A Window on the Past – Roman Napoca

A Window on the Past – Roman Napoca

In my five years of living in Romania, I have traveled far and wide to discover this country’s ancient history. I have climbed Bîtca Doamnei to examine the walls of Petrodava outside of Piatra Neamț; I have sat on the walls of Histria next to the Black Sea, imagining Greeks and Scythians trading with one another in the market; I have even wrestled with my friend Worthington in the Roman amphitheater at Porolissum for laughs. As there is an unfortunate lack of English language literature concerning the beauty and significance of Romania’s archaeological treasures, each of these moments has brought me one step closer to understanding the ancient world in my own parallel universe.

What do these places have in common? Romania has had the fortune to sit right on the edge of the great steppe. This has meant that it has historically been the gateway into Europe, and ironically remains so today. Therefore, when Attila the Hun or Batu Khan decided to, proverbially speaking, take their talents to Europe, they marched right through the same Carpathian passes that cars still struggle to get through today. As one can imagine, the territory comprising modern Romania has taken severe beatings in the pass. It was almost a rite of passage for nomadic tribes – while on the way to Europe, make sure you first smash up Dacia. Romanians might be the most hardy people in Europe for surviving such a long and brutal history. Petrodava was probably destroyed by the Huns in the 4th century, and while a medieval city did eventually grow up a few kilometers away, the hill of Bîtca Doamnei is little more than a mountain trail today. Porolissium probably met the same fate – being ravaged by the Huns or the later arriving Slavs. Histria suffered geology’s equivalent of heat death, due to the Halmyris Bay (upon which the city’s life blood of maritime trade depended) being closed by sediment deposits and becoming Lake Sinoe. The city suffered a severe economic decline before being destroyed by the Slavs during the 7th century. Essentially, these three ancient settlements, for one reason or another, no longer exist.

This brings us to the story of Cluj. Its antiquity is beyond dispute and measure, but why is it that we know so little about it? One day in 2010 I decided to visit the city’s history museum to learn more about ancient Cluj. Upon arrival, the guard at the door told me that it is closed and currently under renovation. “Well that sucks,” I remember saying to myself. I tried again that following spring, then the next summer, then two years later, then most recently last month and always received the same answer. By now the guard has become quite friendly with me and once even let me visit the museum’s inner courtyard where Roman era sarcophagi could be seen. My point remaining the same, learning about ancient Napoca has not been not easy. Until very recently, near Piața Muzeului, it was very possible to see the foundations of Roman era houses. For me, the curious American, it was the coolest thing. Even more surprising for me was how little locals seemed to care. I would often see children climbing down and playing around the ancient stones. One day a couple of years ago I was walking in the area one day to see archaeologists frantically working at the site. I even climbed down there myself to have a chat with them. To my horror, I was told that they needed to finish up work there because the ruin was going to soon get built over. So it passed, and to this day, an office building sits on the location.


One day while enjoying a Coca-Cola at work my co-worker Tia asked me if I would be interested in listening to a lecture on Dacian and Roman era Napoca. I immediately and excitedly confirmed my attendance and so on a chilly September evening, we found ourselves in the warm confines of the “Buricu Târgului” listening to a lecture given by Radu Ardevan, history professor at Babeș-Bolyai.

Mr. Ardevan brought up an interesting point – Cluj’s medieval and baroque era prestige as an important Transylvanian city has on one hand led to its intense development to becoming one of Romania’s major cities today, while on the other hand has really stripped away at its ancient past. To give the an example, I strongly suspect that many of the stones at the bottom of the 14th century St. Michael’s Church look as if they are reused Roman era stones. Roman foundations have also been found in the crypt of the Franciscan Monastery on Piața Muzeului. Doing archaeological work in central Cluj has suffered because doing so would involve potentially damaging Cluj’s impressive medieval heritage. As a result, there is not nearly as much evidence about Roman Napoca as there is for, say, Roman Apulum or Roman Potaissa.

