Blasted in Brasov– Traumatic Memories of Transylvania (Eastern Europe & Me #21)

It is an unfortunate symptom of the human experience that so many of our memories center around traumatic incidents. The things we would rather not remember often stay with us far longer than we could ever imagine. The more we attempt to suppress unwanted parts of our past, the more likely they are too return with a vengeance. Many of our most vivid memories get connected with negative events. Uncommon occurrences that because of their novelty or rarity stick in our mind. These experiences do not have to be life shattering in order to become memory markers. They just need to be unique. I discovered two such experiences lurking in my memory when I began to think about Brasov, that elegant city in eastern Transylvania known for its splendid old town and beautiful setting amid the mountains.

Confined space – Street in Brasov

Stealing Away – Criminal Minds
Drunkenness and drug abuse. Those were not the kinds of experiences I was looking forward to finding when I went to Brasov. During a decade of travels in Eastern Europe that include a trio of trips to Transylvania, I have found the region to be much safer than the United States. Violent crime and the potential for it to occur are rare. I have never seen guns in Eastern Europe except while visiting museums. In the United States, handgun crime is a chronic problem that only seems to get worse with each passing year. Mass shootings are now occurring multiple times a week. There is no such thing in Eastern Europe. When shootings do occur, they are usually related to organized crime. I have read more about stabbings in the region, but these crimes are much harder to commit.

That does not mean Eastern Europe is without crime. Whereas in America, I rarely worry about theft, I have heard numerous stories of theft from travelers in Eastern Europe. In one case, I had second-hand experience with it. On an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest, a friend of mind had his wallet cleaned out of cash. Petty theft is anything but that when it happens to you or someone you know. This is why most accommodations in the region have multiple locks on the door. Phrases such as “do not leave your bags unattended” take on a different meaning in Eastern Europe.

There is also the persistent problem of corruption which still plagues every post-communist country. This corruption is not just the kind where fat cats get kickbacks on contracts. There is also the petty kind, where citizens are forced to pay for services or access that should have already been covered by their tax dollars. A Hungarian once told me that business costs should include a thirty percent add on for various payoffs. While corruption in Hungary has worsened over the past decade, the problem is only a little better or worse than other nations throughout the region. Corruption trickles down through society, affecting everyone, at every level. I have been asked for petty bribes a few times while traveling in the region. Thankfully, this is the exception rather than the rule. Endemic corruption rarely affects tourists on a perceptible level. More problematic are societal problems that can be seen on the street.

Beautiful setting – Council Square in Brasov

Soft Targets – Picking Up Problems
Brasov is prosperous by the standards of Romania. The city has good public transport services, a diversified economy, and a thriving tourist sector. It is in Transylvania, which happens to be the most economically prosperous region in Romania besides the capital of Bucharest. Brasov has a lot going for it, but like the rest of Romania, the city is still recovering from the disastrous Ceausescu era. Societal woes are to be expected. The average tourist is not likely to encounter many problems. Nevertheless, Brasov was where I had a couple of memorable moments that I would rather forget.

One came while walking down a narrow street in the Old Town during the late afternoon. I suddenly found an unwanted companion in the form of a very drunk Romanian man who looked to be in his 40’s. For some reason – most likely my red hair – he thought I must have been German. He mockingly began to sound off in drill sergeant speak. By the tone, I could tell his comments were pejorative. I assumed these were allusions to German militarism The man was trying to get a rise out of me. I would have none of it, but I did consider the possibility that he might lay his hands on me. That would have escalated the situation to a point of no return. There was little doubt that he was inebriated. His mocking tones went on for a couple of blocks before the man finally wandered off. I was a bit shaken by the experience. This could have easily happened almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The biggest surprise was that it occurred in Transylvania. I have seen much more public drunkenness in Poland and Hungary. Romanians are not known to be excessively fond of alcohol, but the problem does exist.  

Evening scene – Brasov at dusk

Shock Effect – A Tale of Trauma
By the standards of substance abuse, public drunkenness by someone acting like a lout is only of mild concern. The same could not be said for a shocking sight I came across while walking in the Old Town one morning in Brasov. Foot traffic was rather heavy since it was a weekday. The morning commute on foot to the nearest bus stop or workplace was in full force. While weaving through fellow pedestrians I noticed a woman walking at a brisk pace. Her features were shriveled though she looked to be no older than 40. She pressed a plastic bag to her face from which she was inhaling a substance. This turned out to be glue, the smell of which struck my nostrils just before her rancid body odor. The moment was shocking in the extreme.

Sniffing glue is a sure way to destroy brain cells and shorten your lifespan. Drug abuse is a disease of despair, as much as it is one of addiction. It is no secret that Eastern European societies have had a difficult economic transition to capitalism. Some nations such as Romania have suffered more than others I have grown used to fending off attempts for money or cigarettes in public areas. My infrequent encounters with the destitute have been short and relatively benign. While this encounter was short in duration, it will forever remain in my memory. There was a desperation about that woman I have rarely seen. Now over a decade past that moment, I can only wonder what became of her. I imagine something quite tragic. This is one of those travel memories that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Travel gives you a different perspective on the world and sometimes it is one you would rather forget.

Travelers Clutching Their Baedekers – Transylvania & Modern Tourism: Following In The Footsteps (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #51)

While traveling through Transylvania I have often wondered why a road was routed through a certain area, especially when the terrain looked inhospitable. It would be a rather difficult and costly task to build a road through trackless areas covered in thick forest. Traversing such extremely rugged terrain is a daunting prospect. I assume that modern highways in Transylvania follow the wagon tracks from centuries past. Many of these travel corridors were blazed long before man settled the area. The first inhabitants most likely followed in the hoof prints of animal migratory paths. Such deep history is unknown to all but a few archaeologists.  Nonetheless, the topic of travel routes offers a fascinating connection of past with present. Current generations continue to travel in the footsteps of their most distant ancestors. In a much more constricted time span this also holds true for tourists and the itineraries they follow while visiting Transylvania. The first ones for German and English language travelers were set forth by Baedeker in the late 19th century. Since that time, travelers have been unwittingly following along those same routes set forth over a century ago.

The Indispensable Guide - Baedeker Guide Including Transylvania
The Indispensable Guide – Baedeker Guide Including Transylvania

Entering The Land Beyond The Forest – Riding In On Rails
The first time Transylvania appeared in a Baedeker title was in 1880 with publication of the Southern Germany and Austria, including Hungary and Transylvania: Handbook for Travellers. It also contained the first itineraries for the region published in what was the most popular travel guidebook of its day. This bestseller would bring in its wake thousands of tourists. The little known “land beyond the forest” was opening to a wider world. It is important to remember that the 1880 edition of the Travellers Handbook was published seventeen years before Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Stoker’s opening chapters forever framed the popular image of Transylvania as a haunting landscape of stormy castles, howling wolves and blood thirsty counts lurking in a primeval countryside. This was not an image Baedeker cared to cultivate. Instead, their guide was written with the growing middle and upper classes in mind. People who had the wealth and wherewithal to travel far out onto the eastern fringes of Europe.

