The History of Halmyris

“People who have visited Halmyris feel a strong attraction to the site and its surroundings. Legends mingle with historical truth in this enchanted land. The fan-like mid-height hills surrounding the site, the salty lakes close to the site, the landscape stretching out forever, and the Danube Delta one kilometer from the site–all of these are exciting elements showing the richness and the beauty of the land on which ancient people lived.”

– Professor Mihail Zahariade, 2006

The Danube Delta began to form out of a bay along the Black Sea over 5000 years ago during the Holocene epoch, and to this day the area along the Sfantul Gheorghe (St. George) branch of the river remains wet and fertile. The Delta still teems with fish and frogs living among the reeds; herons and egrets fill the skies and voice their many opinions from the tops of willow trees, and occasionally wild boars and wolves appear deep within the maze of canals.

Over 2,600 years ago and during the 7th century BCE, the Getic tribes that lived along the Lower Danube and the Black Sea started encountering Greeks venturing from their city-states, looking for new lands and trade opportunities. Milesian Greeks founded the colony of Histria in the mid-7th century BCE, as a means of facilitating trade with the Getae in the interior of modern Romania, land which they accessed through the valley formed by the Danube Delta.

Archaeological evidence shows that there were two periods of Getic occupation on the headlands that would become Halmyris, first from the 6th-3rd centuries BCE and then from the 2nd-1st centuries BCE. They left behind the cremated remains of their dead, and it is quite possible the Getae also built a nearby dava or fortified settlement. From the foundation of Histria, the Greeks were also in the area on trading excursions–in the lowest excavated levels at Halmyris, archaeologists found Greek pottery and coins in the same context as Getic arrowheads. The name Halmyris (Ἅλμυρις) is actually Greek, meaning salt water. It is possible, but not yet confirmed, that the Greeks built a trading post (emporium) at the site to support commerce along the Lower Danube.

With the advent of the new millennium came the expansion of the Roman Empire, recently reformed from a Republic under Caesar Augustus, and eager to expand across the known world. A Roman army under C. Scribonius Curio had advanced as far as the Danube in 75 BCE, and in 28 BCE Marcus Licinius Crassus finished subduing the Getae and incorporated their lands into the imperial province of Macedonia. In 30 CE, the Romans gained control of Histria and, by the Flavian Period (69-96 CE,) the Lower Danube had become the Empire’s main frontier line in the region. The province faced continuous threats from the Dacian tribes north of the Danube, and in 87 CE the Roman Emperor Domitian split Moesia into two provinces, Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior, instigating a strong offensive against the Dacians.

Halmyris played an important strategic role in this conflict, as the site holds the easternmost position on the Danube and therefore met all the traffic, military and otherwise, traveling upriver from the Black Sea. A Roman legionary detachment built a turf and timber fort on the site in the late 1st century CE, including a precinct wall, curtain towers, and gates to support a squadron of the newly established fleet of the province (Classis Flavia Moesica). The Romans called the site Salmorus, which the 5th century text Notitia Dignitatum recorded as Thalamonium.

In 101 CE, the Emperor Trajan came to Moesia Superior to personally oversee an assault against the ongoing Dacian threat, culminating in the eventual conquest of the Dacian kingdom and its incorporation within the Roman Empire as a Roman province (106 CE). Soon after, the Roman legions I Italica and VI Claudia conducted renovations at Halmyris, replacing the early Flavian building with a much stronger stone construction between 106/107 and 116 CE. By this point, the fort was likely housing a legionary detachment of 400 to 500 men, along with the sailors of the provincial fleet in the mariner’s village or vicus classicorum. Halmyris operated as one of a series of forts on the Lower Danube, interspaced with constructions on the hilltops to assist with visual contact between the military outposts. Other forts include Aegyssus, located where modern Tulcea stands today, Noviodunum at modern Isaccea, and Salsovia at modern Mahmudia.

Throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, Roman emperors continued to attempt to hold the lands of modern Romania. Aurelian (270-275 CE) abandoned the province of Roman Dacia after facing repeated invasions by Germanic and Gothic populations. He retreated to the southern banks of the Danube, using the military forts on the river to discourage the invaders from penetrating further into Roman territory. Subsequently, from 270-285 CE, legionary builders improved the defenses at Halmyris, completing massive repairs to the walls, gates, and defensive towers. This later version of the fort had a trapezoidal shape, with two main gates, a monumental entrance, 15 towers, a bathhouse, administrative buildings, barracks, stables, and a surrounding civilian settlement that stretched for kilometers around the fort. By the late 3rd century, Halmyris was not only important militarily, but also economically with a trading post and harbor that oversaw commerce of the region.

In 290 CE, an event occurred at Halmyris which would significantly impact modern perceptions of the site. Two Christians, Astion and Epictet, traveled to the site on a proselytising mission and eventually suffered imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom when they refused to reveal their names to the authorities. After their executing by beheading, the Romans buried them at an unidentified point near the site; however, during an imperial visit to Halmyris by the emperor Constantine I (c 324/325) he ordered that they be reburied within a sacred crypt under the altar of a newly built basilica within the fort. The Church later canonised Astion and Epictet, and today the modern Romanian Orthodox Church holds a yearly pilgrimage to the nearby monastery built in honor of the saints.

From the late 3rd to the early 5th centuries CE, Halmyris faced repeated attacks by barbarians attempting to cross the Danube. Significant assaults occurred in 294, 314, and 384 CE respectively–the later of which was especially severe as the Danube froze, allowing the Goths to walk directly up to the fort walls and destroy the fort. In 390 CE, the Huns managed to actually capture and hold Halmyris for a brief period. The Romans, however, recovered the fort only to once again see it destroyed by the Huns in 408 CE.

This trend of destruction, rebuilding and reoccupation continued throughout the 5th and 6th centuries CE with major rebuilding phases recorded during the reigns of Theodosius II (408-450 CE), Anastasius (491-518 CE) and, finally, Justinian as recorded within Procopius’ account. By the early 7th century, Halmyris was in its last days as an occupied Roman fort. Finally, during the reign of Heraclius in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine troops permanently withdrew to support an ongoing Persian war in the east.

Although the military left, some aspects of life at Halmyris continued–the latest coin found to date at the site is from 612/613 CE. Yet the once imposing walls began to shrink, as locals repurposed the stone for building materials, and the security of the fort was forever compromised when the western gate fell into disrepair. In 681 CE, Constantine IV ceded the provinces of Moesia to the Bulgars after suffering repeated military defeats. Halmyris was now officially part of the first Bulgarian Empire, although there is currently no archaeological evidence suggesting that the Bulgars ever sent a military force to occupy the ruins of the fort. Instead, medieval peasants built huts within the walls that still offered some security, as the sediment brought downstream by the Danube began to cover the harbor and shift the path of the river away to the north. This sediment delivered by the river eventually spread over the site, until only the jagged tops of the towers and walls were visible to those wandering the hills south of the Danube. Hundreds of years later, locals would tell stories about the treasure hidden inside the mysterious walls, and of the spirits that guarded the site. These stories were perhaps vindicated, when Professor M. Zahariade later discovered the remains of the Christian martyrs in a hidden crypt within Halmyris.