Back in the XVIII century, when the Marquis de Vauban designed and implemented a revolutionary system of fortifications and defenses, little did he know that his designs would earn him international recognition throughout the centuries, as today there are tens of citadels built by the system that bears his name. One of the most spectacular such fortresses of this type is Alba Carolina – the largest citadel in Romania, located in the city of Alba Iulia. Such is the complexity of this ample landmark that, for the sake of convenience, visits to the citadel have been organized into six separate tours, each with a theme of its own.
One of these tours is dedicated to the heroic figures of Horea, Closca, and Crisan, leaders of a major peasant revolt of the XVIII century. It includes the prison cell that Horea was detained in, embedded in the pedestal of the grand statue representing the Austrian emperor Carol VI – erected at Gate III of the Alba Carolina citadel – as well as the gaols, located on the south-eastern flank of the Eugene of Savoy bastion, complete with the scaffold where Horea and Closca were executed on a breaking wheel.
Another tour walks visitors through the seven gates of the Vaubam citadel, as well as the various constructions of historical importance located nearby. Each of the gates has something worthy to be noted: Gate I, for instance, is beautifully shaped as a triumphal arch; Gate II has three entries, open in the upper half; Gate III, the largest and most impressive of them, is decorated with intricate carvings on both facades; Gate IV is the only one of the west side gates that was honored with Baroque style decorations; Gate V, built in a deceptively simple style, is completed by a bridge that connects the Saint Michael ravelin to the counterguard; Gate VI has earned its fame as the King’s Gate since it served as entry to king Ferdinand and queen Mary on their coronation day; finally, Gate VII, which was only recently uncovered, is a massive tunnel that was used both for procurement purposes and to allow the cavalry to exit the citadel in large numbers when urgent action was required.
A third and fourth tour focus on the southern and northern sides of the defense moat surrounding the fortress, which constitutes a genuine dendrological park thanks to the over 70 species of plants and shrubs growing here. The northern tour has the added attraction of two superbly landscaped gardens, a Roman one and a Japanese one, as well as a statue of a XVIII century drummer. However, by far the most spectacular of all the sights is the star-shaped citadel itself, a monumental construction that can be visited in its entire splendor in the tour of the three fortifications.
To go on this tour is to enjoy is like enjoying a live lesson in history and military engineering. The three fortifications that give the tour its name refer to the fact that, as it stands today, the Alba Carolina citadel is a series of three successive constructions, each of them incorporating fragments from the previous one. The oldest is the Roman castrum, followed by the medieval stronghold, further expanded in the XVIII century into a Vauban citadel. The mastermind of this latter project was prince Eugene of Savoy, who, however, failed to complete the construction, choosing to redirect funds towards other fortifications before having erected the fourth line of defense. Further works were carried out towards the end of the XVIII century under the supervision of general Bohn, but these too were interrupted before reaching their full completion.
There aren’t many cities in Romania that go back all the way to the Roman Empire, but even among the handful that do, the city of Alba Iulia – or Apulum, as the Romans called it – manages to stand out in more than one way. And one of the attractions that can indeed be traced back to more than 2000 years ago are the Roman ruins.
Some people might struggle to even comprehend what two millennia mean in the history of one city, and they would, no doubt, be awed to see that some vestiges of so long ago still stand today. But they wouldn’t be the only ones to feel impressed by what is proof of both solid construction and engineering skills and a remarkable history of endurance through countless battles. The stone of the ancient walls and archways is so imbued with history thatsome wouldn’t even blink if the past did come to life in the form of Roman soldiers casually going about their day or stopping to challenge the visitors to their fort.
Because the ruins visible today are, indeed, the remains of a fort – or castrum – that hosted the XIII “Gemina” Legion, an elite military unit first set up by the great emperor Julius Caesar and quartered here for well over a century (between 106 and 268 A.D.). Despite its relatively modest size – the castrum proper measuring only 400 m by 400 m – it must have given a strong impression of solidity and reliability even back then, seeing that it was chosen as official headquarters for the governor of Dacia Superior and then the governor of Dacia Apulensis.
The castrum might have been a military structure at its core, but the life inside it was so much more than what might be expected inside of a garrison. Art played an important part in it, as evidence by a marble bas-relief unearthed in 2011, representing a centurion armed with a spear in his right hand and an oval shield in his left one. The details of the sculpture reveal a lot about the time it was made. The centurion sports a beard, which seems to indicate a character from the second half of the II century – by which time the legion was well at home in the fort – and his weaponry is specific to either mounted troops or auxiliary units. What remains of the text underneath the sculpture refers to a “second wooden sword”, a symbol of gladiators promoted to officers of the Roman army. It has been speculated that the character thus represented was a former gladiator turned warrior and brought to the fort to instruct the soldiers.
Religious life was also well represented, some scholars even advancing the hypothesis that the castrum had once hosted a sacred building within its walls. Their claims are supported by the discovery of an altar dedicated to Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, quite an appropriate choice for a community made mostly of warriors. Other vestiges unearthed in 2011 include the pretorium – which was the general’s tent in a Roman camp – and the Roman road Via Principalis.
It’s worth mentioning that some of the remains of the Roman fort were re-used, re-purposed or incorporated into constructions erected at a later date, namely two other strongholds, each bigger than the one before it and each including the previous ones: the medieval citadel of Balgrad and the Alba Carolina Citadel. Together with the partially rebuilt Roman castrum they now form a series of three fortifications that almost literally walk visitors through history.