Athena Review  Vol.2, no.3:    


Romans on the Danube: Durostorum


Durostorum lies under the modern town of Silistra. The eastern outskirts of Silistra lie on the Danube river, which forms the border between Bulgaria and Romania. In addition to its function as an important Roman military center, Durostorum was also a significant river harbor, road junction, and customs station in the province of Lower Moesia. The first Roman military garrison at Durostorum was most probably composed of an auxiliary unit. After the Dacian Wars of emperor Trajan in AD 101-102 and 105-106, Durostorum was garrisoned by the legio XI Claudia. Detachments of that legion are epigraphically recorded in Montana in AD 136, as well as in the northern zone of the Black Sea.

Durostorum and its vicinity were strongly affected by an invasion of the Costoboci in AD 170. The area was again hit hard by barbarian incursions during the reign of Gordian III (AD 238-244), when the lower Danubian provinces were several times overrun by Carps, Goths and Sarmatae. One inscription from Durostorum dating to AD 238 tells of a person who had to be ransomed from the barbarians. After the Roman army was overwhelmed in AD 251 at the battle of Abritus (see printed issue), in which the emperor Decius was killed, the victorious Goths ravaged adjacent regions of Lower Moesia.A fragmentary building inscription dated to AD 272-273, confirms the occurrence of a Carpic raid into Lower Moesia during the reign of Aurelian (AD 270-275). The text tells of the victorious campaigns of Aurelian against Zenobia, queen of Palmyra and the Carps. It also explicitly states that the Carps were defeated in a battle in the frontier zone east of Durostorum, between Carsium and Sucidava.

[Fig.1: Lower Danubian section of the Peutinger Table, a 3rd c. AD Roman map showing Durostorum.]

As in each important military center, individuals from all parts of the Empire could be encountered in Durostorum. Finds of inscriptions, votive tablets and other sculptured monuments dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD show worship in a number of religious cults including those to the deities Jupiter, Juno, Hercules, Mithras, and Dolichenus. The high popularity of the Thracian Horseman deity points to a considerable indigenous population in Durostorum. Saturn was also esteemed, and special feasts in his honor (Saturnalia) were organized yearly. Among a several examples of Roman portrait sculpture known from Durostorum is a life-size marble head of a man dating from the 3rd century AD.A bronze Roman parade mask and a standard soldier's helmet were both found within the town limits of Silistra.

The city is also the birthplace of the famous late Roman military commander Flavius Aetius, who is perhaps best known for defeating Attila the Hun. According to Gothic historian Jordanes, Aetius "descended from the people of the extremely brave Moesians" (Getica, 176). Aetius commanded the united forces of the Roman Empire and its Frankish, Burgundian,and Visigothic allies against the Huns who, led by Attila, invaded the Empire in the middle of the 5th century. The decisive battle took place in July of AD 451 at the Catalaunian Fields in northern France, ending with the utter defeat of Attila.

The famous Christian martyr Dasius was born in Durostorum, where his relics were kept until the late 6th century when they were transported to the cathedral of St. Cyriacus in Ancona in Italy. Barbarian foederates of different ethnicity were included among the population of Durostorum in late antiquity. Also present from the 4th century onward were Goths, and, in the 6th century, Slavs.

While relatively little information is available on the earliest building phase, the fortification system has been studied in several areas. Initially the wall was about 1.50 m thick and was reinforced with inner rectangular towers. One such tower measuring 6.4 by 3.4 m has been excavated on the southern precinct wall, west of the supposed main gate, or porta decumana. Its foundations are entirely built in opus caementicium (masonry work), while the superstructure, with only two to three surviving rows, is faced with small stone blocks on both sides (opus vittatum).

