Emona: Myth and Reality

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Napoleon once said that history was the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon. Perhaps that is why Slovenia’s capital is still marked by its mythical foundation. Ljubljana’s history is a mix of conventional truth and the myth that lies behind it; the actual reality might perhaps be somewhere in between.

The foundation of the actual city of Ljubljana is believed to be around 50 BC when the Roman military penetrated the Balkan area. A military camp was formed on the grounds of the former Illyrian and Celtic settlement and inhabited by retired Roman military veterans, merchants and officials. This was later followed by the establishment of a permanent settlement called Iulia Aemona (Emona). Its strategic geographic position had an important role in numerous wars and, as the crossroad of much trade, it flourished and enabled the spread of Christianity. Emona had a population of about 5,000 people living in brick houses, which were centrally heated and connected to a public sewage system. The streets were paved and organized into perpendicular islands; all of them surrounded by city walls.

The decline of Emona began with Marcus Aurelius’ invasion of the territory. The town never completely regained its strength and suffered its final downfall by Huns and Attila in 452 AD.


The Mythical Background

A more romantic version of Emona’s birth is presented through the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason was an ancient Greek mythological hero, the leader of the Argonauts, who accompanied Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece in the years prior to the Trojan War. Their quest took their ship, named Argo, to Colchis (the coast of Georgia). After attaining the fleece and also a wife, Medea, Jason and his crew were returning from Colchis and (via the Black Sea, the Danube River, the Sava River and the Ljubljanica River) they arrived to what is now Ljubljana.

Jason allegedly named the town Emona after his homeland Thessaly (at the time called Emonia). Ljubljana’s Dragon is also said to be a monster in a lake between Ljubljana and Vrhnika that Jason slew.

The myth has had many supporters through the years, but today it seems that history has finally won. Nevertheless, the Argonauts are present in many Slovenian works, from paintings and literary works to historical texts. Furthermore, the dragon today is still seen on the city’s coat of arms and even adorns license plates of the Ljubljana district.


An Exhibition of Ljubljana’s Precursor

The City Museum of Ljubljana is starting an exhibition on the theme on 18th May, which will be open until the end of the year. They will be offering an interesting insight into the life of Emona’s inhabitants, their habits, traditions and struggles; from the birth to the downfall of the town.

According to Bernarda Županek, the creator of the exhibition, the display will be divided into two parts and highly interactive. At the beginning, the visitors will decide what they are interested in: the mythical tradition or the historic facts of Emona and its society. The curators promise to evoke all of the visitors’ senses, to challenge them with tasting, touching, and listening. They will be given a chance to try on togas, to listen to the story of Caesar Theodosius, compete in an old Roman chip game and even learn how to cook a Roman dish.

Another point of interest will be certain items that will be publicly shown for the first time since their excavation, including a metal military belt with the inscription ‘utere felix’ (use with luck).


Traces of Emona on Every Step

Of course, the exhibition is not the only way to see the remains of Roman Emona. Many sights can be found on a simple walk through the capital, such as the statue of Emonec, situated in Park Zvezda (currently under construction), and the remains of the Roman Wall around the centre.

Daily, more and more archaeological discoveries are uncovered and bring new fascinating finds that answer more and more questions about our ancestors. With almost every new building site in or around the centre, a new excavating area opens up.

To conclude with an amusing titbit shared by Bernarda Županek: one of most exceptional finds happened in the 1980s, when archaeologists discovered Roman public toilets. In old Roman times the use of such toilets was common; many people sat there together at the same time so the use of such a lavatory was actually a social event, a chance to meet, chat and exchange news.