The largest Roman city you never heard of: Gorsium

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Totally lost, I am fumbling through the Puszta fog, somewhere between Balaton and Buda, between Pannonia and Pest.

There is a surprisingly Romanesque church over here, a surprisingly communist star on the monument to the Soviet soldiers over there, and a river that I narrowly manage to avoid falling into.

And then, as I step out of the forest, I can spot the sun, slowly fighting its way through the mist. And a city. Or rather, ruins of a city, which seem to be uninhabited that very morning.

The fog feels that it has lost the fight, that an erudite explorer, our roving reporter, the successor to Indiana Jones will snatch the secret from its claws and jaws on that November day, and it vanishes as quickly as if it were urgently needed elsewhere. Minute by minute, it is turning warmer, sunnier, more colorful.

And I am standing there in awe, shaking my head in incredulity, and exclaiming again and again: “I can’t believe it!” Because before me, there is a city in ruins, so large, so vast, so beautiful and, above all, so surprising, here, in the middle of rural Hungary.

In my studies of history, I try to circumnavigate the ancient world as widely as Magellan circumnavigated the oceans. But still, I do catch up a few things here and there. And because the inscriptions on the dozens of tombstones are all in Latin, my guess is that this is some Roman stuff.

What many people don’t know, or if they do, then only due to my articles (example 1, example 2, example 3): The Romans were a pretty multi-cultural bunch and were not only at home in Rome, but all over Europe, in Asia and in North Africa.

This included Pannonia, which is in present-day Hungary. The city I have stumbled upon was called Gorsium and later Herculia. It was in its peak splendor between the 1st and the 4th century AD and received visits by quite a few emperors. If it used to be anywhere near as beautiful as it is now, then I can certainly understand why Trajan (the one with the column), Caracalla (the brutal one), Hadrian (“Build that wall!“) and Septimius Severus (who hailed from Africa and would therefore be turned away at the Hungarian border fence today) undertook the long journey.

Beginning with the 5th century, the Romans vanished, leaving the steppe to the Huns, and Gorsium-Herculia fell into oblivion. It was not until the 20th century that excavations began, and perhaps Gorsium is less well known than Pompeii, Hadrian’s Wall or Palmyra because it was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain until 1990. There is still no article in the English-language Wikipedia about this impressive ancient city. Even in the “New Pauly”, Gorsium gets only a few lines.

But it is well worth a visit! Even for people who know nothing at all about Roman tombs, columns and temples. The excavation site is laid out like a sprawling landscape park, with golden autumn leaves, Mediterranean trees, and cozy benches, perfect for sitting down with a book and a cigar.

And it’s probably worth coming back in a few years. Because allegedly, only 7% of Gorsium has been excavated so far.

So, what has been the most surprising place in the world for you to come across Roman history?

Practical advice:

  • Gorsium is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, at least officially. In reality, the area is too large to close it off.
  • The entrance fee is 1200 forints (= 3 euros), although the ladies at the ticket office allowed me to enter without paying. But that probably only works if you are as likable as I am.
  • From/to Székesfehérvár, the next major town, there is a bus every hour. The bus stop is in the village of Tác. From there, it is a short walk to Gorsium. (Caution: I am one of those people who actually always and everywhere says that it is “only a short walk”.)
This is the bus stop where you need to get off. Or get on, depending on where you want to go.
  • Or you take the train to Szabadbattyán and either the bus from there or the foot/bike path along the river. I hitchhiked from Szabadbattyán (at the railroad crossing) and caught a ride after a mere few minutes.
  • The tobacco shop in Tác (not far from the bus stop) even has cigars. Perfect for a few pleasant hours in Gorsium! In memoriam of the poor Romans who had not yet invented tobacco and thus became extinct.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in History, Hungary, Photography, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The largest Roman city you never heard of: Gorsium

  1. Pingback: Die größte römische Stadt, von der Ihr noch nie gehört habt: Gorsium | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Jacqueline Danson says:

    What a fantastic mystical (or mistical?) find, and great write-up, Oh Intrepid Traveller!!

    Jackie x

    • Thank you very much!

      Sorry that I couldn’t add much history this time, but I wouldn’t want to mess around with Antiquity, where I can’t tell one emperor from the next.
      Any anyway, I was just so delighted about the discovery and about the unexpected beautiful, sunny and warm day. One of those all-around perfect days.
      (Although I do regret that I didn’t ask the gentleman who gave me a ride in the morning if I could join him. Because he said he was a garden historian, going to the opening of a historical manor. But then, the days are short in November, and you can’t squeeze two things into one day.)

    • Jackie Danson says:

      I thought it was great exactly as it is! I can look up history, but your own experiences – and extremely evocative, beautiful photographs – are unique to you, and that’s what I like reading and seeing!


  3. Very cool! One feels bad for the poor Romans who had no tobacco though. The closest I’ve come to seeing anything from ancient Rome was when the Pompeii exhibit came to my local Museum., I went as a chaperone with my daughter’s class, so I got in free 😉 That’s how I got to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit also. Free is always preferable.

    • That’s a clever move indeed!
      And me, living in Europe, I ain’t never been to Pompeii. :-( (I am always worried that the volcano will erupt again.)

      Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t have to pay at Gorsium. Either because I showed a student ID, or because I was the first visitor in the day, or because I petted the cat which was sitting in front of the ticket booth.

      I guess the lack of tobacco is what made the Romans so edgy and world-conquering and city-burning and stuff.

      And maybe one could classify the state capitol building in Sacramento as Roman architecture. ;-)

  4. dnrteuer says:

    Thanks for this terrific reflection. I’ve seen a lot of the Hungarian ruins of Roman cities, but never this one. And not in Autumn. It is simply beautiful. So glad you found the tobacconist, Donnah

  5. Finding a set of ruins unexpectedly must be quite as pleasant as wandering through them seem to have been.

    There’s one problem that western Europe has with the history of the Roman empire: it didn’t die out in the 5th century. In fact it didn’t die out till the 15th century. Its capital shifted eastwards in the early years of the 4th century with Constantine I. It even remained the center of a unified Christian church till the 11th century, when the new-fangled Catholics split from the Orthodox in the Great Schism. (I suppose the Habsburgs would have had problems with this history). It is amazing that the empire lasted for one and a half thousand years.

    Most people east of west Europe know this. The 13th century poet Jalal al-din, for example, is better known as Rumi because he settled in Anatolia. It was then called the Sultanate of Rum, because it was earlier one of the eastern provinces of the Roman empire still governed in his time from Constantinople.

    • Excellent and important point!
      And it makes me reconsider blaming the Iron Curtain for Western Europeans lack of knowledge about or attention to Eastern Europe, because obviously this began much earlier.

      Interestingly, one of the most lasting impacts of the Romans, the codification of Roman law, came from East Rome.

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