The Millennial Capital: Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa
Very close to the wild Retezat National Park, in the scenic land of Hateg, you’ll find the ruins of one of the oldest cities in Romania: Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. A great destination for history enthusiasts and an excellent starting point for a longer tour in Transylvania, these vestiges bring to the present pieces of the legacy of the triumphant Roman Empire.
The beginnings of a Roman colony
Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa was founded and became a capital almost 2,000 years ago, shortly after the Roman Empire conquered Dacia after two decisive wars (101-102 AD and 105-106 AD). The city was named in the memory of the victorious emperor, Traian, but also after the Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, located only 40 km away.
The city received from the start the privileged status of colonia and later the ius italicum that granted communities outside Italy rights similar to those on Italian land, including a wider autonomy and several tax exemptions. The capital achieved even the status of metropolis in the following century, a few decades before the Roman retreat south of the Danube. It was, in fact, the only city in the Roman province of Dacia that had this status.
Built on the grounds of the Fifth Macedonian Legion, very close to the Iron Gates of Transylvania, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa had a strategic position. It was placed on the imperial road that connected the Roman legions south of the Danube with the northern part of the province represented by the ancient city Porolissum, while crossing through other key Roman cities like Apulum, Potaissa and Napoca.
The city had an approximate surface of 33 hectares, surrounded by walls of 500 and 600 meters in length. The capital also extended outside the fences, on a surface of 60-80 hectares where many private and public houses were built. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people lived in this space, making Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa one of the medium-sized cities of the Roman Empire. The rich members of the community built vacation houses or owned farms even further away from the capital, on the territorium that extended from Apuseni Mountains to the Danube, giving them access to rich natural resources, including gold.
The capital was initially settled by veterans of the Dacian wars and it was inhabited until the 5th century, historical proof indicating that the large amphitheater was used at times as a fortress. The city was partially destroyed by the massive invasions of migrant tribes and for centuries it served as a rich resource of construction materials for local houses, numerous monuments, including old churches like those from Densus, Pesteana or Santamarie Orlea.
After nearly 2,000 years
Only the ruins of the amphitheater that had a capacity of 5,000 people, parts of the forum and temples of various gods are still preserved, but many more vestiges are exhibited at the museum located just across the street. Starting with the end of the 19th century when a local history foundation was created in the nearby city of Deva, several archeological operations brought to the light numerous pieces and monuments from the Roman time of the site. The archaeological research continues as only 5% of the territory was explored. The latest discovery from August 2015 is the trace of a child’s foot in a brick.
Withstanding the passing of almost 2,000 years, even if only in ruins, the ancient Roman capital marks the dawn of the long process that led to the foundation of the Romanian identity. A visit to this site is a rare chance to understand first-hand where it all started. Combine it with a tour of the Dacian sites from Sarmizegetusa Regia and you’ll get the complete image of an ancient page of history.
Don’t miss a visit to the stone churches Densus, Santamaria Orlea and Pesteana.
The impressive Gothic style Corvin Castle is only a short drive away.
For the visiting schedule, check the Dacian and Roman Civilization Museum.