, the train pulled into Wien’s Westbahnhof.

The Roman Pannonian frontier along the Danube

The Danube River bend north of Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Philipp Weigell via Wikimedia Commons.

The frontier of Roman Pannonia was pretty much the Danube River. To the east of Aquincum, present Budapest, were the Iazyges people, a people closely related to the Sarmatians of present Ukraine who roamed the empty Banat plains between the river and the Dacia frontier along the Tisia River.

North from the ancient Illyrian settlement of Mursa (present Osijek, Croatia), the Dravus River marked the entrance into what in the later years of the Roman Empire would be known as Pannonia Valeria. These were the lands of the Andizetes, a somewhat rebellious Illyrian tributary of the Celtic Scordisci tribe that was centered in the towns around the wine-producing colonies of Sopiana (present Pecs). On the frontier between the Dravus and Sio rivers stood several defensive posts: Ad Novas (present Zmajevac), Ad Militare (present Batina), Altitum (present Kolked), Lugio and Florentia (within present Dunaszekcsõ), and Alisca (present Szekszárd in Tolna county, Hungary).

North of the Sio River (now an artificially maintained canal), the road passed through the lands of the Eravisci, the subdued people that lived between Aquincum and Lake Pelso. These people, said to have been ruled from a camp on Gellert Hill in Budapest, shared the lake shore with the Celtic Hercuniates on its north shore, and the Oseriates, remnants of the Breuci tribe of Illyria that weren’t sold into slavery upon being subdued, in present Somogy county. However, their eastward frontier was protected by Roman troops from several outposts in present Hungary: Alta Ripa (present Tolna, 10 kilometers north of the Alisca border fort), Lussonium (present Dunakömlőd), Annamatia (present Baracspuszta), Matrica (present Százhalombatta), and Campona (present Nagytétény).

Aquincum, the capital of Pannonia Valeria, located within present Budapest, was for a time the seat of the Second Adiutrix, or Auxiliary, Legion. This legion got its start under Emperor Vespasian in year 70, and was initially deployed to quell the Batavian rebellion in Germania Inferior, or present Belgium. After the Batavi tribe sued for peace, the legion was deployed into present Scotland and Wales for a time, based at present Chester, but by year 87, they were deployed to Dacia by Emperor Domitian. By 106, after Dacia was conquered, the legion was based at Aquincum, where it took part in campaigns as far east as the Parthian and Sassanid empires, and westward along the Germania frontier.

North of Aquincum, the river passed into the Pillis and Visegrad mountains and curved westward, going upstream past the outpost of Ulcisia Castra (or the “Wolf Castle,” protecting Aquincum’s northern approaches at present Szentendre) heading toward Cirpi (present Dunabogdány) and Pone Navata (present Visegrad). Eventually, the river emerged north of the mountains beyond Ad Herculem (present Pilismarot) and Solva (present Esztergom).

The riverside military highway and the direct road to Aquincum joined together at the Roman fort of Crumerum (present Nyergesujfalu), and stretched past Odiavum (present Almasfuzito) into the city of Brigetio, today’s Komarom. Brigetio was the first major Roman settlement facing the Germania frontier, when heading from the east. It was protected by the First Adiutrix, or Auxiliary, Legion for a time. This legion shared a similar history as the Second Adiutrix, which was deployed in Aquincum, eventually being assigned protection of Pannonia from invasion from the east.

From Brigetio, the Roman road system passed fortifications set up in the present town of Acs before continuing on to the fortified crossing of the Arrabo River at Arrabona, located within the present Hungarian city of Gyor. At the crossing (the center of a region where the defeated Illyrian Azali tribe was relocated after the Great Pannonian Rebellion of the first decade after the birth of Christ), the road forked, with one branch heading southward toward the Municipium Mursella (present Kisarpas-Morchida), and the other crossing the river toward the border city of Carnunutum. It was this westward road that the modern railroad out of Gyor followed, passing through Quadrata (present Lebenymiklos) and Ad Flexum (present Mosonmagyar) on its way past Gerulata (near to the present tri-border point, in the present Rusovce borough of Bratislava).

The city of Carnuntum, located near the modern village of Petronell-Carnuntum, Austria (just upstream from present Bratislava, Slovakia), was protected from Germanic tribes by the Legio Quarta Decima (XIV) Gemina. Having a lengthy history extending back to Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (during the 50s BC), the legion also took part in the final conquest of Hispania in the Cantabrian Wars during the reign of Augustus Caesar (during the 20s BC). Along with the Adiutrix Legions stationed further east and the Decima Gemina stationed just to its west, it also helped quell the Batavian rebellion and conquer Dacia before being deployed to guard the important Germania frontier.

