Located in Austria, the archaeological site is providing rich new details about the lives and deaths of the arena combatants
Wolfgang Neubauer stands in the grassy clearing and watches a drone soar low over distant stands of birch and white poplar, the leaves still speckled with overnight rain. Vast fields of wheat roll away north and south under a huge dome of sky. “I’m interested in what lies hidden beneath this landscape,” says the Austrian archaeologist. “I hunt for structures now invisible to the human eye.”
On the edge of the meadow, two boys stand a long way apart, arms clenched by their sides, punting a soccer ball very slowly and carefully from one to the other. Neubauer studies them keenly. A professor at the Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science, he’s an authority on the first games played on this ersatz pitch, a blood sport popular a couple of millennia ago. “You see a field,” he tells a visitor from the United States. “I see a gladiator school.”
Way back in A.D. 6, during the expansion of the Roman Empire along the Danube and into present-day Germany, the future emperor Tiberius reached this spot and established a winter encampment. Carnuntum, as the camp would be called, flourished under the protection of the legions and became a center of the amber trade. The army and townspeople lived apart, but in symbiotic amity. “In the civilian city, large public buildings like temples, a forum and thermal baths were built,” says Neubauer. “The town had paved roads and an extensive sewage system.”
During its second-century prime, Carnuntum was a key Roman capital of a province that spanned the landmass of what is now Austria and much of the Balkans. The frontier town boasted a burgeoning population and a gladiator school whose size and scale was said to rival the Ludus Magnus, the great training center immediately to the east of the Colosseum in Rome. Toward the end of the glory days of the Roman realm, the emperor Marcus Aurelius held sway from Carnuntum and made war on Germanic tribes known as the Marcomanni. There, too, his 11-year-old son, Commodus, likely first witnessed the gladiatorial contests that would become his ruling passion.
After a series of barbarian invasions, Carnuntum was completely abandoned early in the fifth century A.D. Eventually, the buildings collapsed, too, and merged into the landscape. Though archaeologists have been digging and theorizing at the 1,600-acre site on and off since the 1850s, only remnants survive—a bath complex, a palace, a temple of Diana, the foundations of two amphitheaters (one capable of holding 13,000 spectators) and a monumental arch known as the Heidentor (Heathens’ Gate) that looms in battered splendor at the edge of town.
Stretching for nearly three miles between the modern-day villages of Petronell-Carnuntum and Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, Carnuntum is one of the largest preserved archaeological parks of its kind in Europe. For the last two decades Neubauer has quarterbacked a series of excavations at the site with noninvasive techniques. Using remote-sensing and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to peer through layers of earth, the researchers have located and identified the forum; the garrison of the governor’s guard; an extensive network of shops and meeting halls; and, in 2011, the storied gladiator school—the most complete ludus found outside Rome and Pompeii.
“Never before had archaeologists made such important discoveries without excavation,” says Neubauer, who is also director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro). His work is the subject of a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, Lost City of Gladiators. With the aid of three-dimensional computer modeling, his team has reimagined what the ludus looked like.
The subterranean surveys and a limited traditional dig, Neubauer says, have revealed a transfixing, mysterious underworld— the ludus is teeming with unseen buildings, graves, armaments and other relics. “Our understanding of the schools has been totally reshaped,” he says. “Until now, we knew very little about them because we never looked inside.”
The discoveries—slow, careful, uncinematic—are not the stuff Hollywood movies are made of. Digital archaeology isn’t drama, but a gradual accretion of detail. By systematically mapping the terrain, Neubauer’s researchers have provided a more detailed and vivid picture of the lives (and deaths) of the gladiators than was ever before available—and deepened our understanding of the terrifying power of Imperial Rome.