To go where so few from western Europe and Great Britain had gone before, potential travelers needed a guidebook that was thorough and to the point. Fiction and myth were the stuff of novels. Baedeker was for the adventurous and cultured, travelers looking to take the path of least resistance through a landscape that most of the world scarcely knew existed. This meant creating itineraries that could be followed with relative ease. What made this most possible in the late 19th century was that great engine of technological progress and transport prowess, the steam locomotive. The railroad had been recently developed by following existing travel corridors through river valleys and over notable mountain passes. The railroad still traveled many of the age-old routes, but with one major difference, namely that it moved much faster and smoother than previous modes of transport. The age of leisure was slowly creeping its way by rail across Transylvania, bringing travelers clutching their Baedekers.

Eastern Express - Railway station and train in Klausenberg (Kolozsvar/Cluj)
Eastern Express – Railway station and train in Klausenberg (Kolozsvar/Cluj)

Following First Transylvanian Railways – Pre-existing Pathways
Baedeker itineraries for Transylvania were based upon city to city railway connections. The railways had been constructed after creation of the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1867. For instance, the first itinerary in the Transylvania section was #70 Arad To Hermannstadt (present day Sibiu). This line was one of two rail corridors that provided points of entry into the western part of Transylvania (the other was via Grosswardein to Klausenberg). In addition, this route travelled into an area highly recommended in Baedeker’s Plan Of Tour for the region. The guide stated that “the most interesting parts of Transylvania are in the west and south.” Among the sites of interest on itinerary #70 included Deva, Karlsburg (present day Alba Iulia) and Hermannstadt.  This route, now available for tourists as well as regular passenger traffic, had only become possible in 1870 when the First Transylvanian Railways Company completed the line. The railway entered Transylvania via the valley of the region’s greatest river, the Mures.

Just as the rail line followed existing travel corridors so to did Baedeker’s itineraries continue to follow the railway as it surged westward. Hermannstadt was the most popular destination. It was the start of another itinerary, #71, which went to Kronstadt (Brasso) and one of the two main stops on itinerary #72 which started in Klausenberg (present day Cluj), also ending in Kronstadt. A fourth itinerary was tucked beneath the umbrella of itinerary #72 and likely the least traveled by tourists, as it went through northern Transylvania from Klausenberg to Bistritz. While all these cities were major destinations, the coverage by Baedeker was much more extensive for those adventurous souls who might decide to chance an excursion off the beaten track. This would mean either taking branch lines by rail, wagon road or in the more extreme cases heading off into the mountains on horseback. Each of these routes followed preexisting pathways, many of which dated back to the Middle Ages.

The Heart Of Transylvania - Hermannstadt (Sibiu/Nagyszeben) in 19th century
The Heart Of Transylvania – Hermannstadt (Sibiu/Nagyszeben) in 19th century

Credibility & Confidence – Advice Thoroughly Followed
Baedeker also offered what might be termed – at least in a visual sense – mini-itineraries. These were to be found within the regular itineraries, composed in a smaller than normal font size with extremely specific directions. The idea was to guide the reader from point to point with a litany of detail. This style was not for the literary inclined, instead playing to the data driven. Those who ventured well beyond the major cities must have come to appreciate this level of detail as they attempted to make their way through the rural landscapes of Transylvania. The best thing about Baedekers for travelers of that time was how they offered information that had been thoroughly vetted by experts. This added a degree of credibility and confidence. Travelers knew that if the directions and advice of their Baedeker was thoroughly followed a successful journey would result. In this way, Baedeker helped build up the tourist trade in Transylvania helping travelers to follow routes thousands of years in the making.

Click here for: Tales Of A Ticket Inspector- Constant Departures: An Austrian Railways State Of Mind (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #52)

Heart of the Matter – Travels With Brian: A Transylvanian Tale (Eastern Europe & Me #20e)

Since leaving the south twenty-years years ago, I have rarely gone back to visit in the summer. That is because I find the heat and humidity to be insufferable. As soon as my shirt starts sticking to me, I know that I would rather be almost anywhere else. And so, I almost always avoid going there in the summer with only a few notable exceptions. The final days of Brian were one of them. Not long after I returned from a trip to Transylvania, Brian’s health had taken a turn for the worse. During our weekly phone calls his voice grew progressively weaker. He would begin coughing and then be unable to stop.

At first, I thought he might have had pneumonia. Several weeks of sickness morphed into several months. Soon it got to the point where I could barely understand him. I told myself things that made me feel better, such as a hospital stay might be needed, that he was only in his early 70’s, and at least there was no sign of another stroke. What I failed to realize due to distance and willful distraction was that his health had been worsening for quite some time. The news soon came that his heart was failing. An irony if there ever was one. He had the strongest heart of any man I have ever known. For it to fail seemed impossible, but so did the idea that he would die.

The gift of time – Looking out from Sighisoara Citadel

Once Bitten – The Afterlife
Transylvania. I spent ten days there in the spring of 2014. Not once do I recall phoning Brian during that trip. I was too busy with Brasov and Bran Castle, Sibiu and Sighisoara. I should have called to tell him about my trip. He would have loved to hear about how a dog bit a hole in my sweatpants while I was running up to the fortress in Deva. The last time a dog bit me before that, I had been staying with Brian. While on a run up the road in front of his house, a large chow came bounding through a pasture and proceeded to bite me in the ass. It then proceeded to immediately turn around and bound back across the pasture. Both Brian and I found that quite humorous. If you believe Bram Stoker, getting bitten in Transylvania can be very bad for one’s health. While I never asked Brian what he thought about Transylvania, we did discuss Stoker’s Dracula. In Brian’s opinion, it was written at a much higher level than popular fiction. He praised it as quality literature. That was as close as we ever got to discussing Transylvania. Why I still can remember that conversation today is a mystery to me. Perhaps because of its novelty. A first and last time. Much like life and death.

I do not have much experience with death, other than my own. I broke my neck, I damn near drank myself to death, and nearly came within a few meters of getting hit by a van while running in Brasov. I do not have nine lives, only one, and I am lucky to still be living it. It took me years before I realized just how close to the edge I have been. Then it dawned on me one day, these things happen because of something inside of me. I would never say that my risky behavior was a conscious choice, but I need conflict and tension. Paradoxically, it is the time I feel most alive. My idea of risk has been strangely synonymous with what I began to perceive as a subconscious death wish. I never believed that I was going to live very long. The broken neck gave me survivor’s guilt from which I suffer to this day. Guilt rarely makes you a better person, but it does make you do things you live to regret.

