The Hungarian government is refusing to take the country’s quota of refugees fleeing Syria, despite appeals from the European Union to share the burden of the continuing tragedy.
The government of the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán argues refugees flocking to southeastern Europe should be held back – with fences and weapons if necessary – rather than be accepted into the EU.
Orbán has tried to justify this hostility to the refugees by invoking Hungary’s 1,000-year history of Christianity. He claims this Christian tradition would be threatened by an influx of Muslims.
But the prime minister would do well to check his facts. For a start, Syria has a much longer Christian history than Hungary. And the part of the world that is now Hungary can actually trace its first Christian communities back to the Roman period, when the new religion spread throughout the western empire in the 3rd century AD.
More significantly, does he know that nearly 2,000 years ago Hungary was home to a very large and prosperous Syrian community?
The western half of what is now Hungary became part of the Roman Empire in the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). It formed the bulk of the Roman province of Pannonia along with small parts of modern Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The Danube River, which formed the northern frontier of the Roman empire, including the province of Pannonia, was installed with a tight chain of military camps, some of which grew into major cities. One example is Aquincum, modern day Budapest.
The troops stationed in these camps came from all over the empire, and the imperial system generated a huge amount of population movement around the Mediterranean and Europe.
Pannonian society became a colourful mix of local Celts and Illyrians, with immigrants from places like Italy, Africa and Asia Minor. But by far the most prominent migrant community in Pannonia in the first three centuries AD were the Syrians. This group moved there in greater numbers than anywhere else in the western empire.
The thousands of gravestones and votive inscriptions commissioned in this region that have survived to the present day give an idea of the size and nature of its Syrian community.
Many were soldiers, and Pannonia was home to a curiously large number of army units raised in Syria. These included the cohors I milliaria Surorum at Ulcisia-Szentendre north of Budapest, the ala I Augusta Ituraeorum sagittariorum at Arrabona-Győr and the cohors I milliaria Hemesenorum at Intercisa-Dunaujváros south of Budapest.
The inscriptions made by members of these units suggest they continued to recruit from their Syrian homelands rather than from the area in which they were stationed, and some soldiers even brought family members with them. This has led one scholar to characterise Intercisa as a “veritable Syrian colony”.
Some legionary units in Pannonia also had Syrian personnel, who were recruited when they were stationed in the east at various stages of their history.
Many of these men remained in Pannonia after leaving the army. Take for example Marcus Aurelius Romanus, a veteran of the 10th legion stationed at Vindobona in western Pannonia in the late 2nd century. He was a native of Antioch in Syria but settled somewhere nearby with his wife and children.
It wasn’t just Syrian soldiers who came to Pannonia. The province’s growing cities were home to a large number of civilians -– mostly merchants and traders -– from the earliest Roman period onwards (see, for example, the late 1st century inscription from Esztergom near Budapest mentioning a man called Bargates).
These families were often very wealthy and held important roles in local government. There were four men of Syrian origin mentioned among the town councillors at Brigetio-Szőny and there is even evidence that Aquincum had a Syrian lord mayor.
The Syrian community in Pannonia also seems to have had a profound effect on the culture of the province. Oriental religions like the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus feature prominently in the region’s inscriptions and temple remains, peacefully cohabiting with a range of other local and Roman deities and cults. Syrian stonemasons seem to have left their mark on the region’s sculptural works too. Perhaps more profoundly, distinctly Syrian-looking dress elements such as turbans appear in the region’s gravestone portraits, often worn by local Pannonian women together with their native dress.
Lessons for Viktor
The fact that a prosperous and outward-looking community, including a large contingent of Syrians, thrived two millennia ago in what is now Hungary should give Orbán something to think about. His depiction of Syrians as unwelcome newcomers and his antagonism toward multiculturalism makes him appear more old-fashioned than the Romans.
And those who would have us believe that the current migration flow represents an unprecedented situation in Europe should remember the many waves of migration in Europe over the past 2,000 and more years. That includes the exceptional levels of personal mobility within the Roman Empire that contributed in no small measure to its prosperity and longevity.
But perhaps more important in light of recent events is the way this story acts as a reminder of the enduring and fundamental interconnectedness of the wider Mediterranean Basin, which includes Hungary and Syria – one that has a much longer and more profound history than that of any individual modern nations.