Dacia: A Look at Ancient Romania

For the letter “R” this week, I will be talking about a period of history that is the most special to me. The country is Romania, and for Romania I want to again explore the ancient past of the country – most notably the Kingdom of Dacia, the king Decabalus, and the series of events that let to war with the Rome and the source of one of the most iconic monuments in Rome today.

The region of modern Romania was known in Latin as Dacia, or land of the Daci. The Polei of Helas (ancient Greece) were also very aware of the region, due to its close proximity to the Northern lands of Macedonia. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, refers to Dacians as Getae, and attributes them as one of the Thracian tribes. While there was often a tendency for classical authors to belittle other cultures, Dacia was an exception to the common scene of tribal politics that dominated Iron Age cultures. Dacia, for a while, was unified under a monarch. Record and Archaeology present King Burebista the Great, who not only ruled over a unified Dacia, but who expanded the territory from the Black Sea Littoral to the Balkan mountains. It is important to firstly note that when describing Burebista as ‘’King’, this can risk painting an image of the individual and sociopolitical structure with current and modern Historical influences. The term King has set impressions and influences derived from studies focusing on Medieval and later kingships. To refer to an ancient leader as a King may not be an accurate term as it may include connotations that are not appropriate for what that leader was. When sole leadership is described in Latin texts, often the title “Rex” will appear. This translates as “King” but care must be taken not to directly ascribe Medieval Kingship to this title as the title can simple refer to the individual at the top of the hierarchy, with no other meaning. Burebista ruled c. 82BC-  44BC. His importance in life is highlighted through his death and the consequential divisions of the kingdom in four (later five) states.

While the kingdom of Burebista was posthumously divided, on the states continued to be termed Dacia, and continued with a form of Dynastic rule. This continued for the remainder of the 1st century BC, and for the greater majority of the 1st century AD until c. AD 87. In AD 87, King Decabalus took the title king. Little is known of Decabalus until he appears in Roman sources – resulting from the events that led to Dacia’s defeat by Rome. It appears Decabalus rose to prominence during the time of King Duras. There is some evidence to show that he was already of ‘royal’ blood, through rare references to him being the son of Scorilo. This has been argued to be satirical, but other arguments point to Scorilo as the preceding king to Duras. It is possible Duras was Decabalus’ uncle, which would have meant Duras succeeding to the throne after Scorilo’s – his brother – death.

In AD85, Duras began raids along the Southern Danube, and launched a particularly aggressive expedition into Moesia in which the governor of the Roman province, Oppius Sabinus, was killed. This aggressive action against Rome, combined with the severity caused by the death of the governor forced a retaliation led by the current Principate at the time, Domitian (AD 82 – AD 96). This was a great opportunity for Domitian to gain military renown – a vital component for those wishing to gain and maintain power in Roman society – and the chance to personally defeat an invading force was one not be ignored. Domitian defeated Duras and forced the Dacian force to retreat past the Danube. Domitian returned to Rome to celebrate a Triumph, leaving the legate Cornelius Fuscus to manage the rest of the campaign. Fuscus pushed into Dacia but was ambushed at Tapae; the two legions and Fuscus were killed. After the battle, Duras appears to have abdicated the leadership of Dacia to Decabalus. It was not long before Decabalus displayed his intelligence so as to be complimented by Cassius Dio as being able to follow up a defeat as beneficially as a victory. During AD 88, another campaign into Dacia by Rome was being carried out and the Dacians were this time defeated at Tapae. However, Domitian was having to divert considerable military resources to the Rhine frontier in response to revolts in the area and having respond to defeats by Germanic tribes such as the Marcomanni. In an attempt to ensure a peaceful frontier along the Danube, Domitian made peace with Decabalus in which part of the treaty entailed Rome paying Dacabalus a significant annual tribute. Decabalus also took this opportunity to have his rulership officially recognized by Rome, and received a diadem – a symbol of royal status and rule.

In the interim of peace between AD88 – AD101, Decabalus centralized power, as well as erected a series of frontier defenses and garrisons, and sought peace and alliances with the neighboring powers and tribes. During this time, Domitian was assassinated in AD96 – ending the Flavian Dynasty and which saw the dawn of the Antonine Dynasty or more commonly known as the period of the five good emperors. Nerva was the first, but whose time as emperor was only two years, his successor Trajan would come to expand Roman territory to its greatest extent.

This began with Dacia. Trajan, according to Dio Cassius, was resentful of the vast sums given to Decabalus. Trajan ceased these payments and oversaw a campaign again Decabulus in AD 101. Trajan defeated Decabulus at the Second Battle of Tapae, but who also loss considerable numbers of his own. Emphasis for these losses is often placed the Dacian weapon often used, the falx. This was an agricultural tool in origin as was a long blade with a curved point. The weapon was able to hook Roman shield, easily damage exposed limbs, and the curved point could puncture helmets even when the blade was blocked the shield. Trajan paused the campaign until Spring of AD102; Decabulus attempted to ease pressure through a surprise campaign on Moesia, but was then defeated decisively at Adamclisi – a monument set up by Roman soldiers still survives there today and depicts several scenes of combat and has become an invaluable piece of evidence in Roman military studies. Trajan then advanced to the Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa, forcing Decabulus to surrender and accept terms of peace, offering up territories around the Danube as well as removing his defenses along the river.

This peace was short-lived. In AD105, Decabulus attacked the new provinces of Rome which caused Trajan to respond. After a failed assassination attempt again Trajan, the led the inadvertent capture of Pompeius Longinus. Instead of being used as a bargaining tool, Longinus committed suicide which, while presenting a romantic vision of a Roman choosing Rome’s greater good over his own life, offered the ideal time and reason for Trajan to now conquer Dacia. A full scale campaign ensued despite constant peace offerings by Decabulus. Trajan marched to Sarmizegetusa and captured the Dacian capital. Even though Decabulus escaped and continued a form of guerilla warfare against the Roman for a while after, Dacia was defeated and was incorporated in the Roman empire. Decabulus was eventually hunted down; instead of risk being captured and suffering humiliation, torture and death in a Roman triumph, Decabulus cut his own throat.

While the king who arguable caused the fall of Dacia as an independent kingdom, Decabulus would become a national hero for Modern Romania; his image and story gaining national prominence in the 19th century. The promotion of a Classical figure, prominent in the ancient land of the current nation was a political and cultural movement that was being carried out throughout Europe – including Boudicca in Britain, Vercingetorix in France, and Arminius in Germany. The war also led to the creation of the famous Trajan’s Column that still survives in Rome today – a symbol of Roman power and art, that also inspires art in modern history.

I hope you enjoyed reading about this iconic period of Romania’s history, and thanks for reading this weeks letter in our Alphabet of World History!

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