Danube and Europe
The Danube
Danube and Europe
Living Force

Professor Dalibor Vesely

The Danube is not only the largest European river; it is also a large area of communication and mediation in which the structure of Europe, as we know it today, was formed.

It was in that space that most of our specifically European attitudes and values were established in the critical period between the fifth and ninth centuries AD, when the potential identity of Europe was seriously challenged by the invasions of alien cultures. It was in the same space that the main drama of European history, the conflict between the plurality of individual regions and their possible unity, between the separate and common identities, was played and became most visible.

In that sense, the Danube can be seen as a living ecology, embodied not only in natural phenomena, but also in the fabric of cities and small settlements, in artefacts of art and everyday life, in written texts, music, dance, rituals and customs. It is only in this context that we can establish the relation between the religious and scientific approach to ecology and that we can understand the seriousness of the environmental situation that the river is facing today.

It is interesting to see how the link between the specialised understanding of individual phenomena and the religious or philosophical sense of the whole was expressed by one of the more enlightened Roman emperors. In one of his Meditations written in Carnuntum (a Roman camp on the Danube, east of Vienna) during a campaign against the German tribes Marcomanni and Quadi, Marcus Aurelius writes:

Constantly think of the Universe as one living creature embracing one being and one soul, how all is absorbed into one consciousness of this living creature, how it encompasses all things with a single purpose and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture. 1

In a rather poetic view of the reality and the history of the Danube culture, he writes:

There is a kind of river of things passing into being, where time is a violent torrent. For no sooner is each seen, then it has been carried away, and another is being carried by, and that, too, will be carried away. 2

What follows is always organically related to what went before; for it is not like a simple enumeration of units separately determined by necessity, but a rational combination; and as Being is arranged in a mutual coordination, so phenomena of Becoming display no bare succession but a wonderful organic interrelation. 3

The sense of time associated in Marcus Aurelius's Meditations with the flow of the river reveals a mentality (and world) in which rivers are not only associated with time but also with the life of whole continents and their history. The latter association belongs to a well-established tradition that lasted into the 18th century. One of the most conspicuous late examples is the Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers on the Piazza Navona, where Ganges, Nile, River Plate and Danube stand for Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Danube is defined by the attributes referring to the fauna and flora of the European continent, to the Papacy of Rome and to the idea of the imperium, the never realised dream.

The Danube and Old Europe

The notion "Old Europe" is a relatively recent attempt by archaeologists to describe the earliest European civilisation created in the south-eastern Danubean lands between the seventh and fourth millennium BC, before the infiltration of the Indo-European people at the end of the fourth millennium BC. This civilisation had its first important centres in Starcevo, Lipinski Vir and Vinca, all situated on the Danube just a few kilometres east of Belgrade. From here it expanded as far as the upper Danube and Bohemia, the Adriatic, Greece, Moldova and to the rest of the east Balkans. This old European civilisation, which was considered until recently to be no more than an extension of European neolithic and chalcolithic cultures and no more than a stagnant cultural backwater, is now, as a result of new radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology, seen as a parallel, and in many ways as an antecedent, to the main civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Aegean. Its advanced agriculture and highly-developed settlements, villages and townships - with houses which were being built in timber in a rectangular shape - created some of the conditions under which a culture with a very impressive art, sophisticated form of religion and linear script (in the sixth millennium BC) could develop.

The culture of Old Europe was dominated by the cult of the great goddess of life, death and regeneration. This elementary deity was expressed in the paradigms of a supreme creator who creates from her own substances a divine child (an anticipation of the Cretan Zeus), and of more differentiated deities such as Artemis and Demeter.

The role of the Danube in the formation of the old European civilisation can be fully appreciated if we take into account the communicative and mediating role of the river. This can be illustrated by one well-documented example: among the stone battle-axes found at Troy II, there are many that replicate a type common at the time in Bohemia and Silesia. Conversely, copper trinkets from Troy II have been found with other artefacts as far north as the outskirts of Prague.

It is generally assumed that it was the invasion of pastoral people of Indo-European origin in the fourth millennium BC that interrupted not only communication between East and West, but also a process of development that may have led to the same level of civilisation achieved by the people of the Aegean.

However, there is no doubt that the Danube remained a well-established trade route between Central Europe and the Black Sea and that this contributed decisively to changes in the lands of the upper Danube, culminating in the formation of the Celtic civilisation between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. Celtic civilisation itself had been anticipated in the development of the "urn fields" civilisation in the lands of Bohemia and the upper Danube, more specifically around Hallstatt in upper Austria.

