Mursa: Hadrijanova kolonija uz limes Rimskog carstva (Mursa: Colonia Aelia at the Limes of the Roman Empire)
Emilio Marin
Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti (The Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, 2018)
301pp, 155 colour illustrations
Hardback, €40

If you search the internet for information on the cities established by the Emperor Hadrian, the title of one book crops up regularly: Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire by Mary T Boatwright (Princeton University Press, 2000). But there is only a limited amount of data in this book on Colonia Aelia Mursa (the modern city of Osijek in north-eastern Croatia), established by Hadrian presumably in AD 133 behind the Roman limes (frontier) on the Danube, in Pannonia Inferior. We learn that Mursa and Colonia Aelia Capitolina (modern Jerusalem) were the only military colonies (this remains hypothetical as far as Mursa is concerned) and the two last new colonial settlements in the history of the Roman Empire. A discussion of the city of Mursa is dismissed due to a lack of evidence. There was actually more evidence than the author believed but, as it was almost exclusively published in Croatian, it was inaccessible to foreign authors and a wider audience.

The last four decades or so of intensive rescue excavation in Osijek have brought to light a wealth of new information on the architecture, urbanism and sculpture of Mursa. Despite the fact that these are mostly disconnected scraps of the original whole, with no attempt at synthesis so far, they still provide invaluable insights into the life of the city, especially if combined with epigraphic and written sources.

In 2018 the time came to present Mursa to a wider audience. This was done by Professor Emilio Marin, an author
distinguished for his widely recognised syntheses on two cities in the Roman province of Dalmatia – Salona and Narona on the eastern Adriatic coast.

Venturing into the province of Pannonia for the first time, he produced this remarkable bilingual (Croatian and English) book on Mursa, written in a fresh and lively manner. In it, he captures the very spirit of a Pannonian city whose life was sustained through its affiliation with the emperor Hadrian, and strongly affected by its location on the Danube limes (frontier) and at a strategic position as a river port at the crossroads between the European and Asian parts of the Roman Empire. Such a position decided Mursa's destiny as a city of many battles, some of which fascinate both Classical and modern historians alike. In Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he devoted a passionate paragraph to the battle between the two emperors Magnentius and Constantius II, which took place at Mursa in AD 351, presaging the fall of the Empire.

Adopting a 'total history' approach, Marin uses all available sources, historical, written, epigraphic, philological, art-historical, archaeological and scientific – to present a comprehensive reconstruction of the material and human image of the city. So the story of Mursa unfolds against the background of two guiding lines of historiography, spatial and diacronic. Within the former, the author envisages the destiny of Mursa as a blend of global elements of Roman civilisation and specific conditions of this city's immediate and more distant environment. As for the diacronic aspect, we are faced with 'decline and fall' on the one hand, and, on the other, continuity. Despite the fact that Roman Mursa did not survive into the medieval period, Marin illustrates the ways its legacy remained important.

Benefitting from superb colour illustrations throughout, this book makes for inspired and inspiring reading.

Branka Migotti

 

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