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The Renaissance and the beginning of epigraphy in Dacia

The cultural heritage of Antiquity has been appreciated in Alba Iulia since the Renaissance. The two Roman cities of Apulum had left behind fields of ruins which allowed the recovery of ca. 1000 inscriptions. The canon Johannes Mezerzius (1470-1516) was one of the earliest intellectuals to copy such inscriptions. He settled in Alba Iulia and the location of his house has recently been identified in the area of the former Palace of the Governor of Dacia. This detail explains, at least in small part, his interest in Latin epigraphy.

As in other former provinces of the Roman Empire, interest in the ancient ruins and especially in the inscriptions of Dacia began during the Renaissance. Curiosity stimulated scholars of the age to search, copy, and even protect such inscriptions. For this reason, in comparison to other vestiges the inscriptions had a different fate and journey.

The period of the Roman province of Dacia (106-271 A.D.) was followed by the extinction of urban life in this area. The heirs of Rome, and to an even greater extent those who rebuilt the first towns in the eleventh century, scavenged former buildings and monuments, which were turned into quarries for construction materials. The nobles of Transylvania sought such Roman stones in order to decorate the entrances or verandas of their residences or the walls of their churches. Their beauty enticed even King Mathias Corvinus (1458-1490) and even later, after 1700, the Austrians, who transported Roman monuments from Alba Iulia to Buda and Vienna by boat on the River Mureș.

This is the story of the first epigraphist of Roman Dacia, Johannes Mezerzius (1470-1516). There has been much speculation on his Magyar or German origin; seemingly, he was of Croat descent. His ancestors were counts and castellans, and owners of a castellum. He embraced an ecclesiastical career and arrived in Alba Iulia as secretary of the bishop. In 1493, he was administrator of the episcopal residence. Three years later he was canon, and in 1504, he was archdeacon of Cluj.

Mezerzius is the author of the first collection (Sylloge) of inscriptions from Dacia. Only a part of the 120 inscriptions were from Apulum, the others being copied in other Roman settlements of the province (Ulpia Traiana, Napoca, Potaissa, Ampelum, Aiud, Orăștie, Sebeș, Abrud, and others). He had contacts with the Romanian humanist Bishop Filip More of Ciula, originating from the Hațeg area. It seems that this bishop played a decisive role in promoting the manuscript containing inscriptions in the environment of Italian humanists. Soon, the work became highly appreciated by scholars. Several authors, such as Stephanus Taurinus, Wolfgang Laziuz, and Antonius Verancius, circulated and published his collection of inscriptions.

The quality of the copies made by Mezerzius is variable. There are also fictive or interpolated inscriptions. However, most of the inscriptions were correctly copied. For this reason the father of modern Latin epigraphy, Theodor Mommsen, appreciated his accuracy.

Today, we know also the place in which he lived in Alba Iulia, at least during the last part of his life. In 2001, his house was discovered during a fortunate archaeological investigation in the area of the Palace of the Governor of three Dacias. A stove tile indicated the name of its owner, Johannes Mezerzius (Johannes Megerice) and the year 1510. Today we know that Mezerzius' house was located in the same field of Roman ruins that attracted the archaeological interest of Adalbert Cserni, the founder of Alba Iulia Museum, four centuries later.  Mezerzius’ house also represents a piece of evidence regarding a nucleus of medieval settlements located in the lower city, a subject that is otherwise poorly documented. The discovery of the location of Mezerzius’ house was a major contribution to the knowledge of the history of Alba Iulia.

The Renaissance chronicler, István Szamosközi, wrote that Mezerzius’ house was located on the southern side of the fortress, in the “canons’ gardens”. He also mentioned that the epigraphist had collected in his garden, sub aedicula (below small niches), several Roman stones with inscriptions. We also know today from archaeological investigations that in his house there was a library, a painting, Italian enameled pottery, and a stove personalized with an inscribed medallion.

Johannes Mezerzius was a representative of Transylvanian humanism. His efforts belonged to the same general trend of Renaissance authors striving to recover the culture of Antiquity from the dust and ruins of medieval times. These efforts have rendered to Apulum a special role in the early stages of development of Roman Latin epigraphy. That the Roman inscriptions collected in Alba Iulia over the centuries number around 1000 demonstrates the intensity of writing use in the unofficial capital of the Dacia province. Today we can celebrate five hundred years of research into ancient Apulum’s inscriptions thanks to Mezerzius.