The Wolves of Dacia Take On the Roman Empire
In ancient times, Dacia was the name given to the area of Central Europe bounded by the Carpathian Mountains . This area corresponds roughly to the modern countries of Romania and Moldovia. Additionally, Dacia included parts of present-day Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.
The people who inhabited the area were known as the Dacians, or Getae, according to the Greeks. The Dacians are most famous for their wars against the Romans, during which they were defeated, and their land turned into a Roman province.
Early Historians’ Insights About Dacia
Although the Dacians are best-known for their conflicts with the Roman Empire, they were already mentioned by Greek sources several centuries before their encounter with the Romans. The Dacians are mentioned, for instance, in The Peloponnesian War , written by the Greek historian Thucydides during the second half of the 5 th century BC.
In Thucydides’ work, the Dacians, who are called Getae, are said to have lived in an area bordering the territory of the Scythians. The historian adds that the Dacians and Scythians fought in the same manner, i.e. that they were mounted archers.
Dacian / Getae tribes north of the Danube river. (Talessman / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Dacians are also mentioned in The Histories , written by Herodotus, a near contemporary of Thucydides. According to Herodotus, the Dacians (or Getae as he, like Thucydides called them) were one of the tribes living in Thrace.
At this point of time, the area occupied by the Dacians stretched all the way to the south of the Danube River. Of this region, Herodotus says that its population “is the largest in the world, after the Indians, of course”. The ancient historian adds that:
“If they were ruled by a single person, or had a common purpose, they would be invincible and would be by far the most powerful nation in the world, in my opinion. This is completely impossible for them, however – there is no way that it will ever happen – and that is why they are weak.”
Herodotus also deals with the Getae in his account of the Persian campaign against the Scythians. Herodotus mentions that before reaching the Ister River, Darius conquered this tribe. The Greek historian claims that the Getae were “the most courageous and upright Thracian tribe” and that they “offered stiff resistance” rather than surrender without a fight, as some other Thracian tribes did.
As a consequence, after their defeat, the Getae were enslaved by the Persians and conscripted into Darius’ army. Herodotus dedicates a paragraph in his work to the religious beliefs held by the Getae, the most prominent of which being their faith in immortality. Herodotus reports that “Rather than dying, they believe that on death a person goes to a deity called Zalmoxis (or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him).”
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The Getae were enslaved by the Persians and drafted into Darius’ army. (Cropbot / Public Domain )
Herodotus goes on to describe a ritual that the Getae perform once every five years. For this ritual, the Getae would cast lots to determine who to send to Zalmoxis as their messenger. He would be given instructions as to what favors the Getae want their god to grant them on that occasion. After that, the messenger would be sent to Zalmoxis via the following means:
“They arrange three lances, with men to hold them, and then others grab the hands and feet of the one being sent to Zalmoxis and throw him up into the air and on to the points of the lances. If he dies from being impaled, they regard this as a sign that the god will look favorably on their requests. If he does not die, however, they blame this failure on the messenger himself, call him a bad man, and then find someone else to send.”
One may assume that the Getae repeat this process until a messenger is sent successfully to Zalmoxis. Lastly, Herodotus records that “Another thing these Thracians do is fire arrows up into the sky, when thunder and lightning occur, and hurl threats at the god, because they recognize no other god other than their own.”
Herodotus states that the Thracians (presumably the Dacians included) have a practice of selling their children for export to other nations as slaves. The discovery of foreign coins in the area once occupied by the Dacians is evidence that they were trading with other civilizations. Apart from such foreign coins, local ones have also been found.
Gold and silver mines, which were found throughout Dacia, allowed the rulers of the Dacians to mint coins using these precious metals. The first coins minted by the Dacians were imitations of silver coins of Philip II and Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon.
Dacian silver coin - Dacian standing with draco in right hand. (Rc 13 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This is further proof that the Dacians were in contact with and were influenced by foreign civilizations. Subsequently, these were replaced with the silver denarii of the Roman Republic. Both coins were from Rome and their imitations were used by the Dacians.
The Romans and the Dacians
Initially, the Romans were content to trade with the Dacians, and did not concern themselves too much with them, since they were not considered to be a threat. Indeed, the claim made by Herodotus that the Dacians incapable of uniting under a single ruler or cause held true for centuries.
As long as the Dacian tribes continued fighting against one another, the Romans were content to leave them alone. Towards the end of the Roman Republic, however, a change occurred in Dacia, which alarmed the Romans.
Around 60 BC, a king by the name of Burebista emerged and united the Dacian tribes. Burebista expanded his realm in all directions. In the east, he captured the Greek cities on the northern Black Sea coast; in the west, he extended Dacian rule beyond the Tisza River; in the north, he went as far as modern Slovakia; and in the south, he reached the area beyond Belgrade.
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Dacian Kingdom, during the rule of Burebista. (Julieta39 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Burebista may have been involved in the Great Roman Civil War (known also as Caesar’s Civil War), as he seems to have offered Pompey assistance in 49 BC. When the war ended, Julius Caesar turned his attention to Dacia. The victor of the civil war was planning a large-scale military campaign against the Dacians, as he saw them as a potential threat to Rome.
Before Caesar could launch his expedition, however, he was assassinated. The plan to attack Dacia was abandoned, as Rome descended into civil war once again. Shortly after Caesar’s death, Burebista himself was assassinated.
