AMBER AND ITS ROAD
Bangkok, 15 August 2016
I’ve just finished a fascinating book about the peopling of Europe, entitled Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings, by Jean Manco. The book describes the various waves of people who have settled Europe, peacefully or not, from 40,000 BC to 1,000 AD.
One thread in the rich tapestry of the peopling of Europe is the trade networks which sprang up as neighbouring tribes traded whatever useful or interesting resources they controlled inside their territories. The really high-value resources could in this way travel very long distances from their point of origin, as people passed them on – at ever-increasing value, no doubt – to people further away from the original source. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the Stone Age long-distance trade in obsidian, which made excellent, sharp arrowheads. Gold, the subject of my next-to previous post, was also traded over long distances. Amber was another such material.
In the early days of Europe’s history, by far the richest source of amber was the Baltic coast of Poland (it probably still is), where nuggets of amber would wash up on the beach, broken off from the amber deposits on the sea bottom.
The biggest market for amber, on the other hand, and from time immemorial, were the civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament contains pieces of Baltic amber, for instance
while Heinrich Schliemann found necklace beads of Baltic amber in the Mycenaean tombs he excavated.
Thus sprang up several “amber roads”, trade routes which brought Baltic (and other Northern European) amber south.
The one that most interests me is the amber road which led from the general region of Gdansk down to the Roman provincial capital of Carnuntum on the Danube River (the Danube became the Roman Empire’s frontier in 9 BC), on down along the network of Roman roads to Aquileia in North-Eastern Italy, the terminus. This map shows, more or less, a detailed trace of this amber road.
I say “more or less” because while the route taken by the amber after the Danube River crossing is pretty clear – it followed the Roman roads down to the Italian peninsula – how it got to the Danube River from the Baltic coast is less so. There were just tracks through the forests and around the bogs in this part of Europe, and I’m sure every Germanic trader followed his fancy, depending on what else he was buying or selling along the way, as well as what the weather was like and who was fighting who. There seem to have been a few fixed points on the itinerary: Wroclaw (Breslau in German; the British historian Norman Davies, in collaboration with Roger Moorehouse, has written a fascinating biography of this city, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City), the Moravian Gate (a pass between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountains, used since remotest antiquity as a passageway), and the Morava River which flows into the Danube just across from Carnuntum.
Once the raw amber arrived in Aquileia, it was turned over to workshops which turned it into desirable luxury products. Aquileia’s amber products were famous not just in the Italic heartlands but throughout the Roman world. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder – rather dismissively, it seems to me – says they were in demand among women only. He also says that amber was thought to have protective properties for illnesses of the throat, which might explain why so many of the amber products found in the Italian peninsula are pendants.
I have to say I’m not a big fan of amber, at least as used in modern jewelry. But I must admit that some of the amber pieces made in the Italian peninsula, both before its domination by Rome and after, are really very lovely. Here, in no particular order, are some pieces whose photos I found on the net. The first two are pre-Roman (Italic and Etruscan, respectively, to be precise)
while the remainder are from the Roman period; a number of them, if not all, were made in Aquileia’s workshops. This is Dionysius
while this must be Pan.
This is a perfume bottle
while this little set-piece is “Eros and a bitch”.
Lovely little pieces …
Let me go back a step now and explain my interest in this particular amber road. Or rather interests, for there are several. I first got to know about it, and the ancient amber trade in general, when my wife and I lived in Vienna. It so happens that Vienna is located close to Carnuntum. It always tickled me pink to think that Vienna, which gives itself such airs as the capital of the (defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once upon a time no more than a minor garrison town called Vindobona on the far edges of the much mightier Roman Empire. I’m sure officers and soldiers alike in little Vindobona looked with envy at their more powerful neighbour Carnunutum, which not only had the rich amber trade passing through it but also was the capital of the province. So many more important things went on there! The Emperor Marcus Aurelius chose Carnuntum as his base for three years during one of the periodic campaigns against Germanic tribes across the Danube River (he also wrote part of his famous Meditations there, a copy of which graces my bookshelves). Another Emperor, Septimius Severus, was also based in Carnuntum when governor of Pannonia, and he was proclaimed Emperor there by his troops. Carnuntum hosted a historic meeting between the Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to solve rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Among other things, the meeting led to freedom of religion for the Roman Empire. And on, and on.
