April 19, 2014

Carnuntum, the town that replicates bygone times

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Discovering a Roman city near Vienna

The Museum Carnuntum built in the style of a large Roman villa.
By Eric Weil

It would have taken you longer by chariot, but today half an hour by car, or about an hour by train from Vienna takes you to Carnuntum, the city of Roman emperors. It was here that in 308AD, three Roman emperors decided the future of the Roman Empire which was partly responsible for the progress of Christianity. But even before this, Carnuntum had been the centre of world politics.


Over 100 years ago, the Museum Carnuntium, Austria’s largest Roman Museum, was built there in the style of a Roman country villa with treasures of over 400 years of Roman life in Carnuntum. These were found in excavations, which also uncovered a lot of ruins. Today, Carnuntum is not a city of ancient ruins, but of modern houses reconstructed on top of the ruins which can be lived in, as the Romans lived, and with the type of architecture of those times.

This means that all the houses are equipped with Roman underfloor heating, fully functioning kitchens and with all rooms furnished. To say the least, this is unique in the world.

There is Lucius’ House, because of an inscription found in the ruins mentioning Lucius Maticeius and probably referring to its former owner. This clearly shows the standard of living of the middle classes. Notice the brick slab channel which drains rainwater from the roof, the cooker in the kitchen and the fireplace used to heat the underfloor heating system.

An urban villa is a splendid city mansion in an area of about 600 square metres that highlights the lifestyle of the upper class. Those who could afford it apparently tried to bring Rome’s standard of living to the provinces, and all the furniture looks very solid. The central element in the kitchen is the clay oven with integrated bread oven and the crockery replicated from that originally found in excavation. It also has the original type stone slab floor and a furnace for heating.

Of course, no Roman town would be complete without its public baths. There were several in Carnuntum and one has so far been built up according to its ruins. There is an assembly location with a set of bathing pools in rooms with different temperatures — the frigidarium (from which the word frigid derives) with a cold pool, the “ tepidarium (tepid) with a temperature of 25-30C and lukewarm pool and the caldarium (think calor in Spanish) with a temperature of around 35C and corresponding pool.

There were changing rooms and an area for relaxation between visits to the different rooms. A door led to an outside area which was used for cooling down and physical exercise. There is also a snackbar. The toilets had no partitions for privacy and people chatted. Water from the bathing pools was pumped into a channel under the seats to provide instant flushing.

But Carnuntum — a municipality, with its Latin name in Roman times Municipium Aelium Karnuntum, is not just a an open-air museum.

It has its Amphitheatre Pitronel, where exhibition fights between gladiators are held on certain dates (in 2013 it was in 3-4 and 17-18 August from 2pm to 6pm). This is a couple of kilometres from the central location, but a marquette of the original town shows it is on the outskirts of Carnuntum. Further excavation would bring it nearer the centre, but this will take time as work is very slow (although it has advanced greatly since I paid a visit three years ago).


There is also a more built-up Amphitheatre Bad-Deutsch Altenburg on the other end of the town. Also visit the Gladiator School at which you can get basic instructions on how to be a gladiator.

Exhibitions battles between Roman soldiers and those of other areas in their traditional armour are held, and four times a year Roman banquets are served with the food of those times. Of course, you need a day to see all this, but you can also see a lot in half a day also.

Further information about the dates can be obtained from the Austrian Tourist Office. If going by train, you would be advised to get them to book a taxi (two minutes) from the nearby railway station.

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