One of the most spectacular ancient settlements in Romania is the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dacia, Sarmisegetuza Regia or Sarmisegetuza Basileion. We are referring to a settlement compared by some Romanian historians with Stonehenge in Britain. Other historians consider it as the centre of the most intricate system of fortifications in Europe, outside the Greco-Roman world, the so- called "barbaric" world. Sarmisegetuza was the residence of the tragic king Decebalus, who was murdered or committed suicide after being defeated by the Romans. Sarmisegetuza was only conquered after a long siege, following the Roman invasions in the years 101-102 and 105-106, after the besiegers managed to destroy the system of pipes that was supplying water to the garrison defending the city. Sarmisegetuza’s demise equated with the symbolic disappearance of a people, and for the Romanians, this dramatic story resembles that of the fall of Troy. A Name with Unknown Meanings
Little is known about the Dacian language, however, some historians, such as Constantin Daicoviciu, Liviu Mărghitan or Ioan Russu, believe that Sarmisegetuza means the Cliff Fortress or the High Fortress. However, it is clear that Sarmisegetuza was the political, military and religious centre of the Dacian kingdom. The citadel of Sarmisegetuza is the largest fortress in the kingdom of Decebalus. The fortress is located on a cliff at an altitude of 1,200 metres. It was the centre of a strategic defense system comprised of six fortresses. The fortress of Sarmisegetuza was in fact a quadrilateral structure made of massive blocks of stone, assembled according to a model known by historians by the Latin name of murus dacicus. More precisely, the city wall consisted of two parallel walls of massive stone, which was placed between a filling of clay and gravel. The two walls were connected by oak beams, whose heads were carved in the shape of a dovetail. Sometimes the ends of the beams were reinforced with lead. The fortified enceinte sheltered five overlapping terraces, with an area of 30,000 square metres.
The wall of the city was three metres thick and had a height of 4-5 metres. The configuration of the fortified enclosure took advantage of the conditions offered by the mountainous terrain. To the west lay a fortified enclosure which was the largest civil settlement, the capital of the Dacian kingdom.
The area of this civil settlement measured approximately three square kilometres. There were civilian homes, craftsmen workshops, warehouses, wells and water tanks. Archaeological research has revealed that both metallurgical and ceramic workshops were creating high quality and refined products. For instance, the gold and silver jewellery crafted by artisans of Sarmisegetuza had remarkable finesse. Precious metals were brought from the Apuseni Mountains. Sarmisegetuza’s craftsmen also specialized in processing iron. The largest deposit of iron ingots in Europe was discovered in the area, after that of Bologna in northern Italy. On the other side of the civil settlement, at a distance of approximately 100 metres from the Dacian fortress, we come across a religious compound. The most remarkable sanctuary is shaped like a sun made from andesite. The sanctuary was used for the worship of the Dacian gods. Zamolxis was the Supreme Deity and this god was worshipped alongside the goddess of the Moon, Bendis, or sun god, Gebeleizis.
The Roman conquest
The development of Sarmisegetuza reached its climax during Decebalus, who was completely defeated by the Romans in 106. After the Roman conquest, a military detachment of the vexilatio type belonging to Legion IV Flavia Felix was installed in the Dacian fortress. This oversaw the dismantling and destruction of the civil fortification. The new capital of the Roman province of Dacia Felix was set at a distance of approximately 40 km and was founded by the governor of the new imperial provinces, Decimus Terentius Scaurianus. The Roman city was named Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica. But in 118, the Emperor Hadrian added the name Sarmisegetuza in memory of the ancient Dacian capital, destroyed and abandoned. The ruins of Sarmisegetuza were abandoned until 1923, when researchers at the University of Cluj began working on an archaeological site that still has many surprises in store.
A mixed character
The capital of the Dacian kingdom was a settlement with a mixed character. The garrison that guarded the king was located there. It also accommodated the great aristocrats of the kingdom, called tarabostes, and priests, artisans or the ordinary people called comati. The road to Sarmisegetuza was guarded by numerous fortresses and towers which gave the city a grand aspect. The southern slope of Mount Grădiştea was cut into several successive terraces over the length of about six kilometres. On these terraces many buildings of stone and wood were built.
The capital was served by a very good network of roads, water pipes and drainage channels, a sign of the high degree of material civilization reached by the Dacians. As a curiosity, archaeologists discovered a huge water decanter made of fir, with a capacity of 3,000 litres. The fact that the Dacian fortress was burned down by the Romans allowed the preservation of charred seeds in the barns used by the Dacians. They had several varieties of wheat, millet, barley, rye, lentils, mustard, bean and rapeseed, which provides clues about the nutrition of the Dacians, who raised cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses, but also practiced hunting or fishing.
The archaeological investigations are far from complete and Sarmisegetuza still preserves many mysteries. The Dacian civilization was particularly original, but, unfortunately, many details about the people were lost in the mists of history and still remain unknown.
The Dacians were quickly romanized, and their language, which had no written form, was forgotten. Anthropologists and ethnologists believe, however, that their spirituality and traditions were preserved through the ages and have deeply influenced the folk heritage of Romanians, who are descendants of Romanized Dacians, mixed with Slavs, Cumans and other migratory populations.
Photo credit: Ionuţ Vaida