In contrast, like in all garrison towns, probably nothing much ever happened in Vindobona (although Marcus Aurelius’s death there in 180 AD must have caused a ripple of excitement). W.H. Auden caught well the tedium of garrison life on the Empire’s frontier for the ordinary soldier, in his poem Roman Wall Blues. The poem is about another of the Empire’s frontiers, Hadrian’s Wall, but I’m sure the tedium was the same, whichever frontier you were assigned to.
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
But I suppose Vienna had the last laugh. It still exists, whereas Carnuntum is now but a very modest pile of ruins, having been systematically sacked by Germanic tribes in the 4th Century (I suppose in a way the Germanic tribes had the last laugh too, after all the denigration they received from the Romans). Sic transit gloria mundi, as I am ever fond of repeating: “thus passes the glory of the world”.
This particular amber road also caught my attention because it gave me an alternative route to the ones we always took to go back to my wife’s home town of Milan: either head south out of Vienna over the mountains to Graz and then over more mountains to Klagenfurt and Villach, slip through the Alps at the Tarvisio pass, then speed past Udine down to Venice, whence turn right and make for Milan; or, head west out of Vienna towards Linz, then Salzburg, and then into Bavaria, turn left at the River Inn and enter Austria again, at Innsbruck turn left again and climb up to the Brenner pass, down the other side to zip by Bolzano and Trento, exit from the Alps at Verona, and turn right there to head for Milan. Now my wife and I could take a lower road (a considerable benefit when traveling in winter, when both the other routes can be unpleasant), as well as one steeped in history. Travelling along the ghosts of old Roman roads (all of which disappeared long ago) we would head south past the tip of Lake Neusidler, shared by Austria and Hungary, to Šopron and then Szombalethy, both in Hungary, on to Ptuj, Celje, and Lubljana in Slovenia, to finally slip through the Julian Alps at Gorizia and on to Aquileia, where we would need to finally get on the A4 motorway and speed on to Milan!
Great idea, except for one slight problem – time. There is no speedy highway linking all these towns, so it would take far longer to get to Milan. Since we were working, we couldn’t afford the time; we were always time-starved. But that will all change in a mere two weeks’ time, when I retire! Then, we will have all the time in the world, and I am determined to finally follow in the footsteps of the legions and pass through what were once the Roman towns of Scarbantia, Savariensum, Poetovium, Celeia, and Emona. There’s not much Roman left in them, though. Like Carnuntum, and like the terminal point Aquileia (of whose total destruction I wrote about in an earlier post), they were all thoroughly sacked and resacked by Germanic, Gothic, Hun, Lombard, Slav, or Hungarian war parties (or some combination of these) during the period of the “Barbarian Invasions” or the “Migration of the Peoples”, the Völkerwanderung (take your pick, depending on your ideological point of view).
I always feel a point of melancholy when faced with these moments of destruction in history. And it’s not just in the remote past. On the northern end of this amber road, tremendous destruction, of places but also of people, was wreaked a mere 70 or so years ago as first, German troops swept through on their way to enacting Hitler’s policy of lebensraum, expanding the living space of the Aryan, Germanic people at the expense of Slavic people, and then again, as the Soviet troops fought their way back to Berlin. Along with many other Polish cities, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, all sitting astride the amber route, were almost totally destroyed, their Jewish populations annihilated, their Polish populations much depleted, their industrial infrastructure stripped away. What a waste … so much human creativity swept away by the animal desire to destroy.
Raw amber on a Baltic beach: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_amber#/media/File%3ABaltic_beach_sand_containing_amber.jpg
Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/249598004324238999/
Amber necklace, Mycenae: http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/north-south-exchanges-in-the-bronze-age/amber-the-gold-of-the-north/
Amber routes map: http://www.ambergallery.lt/en/disp.php?itm=en_museums_3%2Fen_museums_3_9
Amber road through Carnuntum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_Road
Ram’s head, Italic, 500-400 BC: http://museumcatalogues.getty.edu/amber/intro/16/
Boar’s head, Etruscan, 525-480 BC: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/19/entertainment/la-et-getty-ambers-20130119
Mask of Dionysius, Roman, 1st C AD: http://amberregina.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html
Perfume bottle, Roman, Aquileia workshop, 2nd C AD: http://www.antiquitiesexperts.com/rome138.html
Eros and bitch, Roman: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1128_-_Archaeological_Museum,_Udine_-_Ancient_Roman_amber_Eros_and_bitch_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_May_29_2015.jpg