Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Hadrian1900, Noricum

Winter AD 121/2 – Hadrian inspects the northern frontiers: part 3 Noricum (#Hadrian1900)

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At some stage during his inspections of the northern military borders and fortifications, Hadrian was in the province of Noricum. The evidence for this visit derives from coins celebrating his official arrival (adventus) and, as in Raetia (see here), the army (exercitus Noricus). He may even have visited the famous iron mines that produced the highly prized Noric steel (Ferrum Noricum) used for Roman weaponry.

Voyage of Hadrian 121-123.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Click to enlarge.

The Kingdom of Noricum (regnum Noricum) was annexed by Rome in 15 BC and became a province of the Roman Empire under Claudius around AD 40, apparently without offering resistance. Noricum occupied most of modern Austria as well as parts of Slovenia. Its borders were the Danube to the north, Raetia to the west, Pannonia Superior to the east and the Italian province of Venetia et Histria to the south. The south was primarily made up of very mountainous terrain, traversed by several chains of the Alps, while the north was partly covered by dense woodland.

A century of undisturbed peace brought prosperity and caused the economy to flourish. The Celtic oppidum on the Magdalensberg in Carinthia (the southernmost state of Austria) became the new province’s first administrative and commercial centre. The primary source of wealth for the Norican inhabitants rested on the iron mines. The ferrum Noricum (Noric steel) was already renowned during the reign of Augustus and had probably begun as early as the 4th century BC. Noric steel was used primarily in Roman weapon production and was so renowned for its quality that Tacitus, Strabo, Ovid and even the poet Horace made mention of Norican swords. Forests and pastures also produced wealth. According to Strabo, the inhabitants of the Alpine lands could export “resin, pitch, torch pine, wax, honey, and cheese” (Strabo, Geog. 4.6.9).

A stretch of the Danube in the Wachau Valley in Lower Austria.

For little less than 450 years, the frontier system in Noricum marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, protecting it from the Germanic tribes to the north. Created under the Flavians and their successors, the Norican limes consisted of a chain of fortifications, with forts and watchtowers running along the south bank of the Danube. The forts were initially made of earth and timber and were rebuilt in stone around the mid-2nd century AD. Civil settlements (vici) grew up outside the forts, and richly furnished villa rustica were constructed. The Austrian section of the limes ran for about 357 kilometres along the river Danube from the border of Germany (Bavaria) close to Passau through Upper and Lower Austria. 

At the time of Hadrian’s visit, the exercitus Noricus of 7000 men consisted of auxiliary forces only, both cavalry and infantry (three alae and eight cohorts). Noricum had no legionary troops stationed within its borders at that time. A commander-in-chief (presidial procurator) of all military forces based in the province selected the military personnel and regulated all matters relating to the provincial administration. Hadrian’s motive in Noricum was to improve the military fortifications, including rebuilding some of the forts in stone. He also arranged for four new auxiliaries to be stationed in Noricum, having been withdrawn from Britain, presumably after completing Hadrian’s Wall.

The sestertius illustrating Hadrian’s inspection of the Norican army shows the emperor accompanied by a high-ranking officer, surely C. Septicius Clarus, the Praetorian Guard (imperial bodyguard). Hadrian stands on a platform and addresses an officer and three soldiers carrying a shield, a standard and an aquila (eagle), respectively.

Sestertius of Hadrian with the legend EXERC NORICVS on the reverse. AD 134–138. RIC II, Part 3 (second edition) Hadrian 1948.
©Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Two Hadrianic presidial procurators (procurator Augustorum provinciae Noricae) with the task of keeping a watch on the Norican sector are known. The first was Claudius Paternus Clementianus (AD 65-130), whose hometown was Abodiacum in Raetia (see previous post). Clementianus was the son of a Celtic legionnaire who received Roman citizenship from Claudius (or possibly Nero). His first senior administrative post had been as governor in Judea, then in Sardinia and Africa Proconsularis, ending his career as governor of Noricum (CIL 03, 05775 & 05776)As a pensioner, he returned to Abodiacum and died there around the year 130.

Bust of Claudius Paternus Clementianus in the Roman Museum in Augsburg.
Author: sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Another presidial procurator was C. Censorius Niger, a Norican who was perhaps the son of the legionary centurion from Sova (CIL III 51745181). Under Marcus Aurelius, these equestrian presidential procurators were replaced by senatorial governors whose responsibility was limited to the financial administration of the province.