As a consequence, the unified Dacia that Burebista created collapsed and the Dacians were divided into warring tribes once again. Still, the Dacians were strong enough to harass their Roman neighbors.
This situation continued for the next few decades, until the Dacians were unified by Decebalus. A description of this Dacian king is provided by the Roman writer Cassius Dio, which is as follows,
“This man was shrewd in his understanding of warfare and shrewd also in the waging of war; he judged well when to attack and chose the right moment to retreat; he was an expert in ambuscades and a master in pitched battles; and he knew not only how to follow up a victory well, but also how to manage well a defeat. Hence he showed himself a worthy antagonist of the Romans for a long time.”
When Decebalus came to power in 85 AD, he attacked the Roman province of Moesia and killed its governor, Oppius Sabinus. Therefore, the Romans went to war against the Dacians. The campaign was led by the emperor himself, Domitian, though he did not play an active role in the war, as Dio reports:
“Domitian, then, made an expedition against this people, but did not take an active part in the conflict. Instead, he remained in one of the cities of Moesia, indulging in riotous living, as was his wont. For he was not only indolent of body and timorous of spirit, but also most profligate and lewd towards women and boys alike.”
Emperor Domitian of Rome declared war on the Dacians. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Instead, an army under Cornelius Fuscus was sent against Decebalus. The Dacians sent an embassy to Domitian to negotiate a peace treaty, on the condition that “every Roman should elect to pay two obols to Decebalus each year; otherwise, he declared, he would make war and inflict great ills upon the Romans”.
According to Dio, Domitian, while still campaigning against the Dacians, decided to attack the Quadi and Marcomani. The emperor intended to punish these Germanic tribes as they did not assist Rome in their ongoing war against the Dacians.
The Romans, however, were defeated by the Marcomani and sent envoys to Decebalus to sue for peace. The Dacian king accepted Rome’s conditions, as he too was not faring so well. Domitian’s victory, however, was pretty much a sham, as Dio records:
“And, just as if he had won a victory, he sent to Rome, among other things, envoys from Decebalus and also a letter from the king, as he claimed, though rumor declared that he had forged it. He graced the festival that followed with many exhibits appropriate to a triumph, though they came from no booty that he had captured; on the contrary, the truce had cost him something besides his losses, for he had given large sums of money to Decebalus on the spot as well as artisans of every trade pertaining to both peace and war, and had promised to keep on giving large sums in the future. The exhibits which he displayed really came from the store of imperial furniture, which he at all times treated as captured spoils, inasmuch as he had enslaved even the empire itself.”
Peace Between Rome and Dacia Ends
A period of peace between Rome and Dacia followed, but this ended in 101 AD, when Trajan launched a campaign against the Dacians. Unlike Domitian’s campaign, which was meant to punish the Dacians, Trajan’s was aimed at conquest, and had good reason to do so. In addition, Trajan was a much more formidable emperor than Domitian, and Decebalus seems to have been aware of this. As Dio puts it,
“After spending some time in Rome, he made a campaign against the Dacians; for he took into account their past deeds and was grieved at the amount of money they were receiving annually, and he also observed that their power and their pride were increasing. Decebalus, learning of his advance, became frightened, since he well knew that on the former occasion it was not the Romans that he had conquered, but Domitian, whereas now he would be fighting against both Romans and Trajan, the emperor.”
Only one major battle took place between the Roman and Dacian armies in the first year of the war. It has been suggested that Decebalus knew that his army was not match for Trajan’s and therefore sought to stall the Romans as much as possible.
Relief on Trajan's Column showing a major battle against the Dacians. (Gun Powder Ma / Public Domain )
Decebalus hoped that this would prevent the Romans from passing through the Orăștie Mountains, which protected the Dacian capital, and that the onset of winter would force the invaders to leave. Although the Dacians were defeated at the Battle of Tapae, Decebalus’ strategy of slowing the Romans worked, and Trajan decided to wait for the following spring to continue his campaign.
During the winter, Decebalus launched a counterattack by invading Moesia. Although the Dacians had some successes against the Romans, they were ultimately defeated.
In 102 AD, the Dacians were defeated, and Decebalus sued for peace. This time, the conditions were more favorable to the Romans.
Peace only lasted until 105 AD, as Decebalus broke the terms of the peace treaty, resulting in Trajan launching a second campaign against the Dacians. After a year of fighting, the Romans had occupied much of Dacia.
Decebalus, who was probably aware that he would be paraded in Rome as a prisoner of war if he were captured, committed suicide. His head was decapitated from his corpse and brought back to Rome. As a result of this second war, the Roman province of Dacia was established.
The suicide of the Dacian King Decebalus on the Trajan Column. (Harpeam / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Soon after the conclusion of Trajan’s Second Dacian War, a monument was erected in Rome to commemorate the emperor’s triumph over the Dacians. This monument, known as Trajan’s Column , can still be seen today.
Through its spiral bas reliefs, the column tells the story of Trajan’s Dacian Wars in an artistic form. Trajan’s Dacian adversaries, including their king, Decebalus, are immortalized in this monument, which is meant to celebrate their defeat.
As for the Dacians who survived, they gradually adopted Roman ways and were eventually integrated into the Roman Empire. Although the Dacians eventually disappeared from history, modern Romanians claim to be descended from them.
Top image: Dacian draco, symbol of Dacia, the warrior realm who attached the Romans. Source: Craitza / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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