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Roman Sites
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Lavant Austria
Monday 25 July 1983
Lavant
Late Roman Settlement (Refugium)
Access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Roman name: 'Ille Agunt'
Roman Province: Noricum
Country: Austria
Province: Ost Tirol
Nearest town: Lienz
Nearest village: Lavant

Click to enlarge the map.
Map of the site.


Coming from Aguntum, we had to see the remains of Lavant, where the bishop had fled to when his town was besieged and sacked by either Radagais or Alaric around 405 AD.

Lavant

The name of the village and the site, Lavant, is likely to have originated as ileid [od. ille] Agunt, 'the other Aguntum', later becoming Lagunt and Lauent. And this is exactly how the settlement started. Existing long before as a kind of Mons sacrum for Aguntum, there had been a Celtic temple even before that. But the attack of the late 3rd century had put an end to all that, and the hill had been laying waste until the late 4th. At that time, probably because of the worsening state of the borders, but maybe also sanctioned by an Imperial command, it is likely that the town council erected an official sanctuary here (refugium).

Just in time, because around 405 AD, Aguntum was for the first time sacked and burnt to the ground. The same happened to all the settlements in the valley, all the way to Sebatum, apart from the newly built refugium. Even though the authorities rebuilt part of the town, and many inhabitants stayed on, it was the Bishop who decided that he needed a better spot. And so the bishopric of Noricum moved uphill, behind a double ring wall and a big gate. The big church or basilica (the hall measures 250 m²) was probably built shortly after, using stones from the former Celtic temple. Between 400 and 600 there were two more building phases, not bad considering that in the valley below the town of Aguntum withered away. Just before the Slavs finally put an end to the town below in 610 AD, a rockfall demolished the eastern part of the church (the boulder is still there, see picture below right), although the western part (Narthex) remained in use for two more centuries. Only when the church known today as St. Ulrich was built in the early 9th century was the old church finally given up. It was only rediscovered in 1951.

St. Ulrich church.
St. Ulrich church.
The impressive remains of the Bishop's church, which remained in use from the 5th to the 9th century.
The impressive remains of the Bishop's church, which remained in use from the 5th to the 9th century.
Artist impression of the church, the 1st and 3rd phases.
Artist impression of the church, the 1st and 3rd phases.
The bishop's church with the 3rd phase superimposed. Note the boulder in the eastern part.
The bishop's church with the 3rd phase superimposed. Note the boulder in the eastern part.

Other houses were scattered around the site. Another church (St. Peter) was built even higher up on the site of the former Celtic temple, using Roman gravestones from the town below. A further disaster around 452 AD, when in all likelyhood the Huns passed this way, will have rendered further use of the cemetary nearly superfluous anyway. Besides, the Romans were very apt in the re-use of their former monuments.

There was also a palatial building, a little higher up from the basilica, which probably was the Bishop's residence (Episcopium). Here, the bishop of the region (episcopus Aguntinensis) resided as if in a castle, as did all of his collegues in the eastern Alps, so much so that this became a normal phrase - episcopus in castellis, meaning 'the Bishop ruling over his parishes', universa diocesis suae castella. It should not be surprising that the bishop, before long, was the highest authority in the area. He is likely to have commanded enough military might to defend maybe not only the refugium of Lavant, but also other places within his dominion. By the late 4th and early 5th centuries, not only the State, but the Church as well as a myriad of wealthy men commanded large armed groups. These consisted of mercenaries, but also a growing number of locals, who were not serfs (who were tied to the land) but 'companions', who were compulsary tied to such the person of their lord. Even farmers were trained to withstand marauders in pitched battles. This way, the bishop is likely to have commanded a number of retainers well able to defend Lavant.

For how long, we can but guess. With the ending of the West Roman Empire, the influence of any bishop must have waned. But they were there. A bishop Vitalis of Altinum fled to the Frankish kingdom, possibly to Aguntum/Lavant. The text writes Agonthiensem civitatem, which is an anachronism to say the least, and Karwiese believes this is more likely to have been Mainz (Mogontiacum). However, by the late 6th century, Avonti(n)ensis is still the name for Lavant.
In the year 565 AD one of the last classical writers, Venantius Fortunatus, also had to leave the East Roman court and by way of Venice passed by Lavant. His high rank (which later landed him the job of bishop of Poitiers) opened all doors, and the bishop of south Noricum provided him with ample rest and lodging. Venantius, obviously grateful, returned the favour with a very positive poetic account, thereby revealing not only the name of the place (montana.. in colle.. Avuntus), but also that the route was very safe. A very short time later, at the Synod of Grado (572-577), we hear the first name of a bishop of Noricum: Aaron episcopus Avonti(n)ensis. He may well have been Venantius' gallant host.
At the next synod of 589 (or afterwards), a bishop of Lavant no longer attended. Bishops could no longer be ordained.

Around 595, the Bavarians entered the fray, the Avars and Slavs soon after. Paul the Deacon tells of a battle in Agunto in 610 AD, which finished the town below forever, from then on only ruins remain. There is a layer of burnt material in the bishops' church as well, so we may assume that the castle was taken. Nevertheless, the church continued, and Langobardic-style additions were built by the 2nd half of th 7th century. Even when Slavic settlers had long since taken over the valleys, the Romanic Christians remained a vigourous community. Lavant remained Christian until the 9th century when, with the arrival of the (Frankish) Bavarians, Christianity reached the pagan Slavs, and old rivalries within the Church claimed the area again. The old church was finally given up, gone with the importance of the castle as a refugium.

Long after the site had been abandoned as a centre of episcopal power, the locals remembered its function. When in 1485 the current, Gothic, version of St. Peter was consecrated, the locals told Paolo Santonino, secretary to the Bishop, that the site had been a 'Roman castle'. He also wrote of the gates and the lower church 'of St. Udalrich, which had been built with Roman stones'. Not only the material continued in use; until the 1920s, once a year on the second sunday after Easter, a procession from 40km-away Virgen ended here, with an adorned ram which was sold to the highest bidder, but in earlier times almost certainly sacrificed.

The visit

That day, we had just visited the town of Aguntum, a few kilometres to the north, but the heat had driven us from the site, unfortunately. With my dad, we continued on to the hill of Lavant, where at least the trees promised better circumstances. We weren't disappointed. Walking uphill, we soon came across the still magnificent riun of the old church. Sure, the columns are copies (the real ones are in Schloss Bruck), but that did not matter one bit. Sadly, one of the modern churches was closed.

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