Once bitten – Bran Castle in Transylvania

Antidotal Evidence – The Gift of Time
Brian was the one who pulled me back from the abyss. I am not sure he ever realized that he saved me. Twelve step programs and self-help, counselling and tough love did very little for me. Brian saved me by being there to listen for hours, then days which turned into two decades. Your time is the greatest gift you can give to anyone, and love makes it last longer. Brian’s English pragmatism and sense of moderation was an antidote to my extremism and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He was an anchor for me, a male version of my beloved mother. Wherever I was in the world I knew that he had my back. The trips to Eastern Europe where I was out of touch with everyone, where no one – including Brian – knew where I was or why, were only possible because I knew he was always there at the end of the line.

I did not always have to make the call because I just knew. I could rely on his support half a world away. I knew he was watching and waiting. When we reconnected, he would mention how his wife Candace had showed him my photos and the captions I posted beneath them on social media. He called it, “very interesting.” I could feel his index finger tracing my route across Transylvania or deep into central Ukraine or along the railway in southern Poland or from Bosnia to Budapest or slicing through the Suwalki Gap on the train from Vilnius to Warsaw. He was an invisible presence watching over me. His confidence in me set my life on a course that I could have never imagined for myself when we first me.

Back to the start – Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina

Bit Parts – A Conversation in Cullowhee
Would you believe such love, trust, and friendship started over a conversation in Cullowhee, North Carolina? Brian told me he needed help finding the biographical details of an actress who starred in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. was working on a book about the marginalization of female actresses in Hollywood films. The bit part I played for him in researching the utterly forgettable actress in a horrendous movie took us on an incredible journey. It also took me to his bedside in Simpsonville, South Carolina just before he died.

Click here for: Laughing Matters – Travels With Brian: Levitating, Ljubljana & Festetics (Eastern Europe & Me #20f)

Hospitable Nature – Romanian Roadside Assistance (Eastern Europe & Me #18)

There are several life experiences I want back. Not because I regret them, but because I would love to experience them again. One of these was a bus trip from Brasov to Sibiu. The trip sticks in my memory for an unexpected reason that has little to do with the stunning scenery of Transylvania, nor for the many quaint and historic towns the bus passed through along the way. While that bus trip was only a couple of hours long, I can still recall specific details of the trip eight years later. That seemingly innocuous journey was a window into the best of Transylvania and Romania.

Final destination – Sibiu Bus station

Visceral Reaction – Less Than Hospitable
When I think of hospitality, Eastern Europe rarely comes to mind. Like everything else in the region, recent history explains why customer service has a lot of catching up to do with the rest of Europe. Communism was anti-customer service to its core. The individual was subordinate to mass movements. Communism was concerned with centralization and industrial development. Pleasure was reserved for the most powerful, at least when compared to the western world where anyone was and still is free to enjoy themselves (sometimes to their own detriment). Entertainment in the Eastern Bloc often had an ideological edge to it. Cultural centers were places to cultivate like-mindedness. Groupthink was all the rage,

This included vacations, where the masses went to concrete conurbations by the seaside. These vacations were workplace perks. Crowds are bad enough during holidays without having co-workers forced upon you. Nonetheless, many of those who grew up in the Eastern Bloc look back at those times with rose tinted nostalgia. Seaside holidays are a fond memory of quality time spent with family and friends. This meant summers along the shores of the Black Sea, Lake Balaton or the Adriatic. Anyone I have heard recall these holidays never mentions the level of service at the hotels/resorts or restaurants. I often wonder what it must have been like because I have witnessed some less than stellar customer service in my travels across Eastern Europe.

My opinions of customer service and hospitality in the region have undergone a radical transformation across twenty plus trips. My initial reactions to what I perceived as a sullen rudeness was one of shock and surprise. At times, this led to confusion and anger. The indifference with which a Hungarian waitress can place a plate of food in front of you is impressive. The silence of a Riga bookstore clerk was deeply unsettling. The penetrating stares of Germans on the bus in the countryside south of Dresden left me feeling isolated and alone. The dutiful distance of Slovenes was a study in arms-length ambivalence. Older Bulgars looked as though they were still guarding state secrets. A Ukrainian attendant at a museum marched me back to the front desk for snapping an image without a photo ticket. These experiences were the epitome of intimidation. I came to expect this treatment, albeit in a less visceral form.

On the go – Bus trip between Brasov and Sibiu

Revelation & Relief – Romanian Hospitality
Perhaps that is why I love the Balkans so much. I find the hospitable nature of its inhabitants heartening, especially in lands that were once part of Yugoslavia. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and Montenegrins may have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but I have found them to be some of the most pleasant people I have met. This came as both revelation and relief after traveling in other parts of Eastern Europe. I include Romanians among those whose dispositions I have found engaging. Romanians are outgoing, helpful and accommodating, particularly by the standards of the former Eastern Bloc. Their Latin-based language connected Romanians in my mind with other extroverted peoples in southern Europe and the Mediterranean world.

After spending time around Romanians, I began to wonder how these people could have ever produced Ceausescu. Some might say I was duped, but I beg to differ. Their demeanor was disarmingly positive, particularly when compared with their neighbors. I can see why Romanians and Hungarians have trouble finding common ground. Hungarians are uber-serious, and they would probably say Romanians are frivolous. Romanians are much more laissez fair about life. They might say Hungarians need to loosen up. The two personas are diametrically opposed. I admire and respect Hungarians, but Romanians have an air of romance about them that can be positively intoxicating. In my experience, they also tend to be more extroverted. How could I ever forget the woman in Sibiu who took it upon herself to walk me from a bus stop to a sporting goods store in a shopping mall so I could procure a jump rope. Such small acts of kindness go a long way in making a foreigner feel welcome. A smile, a nod of acknowledgement, taking a few extra moments to provide much needed assistance, all were common occurrences during my visits to Romania.

Worth the trip – Sibiu

Bathroom Break – At A Moment’s Notice
The kindness and warmth that so many Romanians showed to me is something which I will never take for granted. To be sure, I have met my share of rude Romanians (specifically taxi drivers in Bucharest and a woman in a renovated palace in Oradea who made me feel like taking a photo was an act of espionage), but my experience has largely been positive. The most memorable example of this occurred on my bus ride from Brasov to Sibiu. Midway through that journey the bus suddenly slowed down and pulled off the road. This was done despite the fact there was scarcely a shoulder. I immediately began to wonder if this was due to mechanical issues with the vehicle.

