top of page

Emperor Caracalla's Statue in Porolissum / History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: Fragment of a statue of Emperor Caracalla discovered during the archaeological works in the large fort of Porolissum (Moigrad, Sălaj County)

Photo 2: Representations of Dacians on Trajan's Column

The conquest of the Dacian Kingdom (today’s territory of Romania) by the armies of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) at the beginning of the second century AD meant the creation, after more than half a century, of a new and particular Roman province on the Lower Danube. This time, contrary to the indications left by Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) in his will, according to which Roman power should be limited in space to natural borders, which in Europe meant the Rhine and Danube rivers, Trajan chose to solve a major security problem which had been asserting itself since the time of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) on the border of the Lower Danube: the aggressive and unpredictable Dacian state.

Photo 3: Map of the Roman Empire at the middle of the 2nd Century AD © MNIT Cluj

After two bloody wars waged, on the one hand by a huge number of professional soldiers (more than 10 legions and the auxiliary troops who accompanied them), and on the other by the warriors of a fundamentalist theocratic state, allied with most of the neighboring peoples, we learn, on August 11, 106 AD, through a military diploma which offered the veterans of these wars the privilege of returning to hearth and home, of the existence of the Imperial Province of Dacia.

Photo 4: The military sites in the province of Dacia and Moesia Inferior (today Doborgea) © National Museum of Transylvanian History (MNIT) Cluj

Photo 5: Aerial photograph of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa

This province was, from the very beginning, a militarized district, advanced in the barbarian world of the Lower Danube. Trajan chose to leave there an impressive number of troops, including two (or three) legions and approximately 40 auxiliary units, a total of about 30,000 soldiers. Appointed as their leader was a senatorial governor of consular rank, legatus Augusti pro praetore, whose headquarters and residence were in Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the province’s first city, created as a Roman colony (colonia) and endowed with a huge territory which stretched from the Danube to the center of Transylvania (in the middle of today’s Romania). Throughout its history of more than 160 years, the province of Dacia underwent several administrative reorganizations, losing and gaining troops from its military personnel depending on the tactical needs of the Empire.

Photo 5: Altar dedicated to Goddess Fortuna by a consular governor of the three Dacian provinces © Museum of Dacian and Roman Civilisation in Deva

The province’s definitive form of organization was that decided by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), starting in 168 AD, when the three former Dacian provinces created by Hadrian became financial districts altogether led by a governor of consular rank, consularis trium Daciarum.

Photo 6: The Severan tondo - circular wooden panel painted with the portraits of the mebers of the Severan imperial family Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta (erased). © Antikensammlung Berlin

The period under the rule of the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD) was the most prosperous for the province. The Dacian army helped pretender Septimius Severus (193-211 AD) to the throne and received in return large sums of money and favors which helped the development of the Northern Danube province. As a sign of gratitude, the towns and forts of the province built impressive bronze or marble statues of the emperor and his family (domus divina). Unfortunately, very few of these have been preserved to this day, but a multitude of statue bases, all of them with honorary inscriptions dedicated to the emperor and his family, bear them witness.

Photo 7: Portrait of Emperor Septimius Severus © Glyptothek München

Photo 8: Portrait of Empress Julia Domna, Emperor Caracalla's mother © Glyptothek München

Photo 9: Portrait Emperor Cracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) (copy) © Getty

The eldest son of Septimius Severus, Septimius Bassianus, was born in 188 at a time when his father did not yet hope to become emperor, and was renamed, by the former, as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (211-217 AD) in order to create a dynastic connection with the family of the ‘philosopher emperor’ and thus strengthen his claim to the imperial throne. He became known in history as Caracalla, a nickname referring to the Gallic hooded tunic which he wore when he accompanied his father on campaign. In 198, his father named him heir to the throne as Augustus and his younger brother, Geta, received the same honor 11 years later. Septimius Severus died in Britain in 211, leaving both sons as heirs and advising them to secure their throne with the help of the army. From the very beginning, Caracalla despised his younger brother and was unwilling to share the throne with him, so by the end of 211 he arranged for his assassination.