The legionary camp at Durostorum was reconstructed in the late 3rd century during the reign of either Aurelian or Diocletian. A new type of mortar was used for this building project, pink in color, containing a mixture of small tile and brick pieces. The thickness of the precinct wall was increased to 2.6 m and a large new tower appeared at the south-west corner. The latter tower of rectangular plan projected slightly outwards and measures 21.7 by 12.8 m. A dedication to Jupiter found in Silistra and dated to AD 145 (CIL III 7474) reads that two wealthy citizens set up a statue on behalf of the cives Romani et consistentes in canabis Aeliis.

Up to the present, several buildings have been partially excavated in the territory of the canabae, one being a public bath located some 250 m north of the camp. Built in the first half of the 2nd century, it had a continuous plan of linked buildings facing southwest. Bathers were provided with three pools for warm water and one pool (piscina) containing cold water. During the following centuries, the bath underwent several major reconstructions, with the latest repairs dating to the middle of the 4th century AD. Bricks stamped with the name RVMORIDVS were found in one room. This refers to Flavius Rumoridus, who because of his contributions to the general reconstruction and refortification of the province in the 4th century, is thought to have been dux provinciae Moesiae Secundae.

While some scholars suggest that Durostorum was granted a municipal status during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), others consider the emperor named in the text to be M. Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla (AD 211-217). Another unresolved question concerns which of the two civic settlements in the vicinity of Durostorum, the canabae or the vicus, was elevated in rank to municipium, or self-governing city. Excavations on the Danube bank in Silistra led by S. Angelova from 1969 to 1971 resulted in the discovery of late Roman, Byzantine, and medieval fortifications. A 55 m section of circuit wall was unearthed, with the equivalent of two rows' height preserved. The late Roman wall, 2.3 to 2.6 m thick, was built of rectangular stone blocks cemented with pink mortar on both faces. The fortification may be identified with the newly built praesidium or headquarters building mentioned in a legionary inscription from Silistra, dated to AD 298-299. Constructions dating from the 5th to 6th centuries AD have also been discovered within the walls of the old legionary fortress.

In 1942 a late Roman tomb containing well-preserved wall paintings was accidentally discovered southeast of the town center in Silistra, at a depth of only 0.7 m beneath ground level. The tomb is a single-chambered vaulted building with a rectangular plan of 3.3 by 2.6 m, with a maximum height of 2.3 m. The floor is paved with bricks, with the entrance on the east side of the building. The tomb is decorated with polychrome wall paintings divided into upper and lower registers or pictorial zones, on the vault and on the walls themselves. Each of the walls, with the exception of the eastern one, is divided into three separate rectangular pictorial fields.

There are two somewhat differing views on the dating of the late antique Silistra tomb. D. P. Dimitrov and M. Chichikova date the structure to the last quarter of the 4th century. Based on the style of mural painting, however, Drs. V. Popova and J. Valeva prefer an earlier date in the fourth or fifth decade of the 4th century. Even from a purely historical point of view, the latter time period seems the more likely of the two. It is difficult to believe that such an elaborate example of tomb architecture would have appeared after the disastrous Gothic invasion of AD 376-378, an event which severely ravaged the region and ushered in years of disorder and economic collapse.

In autumn of 1968, during excavations in the southeast necropolis of Durostorum not far from the Silistra tomb, the burial site of a high-ranking aristocrat was accidentally discovered in Silistra. Grave goods found with the physical remains include a gold fibula, two iron swords in wooden sheaths, four iron spear heads, a suite of silver belt appliques, a massive gold ring with a gem depicting the goddess Fortuna, and a coin of the emperor Probus (AD 276-282). Just next to the coffin were found the remains of a four-wheeled chariot buried during the funeral ceremony, together with the four horses harnessed to it. The chariot was richly decorated with numerous bronze appliques and statuettes depicting gods, mythological creatures, and animals including Dionysius, satyrs, and a panther.The chariot burial site most certainly dates to the end of the 3rd century AD. Its unique nature is emphasized by the magnificent set of two swords produced in a first-rate imperial atelier.

by Rumen Ivanov

[For the complete article, see printed edition of Athena Review, Vol.2, no.3 (2000)]


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