There was a rustling among my fellow passengers. A side door suddenly swung open. An older man climbed out of the bus, walked a few meters into the grass and proceeded to relieve himself. The bus waited for him to finish, then the man climbed back inside. Soon we were on our way. The driver had adhered to this man’s wish for an on-the-spot bathroom break. This small act of hospitality amazed me. An entire journey had to come to a halt for the comfort of a single man. The bus driver provided a level of service I have not seen before or since. I will never forget that moment. This was Romanian hospitality at its finest.

Click here for: Less Than Sunny Disposition – A Storm In Trieste (Eastern Europe & Me #19)

Leaps of Imagination – Sighisoara Syndrome: The Eternal Citadel (Eastern Europe & Me # 15)

This past week I was laying on the floor of a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska doing exercises when it happened. At an unexpected moment, I was overcome by the “Sighisoara syndrome.” This mental illness has no known cure. Modern medical science has ignored it for a very good reason. To my knowledge, this post is the first time the “Sighisoara syndrome” has been put into print. I believe there is a chance that others besides myself may suffer from it, but no one else has come forward. Perhaps others who have this affliction enjoy their suffering so much that they spend inordinate amounts of time laying in the floor, staring up at the ceiling with a look of dazed rapture on their face. I know that feeling. The one where I transcend time, forget myself, and see the citadel at Sighisoara (Schäßburg in German/Segesvar in Hungarian) materialize before my eyes. While in this trance I cross an enchanted divide that separates reality from imagination. When this happens, I find myself in the equivalent of a fairy tale townscape with the added benefit of knowing this one is real.

Lasting impression – Sighisoara syndrome (Credit: Camil72)

Forever’s Fortress – Beyond The World of Dreams
I have visited the Sighisoara Citadel both physically and mentally. It is via the latter that I have made most of my visits. In my mind, I have constructed a magical mental model of the citadel. The spire of the town entrance tower soars, gleaming silver in the sunlight. The tip of the tower is reaching for a sky that swallows all in the most vibrant blue. Enclosed within the medieval walls are buildings covered in pastels and radiant hues. The stone laden streets are cleanly swept. There is a remarkable impression of tidiness and thrift, wealth and well-being. The citadel is an enhanced version of reality. One of the few places I have been that looks so fantastical I have trouble believing it is real. I remind myself that Sighisoara’s Citadel exists beyond the world of dreams. It is the kind of place in which I can live forever. Maybe that is why I find it so strange that my two physical visits to Sighisoara did not last nearly long enough. The fleetingness of those visits made an improbably lasting impression upon me.

On the first visit, my train from Sibiu to Sighisoara was delayed due to construction. The train took almost twice as long as scheduled to make the journey. Since this was a day trip I was pressed for time to spend between arrival and departure. This left me with a limited amount of time to scale the heights on which the citadel is located. Making my way up the steep streets, the citadel was a looming presence that cast a giant shadow upon me. I was headed toward a confrontation. The tower’s sheer size intimidated me. The Saxons who first constructed the Citadel in the Middle Ages wanted to ensure anyone approaching it took notice. This was a stronghold that gave its defenders a decisive psychological advantage. The citadel was formidable in the extreme. Anyone foolish enough to contemplate an attempt at conquest would surely think twice.

Towering presence – Sighisoara in 1933 (Credit: Kurt Hielscher)

Living Memory – This Magic Moment
My visit only gave me enough time to climb the tower and walk through the cobbled streets. What I saw would stick with me long after I departed. The exquisite mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture conspiring to create a whole greater than the parts. My visit lasted less than three hours, just enough to time to experience the atmospherics of Europe’s only inhabited medieval fortress. I walked the cobbled streets, inspected towers and bastions that told a story written in stone. Another visit was in order, but ironically my second visit was shorter than the first. That visit occurred during a road trip from Szekelyudvarhely to Timisoara. Due to the Romanian highway system or lack thereof, the drive took the better part of a day due to stops at the Saxon village Saschiz and Biertan. The formidable walled churches and impressive medieval architecture in both places should have been the highlight of that memorable day. Those evocatively beautiful villages ended up taking a backseat to Sighisoara.

Driving into Sighisoara I soon spied the citadel rising above the city. The Clock Tower drew my attention. Style, grace, and girth assimilated into a singular structure. Tiled rooftops of what had once been the homes of merchants and craftsmen shone in the sunlight. Somehow the citadel managed to be just as impressive from a distance as when seen closeup. I imagined how it must have looked to soldiers and travelers five hundred years ago. As they road on horses or wagons into Sighisoara they would catch sight of the Citadel. Before their eyes was a seemingly impregnable fortress, one that looked unconquerable. The Saxons built the citadel for maximum security. They could sequester themselves behind the walls to withstand assaults from invading armies.

Above all else – Sighisoara (Credit: Bogdan Muraru)

The Recurring Dream – A Source of Inspiration
The citadel safeguarded the Saxons while also protecting a unique architectural legacy. The image of the citadel today remains as powerful as it was throughout history. Whereas in prior centuries it repelled invaders, now it attracted tourists. I found it hard to concentrate on the drive into Sighisoara because my eyes had been drawn upward. They were transfixed on that fantastical scene. My mind captured the unforgettable image and stored it deep within my memory. The image of Sighisoara’s Citadel on the day I drove through the city is the same one that keeps coming back to me.

The time I spent passing through Sighisoara was a matter of no more than ten minutes. What I did not realize was the scene I found so enchanting would remain with me. It has become a recurring dream, a vast well spring of inspiration that leads me to believe anything is possible. A state of trance that leaves me laying on the floor, staring straight back into the past, and pulling Sighisoara Citadel into the present. It is with me, a part of me, and something I never knew I had within me. That is until the Sighisoara syndrome strikes once again. Then I arrive at the one place on earth where I can live forever.  

Click here for: Time Does Not Fly – Eastern Europe’s Airport Experience (Eastern Europe & Me #16)

The Last Outpost – Ghimes-Faget:  The Right & Wrong Side of a Transylvanian Border (Rendezvous with an Obscure Destiny #43)

There was a time when I believed that traveling to every county in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was going to be part of my future. That has undergone a reconsideration due to the constraints of age and my interest in other parts of Eastern Europe. Theoretically, I still might make that goal, but travel, like life, is not a checklist. The point of travel for me is to catch glimpses of lost worlds. The lands that were formerly part of Austria-Hungary will forever be my favorite place to find them. That vanished empire reminds me of myself.

Austria-Hungary was a web of complex contradictions. The cosmopolitanism and intellectual ferment of Vienna juxtaposed with the illiteracy and squalor of Galicia. The austere Calvinism of Transylvania and the ornate spiritualism of the painted monasteries of Bukovina. The diversity of the old empire was positively kaleidoscopic while the ruling authorities were regressively reactionary. The empire was defined by its contradictions. I often feel the same way about myself. I have spent my life going to extremes. This has led me to search at the far ends of a vanished empire to explore the different sides of myself. What I have not always been able to do physically, I can more than make up for mentally. Between trips, I find myself dreaming of a distant frontier, on the extreme fringes of Transylvania at Ghimes-Faget.

