Nobody asked me for a ticket at the gates. Just inside them stood a row of swings about which a group of children was gathered, eyeing the stranger. They left their playground to follow me silently at a distance up onto the site. I stopped and they stopped.
I was in a bumpy-looking field with magnificent views out over the flood-plain. From this higher vantage-point the Danube went glittering by behind its poplars and a large flock of geese was spreading out over the pasture, grazing as they went, watched over by their herdsman. It was spring. I sat on one of the crumbling old walls which criss-crossed this ‘field’ and watched sand martins come and go from an archaeological trench nearby which they had colonised. Lizards flitted away into the heaps of excavated Roman brick left lying about.
Over the richest villa on the site a modern shelter had been bu
ilt to protect its mosaics and wall paintings. Around this structure another group of children was encamped, older than the first I’d seen. These also watched me closely, whispering among themselves or flinging abuse at the other children, calling them ‘piggies’ then falling over themselves, helpless with mirth, for reasons not readily accessible to anyone over the age of twelve.
I was half aware of this as I sat on my bit of ancient wall soaking up the warmth and the view. One from the older group detached himself from the others and I noticed him now picking his way across the site towards me, a messenger of some kind. I waited, partly curious, partly apprehensive.
Was I looking for coins? he wanted to know. I said no but he dug into his pockets anyway and produced a fist-ful of Roman coinage. It was a gesture so carelessly suggestive of ‘buried treasure’, from an urchin in grubby T-shirt and shorts who did not immediately put you in mind of untold riches. My initial wariness began to weaken. If they were forged they were the oddest collection of forgeries I’d ever seen. Most were little more than poor irregular scraps of badly eroded brass, the image of whichever obscure late emperor it had been entirely obliterated. A few, in slightly better condition, had been cleaned and then given a lick of clear nail-varnish, or that’s what he said it was.
That was the clincher for me. Only a ten-year-old living in a world of his own paints a Roman coin with nail-varnish, seriously imagines that a foreign tourist will want them all shiny. Two of the coins in fairly good condition caught my eye. One seemed to show a soldier attacking some prone figure, sword raised, shoulder-cloak flying. The other showed a row of legionary standards – the legend on the reverse of this one was fairly clear – around the emperor’s head were letters clearly indicating that this was one of the Constantines.
It had been an occasion, the arrival here in spring, that moment of peace looking out over the river, even the children that seemed to be everywhere here. How much did he want for them? He asked for a hundred thousand Lei each and I gave him a hundred thousand for both. A pound each. Honour satisfied on both sides. Why didn’t he take them to a museum, I asked.
‘They only pay 20,000 (40p) each’, he answered. ‘Visitors pay more.’ Without further ado he returned in triumph to his peers from his successful raid on the pockets of the visitor, shouting something to them as he went. Another of them, older, started out towards me as if in response. Was I interested in the site, he asked, producing another handful. Most of these were in really magnificent condition. None was varnished. None was for sale, either, he answered to my inevitable question. They were a part of his collection – he’d been building it up ever since he was a child.
‘I grew up here,’ he said, gesturing at the site around us with something of the same un-self-conscious pride of the boy who’d sold us the coins. He was a student now, in Alba Iulia, one of the old towns in Transylvania. What was he studying?
‘Archaeology. But this is where I started to learn.’ Most of his collection was on display at the university museum, so he couldn’t show it to us unfortunately. It seemed an incredible claim and yet it was delivered without bravado, with a sort of strange diffidence, even. The first boy had been more or less a street urchin, but Adrian, as he introduced himself, wore a clean blue tracksuit. He was a young man who took care of his appearance. His formality and reticence, his refusal to sell and his curiosity about me anyway – all marked him out as an original. He was the way young people very occasionally still are in remote places – people who by some instinct realise early what there is to value in that remoteness and make it a part of themselves. That there is something worth protecting in what they have been handed, so that it can continue to exercise its quiet influence over people in the future.
I told him I’d studied archaeology at university too and he was eager to hear all about what kind and where. The children he was with now spent all their free time roaming over the site just as he had once. The best way was to come and look under the grass after heavy rain – those were the best conditions. Sometimes they brought him really good coins, which he would swap or buy outright.
‘Don’t you have problems with people looting the site?’ I asked.
‘Romanians cannot afford metal detectors,’ he replied. ‘In the nineties people from the west came a few times to try. But you see – there are always children here – they live here – and they like to look for the coins themselves – so a stranger who arrived with a detector and started digging around… he would be dealt with pretty fast.’
Paradoxically the site also benefited from its proximity to the river. During the nineties smuggling across the river started – Bulgarians cross illegally to look for work, and this is also one of the routes along which people are smuggled into western Europe. So the area is patrolled by the border Police, which operates independently of the local bureaucracy and is more reliable as a result.
He showed me over the site. As every Romanian school-child knows, the Roman legions withdrew south of the Danube in 271. Still, a new bridge constructed in 328, not to mention the coins I had just purchased, dating to the 350’s, clearly demonstrate that the Romans remained very much a presence even after they had officially abandoned the province. Obviously they would have needed the capacity to control the north bank, if only to stave off attacks on the southern one. Places like this must somehow have contributed to the extraordinary and still unexplained persistence of a Latin language this far east. One theory is that the fertility of the Danube flood-plain made it so ideal for Roman settlement that it was able to endure there for centuries after the power structures which originally made it possible had fallen away.
He explained the designs on my coins too. The one with military standards dated from the 330’s and the reign of Constantine’s son. It denoted ‘the Glory of the Army’. The coin with the soldier standing over a fallen figure was a later type. It dated from the 350’s, from the reign of Constantius II. Its design announced an imminent ‘return to the happy old times’ – FEL TEMP REPARATIO – when the Romans had known how to keep those barbarians in their place.
It seems the barbarians did not take to being talked about like that. A long covered staircase, leading to a spring, was discovered on the site in the 1960’s by villagers digging for bricks to build with. The structure dates to the C5th and was probably built to allow the site to withstand a siege. The settlement was certainly burnt to the ground by Huns in the C5th – the site appears to have been re-occupied soon thereafter but the records begin to fail at that point.
A document drawn up by the Order of the Knights of St John in 1240 mentions a fishing village on the site and it appears as a fortified settlement on a C15th map. Excavations show that its defences were strengthened during the successful struggles in the C16th to prevent direct Ottoman rule over what is now Romania. Austrian coins from the same period have been uncovered.
He told me about the two Roman graves which were destroyed recently in the village as foundations for a new night-club were being dug. There are no effective planning controls and a developer does not see the discovery of Roman or other remains as anything but a threat to his building schedule, so nothing is ever reported in time to save it.
The curious breakdown of communication between the societies which occupy either bank of the Danube here applies likewise in this context. The
re was a larger Roman settlement at the other end of the bridge, Oescus, in the present-day Bulgarian town of Gigen, which nobody I met on this side had ever visited. Not even, it seems, its school children.
I asked Adrian what his ambition was. To work as an excavator, he said. He was under no ideological delusions about his chosen field. He knew the Communists and the Fascists had used Roman archaeology for nationalist reasons, but Sucidava was not a very helpful prop for such arguments. The bridge it once guarded was in any case built more than fifty years after the legions had withdrawn from Dacia. Certainly it was there to help defend the north bank of the river, but chiefly to keep the Romanised settlements of the former province connected to the Empire’s economic system. Day to day, the place would not have entertained any illusions of grandeur. He didn’t know anybody his own age who thought of the Roman presence here in nationalist terms.