Welcome to an exploration of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the captivating ancient city that once stood as the capital and largest city of Roman Dacia. Originally known as Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa, it derived its name from the former Dacian capital, situated approximately 40 km away.
The foundations of this remarkable city were laid on the grounds of a camp belonging to the Fifth Macedonian Legion. It was primarily settled by veterans who had participated in the Dacian wars.
Ulpia Traiana quickly attained the prestigious title of colonia and enjoyed the esteemed status of ius Italicum from its inception. Boasting an expansive area spanning 30 hectares, a population nearing 30,000 inhabitants, and formidable fortifications, this splendid city served as the political, administrative, and religious hub of Roman Dacia throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Unfortunately, the city met its demise at the beginning of the migration period. Today, Ulpia Traiana stands as a testament to its glorious past, with captivating ruins including a partially preserved forum, an amphitheater, and remnants of several temples. Join us as we uncover the rich history and intriguing tourist attractions that grace this remarkable archaeological site.
The location of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa
The settlement of Roman Sarmizegetusa was strategically established approximately 8 km away from the Tapae pass, which connected the regions of Banat and Transylvania. This pass, known today as the Iron Gates of Transylvania, provided a vital link between the two areas.
The decision to build the city in this location was driven by the military and economic advantages it offered. The natural barriers of the Retezat Mountains in the south and the Poiana Ruscă Mountains in the north acted as formidable defenses, making it challenging for potential attackers to breach.
The metropolis encompassed a significant territory, stretching from Tibiscum to Micia and reaching the entrance of the Jiu River into the canyon. Throughout this expansive area, the city was safeguarded by multiple castra, including Tibiscum, Pons Augusti, Micia, and Bumbești. These forts played a crucial role in protecting the capital and ensuring its security.
Moreover, Roman Sarmizegetusa was intersected by an imperial road that connected the Danube region with Porolissum (modern-day Moigrad). This road served as a vital transportation route, facilitating trade and communication between the northern parts of the province and Porolissum.
While the previous capital of pre-Roman Dacia was located at an altitude of 1,200 meters in the Orăștie Mountains, the Roman city of Sarmizegetusa was situated on relatively flat terrain within the Hațeg Basin. It stood at an elevation of 531 meters, benefiting from a more accessible and hospitable environment for settlement.
The combination of favorable geographical features, such as the natural barriers provided by the surrounding mountains and the strategic position near the Tapae pass, contributed to the peaceful development of the capital. The city thrived as it enjoyed protection from potential invasions, allowing its population and infrastructure to flourish.
The Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa Archeological Site and attractions
Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana, a medium-sized city in the Roman Empire, was home to around 30,000 inhabitants. The metropolis and its businessmen held control over the Danube trade, Mureș Valley agriculture, and the profitable Apuseni gold mines. Presently, the village of Sarmizegetusa has a population of only approximately 2,000 residents.
The ruins of the Roman city span 1,500 meters in length and 1,000 meters in width. Initially, it had a quadrilateral shape, measuring 600 meters by 540 meters, enclosed by a robust 5-meter-high wall fortified with circular towers at the corners. The city gates were located at the ends of its main streets.
At the heart of the city, a market square paved with limestone slabs was surrounded by the Palace of the Augustales, the Forum, administrative buildings, and private residences. Beyond the walls, remnants of a thermal building, suburban villas, and a Roman amphitheater have been uncovered.
Outside the city walls, there were brick kilns and a necropolis. Within the necropolis, the Mausoleum of the Aurelii was discovered—a mound with a stone pedestal, stele, and altar for funeral sacrifices, accompanied by a brick-built burial chamber.
To the south, numerous tombs and inscriptions were found, referencing monuments, temples, and the city’s administration. Noteworthy findings include votive statues of Jupiter and Hygieia, reliefs depicting the Thracian Horseman, Diana, and the Danubian Horsemen, a bronze head representing Emperor Trajan, busts of Mars and Minerva, as well as various medallions, brooches, pottery, and glassware.
The amphitheater stands as the grandest structure within the complex, hosting gladiatorial contests, fights between wild animals and humans, theatrical performances, declamations, and other public spectacles.
Positioned 125 meters north of the city walls, the Roman amphitheater boasted an elliptical shape, stretching 88 and 99 meters in length, with 12 entrances to the seating sections and a 66-meter by 47-meter arena.
Constructed primarily with river stones and supplemented by quarry stones and bricks, the precise date of its inception remains uncertain, though believed to have materialized during the early years of Roman rule. Repairs and the addition of roofing to the stands took place in 158 AD, evidenced by stamps discovered on the excavated tiles.
With a seating capacity of around 5,000 individuals, the amphitheater featured two types of benches: paved ones near the stage, reserved for the esteemed, and elevated wooden ones for ordinary spectators. Inscriptions on a preserved bench within the museum indicate that dignitaries had designated seats.
Positioned at the heart of the amphitheater, beneath the arena level, was the “pegma,” a contraption used for special effects during performances. Sarmizegetusa bears witness to its existence through an inscription honoring C. Valerius Maximus, one of the individuals involved with this apparatus.