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget (Credit: Bodka)

Clearing Customs – A Passing Phase
In the mountains of eastern Romania stand one of the outstanding relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A hundred years after the empire’s dissolution, there remains a small four-sided building standing beside a set of railroad tracks. The building, painted in a coat of vibrant yellow with dark green shutters and a freshly tiled red stucco roof, stands just beyond a bridge over the Trotus River. The building’s exterior has been immaculately restored. A wreath wrapped in ribbons that are the same color as the Hungarian flag hangs close to the entrance. The building has a small plaque affixed to the façade stating that this was an old Austro-Hungarian guardhouse. The first and last one in the empire.

Ghimes-Faget is not the sort of place many people would know. It is a small commune (akin to a town) of 5,400 people in eastern Romania, best known for two things. The first is for its role as one of the largest settlements of the mysterious Csango ethnic group and a hub for their culture. The second, is its fantastical natural beauty. While that makes it memorable for those who discover it, that hardly means it is of national importance. In a nation of 20 million people with over 2,200 communes, a place like Ghimes-Faget is easily overlooked. An outsider passing through the town by train might be forgiven for thinking that the commune has a much greater importance than shown by its size. That is because of its train station which is both grand and massive.

It is the type of train station more often found in large cities. As a matter of fact, the same design and scale of a station can be found in two other cities, Szeged in Hungary and Rijeka in Croatia.  Those two cities have respectively, thirty and twenty-four times the amount of population that Ghimes-Faget does. What is going on here? Ghimes-Faget’s railway station offers a clue to the commune’s earlier history. A little over a century ago, it was both the final and first stop in Austria-Hungary, depending upon whether a traveler was entering or exiting the empire. A place where customs would be cleared while passage was allowed or denied. Ghimes-Faget was a town whose economy and its inhabitant’s employment largely depended on the border. That was until the border suddenly disappeared, ending an era in the commune’s history which had been several hundred years in the making.

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today (Credit: Tibor Varkonyi)

Position Power – A Quirk Of History
Being a border town had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. Ghimes-Faget or as it was known in the pre-1920 era by its Hungarian name, Gyimesbukk, gained an advantageous economic position due to its location. This was where goods and merchandise were imported and exported, providing a much needed boost to the local economy. Customs officials and border personnel with their salaries and families came to live in the community. This advantageous situation was balanced out by one of its main drawbacks, insecurity. Changes in political or military affairs could cause Gyimesbukk to lose its status overnight. Once gone, its former importance would likely vanish forever. The same could be said for its economic prosperity. In retrospect, Gyimesbukk was one of those places held hostage by a situation over which it had no control. When it came to prosperity and importance everything depended on political developments that took place hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away.

Gyimesbukk’s role as a border outpost was a quirk of history, but one that had come into being long before the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  During the 18th and part of the 19th century it stood on the Habsburg side of its border with the Ottoman Empire. On each side were two different types of civilization whose innumerable clashes had eventually resulted in a peace that placed Gyimesbukk along a new political frontier. Of course, this one was artificial like all political borders. Its time predictably came and went. When the Ottoman’s receded, Romania was formed. Gyimesbukk then assumed the role it would play until after World War I. Once Austria-Hungary collapsed and the Treaty of Trianon was ratified the town became part of Romania. This was not the end of its role on a border though. For even today Ghimes-Faget assumes that position.

The Unchanged - Gyimesbukk Csangos

The Unchanged – Gyimesbukk Csangos

Bordering On Obscurity – A Home For The Csango
Ghimes-Faget continues to be both a final and first outpost, in geographical terms it always has been. For the commune is located on the southeastern extremity of Transylvania. One pass away from Moldavia. Mountains make better borders than political ones. The commune lies in the stunningly beautiful Trotus Valley, where the river of that same name runs through the commune. The town is now, as it has been in the past, a refuge for one of the smallest and most unique minority groups in Eastern Europe, the Csangos. No one quite knows where the Csangos originated from and that includes themselves. Ironically, the meaning of Csango in Hungarian means to wander or go away. They certainly have wandered further east than any other Hungarian speakers and that includes what is likely their closest ethnic kin, the Szekelys. It is thought the Csangos were originally Szekelys, another group whose origins are in doubt. The Szekelys predominate in eastern Transylvania, while most of the Csangos can be found in Moldavia, principally Bacau County. The exception is those Csangos who inhabit the commune that they still call Gyimesbukk.

The Csango’s adherence to traditional folkways, most noticeably in dress and ceremonial customs, makes them as close to a living specimen of the original Hungarians as one is likely to find. Their archaic dialect has more in common with Old Hungarian than any other derivation of the language. Much of this has been preserved by their isolation from outside influences. Outside of its role on the border, Ghimes-Faget is an ideal environment for Csango cultural preservation. The last outpost of an empire is now the same for a mysterious people. Ghimes-Faget’s place in the world is much like that of the Csangos, remote, undiscovered and stuck deep in the past. A place and a people bordering on obscurity. If only we could all be so lucky.

Click here for: Love, Life & Loss – An Eastern European Education (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #44)

The Transylvanian Effect – Romance of a Lifetime (Eastern Europe & Me #6b)

The deepest love annihilates everything except for the object of affection. This is the way I feel about Transylvania. I count myself fortunate to have fallen in love with it. The region’s infinite charms are so intensely seductive that I could think of no other place while I was there. Even now, when separated by several years since my last visit, an indescribable feeling comes over me when my thoughts turn to Transylvania. Sometimes the trigger is a memory, other times an image. Today I found a photo I took of the Nagy-Küküllő River (Tarnava Mare) flowing through Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) on an August morning. This served to remind me of the ecstasy I felt when seeing the sunlight illuminate the river. The purity, power, and promise of nature, the feeling of something you know to be so true that it is beyond question. It was like falling in love for the first time all over again. I never believed life could be this beautiful and knew that I would somehow have to learn to live without it.

Day of Creation – Dawn along the Nagy-Kukullo River (Tarnava Mare) in Transylvania

Nirvanas of Nowhere – The Timeless Land
When I was in Transylvania the rest of the world ceased to exist. Time has no meaning in a timeless land. No other travels, even in my most beloved spots in Eastern Europe, could ever be held comparable. The integration of history and nature so dazzling, the rural and the urban so quaint, the beauty and the romance so spectacular, that I lost track of time, that I lost all inhibitions, that I lost and found myself in moments of immortality. I could not stop the seduction of lost highways, the darkness of forests, the village architecture that looks as natural as the land surrounding it, the small cities full of cultured rusticity, the faces of villagers weathered like the land, the Snuffleupagus like haystacks, the horse drawn wagon carts that outnumber cars, the bicycles which outnumber horse drawn wagon carts, the forest roads that lead to endless nirvanas of nowhere, the smoke that hangs over villages like eternity, the fields of wildflowers covering mountain meadows, the monuments that look older than the history they commemorate, the rhythm of life in lockstep with nature.

