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Aguntum Austria
Monday 25 July 1983
Aguntum
Roman Town
Access for the disabledPaid access to the monument
Roman name: Aguntum
Roman Province: Noricum
Country: Austria
Province: Ost Tirol
Nearest town: Lienz
Nearest village: Debant

Click to enlarge the map.
Map of the site.


I had just turned 19 that summer, and it was one of the last holidays together with my parents and my sister. We had been to the area 5 years earlier, but it seems I did not care for Roman remains as much, because according to the sharp memory of my brother (yes, it was 1978, 25 years ago!) we drove past the remains of this Roman town without stopping, apparently at my instigation.

Aguntum

The city, whose name goes back to an unknown mediterranean language, was probably the successor to an as yet unlocated oppidum of the Laianci, the local Celtic tribe. As early as 30 BC the Romans created a civilian settlement on the valley bottom, possibly at a spot where there had been a traders' settlement before. After the Roman town had been founded, population levels rose quickly (as can be judged from the growth of the baths), and under the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-51) the town became autonomous, with the official name of Municipium Claudium Aguntum.

Protected by the Alps' high mountain range, the city prospered for the next centuries, adding buildings and growing wealthy of the iron oare mined in the valleys. Though it obviously needed garrison nor defences, an East Wall was added during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, though with mysterious qualities. As can be seen on the map (above), the wall ended without the rest of the circumvallum being added! Add to that the completely disfunctional gate-house with its side entrances (image, below) and the fact that another entrance to the town was broken through at another spot. Without the rest of the walls, this construction was obviously useless for defensive purposes, and it was probably just a representative folly, meant to impress with a nice facade.

The impressive gate was built just for show.
The impressive gate was built just for show.
The excavated part of the town from the air (1983).
The excavated part of the town from the air (1983).
1): City baths/Thermae, 1st c. BC-5th c. AD.
2): Artisans estate, 2nd-6th c. AD.
3): Early Christian church, 5th c. AD.
4): Atrium (Museum), 1st-5th c. AD.
5): City gates, 2nd c. AD.
6): Extra-mural houses.
7): 'Palatial' complex excavated after 1990.

However, after the first invasions by the Alamanni, during the late 3rd century, the rest of the walls and new towers were hastily added. With apparent success, because it seems that the buildings inside the walls escaped damage, whereas the ones outside did not. The town continued to prosper until about AD 400, when the decline set in.

The continuing troubles on the Danube and the weakening of the Roman armies led to the fist sack of Aguntum during the wars with Radagais and Alaric. A layer of burnt material as well as the remains of a man and a child found in the city baths tells us of catastrophe. Not surprisingly, we see the first signs of a transfer of power, when the bishop chooses to settle in nearby Lavant. Still, the town continues, and the destroyed buildings were repaired. For but a short time though, because a coin of AD 452 found in the next layer of burns tells us that it was probably the invasion of Italy by Attila's Huns which sacked the town a second time.

Even so, Aguntum (like Teurnia) held out much longer than the other towns of Noricum, which means that it had probably enough to offer to the inhabitants, who chose to stay on. These loyal inhabitants kept repairing the damages, so in all likelyhood Aguntum was a secure enough place when there weren't any major invasions about. Building activity (albeit modest) continued until the late 5th century. However, like all across the region, castles sprang up on hills far above the valleys, showing that even when the civilians meant to stay on, they stayed in more secure places. But hard time or not, as late as 431 AD it came to a tax rebellion in Noricum (although we can't tell if this was supported by the tax-payers of Aguntum), suggesting that this part of the Roman administration was still in full swing! In 452, the Huns burned their way through the Drau valley, and no doubt Aguntum will have borne the brunt of that. By 472, the Ostrogoths besieged nearby Teurnia, and Aguntum will have felt the repercussions of that, too. We know from the Life of St Severin that shipments of food from Teurnia to the stricken civilians along the Danube could not get through because of the Goths. Aguntum isn't mentioned in that list, but that proves neither that the town was besieged, nor that it was able to send relief.

However, the Roman Empire in the West ended, and Aguntum was subsequently ruled by Ostrogoths, Franks, Byzantines and Bavarians. The latter ruled only for a short time, for after just 20 years of Bavarian rule, the Avars and Slavs arrived and completely destroyed Aguntum. Paul the Deacon described of the year 610 how in a major battle near or in the town, the Slavs defeated Garibald and completely destroyed his army. Even Lavant seems to have been burned, but not destroyed. If there still was a bishop there (a very old one), he would have been the last, for bishops were no longer ordained there. Thus did Aguntum end, and was never inhabited again. The remaining Roman population now resided in their castles and fortresses high in the hills and mountains, and the Slavs settled peacefully in the valleys below. The ruins of Aguntum remained visible, despite repeated flooding by the waters of the Debantbach, until the 16th century.

In 1599 a lawyer by the name of Veit Netlich wrote of gravestones with "unkendlicher Schrift" (unknown writing) and concluded that: "Allain ist die Sag, es soll alda vor Zeiten ain Haidnische Statt gestanden seyn". (Only a myth says, here must have stood a heathen city). By 1680, it was written of the ruins that "bei der gemein ist noch der Gedächtnuß, daß ein Zwergel Khönig allda gewohnt haben soll (these (people) generally believe that a gnome king once lived there).
Theodor Mommsen developed a theory that the name of the town was Aguntum, but that remained unproven until 1882, when a marble stone with the name of the town was discovered. Aguntum has been excavated for the past decades, but a large part of the town remains covered. Recently, a large modern construction (the Atriumhaus) has been designed to properly show the remains of the Atrium under a modern roof of glass and steel. From 1990, the area south of the baths (coverd with wood in 1983) has been excavated, uncovering a very large complex with a marble floor. Most of the finds are displayed in the Schloss Bruck Museum in Lienz.

The visit

It was hot. Scorching hot. So hot, that we did not care for most of the remains (in which I seemed the most interested anyway) and left very early. I can't find any big description in the diaries either, meaning the ruins made no big impression. Well, it was 30 degrees, which is no fun when you're out in the sun, without a hint of shade. To, the ruins were apparently interesting enough to remember all those years (20 now).
That day, we also visited theLate Roman Refugium of
Lavant, a few kilometres to the south.

A Roman city in the Austrian Alps.
A Roman city in the Austrian Alps.
The remains of the town, with the Lienzer Dolomiten providing a dramatic background.
The remains of the town, with the Lienzer Dolomiten providing a dramatic background.
The baths of Aguntum. By far not all of the city has been excavated, part of it being buried beneath a river.
The baths of Aguntum. By far not all of the city has been excavated, part of it being buried beneath a river.
That's me near the remains of the gatehouse, in the sweltering heat.
That's me near the remains of the gatehouse, in the sweltering heat.
The dig, hastely abandoned because of the heat?
The dig, hastely abandoned because of the heat?

Still, I wanted to see the site again. So later that holiday, wednesday 3rd August, when we had moved on to Toblach in Italy (South Tirol), I went back on my bike. It was overcast and it rained most of the way through thr Drau valley, and I was haunted by several trucks on the way. Deciding this was not the way to go back, I arranged a train journey. This meant, though, that I did no longer have enough money to get a guided tour of Aguntum.. I'll have to go back there some day.

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