The Temple of the goddess Nemesis
Right at the entrance of the amphitheater stood the Temple of the goddess Nemesis, who, among other things, was associated with luck. She is often depicted with a balance representing justice, as she was revered in the military for embodying revenge.
The gladiators needed a great deal of luck to survive, which is why the temple dedicated to the goddess Nemesis was of utmost importance. It was brought to light between 1891 and 1893 during the research conducted in the amphitheater area by P. Kiraly and G. Szinte.
Within the archaeology museum, several column capitals from the temple have been preserved, along with a few relief tablets. One of the tablets depicts the goddess with her attributes: the balance, the griffin, and the wheel.
The Palace of the Augustales
The Palace of the Augustales, headquarters of the influential Augustales order, was located near the forum within the city walls. It featured an impressive structure enclosing a central courtyard divided by a wall, with basilicas on the west and east sides.
At the center of the courtyard stood a remarkable altar dedicated to the emperor. The underground chamber safeguarded the valuable belongings of the corporation and included a column shaft with an inscription related to a donation made by Counselor Antonius Super.
Additionally, two inscriptions honored the sons of the palace’s founder, Marcus Procilius Iulianus and Marcus Procilius Regulus, who were knights and members of the city council.
As a symbol of the Augustales’ wealth and influence, the palace played a central role in cultural and ceremonial activities in Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. Its grandeur showcased the opulence and power associated with the order.
Exploring the palace remnants offers insights into the social hierarchy and religious practices of the city’s affluent residents. The inscriptions and artifacts found within provide valuable historical information, shedding light on the individuals and events that shaped the city’s cultural fabric.
Trajan’s Forum was the bustling heart of the city, intersecting the two main roads. At the center of this intersection, known as the “locus gromae,” a marble base with a small altar stood as a marker.
Originally constructed from wood, the forum underwent a monumental transformation during Trajan’s reign when it was rebuilt in stone. Its elaborate decoration celebrated the recent triumph over the Dacians. At the entrance, the prominent altar (groma) was erected during the colony’s foundation, imparting a sacred and symbolic significance to the entire space.
Access to the forum courtyard was through a grand “tetrapylon,” a monumental gate supported by four pillars resembling a double triumphal arch. Its pediment likely bore the inscription commemorating the city’s establishment. The courtyard itself was entirely paved with marble blocks and adorned with pedestals showcasing fragmentary gilded bronze or marble statues of emperors who played pivotal roles in the city and province.
Porticoes made of towering marble colonnades encircled the forum courtyard on its eastern, northern, and western sides, their impressive height reaching approximately 4 meters and supporting tiled roofs.
Adjacent to the courtyard, the dominating “basilica” building towered over the architectural ensemble. Flanked by podiums known as “tribunalia,” where citizens delivered speeches and the two mayors (“duumviri”) presided over judgments, the basilica featured an underground “carcera” in the eastern tribunal, serving as a pretrial detention area rather than a prison.
Beyond the basilica, one could enter the “curia.” In Rome, this chamber hosted significant discussions by senators regarding matters of the Republic or Empire, led by the two consuls. In the provinces, the “decurions” (members of the city council grouped in the “ordo decurionum”) deliberated city affairs under the guidance of the two mayors, the “II viri.”
Below the curia, two vaulted chambers, known as the “aeraria,” functioned as the city’s treasury rooms. It is likely that the offices of the city’s superior magistrates were located in this area. Noteworthy officials included the ediles responsible for public buildings, city policing, street maintenance, public supply, and event organization, as well as the “questor” who managed the community’s finances. The forum area also housed numerous “tabernae,” shops where Roman citizens conducted product exchanges.
History of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa
The Romans established a garrison in the Hațeg Plains, 8 km east of the Iron Gates of Transylvania, to avoid a difficult battle at Tapae after their expedition against the Dacians in 101-102 AD. After their victory in 106 AD, they built a large city on the site, which became the capital of a new province.
The exact construction period is uncertain, but it was established between 106-110 AD. An inscription found in the 14th century indicates that the town was settled after the conquest of Dacia. The city, named Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa, had a typical Roman layout, with a rounded quadrilateral shape, defensive walls, gates, main streets, and a central forum. It housed administrative and religious buildings inside and had houses, temples, and cemeteries outside.
In 117-118 AD, a Sarmatian uprising occurred but was suppressed by Quintus Marcius Turbo, dispatched by Emperor Hadrian. In honor of Hadrian and Turbo, monuments and inscriptions were erected.
From 166 AD onwards, the Marcomanni and Free Dacians attacked the province, but the governors of Dacia fought to defend it. Emperor Marcus Aurelius saved the city from invasion and rebellion, leading to an inscription honoring him.
Caracalla achieved victories in battles in Dacia in 213 AD, resulting in inscriptions in his honor. Alexander Severus granted the city the title of metropolis and established the Concilium III Daciarum. In 241 AD, the council of the three Dacias paid homage to Emperor Gordian III, and the colony expressed devotion to him in 239.