To taste the purity of Transylvanian air as it pours into the passenger car as the train surmounts Kings Pass, to watch the medieval world rematerialize as your eyes scan the stones that form the Saxon church of St. Michael’s in Cluj, to sit along the edge of the forest adjacent to the old town of Brasov and look down upon centuries of history that the excesses of man could not defeat, to walk in that shadowy world where the seeing eye eaves of Saxon houses stare at you in Sibiu, to gaze in puzzled astonishment at the bands of Roma randomly wandering in the countryside, to be mesmerized by the myth that informs the frescoes on the church walls at Szekelyderzs (Darjiu), to step off the train and into a candy colored station that seems to have been waiting for your arrival a century since its construction. This my Transylvania, the impossible dream of eternal romance finally achieved.

Powerful Presence – Hilltop Chapel at Csikracos (Racu) in eastern Transylvania

Arrivals & Departures – Getting The Better of Me
There are people who spend their lives trying to figure out how mankind can travel to another planet. They have no idea that another planet is located just a few flights and a train ride twenty-four hours away. At least it is for me. Accessing Transylvania through travel, is accessing the imagination.  Transylvania has that quality of all great works of art, it creates a universe all its own. The usual rules no longer apply, because it has set a standard scarcely imaginable except for those who experience it. Magic has a way of altering the mind, redefining belief and creating a greater level of consciousness. This is the Transylvanian effect. For instance, though I have always traveled to Transylvania by way of Hungary, the latter ceased to exist when the road or railway climbed over King’s Pass. I had suddenly landed on another planet. One that stood outside all my other travels in Eastern Europe. I always realized this when upon arrival or departure. Speaking of the latter, I felt a deep and abiding sadness that a secret love had been taken from me upon departure from Transylvania. A loss impossible for others to understand unless they have suffered from it.

There is a deep grief that comes from an inability to remain in Transylvania. The kind of grief akin to losing a loved one. Imagine the loss of someone so close to your heart that it is painful to so much as speak of them. I remember arriving for an overnight stay in Timisoara after departing from Transylvania. Timisoara has many things to recommend it, eclectic architecture, fascinating history, and a clutch of astonishing churches. And yet, my post-Transylvania withdrawal was so acute that I could hardly stand Timisoara. The thought that I was just a half day’s drive away from Transylvania and would spend the night in Timisoara made for a morose and restless evening. The next morning, I could not wait to leave. I should have felt shame for giving Timisoara the cold shoulder, but all I felt was relief. The excruciatingly painful urge of immediately traveling back to Transylvania nearly got the better of me. I did not know when or if I would return. Just the idea of that nearly defeated me.

The Grand Entrance – Catherine’s Gate in Brasov

Dark Charm – Enchanting Prospects
I am not the only one, real or unreal to suffer this affliction. I have often thought how cruel it was for Jonathan Harker to survive his encounter with Count Dracula in Transylvania only to be nursed back to health in Budapest. No wonder his imagination was so fevered as he talked of unspeakable things that no one wanted to believe. Of course, Harker’s crazed words were not just caused by his encounter with Count Dracula, they were the byproduct of his visit to Transylvania. Dracula’s character would count (no pun intended) for nothing if not for the landscape that surrounds his crumbling castle. They are one and the same. Seductive, supernatural, and sublime. Even the sinister in that part of the novel has a beauty about it. The dark charm of enchantment. That is the essence of the Transylvanian effect. It keeps me coming back for more.

Click here for: Magnetic Attraction – All Too Human In Prague (Eastern Europe & Me #7)

Fascinated & Frightened In Transylvania – Romance of a Lifetime (Eastern Europe & Me #6a)

“We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.” – Count Dracula, Bram Stoker 

Anyone who has traveled in Eastern Europe is likely to have a relationship with Transylvania. The region’s fame is so widespread that many who have never been there still have a mental image of it. This usually comes in the form of Dracula, the vampire created by Bram Stoker in his famous novel. While Dracula dies when a wooden stake Is driven through his heart, that is only in fictional terms. Dracula never really died, neither in imagination nor reality. The myth of Dracula is so pervasive, that if you really stop to think about it, he can seem more man than myth.

Stoker’s Dracula and cinematic depictions of the character portray a flesh and blood human being who also happens to possess supernatural powers that manifest themselves in blood lust. The melding of humanity and horror is one of the traits that makes Dracula so compelling and so real. He is someone to whom people can relate, that is up until the point his supernatural side takes a turn towards the sinister. Dracula is an unforgettable character, but so is the region he inhabits. It might be said that you can take Dracula out of Transylvania, but you can’t take the Transylvanian out of Dracula. The same might be said for anyone who visits Transylvania. The effect that the region has on the visitor is nothing short of supernatural.

Looking out in Székelyderzs – A view from above in eastern Transylvania

Complicated Relationship – Coming Into The Country
For those who have not been to Transylvania, but traveled in Eastern Europe, their relationship with the region is complicated. To them, Eastern Europe is Budapest, Krakow, and Prague. Those sparkling cities that many still remember as hidden behind an Iron Curtain. When the curtain finally fell in 1989, those cities were revealed in all their seductive glamor. Transylvania’s situation was different. As part of Romania, where dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day in 1989, Transylvania was viewed as a backwater in a country that television reports made sound backward, if not barbaric. Under Ceausescu, Romania was a much more closed society than Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia during communist times. The country was seething with homegrown spies. The secret police had a large proportion of the population spying upon one another. Foreigners who visited the country had their every footstep followed. This meant that after Ceausescu’s execution there was a reticence to travel into the region. Transylvania was fascinating and frightening.

The area’s reputation was informed more by the popular perception of Dracula than of tales from those who traveled through the region. In addition, Transylvania’s location far away from western or even Central Europe made it much more difficult to access even when it opened to westerners. A trip from Vienna to Budapest takes two and a half hours by train, from Berlin to Prague four hours. A trip from anywhere west of the old Iron Curtain to Transylvania takes at least an entire day, from pre-dawn to long after dusk if the traveler is lucky. This was my experience in 2013, 2014, and 2019. I can only imagine what it must have been like in 1990. To compound matters, Transylvania’s topography adds a degree of difficult for anyone looking to access it. Climbing mountains and navigating twisted valleys is demanded no matter the direction of approach, The scenery is beautiful, but formidable. Romania’s roads and railway lines still have not caught up with the rest of Europe.

