A Brief History of Dacia

The Dacians were an indigenous but Indo-European-speaking people who lived in the broad vicinity of Romania between 3000 BC and roughly AD 500. They were a people closely related to the Getae, speaking the same language, sharing very similar customs and allying with each other frequently, but the two, it seems, were separate political entities. At its greatest extent, Dacia was bounded by the Danube to the South, the Black Sea to the East, the Dniester to the Northeast, and the Pannonian Plain to the West: that is modern Romania and Moldovia, and parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine. The language spoken by the Dacians was Indo-European, but it had died out by the sixth century AD along with its speakers. Not enough evidence has survived to reconstruct it in hydronyms, toponyms and personal names, so there is still much debate as to whether it was more closely related to Thracian or Illyrian, or whether one broad language-family was spoken across that entire area.

Dacian society was organised into two classes: the aristocracy (the tarabostes) and the common people (the comati, "those with unkempt hair"). The two were easily distinguishable, as only the tarabostes had the right to wear a felt hat. This suggests quite broad class divisions. The most important livelihood in Dacia was, as almost everywhere in the Ancient World, agriculture, but livestock, pottery and metal-working were also important. Dacian communities were generally villages centred around fortified cities. The degree of urban development was quite remarkable; Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, was watered by multiple aqueducts, and protected by stone walls.

Large numbers of foreign coins have been found in Dacia, representing significant international trade. This should not be surprising, as gold and silver were to be found in abundance in the Carpathian Mountains in ancient times. The Dacians knew how to work these precious metals, too; the Dacians smelted jewellery from a gold ore mixed with a small amount of ore, using techniques which were extremely technologically advanced for their time. The Dacians were clearly more culturally sophisticated than the Celts to the West, and far more so than the Germanics and Scyths to the North. Nonetheless, Dacian culture was strongly influenced by the Hallstatt culture which developed in the Alps around 900 BC and spread over much of Europe.

The Dacians were polytheists like most civilisations of the time, but only a few names of their gods have survived. Zalmoxis was the head of their Pantheon, possibly a successful statesman or warrior from the distant past who was deified, and other important deities were Bendis, equated with Artemis or Diana by the Greeks and Romans, Hebeleysis, god of storms, and Darzalas, god of health and vitality. Religion appears not to have played a great part in their everyday lives, unlike in the societies of, for example, the Romans, who had shrines in every household, and the Celts, for whom being forbidden to attend sacrifices was the highest shame.

The Dacians and Getae were originally many different independent tribes, who later coalesced into a single confederacy and, in the case of the Dacians, later still, a centrally controlled kingdom. The precise stages of their expansion are still a complete mystery. The Dacians and Getae fought much against the Thracians, and captured the Hellenistic diadoch Lysimachus in 312 BC. In 82 BC, King Burebista ascended to the throne, and under his rule the Kingdom of Dacia reached its maximum extent. In 72 BC, Roman general Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus marched against the Getae, because they were allied to Mithradates VI of Pontus, but he had only limited success. Ten years later, an alliance of Getae, Dacians, Scyths, Bastarnae and Greek colonists in Thrace defeated Gaius Antonius Hybrida (the same Hybrida who had shared a consulship with Cicero).

This victory allowed Burebista to expand his power up and down the Black Sea coast, and this in turn gave him the resources to complete his conquest of the Hallstatt-culture Celtic-speaking inhabitants of Pannonia. Burebista came to be considered such a threat to Roman-controlled Macedonia and Illyria that, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was planning to march against him. However, he was prevented by his assassination. Burebista, coincidentally, was killed in the same year.



Under Augustus, the Getae became a sort of Roman protectorate. Augustus had plans to subdue the entire Balkan peninsula- something, like his planned conquest of Germania, he never achieved- and in 29 BC, he used a raid by the Bastarnae across the Danube to invade Thrace and the lands of the Getae. The Getae agreed to assist the Romans, not realising that this was equivalent to submitting themselves to Roman authority. The Romans penetrated as far as the Danube delta, then returned home. In 16 BC, when Sarmatians invaded the lands of the Getae, it was a Roman army who repulsed them; but for the most part, the Getae were left alone by the Romans.

The Romans, though, were not left alone by the Dacians. Despite the sophistication of their society, the Dacians were a warlike people. The Romans never missed a chance to raid them from Moesia, and they still felt that they had some right to the ownership of Moesia themselves, so between AD 14 and AD 101, a great deal of raiding went on on both sides of the Danube. The Roman creation of the provinces of Upper and Lower Moesia restricted Dacian power, and the later incursion of the Sarmatian Iazyges onto the Western Dacian territories weakened them further, the Dacians remained independent until first Emperor Domitian, then Trajan lost patience.

