The ghostly remains of the Roman fort of Kelemantia, near modern-day Iža.
Photos by James Thomson
The area east of Komárno, along the left bank of the Danube, seems pretty sleepy nowadays. But eighteen centuries ago this was the often-violent frontier of the civilised world.
From the second century AD, the barbarian tribes of northern Europe began launching increasingly frequent and well-organised attacks on the Roman Empire. As part of their response, the Romans constructed a line of defences - the Limes Romanus - encircling the empire. It is probably the most ambitious such project in history, with the possible exception of the Great Wall of China. In some places it took the form of a stone barrier (Hadrian's Wall in northern England is an example); in others a timber palisade (as was the case in western Germany).
But in central and south-eastern Europe, the main defensive line was the River Danube, along which were built a series of forts, watchtowers and huge legionary fortresses.
Almost all of these outposts were on the right bank of the Danube. One, Gerulata, has been partly excavated in the village of Rusovce near to Bratislava; there are several in Hungary. However, there was one exception: near the modern-day village of Iža, archaeologists have spent the last thirty years excavating Kelemantia, a Roman fort on the left bank of the river.
Kelemantia was probably a bridgehead for the larger fortress of Brigetio, across the river near Komárom. But it was still fairly big, at 172 metres square.
The excavated and partly-reconstructed fort, which is accessible via a rough lane from Iža, was the second to be built on the site. It contained barracks, stable blocks and a bathhouse and was surrounded by a stone wall two metres thick and up to five metres high. Parts of these structures are now visible and described by information boards in four languages, including English.
Photos by James Thomson
The first fort on the site, whose foundations have been partly surveyed, was an earth and timber construction. It is believed to have been destroyed by barbarian attacks less than five years after it was built. Evidence of temporary encampments nearby - presumably built to house the large expeditionary force despatched by Rome to wallop the natives in turn - were revealed by an aerial survey in 1990.
Curiously, Kelemantia was rediscovered as a Roman site in modern times by a pair of English gentlemen-travellers, Richard Pococke and Jeremiah Milles, who decided to follow the route of the limes in the eighteenth century. Milles made a sketch of the site which still survives and correctly surmised that the marks in the centre of what he called the fossée, or earthworks, which surrounded the site, were the remains of gates. These have now been partly reconstructed by modern archaeologists.
Milles concluded his notes by remarking, in authentically po-faced English style:
"This [fort] is called by the Hungarians Leányvár, which signifys Virgins Fortress. How they came to give [it] that name I cannot pretend to say."