The Danube and the Celts

What is new in the civilisation of the Celts is the vertical organisation of society, which was structured around a strong leader (a prince) and supported by a more effective form of agriculture, a more sophisticated use of metals and a transition from the use of horses, wagons and chariots. Most of all, it was characterised by a new sense of cultural independence and confidence which was closely associated with a body of religious beliefs that were richly articulated but not usually written down, despite writing being available.

As a result, Celtic culture remains rather mysterious even today and our knowledge of the Celts is almost entirely dependent on outside sources. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that the Greeks and later the Romans were very well informed about the Celts, about the territories they occupied and later on about their character, culture and religion. One of the first references to the existence of Celts is in Herodotus's Histories. Herodotus writes:

I am willing to believe that it (the Nile) rises at the same distance from its mouth as the Danube which has its source among the Celts near Pyrene and flows right through the middle of Europe to reach the Black Sea at the Milesian colony of Istros. The Celts live beyond the pillars of Hercules, next to the Cynesians (south of Spain) who are the most westerly people of Europe. Its course is quite familiar because it flows through inhabited country.4

The original territory of the Celts is close to the sources of the Danube and the Rhine. The Greeks referred to the Danube as Ister, but recognised its name in the Celtic territories as Danuvius, a name that was eventually extended to the whole length of the river.

Place plays a decisive role in establishing the character and meaning of a culture. The link between the river and Celtic culture is particularly intimate and the sacredness of rivers and lakes as an expression of the sacredness of life and death was built into the whole structure of Celtic culture. The Celts built small temples at the sources of rivers and sacrificed not only to rivers but also by immersing objects and treasures into lakes. One of the most important deities in their pantheon was the goddess Danu, whose name means "the divine waters from heaven". In accordance with the early Celtic creation myth, Danu fell from heaven in the form of rain and her waters created the Danu-vius, who watered the sacred oak "Bile" from which sprang the pantheon of gods known as the Tuatha de Danaan (the children of Danu): the river goddesses Boynne-Boyne, Rhone-Rho Danus, Rein-Rhenus and Ganges-Ganya.

The Celts chose to site their cemetery in Hallstatt, a place that gave its name to the oldest strata of Celtic culture, and it was on the shore of a deep, dark lake, surrounded by high mountains, that they celebrated in a solemn but positive way the journey into the other world. Some authors see their belief in reincarnation as similar to Pythagorean reincarnation - this world, Cemtar, being closely linked with the other world, Elltar, in Celtic mythology.

Among many important contributions the Celts made to the formation of Europe, one in particular should be emphasised: a highly developed oral culture articulated in the presence of script which was only very rarely used. The Celtic priests believed that their religion forbade them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes, such as public and private accounts, the Celts used the Greek or Etruscan alphabet. This custom became the foundation of the inexhaustible source of mythology, poetry and general literacy of early mediaeval European culture.

The Danube and the Romans

The dominating role of the Celts in the domains along the Danube was reduced and eventually absorbed in the expansive movement of the Romans, who, by the end of the first century BC, had already established the borders, or limes, of the empire along the Rhine and the Danube. The Pax Romana and Danube limes were eventually extended to the Delta. Among the most important Roman strongholds on the Danube were (from west to east): Castra Regina (Regensburg); Lauriacum (Lorch, Enns); Vindobona (Vienna); Carnuntum (near Hainburg); Aquincum (Budapest); Singidunum (Belgrade); Dobretae (Turnu Severin); Oescus (Gigen); Durostorum (Silistra) and Troesmis (Iglita in Drobrudzha close to the Danube Delta). Most of them were established as military camps, most of them were elevated to the status of civilian cities and some became centres of colonies.

Strictly speaking, military camps (castra) were not just military; they were a diagrammatic symbolic evocation of the city of Rome and thus, in a sense, an "anamnesis of imperium". Polybius makes this point clear when he writes: "the process of pitching camp is remarkably like the return of an Army to its native city".5 The complex organisation of the castrum (its cardinal directions, Vexillum in the centre extended to Praetorium and Auguraculum, a rectangular grid of streets organised around the Cardo and Decumanus) is reflected in the more permanent fabric of the municipia and in the colonies.

As an example, in the second century, the municipium of Aquincum had a residential palace, a theatre, thirteen bath buildings, four Mithraic temples, a gladiatorial school, an odeon with organ, and, by the fourth century, four Christian churches. There is evidence that the temple of Jupiter Hercules, Dravus and Danuvius, the latter resembling the cult of the Celtic deity, was situated on the river Drava in Mursa (Osijek). Danuvius as a river god also appears on the Trajan column in Rome, protecting the Roman fleets on the Danube. The fact that the Romans never succeeded in permanently colonising the lands beyond the Rhine and the Danube (with the exception of Dacia) was decisive for the future history and character of Europe.

