Archaeology Magazine Archive

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At the Edge of Empire Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008
text and photographs by Samir S. Patel

Seeking the roots of Romanian identity on an ancient frontier

[image] Students from England excavate the ruins of Noviodunum, a Roman fort on the Danube River in Romania. A base for the Roman river fleet, the fort may provide evidence of how the local peoples, the Getae, were "Romanized."


The Danube River, winding across nine countries and nearly 1,800 miles from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, has often marked the northern limit of the Mediterranean world. Its "wide and deep course," wrote fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, "protects against barbarian invasions from the north." I stand on the southern shore of its final stretch, which separates Romania from Ukraine. There's been a drought, so the Danube is low, exposing a pebbly beach. I notice, all around my feet, pottery sherds worn smooth by the river. There are too many to count.

They spill from an eroding, weed-covered hill; a crumbling wall reaches out from it, but falls a few yards short of the water. The river is half a mile across here, making this the easiest crossing point before it splits to form a lush delta--a strategic place since the Iron Age. The hill is a layer cake of Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, and Ottoman deposits, along with trenches and watchtowers from both world wars and the cold war. And today it marks the edge of the European Union, so it is still patrolled by border guards. The sherds, wall, and much of the hill's bulk come from the buried ruins of Noviodunum, one of a string of Roman forts that guarded this frontier from the first to seventh centuries A.D. From forts like this, the Romans defended their empire against barbarians--the Goths, Carpi, and Sarmatians, among others--tended to supply barges, and traded and interacted with locals, known as the Getae.


Some inscriptions found at Halmyris include mixed Latin and Getic names--such as Claudia Bersille--evidence of the Romanization of locals.

This region, called Dobruja, was the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later called Scythia Minor), a relatively calm and prosperous imperial backwater. In Dacia, a province to the west, Trajan waged massive wars to bring fierce locals to heel. Here, however, "Romanization" of the populace proceeded not with dramatic show of force, but through subtle economic and social coercion. The Getae were a pastoral, village-dwelling branch of Thracians, illiterate but powerful tribes who lived in what is now Romania, Bulgaria, and the Balkans. Though they sometimes resisted, the Getae never united against the Romans as their cousins the Dacians had, and ultimately proved highly adaptable to the Roman presence. "The Romans, themselves descended from a hardy race of farmers, had particular success with the Dobrujan peasantry," writes University of Wisconsin scholar Paul Mac-Kendrick in his book, The Dacian Stones Speak (1975).

Romanization is a hot topic in archaeology today, as researchers look beyond major Roman sites to examine the peculiarities of daily life and the eddies of cultural change throughout the empire. Excavations at and around Romania's Danube forts are providing many details of a cultural process so effective here that Romania has for centuries remained a Western-leaning, Latin-language holdout surrounded by Slavic culture.

Samir S. Patel is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.