Most people don’t think of the Ancient world when they hear ‘Romania’, despite the obvious name.
Modern day connotations often include Vampires and Gypsies, Soviets and Slavs… but all this modern history cloaks its classical past.
Indeed, the takeover of the ancient ‘citizens of Rome’ marked a pivotal point in the rise and fall of arguably the greatest Empire of the western world.
The main clue to its crucial role is the modern Romanian language, steeped in latin, belying the territory’s profound period of Romanisation. Quite a bit of its archeological evidence, unfortunately, was ruined at the hands of conquerors.
But let’s go back. Who, in fact, were the Dacians?
To start with, they weren’t always referred to as Dacians; that was the Roman term. The Greeks described them as the Getae, a northern branch of the Thracians. Herodotus wrote in his Histories Book IV XCIII, that the Getae were, “the noblest as well as the most just of all the Thracian tribes”. Meanwhile Thucydides reported in Peloponnesian Wars, Book II: “[Getae] border on the Scythians and are armed in the same manner, being all mounted archers”.
It was between 82 and 44 BC, however, that the Dacian Kingdom reached its peak, under the reign of Burebista (Boerebista), a contemporary of Julius Caesar. To do so, he pushed forward a few extreme changes, not least of which was convincing the people to cut their vines and give up drinking. He then reorganized the army, conquered Greek towns, and extended the Dacian territory. Burebista also centralized the money control, suppressing indigenous minting of coins and implementing the Roman denarii as a monetary standard. Finally, he established the Geto-Dacian capital at Sarmizegetusa.
Indeed, the Dacians appeared so formidable at the time that Caesar contemplated an expedition against them, but was prevented from doing so by dying in 44 BC.
Coincidently, Burebista was murdered in that same year, and the kingdom was divided into four (later five) parts under separate rulers.
The nice thing about ancient history is how conveniently everything slots together, at least in hindsight. So, it should come as no surprise that one of these five entities was Cotiso’s state, to whom Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, betrothed his own five year old daughter, Julia.
Indeed, Augustus’ reign was peppered with Dacian interaction. It was in this period their northern neighbors were compelled to recognize Roman supremacy, albeit very grudgingly. So much so, that the Dacians could hardly have been described as ‘subdued’, seizing every opportunity to ravage Roman cities in the province of Moesia by crossing the frozen Danube.
This did not put the Dacians on good terms with their Roman overlords, and instead placed them on the ‘agenda’, the ‘to take over properly’ list. And this task was finally picked up and completed by the Emperor Trajan.
The Romans had several wars with the Dacians in order to achieve this goal.
The trophy of victory went back and forth, each side taking swipes at each other. First the Romans were victorious in the Battle of Tapae in 88 AD. In 87 AD, however, they were defeated by the Dacian general, Decebalus. Then the Second Battle of Tapae in 101 AD saw the Romans victorious. Decebalus rebuilt his power yet again and attacked Roman garrisons in 105 AD. In response, Trajan marched into Dacia once more, attacked the capital in the Siege of Sarmizegethusa, and razed it to the ground.
Dacia was finally quelled.
The country was occupied and Decebalus committed suicide in 106 AD. Trajan captured Decebalus’ treasure and took control of the Dacian gold mines in Transylvania, refurbishing his coffers. The whole account was recited by Cassius Dio, and depicted beautifully on the famous Column of Trajan.
But what exactly did all this mean for Rome?
Well, quite a lot in fact. The Romans had conquered and destroyed the ancient Kingdom of Dacia, but their conquest also sparked an unbalance in power. See, a larger section of the land remained outside of Roman Imperial authority, which was a catalyst for a renewed alliance of the Germanic and Celtic tribes and kingdoms… against the Roman Empire.
You could say Dacia was the Roman annex that broke the Empire’s back. Well, maybe not exactly – or at least so quickly.
In fact, the Romans were in Dacia for a while, ensuring the peoples were properly Romanized. The region’s rich ore deposits brought colonists from all over the empire for work, introducing Vulgar Latin and giving birth to the Proto-Romanian language. Tribes of Goths came and went. By AD 336, there were Dacians still to be conquered, this time by Constantine the Great. He even took the title Dacicus Maximus or ‘Great Victor over the Dacians’ when he ‘restored’ Dacia to the Roman Empire. You can even find Dacians prisoners on the Arch of Constantine.
It was only when that famous Christian Roman Emperor died, that the Romans finally and permanently abandoned Dacia… which was forever changed by the occupation.