Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Hadrian, Hadrian1900, Moesia Inferior, Moesia Superior, Pannonia

Late spring AD 118 – Hadrian inspects his troops along the Danube Limes (#Hadrian1900)

Soon after suppressing the disturbances that had broken out in Moesia Inferior (see previous post here), Hadrian embarked on a quick inspection of the military bases along the lower and middle Danube frontier. The new emperor knew the area well through his appointment as governor of the province of Pannonia Inferior in AD 106, also on the Danube frontier, where he took command of Legio II Adiutrix, the very legion with which he had begun his military career (AD 94-95).

Evidence of his presence in the area is explicitly attested by a poem inscribed on the tombstone of one of Hadrian’s personal horse guards (CIL 3.3676). A Batavian soldier called Soranus impressed the emperor by swimming across the vast waters of the Danube with all his weapons. Speaking in the first person, Soranus declares in his epitaph:

Epigraph of Soranus the Batavian, from Gerard Geldenhouwer, Historia Batavica, 1533 (view online).

I am the man who, once well-known to the river banks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among a thousand Batavi, who, with Hadrian as my judge, could swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I shot an arrow which, while it hung in the air and fell back, I hit and broke with another. Whom no Roman or foreigner ever outdid, no soldier with the spear, no Parthian with a bow, here I lie, on this ever-mindful stone have I bequeathed my deeds to memory. Let anyone see if after me he can match my deeds. I set my own standard, being the first to bring off such deeds. Translation by Davies (1968c) and M.P. Speidel (1994b: 46)

The skill of swimming in full armour, for which the Batavians received particular praise, was reported by Dio Cassius, who described the same famous event:

So excellently, indeed, had his soldiery been trained that the cavalry of the Batavians, as they were called, swam the Ister with their arms. Seeing all this, the barbarians stood in terror of the Romans, they employed Hadrian as an arbitrator of their differences. Dio LXIX 9.6

This event probably occurred in late spring when the water of the Danube was not too cold to swim in.

The Danube in spring. Kazan gorge at its narrowest point.

From the town of Troesmis in Moesia Inferior, where it is assumed that peace was concluded with the Roxolani, the imperial party continued to journey towards Italy through the valley of the Danube. On the way, the Emperor reinforced a number of pre-existing fortifications to contain the Sarmatian threat. It would be reasonable to suggest that the imperial court made overnight stops at the military bases along the banks of the Danube where the legions were stationed. Heading west towards Pannonia, the first two legionary camps were Durostorum (modern-day Silistra in Bulgaria) and Novae (modern-day Svishtov in Bulgaria), which were occupied respectively by legio XI Claudia and legio I Italica.

Durostorum and Novae on the Tabula Peutingeriana.

Durostorum was established as a Roman legionary camp on the site of an earlier Thracian settlement and was an important port of Moesia. After Trajan’s victories over the Dacians, Durostorum became the fortress of the Eleventh Legion, where the troops would remain for several hundred years. Today, the territory of the legionary camp lies under the modern town of Silistra, but excavations started in the 1970s have allowed the localisation of the castrum in the southeastern part of the city. The vicus was also located, standing about 2 km eastwards of the castrum, near the modern village of Ostrov in Romania.

During the reign of Hadrian, the canabae at Durostorum, the civilian settlements that grew up in the vicinity of the fortress, would receive the title Aeliae in honour of Hadrian’s visits.

canabis Aelis leg(ionis) XI Cl(audiae) – Inscription dating from the time of Antonine Pius (CIL 3.7474)

Approximately 115 Roman miles to the west of Durostorum stood the camp of the First Italic Legion at Novae. Novae was home to the very first attested legionary deployment in Moesia, where the Legio VIII Augusta had its headquarters from AD 46 to AD 69. In the aftermath of the year of the four emperors, the Eighth Legion left for the Rhine region, and the base at Novae was handed over to legio I Italica, which subsequently stayed in Novae until the end of the Roman period. Like the other Danubian legions, the First served in the Dacian campaigns of Domitian and Trajan. Building activities seem to have been an area of expertise for the legion, and we know from an inscription that in AD 125, soldiers from the First Italic Legion would be sent by Hadrian to supervise some unknown building works in Delphi.

The partially reconstructed headquarters (principia) of the legionary camp.