Carnuntum was developed first as a headquarters for Tiberius during his military campaign against Marboduus, King of the Marcomanni, shortly after the birth of Christ. His great pincer movement using legions based in Noricum and Gaul would have worked, had not the Great Pannonia Rebellion broke out. Afterwards, the city served as the gateway to the Roman Empire for merchants carrying amber from the Baltic Sea. This economic boon boosted the city to the height of a regional capital by the second century.

At its height, the city served as a meeting place during Diocletian’s time to resolve a brewing civil war, a meeting that actually resulted in the legalization of Christianity in the Empire. Eventually, monotheism would become the dominant religion over the Roman Pantheon.

The fall of Carnuntum began in 355, when a major earthquake struck the city. The damage is repaired, but the event served as a precursor to the arrival of the Visigoths at the end of the fourth century. Their sacking of Rome marked the decline of the Roman Empire, and around 430, the city was destroyed by encroaching Huns. It never again regained its original grandeur, even as amber continued to enter the empire from trade routes following the Marus River (renamed the Morava River in the first century – today, the Slovak-Austrian border).

Further south from Carnuntum, the city of Scarbantia guarded the roadway west of the lesser Lacus Pelso (present Lake Nieusiedl). It was near this city, situated in present Sopron, Hungary, that Theodoric the Great was said to have been born in an encampment of the recently arrived Ostrogoth ruler Theodomir around the year 454. Prior to Ostrogoth rule, given over by the Romans following their turning on Attila at the end of his invasion of the Western Roman Empire, the region had been the northernmost extent of the subjugated Celtic Boii people. The forum of the Roman city was located in what is today the main square of Sopron.

Original film poster for the film “Gladiator” by Ridley Scott (2000). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The last stretch of the Pannonia frontier was dominated by the city of Vindobona, located where Wien, the capital of Austria, sits today. Set as the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s film “Gladiator,” the city was the seat of the Legio Decima Gemina. Assigned the protection of the frontier near the border of Pannonia and the important Noricum mining province, this unit held a similar history to the Gemina Legion stationed at Carnuntum.

The Scott movie, released in 2000, portrayed the succession from what history has described as the last of Rome’s “Good Emperors,” Marcus Aurelius, to that of his son, Commodus. The movie retained a lot of its historical influences (Commodus actually did retain the popularity of the people through “bread and circus,” providing gladiatorial events that he himself took part in), but also fell with respect to historical accuracy when Scott reportedly attempted to create a more “believable” film. A full critique of the accuracy of the film is given in a Wikipedia entry.

The region between Carnuntum and Cetium (present St. Polten) in neighboring Noricum Ripense, held a number of fortresses, some only kilometers apart from each other. The defenses were needed to protect the empire from the Marcomanni, the main tribe that sat opposite one of the most essential Roman military resources, the metal mines that provided Noricum steel for use in Roman swords. The loss of Noricum to barbarian invaders would contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire as much as the political scandals and intrigue would in the years following Marcus Aurelius.

Getting to Poland from Vienna

Streetside entrance of the Vienna International Bus terminal, or the VIB. Photo via the Eurolines Austria website.

The first step toward making my way northward from Wien was to find out the price of an ongoing ticket to Warszawa. The prices for a train ticket were way too high here, in the 90s of Euros. I would have to find the bus terminal and see what chances I had there.

Fortunately, the Westbahnhof, a combination of mall and train station, is a relatively large wifi hotspot with plenty of places to plug in. At an electrical socket near a doorway, I set about researching my best options for getting to Warszawa. Finally, I found a bus that would head actually beyond Warszawa to Vilnius, and that it would leave in a couple hours from the Vienna International Bus terminal. If I could find this place, the VIB, I’d be able to get to Vilnius not only on the day I needed to get there, but actually ahead of my original schedule. The website directed me to Erdberg Station on the U3 line. A 2-Euro ride was all it would take.

I dragged my baggage into the underground, and with relative ease, crossed the center of the Austrian capital. With plenty of time to spare, I got to the ticket counter at the terminal, only to find that the price for Vilnius was way beyond what I could afford – as usual, the website got the prices wrong. At this point, it looked like I failed.

I left the terminal in search of an Internet café or any wifi hotspot. It took awhile, but finally I found a café at an electronics store owned by a Turkish guy. Under signs indicating that this wasn’t a sex-shop, and that viewing porn sites was prohibited, I went about my business looking for transportation options, while informing loved ones of my difficulties. Finally, near the end of my session, I found an option for getting to Warszawa from the VIB. I had to get back there right away, though.