The main Roman strongholds on the Danube became important centres of Romanisation which very often penetrated deep into the lands north of the Danube. It is nevertheless important to emphasise that movement took place in both directions in the form of trade and auxiliaries in the Roman army. The Roman settlements later became the centres from which the process of Christianisation took place.

The Danube and Christianity

Apart from references in ancient texts and in inscriptions, the most valuable information about the nature of encounters with foreign tribes comes from historical reliefs on the columns of Trajan and Aurelius. Christianity penetrated from Milan and Acquilea to the Danube area between the second and fourth centuries AD. A main wave of Christianisation, Latinate from the west and Greek or Slavic from the east, took hold along the Danube and the first Christian churches had been built in Lauriacum (Lorch), Sirmium (Mitrovica), Cingidunum (Belgrade), Bononia (Vidin), Durostorum (Silistra) and Noviodunum close to the Delta, before the Diocletian prosecution in 304 AD. The most important Episcopal Sees eventually became Castrum Batava (Passau), Gran (Eszterghom) and Ratiaria (the capital of Dacia Ripens).

The nature of Christian Europe's transitional period is well expressed in Nibelungenlied, a poem based on an old oral tradition. The poem was written at the end of the 12th century for Wolfger, Bishop of Passau, by an unknown cleric and is firmly placed within the geography and history of the Danube. The action of the poem is set between Worms, the capital of the Burgundians in the fifth century AD, and Gran (Esterghom), Etzel's city, the seat of Attila at the same period. It provides a unique insight into European history and dilemmas at the time, with its tales of power, heroism and domination, its notions of a Christian sense of justice and the vanity of human events in relation to a higher order, and its themes of unity and disintegration.

The geography of the poem relates to the route from the Frankish kingdoms of Western Europe to Constantinople. It was on the same East-West line that the main centres and identities of Europe were established: the West Frankish kingdoms, later France, in the west; Byzantine, later the Ottoman empire in the east; and the Ost-Frankisch kingdom, later the Holy Roman empire, which had its centre in Vienna and was in the hands of the Habsburgs from the 15th century. The intentions and, to some extent, the character of the empire is cryptically expressed in the five letters A.E.I.O.U. on the tomb of Frederick III in Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. The letters can be read in two different ways: "Austriae est imperare orbi universo" (it is for Austria to rule the entire world), or "Austria erit in orbe ultima" (Austria will outlast all other powers). To rule the world was also the intention of most of the Christian kings of France and of most faithful followers of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Turkey's expansive politics contributed more decisively to the formation of modern Europe than did the politics of France.

The Turks occupied most of the lower Balkans after the battle on Kosovo Plain in 1389, which destroyed the kingdom of Serbia. They periodically reached the Danube, but only after the fall of Smederevo in 1459 did they become established there. From that point onwards, Central Europe itself became the goal, and the Danube's defences were faced with an enemy from the opposite direction to that of Roman and Byzantine times. In 1521, the Turks took Belgrade, but the event which fundamentally changed the history of central Europe was the battle of Mohacz in 1526, marking the end of the kingdom of Hungary and its highly developed humanistic culture.6

In 1529, the Turks reached Vienna but their attempt to penetrate its walls was unsuccessful. They returned in 1532 but stopped at Gun, about 70 miles south-east of Vienna on the river Raab. On one side of the conflict was Suleyman the Magnificent; on the other was Charles V, Emperor of the Habsburgs. Charles's empire stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea and from Poland to France; he also ruled over Spain, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and all the Spanish colonies: the whole history of modern Europe was at stake.

The centre of this empire was Vienna, on the eastern boundary, a city under constant threat from the Ottomans. However, the defeat of the Ottoman army in the battle of Kahlenberg on the outskirts of the city in 1683, and the subsequent liberation of Vienna, created different conditions for the future of Austria, and also for the future of Eastern and Central Europe. The Habsburg Empire expanded in a relatively short time to Belgrade and the Balkans, Hungary, Galicia and Transylvania, to the Netherlands and to Istria and Tuscany; Vienna became one of the most important centres of Baroque and, eventually, of modern culture. It was the critical mediating link, not only between south and north but also east and west Europe.

The civilisations that have developed along the Danube are the most important reminders that the essence of Europe is to be discovered in Europe itself. The conventional vision of pan-Orientalism or pan-Mediterraneanism should be replaced by a vision of a dialogue in which the indigenous conditions and creative possibilities, particularly in the area of the Danube, play a decisive role.

The Danube was, and remains, a vital space of communication where the most heterogeneous peoples have found a source of identity and solidarity. There is a strong temptation to think of the cultural space of the Danube as a cultural federation that was, to some extent, already being formed in the past and may be seen as a plausible vision for the near future.

1 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, bk.IV., 46.
2 ibid. 46.