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Many visitors are at least a little familiar with Austria’s imperial history, especially once they’ve seen all the hallmarks of that age in Vienna or Salzburg. Few though realise that the history of Austria stretches way before that era, even as far back as the ancient Romans. If learning a little about that slice of Austrian history interests you, there’s really no better place to visit than the Roman ruins of Carnuntum.
Situated out near the border between Vienna and the Bratislava, the ancient Roman city of Carnuntum was once even larger than Vienna. Also known as Römerstadt Carnuntum, this collection of Roman sites are sprinkled throughout the modern town of Petronell-Carnuntum.
Just a short trip from Vienna, seeing Carnuntum has to be one of the easiest day trips from the city. It’s a nice change of pace from the rest of Vienna’s sights and honestly a bit unexpected. I mean, I know there are so many great Roman ruins in Europe but I’d never given much thought to ones in Austria. After visiting Carnuntum, that’s definitely changed.
History of Carnuntum
A big part of visiting any ancient site like Carnuntum is learning the history of the place. If you’d like to learn a little before you visit, here’s a brief overview. Before the arrival of the Romans, the region was settled by various Celtic tribes. It wasn’t until 35 BC that a Roman campaign was ordered here by Emperor Augustus. The first Roman fortification was built in 6 AD and for the next 400 years had their settlement of Carnuntum here in the Pannonia region.
Carnuntum was important both as a vital frontier fortification during its time, but also as a trading post. With its fleet and legions stationed there, Carnuntum was quite critical to the conflict with the Germanic tribes beyond the empire’s borders. At its peak circa 200 AD, the city had a population of around 50,000 people. With the fall of the Roman Empire, that all came crashing down since it was right on the front line.
Roman City Quarter
The core part of a visit to Carnuntum is the Roman City Quarter, a combination of indoor and open-air museum. After walking through a small introductory exhibit you walk through into the main part of the Roman City Quarter. This is actually only a corner of the former Roman city and yet there’s plenty there for you to see. First you can walk through open air sections of the site, where low rebuilt walls show you the outlines of Roman houses.
After that though comes something I haven’t really seen before at a Roman site. At Carnuntum they’ve actually recreated 4 buildings on their original spots to show visitors what Roman life was like. The houses reflect Roman life during the 4th century AD, with many aspect of the homes replicated using traditional methods. All of this comes together to create a fascinating experience as you walk from room to room.
Probably the centrepiece of the restored houses is the Villa Urbana. This high society mansion has had some rooms restored, but sadly little information has been unearthed regarding its owner. Still, they were able to recreate wall decorations based on surviving examples.
The other interesting restored building was the Forum Public Baths, or thermae, as they were known by the Romans. While I’ve seen ruins of Roman baths before, I think this was the first time I saw someone attempt to rebuild them. Definitely makes it easier to picture Roman life when you can see it all in front of you.
Archaeological Museum Carnuntinum
Having seen the city quarter, the next stop on your Carnuntum visit is the Archaeological Museum Carnuntinum in town. This interesting building was created for museum, which was opened in 1904 by none other than Emperor Francis Joseph himself. The museum acts as the treasury for the Carnuntum archaeological site and is full of all sorts of artifacts.
Various items have been uncovered from the different Roman sites and are all on display here, including ceramics like pots and urns, as well as armour, figurines, trinkets, statues and busts. One of the main items on display here is one of the few surviving cornu, an ancient military instrument.
Our last stop while out exploring Carnuntum was to a field where the ruins of the Military Amphitheatre lie. With a temporary grandstand by them, the ring of walls and the gentle slope leading away from them give you a clear idea of what once stood here. While a wooden amphitheatre predated it, the stone arena was constructed in the mid-to-late 1st century AD.
Used by the Roman military, the amphitheatre hosted gladiator combats, parades and training drills. Even still, it probably could hold as many as 8,000 spectators. By the ruins you’ll see a small museum that details the different types of gladiatorial, from their fighting style to their armor and the types they would fight against in combat.
Other Carnuntum Ruins
What I’ve described above are just the main ruins that we had time to visit with our day in Carnuntum. The thing is, that’s not all the ruins of Carnuntum. Around the greater area of Carnuntum are several other smaller ruins, often out in fields but still accessible.
For one there’s the Civilian City’s Amphitheatre, built outside the Roman city walls and a civilian counterpart to the older military one described earlier. Not far away you’ll find a practice arena for gladiators that was reconstructed in the last few years, as well as an ancient monumental gate, the Heidentor.
Visiting Carnuntum, Austria
When visiting the sites of Carnuntum, you’ll need to buy an entrance ticket which costs 12€ for adults, letting you into each site once. More info on tickets and opening times etc can be found on the Carnuntum website.
As for getting to Carnuntum from Vienna, you have a number of options open to you. Best is certainly by car as you can drive between each of the different ruins and museums without hassle. There are some public transport options open to you though, with the S7 train and various regional trains running from Wien Mitte station. You will have to do some walking though to get from one site to the next however.
Want more Roman ruins in Europe to visit? Then take a look at these other Europe blog posts that feature archaeological sites you won’t want to miss:
- Remarkable Roman Ruins Outside Italy
- The Extraordinary Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily
- Visiting the Ancient Roman City of Tongeren, Belgium
- How to Purposefully Spend a Day in Cartagena, Spain
- A Stunning Day Trip to Pont du Gard, France
Have you heard of the Roman ruins of Carnuntum in Austria before? Do you like to visit ancient sites when you travel? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.