As was becoming too painfully repetitive, the information online didn’t match reality. There was a bus to Warszawa, only it didn’t operate that day. I could catch a ride at 9 p.m. to Krakow, though. For 39 of my remaining Euros, I could get in range to finding a solution to the problem of getting to Lithuania before Thursday morning.

The day was pretty much wasted while waiting for night to come. Passengers came and went. Only I and an older Polish man who had spent World War II in an Austrian farm had remained the entire day waiting on the same bus. As the first two on board, we chatted a bit before the other passengers came on.

The light faded as the bus left Wien in the direction of Petronell-Carnuntum. It was about night when it crossed the Danube once more, passing into the Slovak capital of Bratislava. After so many adventures, I made it to this city. Only it wasn’t so important to make it here anymore.

Barbarian tribes near the Roman frontier along the Amber Road

The “magic rain” depicted on the Marcus Aurealius column in the Piazza Colonna in Rome. Photo by Cristiano64 via Wikimedia Commons.

Crossing the Danube River at Carnuntum, travelers on the first leg of the Amber Road outside of the Roman Empire followed the Marus or Morava River northward toward the center of the Rakata tribe described by Ptolemy in the year 135. To the east, in what is today Slovakia, the Quadi tribe roamed in their own kingdom. To the west, in the lands of northern Austria and southern Bavaria, were the Marcomanni.

Of course, with the arrival of Attila and his Huns, the whole political makeup of the Danube frontier would change, but during the Pax Romana following Augustus Caesar’s rule, which ended in the year 14, the frontier in which amber crossed into the Roman Empire was fairly stable. Built on the ruins of the Celtic Boii state, the Marcomanni kingdom was led by Marboduus in the last decade before Christ’s birth. Tudrus, the Quadi tribal chief, carried the eastern flank into present western Slovakia.

The tribes found themselves in a stable situation, so stable that when King Arminius of the Cherusci demanded that the Marcomanni go to war alongside them against the Romans in a common cause, the Marcomanni elect to remain at peace. As a result, when the Cherusci and their confederates are turned back following the Battle of Idistaviso in the year 16, Arminius declared war on Marboduus and drove him to take refuge in present Czechia. This turn of events encouraged Marboduus’ rival Catualda to return from exile and depose the hapless king. The resulting civil war caused Vannius to declare his own kingdom around the year 25.

For nearly a quarter century, Vannius rules from present Slovakia, but was later deposed when the Romans discovered that he was trying to create a new hostile Marcomanni coalition against them. Wangio, his nephew, succeeded him as King of the Quadi. Either under his rule, or his successors’, the Peucini or Bastarnae tribe move into the region, serving as ore miners for the renegade Quadi state. This was probably the result of the southward migration of the Gutones, who began searching for their promised land of “Oium” around this time.

The Marcomanni rose again in the 160s, when a new coalition formed. This led to the last war in which Emperor Marcus Aurelius took part. The early part of the war featured a legendary “magic rain,” where a downpour not only thwarted an attempt to parch the Romans into withdrawing from their kingdom in present southwestern Slovakia, but also featured a lightning strike that startled the Quadi army when it struck a large number of its ranks. The Quadi king, Furtius, attempted to sue for peace, an act that resulted in his being deposed, and later restored when Rome completed conquest of his people. The Roman Emperor defeated the rest of the coalition in 180, just before dying of plague in Vindabonna.

After the Marcomanni Wars, Rome maintained some 40,000 troops along the frontier near Carnuntum, preserving the peace for almost three centuries. In the latter half of the fourth century, Rome began to build small forts in the territory of the Quadi Kingdom, raising tensions between the two neighbors. In 375, the tensions turned to war, with the Marcomanni invading briefly into Pannonia, and the Romans retaliating by striking at the Quadi king in his own territory.

This resulted in a sullen peace along the Danube River. However, everything changed when the Huns invaded westward. After the collapse of the Goth state on the shores of the Black Sea, whole peoples were uprooted as the horde pushed westward. The forward elements of the Huns were commanded by a chieftain named Uldin, who at first appeared friendly (he sent the head of a Goth leader-turned-fugitive as a gift to the Eastern Roman Empire around the year 400). Later, he led an attempted invasion of Pannonia. Repelled, his coalition split into three parts when he died in 412. Some say that legends of his exploits eventually translated among the people of the Baltics and Scandinavia as myths of the deity Odin.

In the resulting chaos, the Quadi kingdom evaporated. Its people merged into those of other Germanic tribes that formed the Suebi and Alamanni nations. The former eventually split into two parts, one branch going to Iberia to form the Suebi kingdom of Galicia, and the other remaining behind to lend their name to the German region of Suabia. The Alemanni of course became one of the ancestral people of Charlemagne’s wife, Hildegarde, whose genes populate just about all of the royal houses of Europe today.

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