In 87 AD, Emperor Domitian mounted an invasion of Dacia in response to the increasing Dacian raids across the Danube. What exactly the Dacians thought they could achieve by doing this except their own total annihilation has long puzzled scholars. However, Domitian's campaigns were both spectacular failures, and his triumph in Rome was a complete scandal. Some even said later that he bought large numbers of Germanic slaves in the market the morning of the triumph and then paraded them through the city later as prisoners. The archaeology suggests however that his campaigns might not have been quite so disastrous as later Romans made them out to be. Domitian was extremely unpopular after his death.

In AD 86, King Duras (or Diurpaneus) of Dacia launched a serious raid into the province of Moesia. Domitian, looking for a military victory to boost his popularity, quickly came to Moesia in person to command the retaliation. The next year, General Cornelius Fuscus invaded Dacia with six legions. He was promptly ambushed at Tapae. Fuscus himself was killed and the Legio V Alaudae was almost wiped out. Rome suffered a crushing defeat. The Dacians, it seemed, were the one of the few enemies Rome could actually lose in battle to; this is because they used a weapon called the falx, a sort of battle-scythe, which hacked through armour quite nicely. Also, remember that the Romans did not even wear armour on their limbs at this time; the falx hacked through arms and legs even better than armour. In the aftermath of the battle, King Diurpaneus was granted the surname Decebalus, meaning "most powerful".

The next year, a second Roman offensive was mounted. This time the Roman force was commanded by one Tettius Iulianus. Once again the two armies met at Tapae, but this time the Romans were ready. The result was a Roman victory, but the Romans were unable to press their advantage due to several defeats Domitian had just suffered in Pannonia and troops being needed elsewhere, and very difficult terrain on the way to Sarmizegetusa. Fortunately, the Romans were able to negotiate peace terms. Decebalus got off lightly; he became a client-king, and received money, craftsmen and war-machines from the Romans to defend his frontiers. Instead of using the money for those purposes, Decebalus used it to strengthen his fortresses in the mountains and build new ones in important strategic positions. He really was asking for it. In AD 101, Trajan decided to put him in his place.

Trajan invaded with a hundred and fifty thousand troops in the Spring of AD 101. If this figure is correct, that meant a half of the Roman Empire's entire military manpower. Once, between them, the Dacians and Getae had been able to muster two hundred thousand fit warriors; now the Dacians could only muster about fifty thousand. After a number of skirmishes, Trajan defeated Decebalus at the Second Battle of Tapae in AD 101. Exploiting his advantage, Trajan then pressed on for Sarmizegetusa. His men had previously been issued armguards and greaves, to protect them better from the brutal Dacian falx; this was very effective. It is something to remember though that the only time the Romans ever changed their equipment whilst on campaign was when at war with the Dacians. Decebalus sued for peace, and Dacia once more became a vassal state in AD 102. Decebalus once more received money and equipment to help defend his Northern and Eastern borders- and once again he used it to build up his army for another war with Rome. You would have thought the Romans would have worked out by now that he wanted a fight.

The excuse for Trajan's second war was more raids, but the real reason was that Trajan just wanted to crush Decebalus once and for all. Decebalus had actually not broken the peace terms by strengthening his fortresses, so Trajan needed an excuse. In AD 105, he crossed the Danube again. He had even more troops this time, while the Dacians had less. One by one, they stormed and captured the mountain fortresses all around Sarmizegetusa. When it came to siege warfare, the Romans were invincible. The final decisive battle took place practically under the walls of Sarmizegetusa, between the entire Dacian force and only a couple of Roman legions. The Romans were repulsed; but then the entire force settled in for a siege.

Sarmizegetusa was the greatest fortress the Romans had yet encountered in Dacia, but when a traitor from inside the city told them about the water supply, it was a simple thing to smash down the aqueducts. It did not take long after that for someone to open the gates. Sarmizegetusa was burned to the ground. Decebalus escaped, but he committed suicide rather than face capture. The Romans took over his immense hidden private fortune- reportedly, a hundred and fifty tonnes of gold and three hundred and thirty tonnes of silver. The battle that ended the war was fought at Porolissum in late Summer AD 106. It was only a relatively minor battle, and the result was never in doubt. A final, decisive victory for Rome.

After that, Dacia became just another province of the Roman Empire. It experienced, to some degree, a renewed period of peace and prosperity, before it was abandoned in AD 275 by Aurelian to the Goths- the Goths, or Gotones, who were identified by the Goths themselves and by many today with the Dacians' old allies, the Getae. . . but all that is a tale for another historian to tell.

References:
Wikipedia: Dacia, Dacians, Getae, Falx, Dacian Gold Bracelets, Domitian's Dacian War, Trajan's Dacian Wars, Jordanes' Getica.


By Edorix

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