With axe and bucket - the Roman fire brigade in antiquity

By Nisa Iduna Kirchengast - Editors: Daniel Kunc, Thomas Mauerhofer
© Hermann Schneider

Photo by Hermann Schneider

Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet, et neglecta solent incendia sumere vires. (For your property is at stake when the neighbour's wall is on fire, and fire's power tends to spread where one remains careless).
Quintus Flaccus Horaz (65 - 8 v. Chr.)

The volunteer fire brigade plays an indispensable role in today's society by providing rapid and effective assistance in the event of fires, accidents and disasters. In ancient times, the risk of fire in Carnuntum, as in other Roman cities, was exceptionally high. Countless open fires indoors and outdoors, torches, oil lamps and similar sources of heat and light could cause devastating fires at any time. This can be seen in archaeological excavations in many settlements, where in some cases major fire destruction can be proven, usually due to accidentally started fires. For this reason, metalworking companies and craftsmen, for example, tended to be located outside the centre of a town in order to minimise the risk of fire. 

© NOE-Landessammlungen

© Landessammlungen NÖ, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum (Photo: N.Gail)

The organisation of fire protection was therefore already an important task in ancient times. The Roman Empire also had a kind of fire brigade. The urban Roman professional fire brigade, known as vigiles, is an early example of well-organised (military) fire brigades whose principles of firefighting and community responsibility are still relevant today. In the more northern provinces such as Pannonia or Noricum, there is evidence of craftsmen's associations (collegia) in many towns, which were also used to fight fires. These associations were most similar to today's volunteer fire brigades.

The organisation of fire protection was necessary in larger cities of the Roman Empire, while neighbourhood help was often sufficient in smaller settlements. The focus was on quickly fighting small fires caused by open fires to prevent them from spreading. Due to the close proximity of buildings, building regulations for safety distances were in place from the imperial era onwards. Water buckets (hamae), vinegar-soaked blankets (centones), crowbars (dolabrae) and fire extinguishers (siphones) were used to fight fires, but these only had a limited capacity. What a fire brigade operation might have looked like in ancient Carnuntum was re-enacted by the Gentes Danubii association at our Festival of Late Antiquity in 2017 - they were also able to successfully put out fires under the watchful eye of the Petronell-Carnuntum volunteer fire brigade. 

© Hermann Schneider

Fire brigade operation of the Gentes Danubii - Photo by Hermann Schneider

Today, we have some written records of the firefighters of antiquity, but also, in addition to the layers of fire from any fires during excavations, one or two archaeological finds: the dedication monument of Lucius Octavius Faustinianus (currently on display in the Carnuntinum Museum), known as the Faustinianus Altar, provides us with evidence of Carnuntum's ancient fire brigade. This was discovered at the end of the 1950s during excavations in the Great Baths of the civilian city. Faustinianus, a high-ranking magistrate and knight from the city's aristocracy, donated a statuette of Genius to the collegium fabrum, a kind of voluntary fire brigade, as a dedicatory inscription on the base of the statue attests. The monument was consecrated on the day of the Volcanalia (23 August 219 AD), a particularly important day for the collegium fabrum, as it was responsible for fire protection, as in many other cities. The altar of consecration was probably placed in the assembly room (schola) of this collegium in the immediate vicinity of the baths.

Text on the front:

Genium / pro sal(ute) Imp(eratoris) [[Caes(aris) M(arci) Aur(elii) / Antonini P(ii) F(elicis) Augusti]] / [L(ucius) O]ct(avius) M(arci) f(ilius) Faustinianus / [d]ec(urio) c(oloniae) C(laudiae) A(ugustae) S(avariae) et c(oloniae) S(eptimiae) A(ureliae) A(ntoninianae) K(arnunti) eq(uo) / [p]ubl(ico) sacerdotalis / p(rovinciae) P(annoniae) s(uperioris) trib(unus) mil(itum) leg(ionis) / XIII g(eminae) Ant(oninianae) trib(unus) / coh(ortis) II Mattiacor(um) / (milliariae) eq(uitatae) praef(ectus) alae / [I?]I Sept(imiae) Suror(um) (milliariae) / [c]oll(egio) fabr(um) Karn(untensium) d(onum oder -ono) d(edit)

"This statue of Genius was made for the benefit of Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus Lucius Octavius Faustinianus, son of Marcus, decurion of the colonia Claudia Augusta Savaria and the colonia Septima Aurelia Antoniniana Karnuntum, Roman knight, former priest of the province of Upper Pannonia, military tribune of Legio XIII gemina Antoniniana, tribune of the mounted Cohors II Mattiacorum with a target strength of 1000 men, donated to the fire department association in Carnuntum. "

     Weihemonument des Lucius Octavius Faustinianus (FO: Carnuntum Zivilstadt, Inv. Nr. 4343)

    These far-reaching measures of ancient firefighting emphasise the great importance that fire protection had in the Roman Empire in order to protect cities from destructive fires. The achievements and innovations of the Roman fire brigades laid the foundations for the modern fire service, which today, despite all the technical developments, still relies on the courage of its members, just as it did 2,000 years ago.  

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