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A mountain 14 km NE of Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia. It rises to a height of 1058 m from the plain of the Zolifeld, once the site of Virunum, capital of the Province of Noricum. On its peak stands a small Late Gothic church, dedicated to St. Helena and St. Magdalena, with Roman marble blocks here and there in its walls. The mountain, called Mons Sanctae Helenae in mediaeval documents, and then Helenenberg until the beginning of the 20th c., is today generally called Magdalensberg. It has long been known for its Roman antiquities and was once a favorite area for illicit digging. In a ruin field at the remarkable height of ca. 1000 m with an estimated area of 3.5 sq. km and slightly below the summit, there was found in 1502 the bronze statue of the “Helenenberg youth.” It is a life-size Roman copy of a statue of a Greek athlete from the 5th c. B.C. It is today located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

At one time it was thought that the settlement had been a sort of summer resort for wealthy Romans from Virunum, the neighboring provincial capital. The first scholarly excavations of the temple shed no light, but systematic excavations, begun in 1948 and continued annually, have produced definitive insights. The unexpected and unique results of these excavations on the Magdalensberg (easily reached today by car) justify calling them the most important archaeological undertaking in Austria since WW II.

The peak of the mountain (only parts of which have been investigated) had been fortified by the indigenous Celtic population before the Roman occupation. A double ring of walls with an earth filling between them (from about 100 B.C.) protected the large oppidum. Here, among other structures, was probably a temple where supposedly the above-mentioned statue resided, transformed through the addition of new attributes into the Celtic war god Mars Latobius. Everywhere the terrain is elaborately terraced. The Roman settlement started on the S slope, ca. 100 m below the peak, and it contains the oldest Roman buildings in Austria. These are built of stone and date from different periods. They partly replace pre-Roman wooden structures. The forum is located on a plaza (ca. 114 x 55 m), an artificial leveling of the curved, rocky slope of the mountain. Midway toward the mountain is the temple area (54.6 x 45.3 m), within which rises a podium temple (31.2 x 17.6 m), one of the largest of its kind in the E Alpine area. The sizable cella (21 x 11 m) has a cellar whose three sections are interpreted as treasure rooms of the Roman authorities. The temple was dedicated to Roma and Augustus and was the center of the emperor cult on the mountain. The building was started under the reign of the emperor Tiberius but was never finished; only the foundations remain. On the W side it was connected with a room exactly 100 Roman feet long, which was surrounded on three sides by halls. On the narrow W side a marble-faced platform had been built with steps leading up to it from both sides. Such a platform served as the official seat of the representative of Rome for meetings and court procedures. The building should therefore probably be designated as the praetorium. Behind the tribunal—on the second floor—was a conference room, its walls decorated with simple frescos of Augustan times. This room was part of a N-S oriented building complex with a definite threefold structure. Extending toward the mountainside, it rose at least three floors to a height of ca. 12 m. The middle section is of the greatest interest and has been called by the excavators the Repraesentationshaus. There is no comparable structure in the Imperium Romanum. Through a corridor and an anteroom one reaches a square room (6 x 6 m). Here the black and white mosaic floor is almost completely preserved, and the walls have been preserved to a height sufficient to disclose provision for 13 niches. This odd number has been related to the 13 poleis (civitates) which Ptolemy (Geog. 2.13.3) mentions in his description of Noricum, and thus the room has been designated as the archive (tabularium) of the 13 tribes with a niche for each tribe's archives on the wooden scroll racks (armaria). The assumption that this was an official building was confirmed from 16 fragments of splendid slabs of imported marble containing remains of inscriptions. These inscriptions honor members of Augustus' family, one for his wife Livia, two for his daughter Julia. The inscriptions, dating from between 11 and 2 B.C., represent a tribute from eight Noric tribes; the Norici, Ambilini, Ambidravi, Uperaci, Saevates, Laianci, Ambisontes, and Elveti. The Repraesentationshaus can justifiably be considered the seat of the Noric council (conventus Noricorum).

From the archive room, and only from there, one reaches a curiously furnished hall (11.6 x 5.8 m) of representational character. It has a hypocaust and on the long side a low platform, which was probably a bench; its pillow-like, mosaic-covered back is decorated with the old symbol of the hippomorphic Celtic god of war, in a boat which rests on a sled. That we deal here with Celtic civilization is confirmed by the broad apse on the narrow side of the room. It contained the sacred fountain, a normal part of Celtic places of worship. This room may have been the meeting place of the Noric council.