The castra legionis at Novae is one of the best-studied and best-preserved military structures in Moesia. The site has been excavated partially, and some parts of the fortress have recently been restored, like the principia (headquarters building). The excavations have revealed that the fortress was first built out of wood on a high terrace and was rebuilt in stone during the reign of Trajan. Extensive sections of the late antique defensive wall have been uncovered, along with the foundations of buildings such as baths, a basilica, a Mithraeum, as well as a military hospital (valetudinarium), an exceptional feature in the whole Balkan Peninsula. Novae also had two canabae and a vicus.

Map of the legionary fortress at Novae.

Continuing marching west along the Danube and still within the province of Moesia Inferior, Hadrian might have stopped at Ulpia Oescus (modern-day Gigen in Bulgaria). The emperor knew the place well from his service as a military tribune in AD 96-97 in Legio V Macedonica. Oescus was a main military point along the limes, but at the time of Hadrian’s presumed visit in spring AD 118, the Fifth Legion had its base at Troesmis. The early military camp of the 1st and 2nd centuries was later built over and is located precisely under the ruins of the colony built over the subsequent century.

Scattered architectural elements from the Temple of Juno.

Hadrian then crossed into Moesia Superior, and another possible stopover might have been Ratiaria (near Vidin in Bulgaria). Ratiaria was established in the 1st century AD as a military encampment and a civilian settlement which grew around it. Its fortress, located along the Danubian Limes on a high terrace, made it a key legionary station. During the reign of Vespasian, it was the headquarters of the Classis Flavia Moesica, the Lower Danube fleet that controlled the frontier from the Iron Gates to the Northwest Black Sea as far as the Crimean (Taurica) Peninsula. The legion IV Flavia Felix was based in Ratiaria at least until the conquest of Dacia (AD 101-106). After 106, Trajan withdrew the legions and raised its status to a colony under the name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria.

The ruins of the residence of the provincial governor of the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis, where the researchers have unearthed Late Antiquity thermae (public baths) and a large residential building, which is still being excavated.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Ratiaria flourished and became one of the richest and most important centres in the Roman empire. But the site has now been turned into a wasteland by illegal treasure hunters who have devastated the landscape digging for priceless artefacts (documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past”). A joint Bulgarian-Italian archaeological expedition in the 1980s excavated a small part of Ratiaria and uncovered amazing artefacts, now displayed at the Regional Historic Museum in Vidin. Archaeological excavations of the site have continued sporadically since then by the Bulgarian Archaeological Association.


The next three days’ march brought Hadrian to Trajan’s bridge over the Danube, linking the fortress of Pontes in Moesia Superior with the fortress of Drobeta in Dacia. The superstructure, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus (who would later be exiled and executed by Hadrian for mocking the emperor’s artistic talents) and built between AD 103 and 105, allowed the crossing of Roman troops over the river. According to Dio Cassius, Hadrian ordered the demolition of its upper structure to prevent barbarian incursions into Moesia. This would, however, be a temporary measure as two centuries later, in AD 328, during the rule of Constantine the Great, the wooden arches of the bridge were restored.

Trajan built the bridge because he feared that some time when the Ister was frozen over war might be made upon the Romans on the further side, and he wished to facilitate access to them by this means. Hadrian, on the contrary, was afraid that it might also make it easy for the barbarians, once they had overpowered the guard at the bridge, to cross into Moesia, and so he removed the superstructure. Dio, LXVIII. 13.6

Plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest.
The scene depicts the inauguration of the bridge with a religious procession.

The base of the bridge consisted of 20 stone piers, on which lay a wooden superstructure, according to the depictions on Trajan’s column as well as on coins. The bridge was over one kilometre long and eighteen metres wide; the piers were forty-five metres high and fifty-one metres apart. Today, massive base foundations and piers can be seen on either bank of the Danube.

Remains of the pillars that supported Trajan’s Bridge. Right bank of Danube, Serbia.
Remains of the Trajan’s Bridge on the left bank of the Danube in Romania.

Trajan had also renovated and widened the military road along the Danube, whose construction had started under the rule of Tiberius. The restoration or construction of the section through the Iron Gates is attested by the famous inscription known as Tabula Traiana.

The Tabula Traiana is a memorial plaque commemorating the completion of Trajan’s military road (Via Traiana). It is located on the Serbian side facing Romania near Ogradina. In 1973, when the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station was built, the plaque was moved from its original location and lifted to the present place on the Serbian bank of the Danube.

