The Ruins at Sarmizegetusa, the Capital of Roman Dacia

We had planned this trip for a while now. We passed by it once before, but this time we weren’t going to let it slip from our hands again. From a distance, it seems like there’s nothing more to it than a bunch of scattered old stones on the side of the road. I’ve heard so many different opinions about this place, but I just had to see for myself whether they were true or not. About two thousand years ago, when the Roman Empire spread its territories toward eastern Europe, it occupied most of current day Romania and Colonia Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa is the former capital of the Roman Province Dacia. The ruins at Sarmizegetusa should be on everyone’s bucket list when visiting the country. Archeological excavations have shun light over the remnants of this once flourishing ancient city and the impressive outdoor museum is a valuable lesson of history and of what was,what could have been and what is today.

The colony Dacica Sarmizegetusa spreads on 33 hectares between the walls of the fortifications. Outside the walls, it covers another 60 hectares, making it a medium size city in the vast Roman Empire and the largest in the province of Dacia. It was founded by the emperor Traian when he conquered these lands. From the very beginning, it received the status of colonia, a greatly desired title in the Empire. It immediately became the political, religious and cultural center of the province of Dacia, with approximately 20-30,000 inhabitants in the area developed around Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. By the 3rd century, it was already considered a metropolis. The colony controlled the trade in these parts of the Danube and it thrived from the rich soil on the valleys and from the gold mines in the nearby Apuseni Mountains, making the city unrivaled in the Dacia Province of the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city was devastated by the Goths. Most of the buildings in the once glamorous city became construction materials for the neighboring villages. Nowadays, all that remains from this once flourishing ancient city are the remnants of a few temples, a large amphitheater, the city center and piles of engraved stones and pieces of broken colonnades.

After entering the ancient city of Sarmizegetusa, the first ruins we encounter are those of a few homes and the amphitheater. The largest residences were built around the 2nd century AD. They disposed of central heating systems called hypocaustum. They also had cold and hot water pools. It seemed that the high society did not lack luxury and were far more civilized than you would expect.

The Amphitheater was a large elliptical shaped stadium in which the citizens could watch various shows like gladiator fights, sports or drama. It could once accommodate between 5,000 to 6,000 spectators and each person was seated according to their social order. There must have been quite a hullabaloo back then. The amphitheater was equipped with a special effects instrument called pegma. It seems that the Romans took care of every detail. The edifice functioned at least until the 4th century AD. After the Aurelian retreat, it was turned into a fortress.

At first, it seemed like this was it. Luckily, we took another look at our tickets and could make out a sort of a map on the background. Apparently, there was much more to see. We set off towards the green pastures behind the ruins, where we saw an old sign leading us to Traian’s Forum. It sounded interesting. Shortly after, we saw some other ruins on the left. These were a group of monuments close to one another. From left to right, the first one is the Glass blowers’ workshop, a building that used to have ten compartments in which the entire process of glass making took place. Five furnaces were discovered in two of these chambers. Continuing along what remained of these walls, we found ourselves standing in front of the Temple of Silvanus, who was the god of the forests and the protector of vegetation. The last monument to the right is called the Great Temple, because no archeological evidence was found that could establish its allegiance to a certain divinity. It was built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD and soon became the most imposing religious monument in the Roman Dacia province.

We walked along a dirt road between blooming orchards, spreading their delicious April fragrance, charming us like a spell. Between the trees, we could make out the silhouette of another group of ruins to the left. These were the remains of the Palace of the Financial Procurator of the Province Dacia, called Domus Procuratoris. This was an important edifice located at the entrance to the city. It had offices, two thermal systems and a shrine. It was presumably built at the beginning of the 2nd century and functioned throughout the entire existence of the province.

We had finally reached the walls of the center of the city, the Forum of Traian. This is the place where two major roads intersected. The monuments behind the walls were built during the reign of Emperor Traian soon after he conquered Dacia and functioned throughout the period of the province. The yard of the forum was once plated entirely with marble blocks and surrounded by marble colonnades, called porticos, which were up to 6m high. Only a few pieces remain to this day, lying on the ground in a specific order, some still showing clear inscriptions and floral motifs.

Two public fountains served the monumental entrance. They supplied permanent drinking water for those inhabitants who could not afford their own water source in their homes. So the city had running water and a sewerage system under the roads. This is quite amazing considering that nobody though about hygiene for more than a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. We entered the forum through what was once a monumental gate called tetrapilum. We headed toward the foundations of the Basilica, which once dominated the yard of the forum with its impressive structure and height. This was the place where the royal council was held. It was only after Christianity was introduced that these buildings began to serve the cult of the religion. On the eastern and western sides, the basilica was flanked by two tribunals, called tribunalia in Latin. These were stone podiums covered with wood, where the citizens would discuss their problems and look for a solution. The two mayors or the governor of the province would judge.

Behind the Basilica we found the Curia, a building where the two mayors and the counselors of the city discussed important matters and decided the faith of Sarmizegetusa. Beneath the Curia we entered the two vault rooms, called aeraria, which were the two treasuries of the city. Their ceiling collapsed, but their walls seem as strong as ever.

I was walking on ancient ground and pebbles, the same ones on which the Romans underwent their daily activities two thousand years ago. For more than two centuries, the city at Sarmizegetusa was an example of modernity and civilization, proof that nothing is impossible. The Romans managed to create conditions that we did not see until a century ago. They had clean streets, a thorough organization, running water and public baths that anyone had access to. In the blink of an eye, all of it was lost and it took more than another thousand years to get even close to what was once the great culture of the Roman Empire.

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