People around the world are obsessed with just about anything that has to do with the Roman Empire. Every find helps us learn even more about the ancient Romans and their culture. That’s why the unearthing of a Roman chariot and the horses that once pulled it in Croatia is generating much excitement.
We may not think of Croatia as part of the Roman Empire, but it was just that over 2,000 years ago, and it was not known as Croatia at that time.
For over 60 years between 229–168 BC, the Romans fought three wars known as the Illyrian Wars with the Illyrian tribe that had controlled the region consisting of parts of what is now Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, eventually conquering the territory and burning cities that had resisted Roman rule.
War was inevitable between the Romans and the Illyrians. After all, the Romans were all too aware that the Adriatic coast of Italy was vulnerable to a naval attack by Illyria, so it made sense for them to attack in order to guarantee the security of the homeland. It took many years to achieve, but the Romans secured the territory they sought and left legions garrisoned to keep it under their control.
As part of the conquest, the land of Illyricum became two provinces called Dalmatia and Pannonia.
Pannonia took a lot longer for the Romans to completely subdue, not gaining full control of the territory until 9 BC. Just a few years later in 6 AD, the Romans had to deal with a major uprising known as the Great Illyrian Revolt.
Tiberius and Germanicus
In response, the Roman government sent future emperor Tiberius and a general named Germanicus to put the rebellion down. Over the course of four years, the Romans engaged in a conflict that Roman historian Suetonius described as the hardest conflict the Roman military faced since the Punic Wars just a couple of centuries prior.
Eventually, the rebels surrendered and the Romans split up the tribes and sold some members as slaves.
Pannonia was secure, and the Romans resumed building it up into a good example of Roman high society.
And because of that, it meant there were wealthy Romans living in the area who practiced elaborate burial customs.
2,000 years later, one of those burials revealed the spectacular sight of a Roman chariot that had been entombed along with the two horses that had pulled it.
According to The Daily Mail:
Archaeologists from the City Museum Vinkovci and Institute of Archaeology from Zagreb discovered the Roman carriage on two wheels (known in Latin as a cisium) with horses at the Jankovacka Dubrava site close to the village of Stari Jankovci, near the city of Vinkovci, in eastern Croatia.
The discovery is believed to be an example of how those with extreme wealth were sometimes buried along with their horses.
Vinkovci used to be known to the Romans as Aurelia Cibalae and is near the site of the Battle of Cibalae fought between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius around 314 AD. Licinius lost 20,000 troops and retreated from the battlefield under the cover of darkness. This victory led to a peace negotiation in Constantine’s favor. Vinkovci is also the site of a Roman bath that lies underground as well as multiple Roman artifacts and other ruins, including elaborate burial sites.
Yes, even wealthy people during Roman times spent their money lavishly.
“The custom is associated with extremely wealthy families who have played a prominent role in the administrative, social and economic life of the province of Pannonia,” City Museum Vinkovci Curator Boris Kratofil said.
Just as prominent members of Viking society arranged to be buried along with a ship and their own beloved animals, the Romans were engaged in similar practices hundreds of years earlier.
Chariots of the afterlife
Tombs often included items that families believed their loved one would need in the afterlife, such as portraits, wine, livestock, pets, weapons, and in some cases, a coin to pay an underworld ferryman to carry their soul across the river Styx.
And so, it’s very likely that the person buried in the Croatia tomb felt they needed their chariot and two horses to serve them in the afterlife.
It’s certainly a unique find in Croatia, as director of the Institute of Archaeology Marko Dizdar said. After the find is carefully excavated, experts will further study it before it eventually is turned into an exhibit for public view. But there’s a long way to go before that happens.
“After this comes a long process of restoration and conservation of the findings, but also a complete analysis of the findings,” Dizdar explained. “In a few years, we will know a little more about the family whose members were buried in this area 1,800 years ago.”
One would think that the chariot would be of the most interest to researchers, but it turns out that the horses are generating the most curiosity.
“We are more interested in the horses themselves, that is, whether they were bred here or came from other parts of the empire, which will tell us more about the importance and wealth of this family,” Dizdar said. “We will achieve this through cooperation with domestic as well as numerous European institutions.”
Indeed, genetic studies can trace the lineage of a horse to the region it came from.
Perhaps the horses are Berbers, a breed of horse originating from North Africa prized above others by Roman chariot racers for their stamina and sprinter gallop. This particular breed was utilized to develop modern racehorses such as the American quarter horse.
The Pannonia name would go on to pass into history along with the Roman Empire, but traces of the name remain today in the form of the Pannonian plain, a large basin in central Europe teaming with plains and lowlands ideal for farming.
As for chariot racing, the last such race in Rome occurred in 549 AD and has largely faded out as a sport, although some form of chariot races still occur in the present day, making the find in Croatia all the more interesting.
Featured Image: Pixabay