From another world – City hall in Targu Mures

Beyond Itineraries – An Aspirational Goal
For travelers, Transylvania is an aspiration. The land beyond their itineraries. Their relationship is informed by a distant, dreamy affection. Visions of crumbling castles, dark forests, and lightning bolts dancing in the twilight. Ironically, this vision is not that far from reality. I have been fortunate enough to spend time in Transylvania on three separate occasions. My memories of which will last me a lifetime. I have often imagined that in my dying days – which I have long known will be filled with regrets – that memories of the time I spent in Transylvania will sustain me. They will provide me with a sense of accomplishment and complete satisfaction that I lived long enough to see something so extraordinary that it was like inhabiting an entirely new world. Transylvania for me will always be an enhanced version of reality.  

The region has many names in many languages. For Romanians it is Transylvania (on the other side of the woods), for Hungarians it is Erdely (the land beyond the forest), for Germans it is Siebenburgen (seven castles). Each of these is evocative and fantastical in its own way. Nevertheless, whatever name is used cannot do justice to the magic moment of arrival in Transylvania. Coming from Hungary going towards Cluj (Transylvania’s largest city) means surmounting by road or rail, the magnificently named King’s Pass. This is like something out of a fairy tale. Imagine the following sentence, “While journeying to the land beyond the forest and seven fortresses I crossed over King’s Pass.” This could be the opening to a fairy tale. Astonishingly, this was my reality on multiple occasions. This was one of those moments in my life when I realized that feelings matter more than anything. Upon entering Transylvania a feeling came over me that is almost impossible to describe. All I can say is that I knew what it really means to be alive. Believe me when I say, you will know it, when you feel it.

Spiritual refuge – Entrance to a church in Transylvania

Enchantingly Erotic – The Very Beginning
Transylvania was, is and always will be the one place-based relationship in my life where romance lived up to reality. Memories of Transvlvania for me are much like the memories of first kisses. Every single one, for good or ill stays in the memory. Just as there is nothing like a first kiss, so too is their nothing like Transylvania. It is the geographic, social, and cultural equivalent of that first kiss which caresses the memory and remains so enchantingly erotic for the rest of your life. Transylvania is also like the lead up to that kiss, the anticipation that proceeds the long-awaited moment. There is a feeling of desire so strong that despite whatever pitfalls from love may follow, the memory of that moment allows you to live forever. Brevity and rarity make it that much more evocative. And this is only the very beginning.

Click here for: The Transylvanian Effect – Romance of a Lifetime (Eastern Europe & Me #6b)

The Flip of a Coin – Discovering Sponsianus: The Emperor of Transylvania (Part Two)

The history of Transylvania is not just the preserve of Romanians, Hungarians, and Saxons. There are deeper parts to its past, but these are easy to miss among the Saxon fortified churches, the Hungarian aristocratic mansions, and the wooden Orthodox churches of Romanians. Not to mention the ruined castles, folk customs dating to the Middle Ages, and a pastoral landscape par excellence. Amid such an ecstatic and evocative rusticity, the visitor forgets that the region was also once part of the Roman Empire. Specifically, the province of Dacia. Most famously, Dacia was conquered during the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 AD). Fittingly, Trajan’s conquest came at the zenith of Rome’s territorial expansion. 

For the Romans, Dacia was a valuable region due to its wealth of precious metals. It was also a frontier region, one that would prove difficult to defend, particularly during the Crisis of the Third Century (235 – 284 AD). During this period, the province was plagued by internal strife and barbarian attacks. Dacia was virtually on its own from the 240s – 260s as its inhabitants were left to fend for themselves. Some believe that during this chaotic period a military commander by the name of Sponsianus was declared emperor. There are only a few pieces of evidence for this claim, but that evidence has just been strengthened by recent scholarly work. That work has also strengthened the idea that Sponsianus might be added to the list of Roman Emperors.

Heads up – Comparison of Sponsian coins from the Hunterian (on the left) and Bruckenthal Museums (on the right)

Buried Treasures – Coin Collecting
Samuel von Bruckenthal had a keen eye when it came to collecting. Most famously, he collected over a thousand paintings, including many Old Masters which can still be viewed today in the Bruckenthal National Museum located amid the architectural elegance of the Upper Town in Sibiu, Romania. Bruckenthal’s impulse for collecting was stimulated by the many years he spent as a Habsburg imperial official in Vienna. This gave him access to antiquarian treasures available in the city. Bruckenthal amassed a collection of 17,000 coins that ran the gamut from ancient Greek and Roman pieces to rare finds from his homeland in Transylvania. He was always on the lookout for more rare coins. To this end, Bruckenthal’s interest must have been piqued when he came across some coins that had been discovered in 1713 near Sibiu. The city would be Bruckenthal’s home during his reign as Governor of Transylvania from 1774 – 1787. Furthermore, he had grown up in a village just 35 kilometers northeast of Sibiu. Thus, he was intimately familiar with the region’s history and landscape.

The coins discovered near Sibiu had a deep history that hearkened back to the earliest known times in Transylvania. After their discovery, they found their way to the Imperial Collection in Vienna. Bruckenthal, or someone acting on his behalf, purchased some of the coins which included one that depicted a potential Roman Emperor known as Sponsianus. Four more coins depicting Sponsianus made their way onto the market in Vienna. These were bought by William Hunter and eventually ended up in the collections of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Both Hunter and Bruckenthal would not have purchased the coins unless they considered them authentic. One famous story was that just before his death Bruckenthal had been studying the coin and declared that it was genuine. Others would later disagree with his assessment.

Collector extraordinaire – Samuel von Bruckenthal

Competing Claims – The Real Thing
In 1863, a numismatics expert by the name of Henry Cohen working for the French National Library closely studied the Sponsian coins to decide whether they should be included in his catalog of Roman coins. Cohen was unsparing in his opinion that the coins were poorly produced counterfeits. He went so far as to say they had been “ridiculously imagined.” Cohen’s opinion was echoed by other scholars down to the present day. For over 150 years, the idea that these coins were forgeries went unchallenged. That was until Paul Pearson, a professor at University College London, came across a photo of a Sponsian coin while working on a book about the Roman Empire. Pearson noticed scratches on the coin’s surface that he believed would have only occurred while in circulation.

Pearson took it upon himself to contact the Hunterian. Staff were open to his proposal to see if his hypothesize was indeed true. Using high powered spectrometry with an electron microscope, Pearson and a team of researchers scrutinized the abrasions. They also did chemical analysis of the soil found on the coins. Their conclusion was that the coins were indeed real. The team soon contacted the Bruckenthal National Museum about the Sponsian coin in that collection, informing the Bruckenthal’s administrators that their coin is also genuine. Pearson’s findings went public in the peer reviewed Public Library of Science (PLOS One) Journal. The article thoroughly outlines the technological and comparative processes used to authenticate the coins.