Caracalla was an active emperor, a military rather than a politician, remembered in historiography as a tyrant with a soldierly demeanor. His relationship with the Roman senate was always deficient, so virtually all his policies were oriented toward the army and the provinces. The year 212 AD remains a turning point in history thanks to Caracalla himself who, through his edict, Costitutio Antoniniana, granted citizenship to all free men living in the Empire. In the same year, the emperor also offered all soldiers a substantial salary increase, two measures which ensured the popularity he needed to secure the imperial throne.

Immediately after, at the beginning of 213, Caracalla decided to embark on a provincial tour throughout the Empire together with his mother, Julia Domna. He was not destined to return. After a victory against the Germanic tribes of the Alamani at the Rhine, he descended along the Danube in order to visit the Eastern provinces, including Dacia. It is hard to tell whether the visit ever truly materialized, but what we know for certain is that it was carefully planned, as most of the forts and cities along the route built imposing statues of the emperor and his mother, many of the bases of which have been preserved to this day. The dedications written on these are practically the same, which indicates a single order, given according to some precise propagandistic indications.

Photo 10: The Amphitheatre at Porolissum

The statue from which the famous artefact presented here originated must have been part of this series of honorary monuments. Only a 7.4 inch part of the statue was preserved. It is made of bronze with a green patina and represents the emperor’s face and neck. The piece was discovered during the archaeological works in the large fort of Porolissum (Moigrad, Sălaj County) and, since its discovery, has been part of the permanent collection of The National Museum of Transylvanian History. This fragment of the face, cast by the so called lost-wax process, undoubtedly belongs to the emperor Caracalla, due to a series of attributes specific to his official portrait: the wide face, strong jaws, beard present only on the jaws and chin, the thick and short nose, the hairstyle. Unlike the official portraits in the west, where he is represented with his head turned to the left, with a more frowning expression and a bigger nose, this portrait is part of a series of more schematic provincial images, resulting from the successive copying of the metropolitan model. The grandiose, serene look and the frontal depiction illustrate the provincials’ perception of the sovereignty and majesty of their emperor. Taking these clues into consideration we can assume that the statue immortalized the emperor standing, likely in a chariot pulled by four horses (quadriga), and looking ahead.

The visage of Caracalla from Porolissum probably originates from a clay or plaster model that would have been circulated in Dacia on the occasion of the construction of these statues for the emperor and his mother. From the inscriptions preserved on the bases of statues of this kind we can assume that they probably played a double role, having been made in response to the increase of wages and in anticipation of the imperial visit to the province. The statue in Porolissum was dedicated to the emperor by one of the troops stationed in the camp on the hill of Pomăt: cohors III Campestris or cohors I Brittonum equitata. This piece is important for the history of Roman Dacia and for our patrimony because it marvelously illustrates a bygone era about which not much is known, as well as the most official aspects of military life, those related to politics and loyalty towards the emperor. The portrait is doubly valuable as it is part of a noticeably short series of imperial portraits or fragments of portraits discovered in Dacia.

The entire army, and therefore every soldier individually, belonged to the emperor and swore allegiance directly to him. They celebrated his birthday and other official anniversaries and expressed their loyalty to him on every occasion. The emperor, in return, paid his soldiers and became an almost fatherly figure to them. Despite all this, however, especially in the third century, it was the army which removed and enthroned most emperors. This was also the case of Caracalla, who met a tragic end, assassinated in 217 AD, in Syria, by order of the praetorian prefect, Macrinus, who would become his successor. Caracalla spent the last three years of his life touring the Orient and Egypt and failing to defeat the Parthians. Despite the senators' dislike for him, he did not suffer a posthumous conviction (damnatio memoriae), precisely because of his popularity among the provincial armies.

Text and video presentation by archaeologist and historian GEORGE CUPCEA of The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca. Video concept by GEANINA SIMON and DRAGOȘ POPA.

The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iași and The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.

#TheHistoryofRomaniainOneObject #Emperor Caracalla's Statue in Porolissum



bottom of page