SVBLAT(i)S VIA(m) F(ecit)

About 12 kilometres upstream stood the fortress of Diana, one of the largest riverbank fortresses of Moesia Superior. Built in AD 100 during Trajan’s preparations for the Dacian wars on a strategic location overlooking the Danube frontier, the military garrison of Diana was composed of combined troops of infantry, cavalry and fleet units, detachments of Moesian legions as well as auxiliary troops. The fortress was modified at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century when additional towers were added towards the river for extra defence towards the Danube shores. In the mid-4th century, the fort was damaged by the invading Huns and, in AD 530, rebuilt by Emperor Justinian.

Ruins inside Roman castrum Diana on the Danube.

Being the capital of Moesia Superior and an important military centre, Viminacium was another possible stopover for the imperial party. Viminacium was the place where the procurator of Moesia Superior had his office. Furthermore, the settlement at Viminacium is attested as a municipium and received the name of Viminacium municipium Aelium Hadrianum. Hadrian probably raised its status while sojourning here. An inscription (AE 1980, 786) also witnesses the building of a road from Viminacium south to Dardania, begun by Trajan but finished by Hadrian.

aug(ustali) mun(icipii) Ael(ii) Vim(inacii)

The military camp at Viminacium certainly came into existence when the Romans first reached the Danube, probably during the early decades of the 1st century AD.  Built at a junction of roads linking the northern part of the Balkan peninsula with other parts of the Empire in all directions, the legionary camp at Viminacium was the camp of Legio VII Claudia Pia Fidelis. The seventh legion was garrisoned there from the third quarter of the 1st century AD throughout antiquity, and Viminanium was confirmed also as the base for the river fleet classis Flavia Histrica.

Archaeological investigations of Viminacium have gone on for more than a century, revealing the encampment’s rectangular base as well as two civilian settlements around the legionary camp. Unfortunately, the site today is located under cultivated lands and bordered by thermal power plants and coal mines and thus has been partially destroyed. The archaeological features preserved and studied so far are parts of the legionary camp, baths within the supposed territory of the canabae, several urban villas just outside the city and the well-known necropolises.

2018 excavations of the military camp.

In 2003, a combination of geophysical research and landscape analysis led to the identification of the amphitheatre, which could accommodate up to 6,000 spectators. The original amphitheatre was built during the reign of Trajan and was made of wood. It was replaced by a stone-wooden structure soon after Trajan’s death. It was located in the north-eastern corner of the city, about 50-60 m away from the north-western corner of the legionary camp. Viminacium is now an Archaeological Park with a Scientific and Research Centre.

The amphitheatre of Viminicium was situated in the northeastern corner of the ancient city area, approximately 50 m away from the northwestern corner of the legionary fortress. The excavations are now finished, and the building is currently being partially reconstructed.

The next important urban settlement to the west was Singidunum (modern-day Belgrade), located at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. Before the arrival of the Romans, a huge Celtic settlement existed there, and the very name Singidunum has Celtic origins. The city would also become a municipium during Hadrian’s reign. Its strategic position at the crossroads and the connection point of the Moesia Superior and Pannonia Inferior determined the position of the castrum and also of the civilian settlement that developed around the fort. The Roman fortress was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD on the upper town plateau.

Remains of the Roman castrum in the older layers of the modern Belgrade Fortress.

Around the year AD 91, it became the headquarters of legio IIII Flavia Felix which was stationed there until at least AD 400. The legion also constructed a pontoon bridge over the Sava, connecting Singidunum with Taurunum. Most of the former urban centre is now under the modern city of Belgrade, and the military fort was partly destroyed when the medieval Fortress of Belgrade was built. However, elements of the Roman fortress’ walls can still be seen in the west wall of the Kalemegdan. Excavations have revealed cemeteries and a shrine dedicated to Mithra, while the forum and the bathhouse have been identified at Studentski Trg (Students Square).

Leaving Singidunum, Hadrian would pass through several settlements before entering the territory of Pannonia and reaching the next important stop, Sirmium. At the time of Hadrian’s visit, Sirmium was a legionary camp and the administrative centre of the province of Pannonia Inferior. The city rose to the status of a colony under the Flavian emperors (colonia Flavia Sirmium) and remained for centuries one of the most important cities on the Danubian frontier.

