Cast your mind back a few years. Around 2000 in fact. Long before Vienna echoed to the sound of violins and pianos, you could hear the stamp of Roman legions marching through the streets. Here a quick overview of Vienna’s Roman history and what remains of it to experience today.
- At its peak, “Vindobona” was home to around 30,000 people in a military camp, military settlement and civilian town
- Much of the city centre stands on the former Roman site
- Roman history still influences modern Vienna in, for example, street names
- Few physical remains to see in situ (but check, for example, Michaelerplatz and the Roman Museum)
- See also: The Habsburgs for visitors
(Roman excavations on Michaelerplatz)
Vienna’s history tends to focus on its position as the administrative centre of the Habsburg lands and the residence of various emperors and empresses.
But the city has imperial connections that go back to an era when those Leopolds and Karls were still centuries away from building their first castles among the forested slopes of Switzerland.
At a time when the greatest threat to local sensibilities was not a poorly-played waltz but an incursion by barbarian hordes, Vienna was Vindobona: a Roman military camp and associated settlement.
The location reflected its strategic value. The Danube marked the border between the Roman Empire and the German tribes, so Vindobona formed one of a series of defensive military positions along the river.
Further east, for example, you had the even larger Carnuntum, now a lovely archaeological park. Vindobona also protected important trade routes.
At its peak, the military fort with associated military and civil settlements had a population of around 30,000, and the Roman presence lasted roughly 350 years from the early 1st century.
So what remains of Roman Vienna?
(Roman soldiers once slept on the site of the Park Hotel Hyatt)
The camp and surrounding settlement(s) roughly match up with much of the current first district, i.e. the very centre of the city, and the civil town extended out into today’s 3rd district.
Inevitably, centuries of construction works and urban development have erased almost all trace of Vindobona above ground. But you can still find actual Roman remains and echoes of the era in modern Vienna.
The layout of the city centre probably reflects in part the structure of the Roman camp. The Graben street that forms the pedestrianised heart of the city may have marked one side of the fortifications, for example. (Graben actually means ditch or trench.)
(Stone from a Roman Baths in Vindobona)
Building works often turn up evidence of Roman times. The Park Hotel Hyatt on Am Hof square, for example, seemingly stands on top of former Roman barracks. Walk east down Sterngasse and you’ll reach a stone cuboid that formed part of some Roman baths; it turned up in 1962 during the demolition of a building.
The Hoher Markt area once housed Roman officers. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) of Gladiator fame stayed in Vindobona and today’s Marc-Aurel-Straße (which starts at one end of Hoher Markt) pays tribute to that historical fact. Some claim he even died in the city.
The word, Vindobona, also survives in business, product, ship and train names that riff off the classical association. It also found use as the female personification of Vienna. For example:
(The Albrechtsbrunnen features an allegorical depiction of Vindobona as a woman in the arms of the Danube in human form)
- The huge Albrechtsbrunnen fountain below the Albertina museum has the figures of Danubius and Vindobona serving as allegories for the river and the city
- The regimental monument on Deutschmeisterplatz has Vindobona holding up a laurel wreath toward the flag-carrying soldier that tops the plinth
(Representation of Vindobona on the Deutschmeister monument)
- The main carved stone figure on the central tower of the 19th-century Rathaus represents Vindobona
Where to see/learn more
Visit, for example…
The Roman Museum
The Wien Museum has a location on Hoher Markt dedicated to Vienna’s Roman past that incorporates actual on-site excavations. The Römermuseum explores the history of Vindobona and the lives of the inhabitants with the help of modern and archeological displays.
(Inside the Roman Museum in Vienna; photo by Birgit und Peter Kainz © Wien Museum)
Michaelerplatz square at one entrance to the Hofburg spent part of its life as a crossroads where east-west and north-south trade routes met. The redesign of the square in the early 1990s included extensive excavations that revealed, for example, the remnants of Roman dwellings.
Part of those excavations remain exposed to public view in a special display across the square’s centre.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum
Not specifically related to Vindobona per se, but the prestigious Kunsthistorisches Museum has an entire section dedicated to Greek and Roman antiquities. Look, particularly, for the cameos and engraved gems.