Géza Alföldy, in his book entitled Noricum, mentions that under Hadrian, four new auxiliaries were transferred to Noricum, presumably to increase the cavalry in the most venerable section of the limes in the Tulln Basin. The ala I Augusta Thracum, a troop of Thracian cavalrymen, was probably withdrawn from Raetia around 117/121 and moved to the province of Noricum in Augustianis (Kastell Traismauer). The unit was formed of 480 men, consisting of 16 turmae, each with 30 horsemen. The ala I Pannoniorum Tampiana was transferred to Noricum from Britain during Hadrian’s reign at some unspecified date between 122 and 133 and was stationed at Lentia (modern Linz). The Mautern diploma (CIL XVI 174) issued to a soldier of the cohors II Batavorum attests that the unit was in Noricum in AD 131/133 (CIL 16, 174) at the fort of Favianis in 135/138 (AE 1988, 915). Finally, the cohors I Aelia Brittonum, formed under Hadrian, was sent to Favianis (Mautern). Raised in Britain, this cohort is first attested on the career inscription of Titus Appalius Alfinus Secundus (CIL 9, 5357). He commanded the unit in Noricum, apparently late in the reign of Hadrian.

The first forts along the Norican frontier were established in the second half of the 1st century AD as earth and timber constructions. Under Hadrian and his successor Antoninus Pius the fortifications were rebuilt in stone. Most of the camps had a rectangular floor plan with gateways and projecting towers on the wall circuit, their narrow sides oriented towards the Danube. A deep pointed ditch surrounded them.

The Limes in Noricum and Upper Pannonia. Author: Ziegelbrenner (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Floor plan of the auxiliary fort of Comagena during the 3rd to 5th centuries AD.
Author: Veleius (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The mounted troops were stationed in the areas where the country offered no obstacles to their rapid movement on either side of the Danube, around Linz with the cavalry fort Lentia, and in the flat Tulln Basin (Tullnerfeld) with regiments stationed at Augustianis (Traismauer) and Comagena (Tulln). All the other forts held infantry units. Civil settlements (vici) with strip-houses and workshops were established outside the fortifications. Some have been identified and partly excavated in Mautern, Traismauer, Zwentendorf and Tulln.

The river Inn (the ancient Aenus) at Passau formed the border between the two provinces of Raetia and Noricum. Boiodurum (Passau-Innstadt) was the first fort located in the most westerly part of Noricum. It was built at the confluence of the Inn with the Danube, probably under Domitian. A frontier customs post belonging to the publicum portorium Illyrici lay between the Danube and the Inn. The staff’s tasks were collecting customs duties and transmitting messages along the Limes road and the trading routes.

Location of the forts in Passau and on the southern bank of the Inn, 1st to 5th centuries AD.

The next fort to the east was Lentia (Linz), first established in the reign of Claudius as a simple wood-and-earth fort and later converted into a larger stone fort under Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. From AD 122, the ala I Pannoniorum Tampiana victrix had its quarters here, replacing the ala I Thracum victrix as the occupying force. Ad Juvense (Wallsee) and Arelape (Pöchlarn) were the next forts in the sequence. They were initially laid out in the late 1st century AD as wood-earth forts and were continuously occupied by Roman troops from the 1st to the 5th century AD. Numerous brick stamps indicate that among the builders of the Ad Juvense camp were vexillations (detachments) of the cohors prima Aelia Brittonum. The Hadrianic cohort also took up garrison duties at Favianis, a cavalry camp located on the eastern flank of the Norican limes. This sector was the most vulnerable section of the frontier. For this reason, five forts were placed along this fifty-kilometre-long border section.

The chain of forts chain along the Danube in the eastern part of the Norican Limes.

Favianis was one of the oldest forts on the Danube Limes. It was converted into a stone fort between AD 130 and 150 (Stone Period I). Further changes within the camp occurred around 170/180 and in Late Antiquity when the fortifications were reinforced with horseshoe towers and semi-circular towers at the corners (Stone Period II).

Stone Period I. North Gate of Favianis. The start of the erection of the fort walls and the interior stone buildings falls between AD 130 and 150.
Stone Period II. The remains of the western fort wall and towers with a double-pointed ditch.