Dacia enjoyed intermittent peace and prosperity from Hadrian to Philippus, although the Carpi invasion during Philippus’ reign caused significant damage. F. Aelius Hammnonius iunior emerged victorious over the Carpi, and Ulpia Traiana erected a statue to Julius Philippus. Decius was celebrated as the restorer of Dacia in 250 AD, and Ulpia Traiana honored him with a bronze statue for defending against the Goths and Carpi.
During the last two decades of Roman administration, Dacia faced a crisis. Emperor Aurelian withdrew the army and officials across the Danube due to barbarian attacks and the inability to defend the region. The city survived with a diminished population, seeking shelter in the transformed amphitheater. With the invasion of the Huns and subsequent chaos after Attila’s death, the city likely ceased to exist.
History of archaeological discoveries
After the Roman administration withdrew from the Danube region, the amphitheater was blocked by the local population in the 4th century. A building from the late 4th to early 5th century marked the city’s last period of inhabitation in antiquity.
In the Middle Ages, the surrounding area of Sarmizegetusa utilized construction materials from the Roman ruins. Numerous churches in Ţara Haţegului, such as Densuş, Ostrov, Peşteana, Hăţăgel, Tuştea, and Sântămărie Orlea, contain Roman pieces. Roman artifacts from Sarmizegetusa are also found in museums in Lugoj, Deva, Cluj, Bucharest, Budapest, and Vienna.
Scholarly interest in Sarmizegetusa’s antiquities dates back to the 15th century. Joannes Mezerzius, a cleric, collected inscriptions from the Roman remains at Ulpia Traiana starting in 1495.
L. F. Marsigli, an Italian from Bologna, left a map and drawings of the amphitheater and other monuments. Sketches were published by S. J. Hohenhausen, an Austrian officer, in 1775. T. Mommsen collected inscriptions from Dacia and Sarmizegetusa.
The first excavations at Ulpia Traiana were conducted by Johann Michael Ackner, who discovered a large mosaic depicting the goddess Victoria and other deities on September 10, 1832.
The Society of History and Archaeology of Hunedoara County was established in Deva in 1871, leading to archaeological excavations at Ulpia Traiana between 1881 and 1883. Hungarian archaeologists Király and Téglás researched the Temple of the Syrian gods and the Temple of Mithras outside the city walls. Excavations also took place in the area of the amphitheater, baths, and temples dedicated to Malagbel, Aesculapius, and Hygia.
The Roman remains came under the supervision of the Commission for Historical Monuments in 1921, leading to the first scientific excavations in 1924. Extensive excavations at Roman Sarmizegetusa were carried out between 1924 and 1936 under the leadership of Constantin Daicoviciu. Octavian Floca conducted significant excavations in 1936 and later in 1948.
In 1973, a large team resumed large-scale research at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. The ten-year campaigns resulted in the discovery of several sacred and secular buildings, including a mausoleum built in the mid-2nd century.
The research on the “Domus Procuratoris” began in the 1980s but remained unfinished. Excavations in the 1990s focused on the colony’s forum.
The Sarmizegetusa Archaeology Museum
“The Sarmizegetusa Archaeology Museum is a county museum located in Sarmizegetusa (Hunedoara), in close proximity to the ruins of the former capital of the Roman province of Dacia, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.
Within its walls, the museum proudly exhibits a remarkable collection of Roman archaeology, encompassing a wide array of artifacts discovered at the nearby archaeological site. These include epigraphic and sculptural monuments, mosaics, fragments of wall paintings, weapons, silverware, objects crafted from bronze, bone, ceramics, glass, coins, and more.
Originally an inn, the museum building traces its origins back to the early 20th century. Since its establishment in 1924, it underwent reorganization in 1966, expanding from its initial three rooms to encompass seven exhibition halls and four storage rooms dedicated to the preservation of invaluable treasures.
The first hall provides a captivating glimpse into the origins of Sarmizegetusa. Within a showcase, original Roman military equipment takes center stage, complemented by lifelike reconstructions of various soldier types, including officers, centurions, horn players, ordinary legionnaires, and soldiers from auxiliary troops. Additionally, an assortment of tools (“dolabra”) and campaign-related household items are on display.
Moving onward, the second hall showcases several fragments of gilded bronze imperial statues that once adorned the city’s forum. The exhibition also features small bronze statuettes unearthed from houses, temples, and other locations.
The subsequent room, dedicated to Roman technology, unveils ingenious installations that contributed to the ease and enrichment of Roman life. Following this, visitors step into a chamber that houses a vast collection of ceramics, offering insight into the functional and quantitative diversity of these archaeological finds. Lastly, the final hall explores the realms of agriculture, trade, and the games enjoyed in the capital of Roman Dacia and its environs.
Completing the museum experience, the courtyard hosts a lapidarium, where grand marble monuments discovered at the archaeological site proudly stand on display.