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  • From Vienna to the Baltic in Roman Times November 28, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback


    A couple of rarely examined sentences in Pliny’s Natural History (37,45) give the outline of a grand old Roman adventure in the times of the Emperor Nero (54 AD 68 AD).

    There are about 600 miles from Carnuntum [Roman camp close to Vienna] in Pannonia to the shores of Germany from which amber is imported. The fact was recently established and a Roman knight still lives who was sent to get some amber by Julian, when Julian was given the job of taking care of the gladiator games put on by Emperor Nero. The knight wandered through the markets and the coasts  and found so much amber that the protective nets separating the wild beasts from the podium were hung with pieces of amber, and, what is more, the arms and the litters (?) and all the apparatus for every day (in as much as the gallant preparations changed every day) were decorated with amber.

    DC M p. fere a Carnunto Pannoniae abesse litus id Germaniae, ex quo invehitur, percognitum nuper, vivitque eques R. ad id comparandum missus ab Iuliano curante gladiatorium munus Neronis principis. qui et commercia ea et litora peragravit, tanta copia invecta, ut retia coercendis feris podium protegentia sucinis nodarentur, harena vero et libitina totusque unius diei apparatus in variatione pompae singulorum dierum esset e sucino.

    The journey described here might appear fairly undramatic: after all, to drive today from Vienna to the Baltic is the work of twenty four hours and you travel on good roads all the way. But in these times Carnuntum was the jumping off point between Mediterranean civilisation and the tribal north. The unnamed knight will have moved through territories where Romans were despised and territories ruled over by a melange of Celtic, Slavic and Germanic clans. It is extraordinary not only that he made it to the Baltic, but that he managed to get back with the amber that he somehow purchased there.

    And what was this amber that the Romans esteemed so much? Well, we today know that amber is fossilised resin but the ancients did not know this and speculated that amber was everything from gummy liquid (close) to solidified lynx urine! For them amber was  the only real treasure, to be got from trading with the Baltic. It is interesting to speculate though whether the nameless knight was not sent north for other purposes besides precious ‘stones’. Nero’s gladiatorial games are mentioned: was the equestrian  supposed to bring back new and exotic beasts from the north of Europe to be killed in the sand of the coliseum? Danube bears, Polish wolves, German boars…

    Beachcombing is always interested in earlier adventures off the beaten track: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    30 Nov 2011: Carter from Across Difficult Country writes in with a fascinating point that sheds some light on Greek and Roman confusion about the Baltic, ‘The writer Avram Davidson speculated amber convinced the ancient Greeks Hyperborea had a warm climate. Thanks Carter!

    30 April 2014: ANL writes in with this curious quotation. Continents? Tacitus, Germania: ‘Amber, however, is certainly a gum of trees, as you may see from the fact that creeping and even winged creatures are often seen shining through it. Caught in the sticky liquid, they were then imprisoned as it hardened. I imagine that in the islands and continents of the west, just as in the secret chambers of the east, where the trees exude frankincense and balm, there must be woods and groves of unusual productivity.” Thanks ANL!