Favianis’ neighbour to the east, Augustiana (Traismauer), was a cavalry camp occupied by Roman troops from the mid-1st to the 5th century AD. Most of it is built over by the old town of Traismauer, but the walls and towers of the late Roman fort have been preserved in the medieval fortifications. Augustiana was initially built of earth and timber and was first reconstructed in stone in the 140s. From the time of Hadrian, the ala I Augusta Thracum was stationed there and rebuilt the fort in stone. 

The Roman Gate (also known as the Vienna Gate) of Traismauer with visible Roman masonry was the eastern gate into the Late Roman fort of Augustianis.
© Bwag/CC-BY-SA-4.0

 

The military diploma of AD 106 (CIL 16, 00052)

The Asturis fort, located near the village of Zwentendorf, was also constructed of earth and timber and was succeeded, probably in the middle of the 2nd century, by a stone fort enclosing an area of 2 hectares that lasted into the late Roman times. The fort was named after the cohors I Astrum, the infantry troop stationed there. One diploma dated AD 106 lists the cohort as part of the troops stationed in the province. 

Further to the east lay the fort of Comagena, located on the Danube on the site of the modern town of Tulln. It was established under the Flavians as an earth-and-timber encampment, and under Trajan in the early 2nd century AD, stone fortifications were constructed. It originally housed a cavalry regiment of up to 500 men, the ala I Commagenorum. The cohort also appears on the military diploma of AD 106. From its exposed situation, its crew guarded an important militarily ford across the Danube and controlled the fertile alluvial plain of the Tulln Basin. In its later days, the fort served as the base of a naval fleet (the classis Comaginensis). Excavations to the west and south of the fort have uncovered evidence of at least two associated vici and three late antique cemeteries.

The eastern gate (porta principalis dextra) remains of the oldest stone fort of Comagena (early 2nd century AD). A copy of the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius stands on the Danube riverside at Tulln.
Plan of Comagena and the associated vici overlaid on a modern map of the site.
Author: Ziegelbrenner (CC-BY-SA-3.0).

Cannabiaca, located on the eastern edge of the Tulln Basin in Zeiselmauer, was the last military camp of the Norican limes. It housed the cohors secunda Thracum equitata pia fidelis, a mixed auxiliary force of 500 strong infantry and cavalry, which came to Noricum from Britain, probably around 122/125. The first installation, an earth-and-timber structure, was established at the end of the 1st century AD and later on replaced by a stone fort. The camp was expanded in the 4th century AD and reinforced with projecting fan-shaped towers. Zeiselmauer is one of Austria’s best-preserved and researched Roman camps along the Danube Limes. All the visible remains belong to the late Roman times.

The Remains of the fortifications of Cannabiaca from the Late Roman period.

A west-east limes road ran south of the main military installations and connected the individual forts. In addition, a dense long-distance road network linked all the major towns and country areas within Noricum. Ancient road maps, numerous milestones and other archaeological findings bear witness to this. The province’s primary line of communications was the so-called ‘Norican main highway’, a trade road that ran north from Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic Sea via Virunum in Carinthia (Zollfeld) and then across the Noric Alps to Ovilava (Wels) and Lauriacum at the Danube.

Numerous side roads branched off from the main towns of Virunum, Teurnia and Ovilava, and Solva in eastern Noricum had a road link with Poetovio in Pannonia Superior, along the Amber Road (the old trade route for the transfer of amber between the Baltic Sea and the Adriatic Sea). These roads are described in the Itinerarium Antonini (Antonine Itinerary) and depicted on the road map known as the Tabula Peutingeriana (Peutinger map).

Noricum on the Peutinger Table. Click to enlarge.

Hadrianic milestones have been found on two main Norican roads that linked Noricum and Pannonia Superior, the Celeia/Poetovio road and the Solva/Poetovio road. Two milestones came from the Celeia/Poetovio road in Slovenia, the province’s eastern boundary. One milestone was found near Ivenca (CIL 03, 05733), the other near Skofja (AE 1980, 0662). A third Hadrianic milestone came from the Solva/Poetovio road in Starše (CIL 03, 05744), also located on the east edge of Noricum. The Hadrianic milestones are dated to the year 132, the sixteenth year of Hadrian’s tribunician power. 