arheologi 2 ok povesti despre cluj


What is interesting is that evidence does often show up. A wealth of ruins and artifacts were discovered during the construction of places like the Orthodox Cathedral and Polus Center. Those at Polus Center are particularly interesting because they date from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods. At the lecture we even discussed hypothesizes concerning the name – “Napoca.” Personally, I take etymologies that are argued to be Indo-European with a grain of salt because the entire science of Indo-European studies is guesswork at the very best. It is a disservice to history to invent possible meanings for a name in a language that has no direct evidence of ever existing. Mr. Ardevan seemed to agree with this and decided against giving a hypothetical origin of the name Napoca. The name is obviously Dacian. Perhaps the land was to become Cluj was once lorded over by a man named Mr. Napoca. Perhaps Napoca was his beautiful wife. Perhaps Napoca referred to someone’s favorite horse. Should we go into that realm of guesswork, then a well-educated scholar could possibly come up with any kind of etymology for the name Napoca, and it is best to leave it at that.

Through archaeology we can begin to piece together Cluj’s origin and early history. Mr. Ardevan argued the region was first settled not because of the depression in the hills that encloses the city into the Someș valley, but rather because it was a transition zone between the forested Apuseni Mountains and the plains of Eastern Transylvania. The area probably developed as a market space for the trade of salt and for wood. Perhaps it would explain the trove of objects discovered during the construction of Polus Center. How ironic would it be that one of Cluj’s malls was built on what might have been the site of an ancient market!

Roman Napoca developed around the salt road between Potaissa and connected it to the rest of the empire via Pannonia. It did not begin as a municipality, but rather a smaller town that was, ironically the largest producer of brooches (fibulae) in the Roman Empire. Archaeologists have discovered tons of them in a Roman era workshop. The city was not very large, stretching approximately from what is the main post office in the center of the city (near the Someș bridge) to where the Hajongard Cemetery is today. As with any Roman built city, people were buried outside the city walls. It was in one of these tombs that early Christian artifacts were discovered. The city became a municipality during the reign of Septimius Severus, and its wealth increased. Trade went on with Dacians who lived in a village outside of the city, similar to what you would see between native Dacians and Roman colonists at Porolissum and Apulum.


Relations between the Romans and Dacians is a very curious topic for me. In what became present-day Moldova, there lived Dacian tribes such as the Carpi, Bastarnae, and the Costoboci,  all of whom were quite hostile to the Romans. The Carpi in particular continued to raid and make war on the Romans well into Late Antiquity. The conquered Dacian tribes in Roman territory, however, began to build up close relations with the Romans and filled the ranks of the Roman army. Daco-Roman troops were stationed as far west as Britain and as far east as Egypt where names such as Pouridour, Dotouzi, and Dadazi have been found recorded on Egyptian ostraka. There is all the reason in the world to assume that relations between the Dacians and Romans in Napoca were totally peaceful.

The Roman occupation of Dacia was always tenuous, and – once the Goths arrived during the 3rd century – the Romans withdrew from the region, leaving behind a Romanized Dacian populace. Napoca was abandoned (perhaps even destroyed), but the villages around the city continued to remain inhabited. It is my belief that Napoca was destroyed during this period as rich Gepid finds have been discovered in nearby Apahida and Turda. The name Apahida itself seems to point to a Germanic origin. In any regard, trade declined during this tumultuous time, and the standard of living collapsed. When the Magyar hordes of Árpád arrived during the 9th century, they only found the ruins of a once great city as well as many petty Vlach and Slavic principalities that strove for power in the Carpathian Basin. They would prove easy prey to the newcomers, setting the stage for Cluj’s vibrant medieval history.

This is about all that we really know. There is perhaps more that archaeology could tell us about the history of Roman Napoca, waiting to be discovered, but the excavation process would cause great harm to the city’s medieval and baroque cultural heritage. It is a narrative that will continue to be pieced together, step by step, as modern renovations continue to lead to new finds. Perhaps one day the history museum will re-open, allowing visitors to discover its wonders. Until then, I am left to wonder how was life in the ancient city – how people went about their day to day business. Such things have always fascinated me because by drawing examples from the past are we able to learn more about our cultural heritage and – through it – ourselves.

Darius Roby

Editor Cluj.com