The ruins of the trade quarter of Sirmium.
By Dekanski [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Sirmium was frequently used as a base for military campaigns against the barbarian groups. From the time of the granting of colonial status all the way to the end of the 4th century, ancient literary sources mention Sirmium as a temporary residence for numerous Roman emperors. Trajan, who made Sirmium the capital of the province of Pannonia Inferior in AD 103, used the city as a base for his first Dacian War. Later, Marcus Aurelius had his headquarters in Sirmium when he waged war against the northern tribes.

Fragments of a fresco from an urban villa in Sirmium with the images of the Dioscuri, Medusa and Harpocrates (2nd-3rd century AD). Archaeological Museum of Srem.

The remains of the once-prosperous and powerful city of Sirmium are concealed beneath the streets of today’s Sremska Mitrovica. Excavations have revealed a number of ancient monuments and have considerably expanded our knowledge of the ancient city. The most significant archaeological sites today are the remains of the Imperial Palace and the hippodrome attached to it, the villa urbana with beautiful frescoes within the Archaeological Museum of Srem as well as the remains of the Merchants and Craftsmen Quarter (all dated to the 4th century AD).

Model showing the city of Sirmium in the 4th century AD.

Further west stood the Roman military camp of Mursa, located on one of the most important roads in Pannonia on the right bank of the river Drava (Dravus flumen). Not much is known about the early history of Mursa, and the modern city of Osijek (Croatia) has very few archaeological remains. It is believed however that the military camp was established during the reign of Trajan due to the Dacian wars. According to inscriptions, Hadrian raised the old settlement into a colony with special privileges in AD 133 (colonia Aelia Mursa) where he settled veterans as new colonists. Thus Mursa would become the seat of the Governor of Lower Pannonia. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, dozens of auxiliary military units were documented in Mursa.

——– The area of the town measured 760 by 680 m.

It is also known from inscriptions that Mursa had important public buildings: 50 tabernae with double colonnades (CIL III, 3288), other buildings thought to have been erected by Hadrian (CIL III, 3280), a synagogue and a stadium outside the city gates (Zosimos II 50.2). In the river bed are still lying columns that supported a stone bridge over river Drava (the so-called Hadrian’s bridge), important for trade and traffic with the Danubian Limes.

Fragment of an inscription for Hadrian from Mursa (CIL 3, 3280).
© Osijek – Muzej Slavonije, Foto: Ortolf Harl 2016 März
Reconstruction of the inscription: Imp(erator) Caesar di[vi Tra]/iani Parthici fil(ius) div[i Nervae] / nepos Traianus H[adrianus] / Aug(ustus) pontifex ma[ximus] / tribunicia potes[tate] / XVII co(n)s(ul) III [p(ater) p(atriae) per] / leg(ionem) II [ad(iutricem) p(iam) f(idelem)] / [col(oniam) Aeliam Mursam fec(it)](?)
Courtesy of Ubi Erat Lupa

Hadrian had been the first governor of Lower Pannonia from AD 106 and 108, and it was the only moment in his reign when we knew for certain that he was back in the province. Later, two other municipia would be created by Hadrian on the Danube, Carnuntum (municipium Aelium KarnuntiumCIL III  4554) and Aquincum (municipium Aelium Aquincum).

He [Hadrian] subjected the legions to the strictest discipline, so that, though strong, they were neither insubordinate nor insolent. Dio LXIX 5.2

After this, Hadrian completed his journey to Rome by travelling southwards through Dalmatia and crossing the sea to Italy or overland to Emona (Ljubljana), then along the coast to Ariminum (Rimini) and down the Via Flaminia. If Hadrian was travelling by sea from Salona or Iader in Dalmatia, he may have visited Burnum where he would have decided to raise the civilian settlement to the municipium (CIL III 2828).

Fragment of an inscription for Hadrian from Burnum, 118 AD (CIL 03, 02828).
© Zadar – Arheološki muzej, Foto: Ortolf Harl 2014 Juni
Courtesy of Ubi Erat Lupa

Burnum was once the camp of the 11th Legion of the Roman army (Claudia Pia Fidelis) from AD 42 and was succeeded in AD 69 by the 4th legion (Flavia Felix). Auxiliary units (cohorts) were also stationed here.

The military amphitheatre of Burnum legionary camp. It acquired its definite form in AD 76-77 when the inscription of Vespasian was placed on the facade of the southern entrance, marking the completion of the construction.
The arches of the headquarters (praetorium) of the legionary camp.