The Roman colonies and chief towns (municipia) of Noricum were Virunum (near Klagenfurt), Teurnia (near Spittal an der Drau), Flavia Solva (near Leibnitz), Celeia (Celje) in today’s Slovenia, Juvavum (Salzburg), Ovilava (Wels), Lauriacum (Lorch) at the mouth of the Enns. Under Claudius, the provincial capital was transferred from Magdalensberg to the newly founded municipium of Virunum (municipium Claudium Virunum), serving as the governor’s seat until the middle of the 2nd century AD and the centre of the imperial provincial administration of Noricum. Hadrian founded two further municipia, namely Ovilava and Cetium, which took the title municipium Aelium. 

Virunum was situated on the main route from the Adriatic Sea to the Danube, with branches going west via Teurnia and Aguntum to the Via Claudia Augusta in Raetia and east to Celeia, connecting Virunum with Pannonia Superior and the Amber Road. Its proximity to the Noric iron mines ensured favourable conditions for the town’s growth. The city itself covered around one square kilometre and was developed following the rectangular cardo-decumanus system. It was the largest town in Noricum, with large building complexes, including a Forum (ca. 120 x 95.5 m) opening on the Capitolium located on an artificially created terrace.

The baths-quarter was erected about the middle of the 1st century AD, in connection with the laying-out of the town under Claudius. Most of the remaining buildings were completed shortly after the foundation of the municipium by Hadrian (with a terminus post quem of AD 131), including the theatre and the amphitheatre, constructed on an artificial terrace on the eastern edge of the city between the forum and governor’s palace. A small Sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus has also been excavated at the north edge of the town. 

Panoramic view of the long elliptical amphitheatre of Virunum. The amphitheatre is the only Roman building that has been restored and opened to the public.
Author: Thomas Wozniak (CC BY-SA 4.0)

During excavations of the theatre in 1931, archaeologists unearthed a slightly damaged portrait head of Hadrian and fragments with drapery folds. It comes from a life-size statue of the emperor made of Italian marble that adorned the stage building. The ground plan of the theatre is known from the excavations by R. Egger in the years 1926 to 1930. The semicircle orchestra was approximately 35 m wide. In front of it was the stage area measuring 5.8 x 35.2m. The scaenae frons (stage building) provided access through three gates to a 4.5 m wide hall adjoined by a wide terrace to the west. About 3 m wide entrances led to the orchestra on both sides.

Portrait of Hadrian from Virunum.
© Klagenfurt – Landesmuseum für Kärnten Rudolfinum, Foto: Ortolf Harl 2003 (Lupa.at)

In the Hadrianic era, a workshop at Virunum produced sculptures well above the average Roman provincial standard. The most famous stonemason was an Italian sculptorthe so-called ‘Virunum master‘, whose fine marble sculptures decorated the baths at Virunum. He created one of Noricum’s finest sculptures, the Dying Amazon statue, now in Vienna. Other sculptures in the Virunum baths include marble statues of Apollo, Isis Noreia, Mars, Mercury, Bacchus and Venus. 

Wounded Amazon, mid-2nd century AD, from Virunum.
Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria.

At some stage, possibly during his inspection tour of the province, Hadrian granted municipal status to the civilian settlements of Cetium and Ovilava, renaming them municipium Aelium Cetium and municipium Aelium Ovilava. Thus the inhabitants of those communities acquired full Roman citizenship from Hadrian. 

Aelium Cetium was a civil city and the supply and administrative centre of the northeastern part of Noricum. It was located on the main Roman road leading from Ovilava to Vindobona (Vienna), crossing the river Tragisamus (today Traisen). It must have enjoyed certain importance as it was ideally placed on the route to act as a supply post for the forward Danube fortifications, just a day’s march north. The urban area covered an area of ​​about 25 ha (it was one of the smaller administrative cities in the Roman Empire) and was laid out in a rectangular grid plan that can still be seen in the layout of the modern city of Sankt Polten. The earliest structures were half-timbered, but the rebuilding in stone began after Cetium was partially destroyed in AD 170 during the Marcomanni invasions. The Roman town was abandoned around 450 and then fell into disrepair. The remains of the Roman city are below the Altstadt of Sankt Pölten. Only isolated parts of ancient structures have been located, but none of them is Hadrianic.