To the N and higher than the complex including the Repraesentationshaus were dwellings or workshops, located on terraces. They were accessible from the forum by staircases.

To the S and separated by an ancient road was a palatial villa from Tiberian or Claudian times, its supporting walls jutting from the slope. It contained several residential terraces, a peristyle, kitchen, bakery, and a luxurious bath. In excavating one of the terraces valuable fragments of frescos were found, probably deposited here as rubble from a dismantled house. It was possible to reconstruct a few figures, e.g., Iphigeneia holding in her arm the idol of the Tauric Artemis, a female dancer holding in her hands a flower garland, and the torso of a youthful Dionysos. The paintings had been composed as separate varicolored panels, separated from each other by pilasters and columns. Artistically, these frescos from the Magdalensberg are comparable to those from Pompeii. On the basis of style, they must date from ca. 20 B.C., i.e., before the occupation of Noricum by the Romans (15 B.C.). They are an important historical and cultural document testifying to the importance of the town on the Magdalensberg in pre-Roman times.

One might have expected to find in the E part of the forum structures similar to those W of the temple area. However, the excavations indicate that the settlement of the Italic merchants, dating from Republican times, was located here. This settlement had once extended far to the W, into the vicinity of the Repraesentationshaus. At one time the whole forum must have been a business quarter. Many rebuildings and additions indicate a long duration, from the early 1st c. B.C. on. When the houses to the E were rebuilt, their terraces were extended out from the slope. The lower rooms were stores and work-shops, which had been erected over older wooden structures. Many calculating stones and labels for money bags (tesserae nummulariae) found there furnish interesting information about the business of this trade center. Especially informative were two cellar rooms in each of which a niche was dedicated to Mercury. The walls of these cellar rooms were completely covered with graffiti, over 300 of them, referring to the extensive trade and financial transactions on the Magdalensberg. They referred also to the arrival of customers and local suppliers, indicating that the mountain town was a center for the trade in Noricum iron and metal goods. The transalpine importance of the Magdalensberg is evidenced by the home addresses of the buyers: they came not only from Aquileia and other country towns in Italy, but also from Rome, even from Africa (Volubilis). Ancient writers praised the ferrum Noricum which was a major item of trade. In the earlier layers a number of smelting furnaces were found and metallurgical analyses confirm the excellent quality of the ferrum Noricum which had already been produced in the earliest period on the mountain. In this context the consecration of the bronze youth is understandable. The donors who had their names engraved on the right thigh of the statue were from Aquileia, one of them belonging to the well-known merchant family of the Barbii: their business relations with this trade center were obviously close and profitable. The consecration is also noteworthy because it took place before the occupation of the country by the Romans (15 B.C.) and is proof of the early and intense trade relations between Italy and Noricum.

A necropolis of the Magdalensberg, the “Lugbichl,” was on a ridge that branches off to the SE. Burial chambers for cremation remains are situated on both sides of a road 700 m long. Unfortunately most of the chambers suffered from pillaging and unprofessional excavations in the last century, and are thus not very informative. However, a considerable number of tombstones were preserved. Not only are they among the oldest found in the Noric Alps, but are interesting because they belong to the indigenous population. These stones indicate that a small occupational force was stationed on the mountain. Some of the soldiers belonged to the Eighth Legion, which was stationed in Poetovio, some to the cohors I montanorum, recruited from the local population.

The name of this mountain town is unknown. It came to an end when the provincial capital Virunum was founded about A.D. 45. Such a relocation of an old center situated in a high place to a new one in the plain was characteristic of Roman administration. After 60 years of occupation, the town on the Magdalensberg became deserted and desolate.

The excavated ruins are, in large part, preserved and transformed into a beautiful outdoor museum. The finds are in the museum on the Magdalensberg and in the Landesmuseum für Kärnten in Klagenfurt.


H. Vetters, “Virunum,” RE IX A 1 (1961) 262ff; R. Egger, “Die Stadt auf dem Magdalensberg ein Grosshandelsplatz. Die ältesten Aufzeichnungen des Metallwarenhandels auf dem Boden Österreichs,” DenkschrWien, Phil-Hist. Kl. 79 (1961); id. in EAA 4 (1961) 772f; id. et al., Führer durch die Ausgrabungen und das Museum auf dem Magdalensberg (17th ed. 1974)MPI; H. Kenner, “Wandmalereien,” Magdalensberg-Grabungsbericht 13 (1973) 209ff, and continuous reports in Carinthia from 139 (1949).


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