Meanwhile, in Italy, four ex-consul Senators were put to death on the charge that they were plotting against the emperor. Personal hostility towards Hadrian certainly existed, perhaps because of his decision to abandon Trajan’s expansionist policies and recent territorial gains.

The four men were respected proconsular lieutenants of Trajan. The leader was Avidius Nigrinus (cos. AD 110), whom Hadrian had dismissed as governor of Dacia when he violently disagreed with his plan to give up all of Trajan’s conquered territory. The other three men who took part in the plot were: Cornelius Palma (cos. II AD 109), former governor of Syria and conqueror of Arabia, Publilius Celsus (cos. II AD 113), and Lusius Quietus, a Moorish chieftain (cos. AD 117), appointed governor of Judaea by Trajan. The intention of the conspirators was to kill Hadrian when he was either conducting a sacrifice (as claimed by the Historia Augusta) or hunting (as claimed by Dio) in Dacia or in Moesia, but Hadrian successfully evaded the plot.

A plot to murder him while sacrificing was made by Nigrinus, with Lusius and a number of others as accomplices, even though Hadrian had destined Nigrinus for the succession; but Hadrian successfully evaded this plot. HA Had. 7.1

Those who were slain at the beginning were Palma and Celsus, Nigrinus and Lusius, the first two for the alleged reason that they had conspired against him during a hunt, and the others on certain complaints, but in reality because they had great influence and enjoyed wealth and fame. Dio Cassius, 69, 2.5

The four guilty men were put to death in Italy, and despite the fact that the order to execute them was given by the Senate, the killings caused a wave of shock in Rome. Senators believed that Hadrian had broken his promise not to execute a senator.

Because of this conspiracy, Palma was put to death at Tarracina, Celsus at Baiae, Nigrinus at Faventia, and Lusius on his journey homeward, all by order of the Senate, but contrary to the wish of Hadrian, as he says himself in his autobiography. HA Had. 7.2

Hadrian would always maintain that the executions had taken place without his knowledge or approval and would put the blame on Attianus and onto the Senate itself.

In the senate, too, he cleared himself of blame for what had happened, and pledged himself never to inflict punishment on a senator until after a vote of the senate. HA Had. 7.4

The so-called “affair of the four senators” would cast a shadow over the early part of Hadrian’s reign and forever damage his relationship with the Senate. The new emperor would reach his capital on 9 July and would do everything he could to offset the unpopularity the executions caused.

Sources & references:

  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997). Hadrian. The Restless Emperor (p. 86-92)
  • Everitt, A. (2009). Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome 
  • Geldenhauer, G. (1533). Historia Batavica, una cum regum, principum, illustrium scriptorum, oppidorum, gentis, nominibus, a Batone Primo rege, ad Carolum V. … usque et Carolum Geldrium, Batavorum principes. Marburg: Franciscus Rhodus.
  • Speidel, M. (1991). Swimming the Danube under Hadrian’s eyes: A Feat of the Emperors’ Batavi Horse Guard. Ancient Society, 22, 277-282.
  • Speidel, M. (1994). Riding for Caesar: the Roman Emperors’ Horse-Guard. Boston, Routledge.
  • Boatwright, Mary (2002). Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press, p.40
  • Snežana Nikolić / Ivan Bogdanović. Recent Excavations on the Amphitheatre of Viminacium (Upper Moesia). Proceedings of the 22nd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies (Ruse, Bulgaria, September 2012), Sofia 2015, 547–555 (pdf)
  • Fraser. Trudie E. (2006). Hadrian as Builder and Benefactor in the Western Provinces. BAR International Series 1484


6 thoughts on “Late spring AD 118 – Hadrian inspects his troops along the Danube Limes (#Hadrian1900)”

  1. Hi Carole. This post is absolutely superb. The work you have put into it is amazing and I so admire your dedication to this fascinating subject “Hadrian” Photo’s are magnificent and the immaculate details bring everything to life. Thank you so much for sharing. Enjoy your journey’s.

  2. Wow! I just found your blog. I visited Hadrian’s Wall in England a few years ago. I was in the middle of writing a historical novel set in 432 AD, in which some of the story is centered around the wall. And I have a fabulous panoramic photo of the Wall, taken by a wonderful photographer in the UK. I will ask him if I may share it here. I purchased it to be the header in my blog. I’m looking forward to reading through the blog posts. I know I will learn a lot here. Thank you.

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