The second Hadrianic municipium in northern Noricum, Ovilava, lay in the southern part of present-day Wels, another town where only limited excavation has been possible. It was located on the left bank of the Traun river, at an important road junction where the routes leading from Ovilava to Virunum, Juvavum and the Danube intersected. The municipium grew out of the vicus established in the time of Claudius, where foreign immigrants, including Italian merchants, had settled. As in Aelium Cetium, the town was laid out at right-angles, partly preserved by the street plan of modern Wels. 

Tombstone of Publius Aelius Flavus, a decurio, duovir and flamen of Aelium Cetium (St. Pölten) in Noricum, also decurio, duovir and pontifex in Ovilava (Wels). The inscription (CIL 03, 05630) is dated to AD 200-300, when municipium Aelium Ovilava was elevated to the rank of a colonia by Caracalla (Colonia Aurelia Antoniniana Ovilavensium).

Aelium Ovilava was elevated to the rank of a colonia under Caracalla and was renamed Colonia Aurelia Antoniana Ovilabis. Caracalla probably fortified the town when it was threatened by German tribes. At this time, the city had around 18,000 inhabitants. The finds from Ovilava are mainly in the Städtisches Museum in Wels. One of the most important finds from Roman times is the bronze statuette of Venus found in a field in Gunskirchen in 1917. A 1.25 m tall cast stands in the city centre of Wels.

The “Venus of Wels” and a medallion from a Roman grave were reused in a house.

Coins of Hadrian’s adventus (arrival) in Noricum were later issued to celebrate the emperor’s presence in the province. They show him being greeted by a sacrificing personified figure of Noricum in a short tunic and cloak and her hair knotted and carrying a vexillum.

Sestertius of Hadrian with the legend ADVENTVI AVG NO[RICI] on the reverse. AD 130–133. RIC II, Part 3 (second edition) Hadrian 1795.
© Wien, Münzkabinett, Kunsthistorisches Museum, RÖ 9355 https://www.ikmk.at/ (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

There is evidence of ongoing trade between the regnum Noricum and Rome from the 2nd century BC onwards. In Noricum, merchants from Aquileia traded pottery, glass, oil and wine from northern Italy for metal wares, including iron and gold. Norican iron was the region’s most famous product. The best quality iron produced in the Roman Empire was extracted from the mountains of Norium on the north side of the Alps. The Romans run a large-scale, well-organised iron industry near Magdalensberg, making the Celtic settlement a significant hub for iron trading.

Ferrum Noricum (Noric steel), valued for its quality, has been mentioned in Latin and Greek literary sources since the end of the 1st century BC. The Roman poet Ovid (Ovid. Met. 14-712) expressed the proverbial hardness of Noric steel “…harder than iron, tempered in the Noric forge…” while Horace (Odesi. 16.9) favourably mentioned the swords made of itHadrian recognised the value of the Norican mining industry and had a coin minted with the legend met(allaNor(ica). This was perhaps to celebrate his visit or the discovery of new ores in this region.

Quadrans of Hadrian with the legend met(alla) Nor(ica) on the reverse. AD 121–123. RIC II, Part 3 (second edition) Hadrian 689.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

No warfare would affect the Norican frontier zone during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. However, the long period of peace would come to an end during the reign of Marcus Aurelius when it suffered from the ravages of the Marcomannic Wars.

On 30 July 2021, the Danube Limes was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the designation “Frontiers of the Roman Empire – Danube Limes (Western Segment)“. The “western segment” of the Danube Limes begins above Regensburg and extends to below Bratislava. Along this stretch of almost 600 kilometres, there are 33 selected sites with Roman monuments (22 in Austria, 9 in Bavaria, and 2 in Slovakia). Hungary, which has numerous Roman sites along the Danube, has regrettably dropped out of this joint transnational project.

Many archaeological sites lie along the Danube Limes in Austria, with exceptionally well-preserved late Roman frontier monuments. Those remains, including towers and gates, are unparalleled in any other portion of the Limes in Europe.

Sources & references:

  • Alfödy, G., Noricum, Routledge, 2015.
  • Birley, Anthony R., (1997). Hadrian. The restless emperor, Routledge London New York pp. 113-122.
  • Fraser. Trudie E. (2006). Hadrian as Builder and Benefactor in the Western Provinces. BAR International Series 1484.

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