Pearson’s claim has not been without controversy. It has drawn strong opposition from skeptical scholars who have offered a variety of criticisms. The criticisms included that the proof of abrasions and soil samples are still not conclusive enough for the coins to be regarded as genuine. They also mention that the coin was cast rather than struck. One scholar went so far as to state that Pearson and the team he worked with went “full fantasy” with their claim. Conversely, news media outlets were more than happy to report that not only were the Sponsian coins genuine, but that a new Roman Emperor had been discovered.

Hallowed halls – Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Dynamic Discoveries – A New Reality
It is not often that Roman Emperors or rare coins make international headlines, but the Sponsian coins and the possibility that Sponsianus was a Roman Emperor are sensational enough that the controversy about their authentication is unlikely to abate anytime soon. Whether or not the coins are genuine is still open to debate, but the fact that powerful technologies and re-examination of existing artifacts can potentially lead to new discoveries is worth celebrating. The renewed interest and controversy inspired by the coins offers a striking illustration of how history is being constantly revised. The past is just as dynamic and fluid as the present. Old discoveries can become new ones. The Sponsian coins are proof of that. Reality or forgery, their story is only going to continue.

From Sibiu To Glasgow – Discovering Sponsianus: The Emperor of Transylvania (Part One)

One of the great wonders of history is its dynamism. The historical record is not written once and for all time, it is revised each day. Sometimes the changes in it are infinitesimal to the public. That is because deep studies of history often occur within academia. Whether because of inaccessibility or indifference, lack of promotion or willful ignorance, the public knows little about them. That is until a stunning revelation is made by assimilating evidence from a variety of sources. The cumulative weight of which leads to new discoveries and reinterpretation of long-established truths. These are the proverbial buried treasures that have been unearthed by scholars. They paint a different, more accurate picture of the past.

Increasingly, technology is being used to piece together disparate parts of the past to provide unique perspectives. Overlooked possibilities can arise by revisiting an old discovery using the newer technologies. This means that history is not just the preserve of historians and archeologists, but also information technology specialists and scientists from a variety of disciplines. By using an interdisciplinary approach, astonishing conclusions can be reached that add new chapters to the historical record. This is the case with the reevaluation of a few coins discovered in Transylvania during the early 18th century. Their reevaluation has added a potential new name to the list of Roman Emperors.

Sponsianus – Empire Builder

Fifty Years of Chaos – A Time of Troubles
The list of Roman Emperors is populated with names both famous and infamous. There are the glorious reigns of Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the madness of Caligula, Nero and Elagabalus, the philosophical wonder of Marcus Aurelius and the transformative reigns of tough Balkan-soldier emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine. For each one of these memorable men, there are many more forgettable emperors who presided over periods of decline where they were unable to arrest the empire’s movement towards collapse. Many died at the hands of their own soldiers or other usurpers. Even for students of the Roman Empire, remembering all the different emperors can be difficult. Take for instance the Crisis of the Third Century. The Crisis stretches neatly into a fifty-year window from 235 – 284 AD. Those dates are about the only neat thing about this troublesome time period. It was messy in the extreme with emperors being deposed numerous times.

Trying to account for just how many emperors there were during the Crisis is difficult. By one count there were 22, another says 24, still another gives the number as 26 emperors in a fifty-year period. There were likely more than that depending upon how they are counted, Disgruntled legions were prone to anoint their own emperor if there needs were not met by the current one. The only leaders who could survive in this environment were military commanders, but not for long. A good rule of thumb for this chaotic time period is one emperor every two years, but this also masks periods when the situation was much worse. The ultimate example is the so called “Year of Six Emperors” in 238.  No less than six different dynasties rose and fell during the Crisis, but that is being very liberal with the definition of dynasty since one lasted six years and another for only eight.

One of many – Emperor Pupienus the 4th of six emperors in 238

Beyond All Control – A Game of Survival
Surviving any length of time amid the internal tumult of the Roman Empire during the mid-3rd century was quite an achievement. Those who ascended to the position of emperor during this time had virtually no chance of dying a natural death. Because of the fluid situation in leadership and the empire’s sprawling geography, there could be multiple emperors at the same time. This was due to succession crises, internal civil wars, and incursions across borders from barbarian tribes. This meant that strongman military leaders were greatly valued. Other factors such as pandemics tended to exacerbate the chaos. It is nothing short of incredible that the empire did not collapse during this period. Nonetheless, the empire was severely weakened and would never reattain the strength it had prior to the 3rd century.  

In the absence of centralized control, far flung regions of the empire were on their own. This was what happened in Dacia (modern day Romania), a province that Rome was on the verge of losing to Gothic tribes. At times during the Crisis, Dacia was cut off from the rest of the empire. With imperial oversight from Rome negligible, the citizens had little choice but to throw their support behind a leader that could help them survive. This may have been the case with a man by the name of Sponsianus, probably a military leader who was declared Emperor sometime between the 240s-260s. For centuries, scholars rejected the claim that Sponsianus was a Roman emperor. The basis for these claims were a handful of coins bearing his likeness. These were thought to be counterfeit, but through the wonders of technology and some serious sleuthing by scholars, Sponsianus’ name is now being added by some to the long list of short-lived Roman emperors who reigned over a splintering empire.

Point of Collection – Bruckenthal National Museum (Credit: Dragos Dumitru)

Point of Collection – Bruckenthal’s Treasures
Anyone who visits the Transylvanian city of Sibiu will be struck by how much the city looks and feels like a German one. The Germanic influence is pronounced in everything from the seeing eye windows on Saxon houses in the Lower Town to the massive Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in the Upper Town. The very un-Romanian name of Bruckenthal dominates tourism in the city. That is because Samuel von Bruckenthal, the one and only Saxon to become Governor of Transylvania, built a Baroque Palace in the city center and bequeathed to his beloved city an incredible amount of treasures to be displayed in what became Romania’s first museum. The Bruckenthal National Museum holds one of Europe’s greatest collections of art, prints, maps, books and numismatics. The stars of Bruckenthal’s collection include over a thousand paintings from the 15th – 18th century, a voluminous library with 16,000 books and a collection of 17,000 coins.

Bruckenthal obtained many items for the collection in Vienna where he spent time at the court of Maria Theresa, but it is an item that came to him from much closer to home that has made the news lately. In 1713, a hoard of coins was discovered near Sibiu. Several of these from the Roman era showed the image of Sponsianus. Some thought the coins were counterfeits, but at least one became part of Bruckenthal’s collection. Three more made their way to The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. They lay neglected while stored in a cupboard. That was until Professor Paul Pearson from University College, London came calling after seeing a photo of the coin in a book. This may or may not have been the beginning of an amazing rediscovery.

Click here for: The Flip of a Coin – Discovering Sponsianus: The Emperor of Transylvania (Part Two)