2: Who Were The Dacians and What Became of Them?
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During its prehistory, Transylvania never had a homogenous population
and was divided into smaller, temporarily isolated areas. It was about 2,500
years ago that the first society appeared which, based on its burial customs
and other remains, seems to have inhabited the entire Transylvanian region, and
for which we can find a name. The findings indicate that these people were
related to the Scythians. Herodotos refers to them under the name of
Agathursos. During their expansion, they even appeared on the eastern edge of
the Great Plains. They also continued the Transylvanian tradition and had an
advanced metal culture, which is no longer considered to belong to the Bronze
Age. The Agathursos supplied the people surrounding them with iron weapons.
They became fugitives during the fourth and third centuries, victims of the
arrival and territorial conquests of the Celts.
Following the transient dominion of the Celts and in spite of the permanent
residence of many of their people, the Dacian era of Transylvania and of a
significant portion of the Carpathian basin had arrived. It is a particularly
difficult era to discuss. Everything connected with them belongs to the highly
sensitive area of the prehistory of the Romanian people and of modern Romania.
From a Hungarian perspective, this fact makes this entire matter a delicate and
highly controversial issue.
The prehistory and origin of these people, who came from Thrace, who slowly
advanced from the Balkans northward and who had active and lasting contacts
with the Greeks, remain obscure and much debated. This happens to be true for
most European nations. The genesis of their Neo-Latin language is a peculiar
and specific problem. They presumable infiltrated into Transylvania primarily
from the Great Plains area of the Carpathian basin, although their "conquest"
may have originated from several different areas simultaneously.
Dacian society itself was internally sharply divided into two groups. The
elite group, the "cap wearers" or more accurately the "Fur Hat People" were the
aristocracy which lived in mountain fortresses, well supplied with expensive
imported Greek goods. Their subjects, the "Longhaired People" had their poorer
and more defenseless dwellings in the open country. The outstanding personality
among the Dacians was King Burebista, who ruled for as much as four decades
during the first half of the first century B.C. The foundations for his strong
administrative organization and stormy conquests may have been laid down by his
father. This is similar to Hungarian history where (Saint) Stephen I only
completed the initiatives of his father, the great Prince Géza, and yet
Stephen is considered as the founding father of the country.
Under Burebista Dacian rule extended far beyond Transylvania. In the east it
reached the Greek cities along the Black Sea. In the west, it extended to
Transdanubia and to parts of the area of the present Slovakia. In the south, it
encompassed Macedonia and the Adriatic. Thus, about half a century before the
birth of Christ, the Roman Empire had to view the Dacian Empire as its greatest
foe in the Balkans. Yet this empire, which very rapidly conquered a large
number of tribal groups, was just as fragile as many other powerful
organizations of antiquity.
The first major confrontation between Rome and the Dacians should have
occurred during the rules of Caesar and Burebista. The situation was ripe for
it. Both rulers, however, were eliminated by a political conspiracy and
"regicide". The showdown between the two powers, Dacian and Roman, was critical
for the control of the vital Middle and Lower Danubian space, and could thus be
only delayed but not ignored. The causes and conduct of the conspiracy against
Julius Caesar are well known from Roman historiography. Burebista's fate is
much harder to elucidate. He most probably fell victim to his greatest
accomplishment, the unification of the Dacian tribes, which inevitably led to
the curbing of the jealously guarded prerogatives of the tribal leaders.
(Nota bene, Burebista's administrative problems may have been similar in
many respects to the problems encountered 1000 years later by the Hungarian
The rapid disintegration of the Dacian Empire following the murder of its
charismatic leader, does not mean that we no longer have to be concerned with
the Dacians. Rome, much beset by problems, slowly but consistently proceeded in
strengthening its position in the northern Balkans and in East-Central Europe
to ensure the flanks of its Eastern conquests, which now extended to
Mesopotamia. Heading northward from Illyricum, it brought the Pannonian tribes
under its rule, encompassing all of Pannonia, which corresponds to the entire
present Hungarian Transdanubia. In a northeasterly direction it moved toward
the Iron Gate in order to eventually control the entire lower reaches of the
Danube. During this period it preferred to live in peace with the Dacians,
rather than fighting them. In order to maintain this peace, it made major
financial sacrifices and offered and provided technical assistance as well.
It is important to digress at this point and to mention the unusually
significant changes which took place at this time of continuous national
dislocations, in the lap of the Carpathian basin, in the Great Plains. This
area was infiltrated from the north by Sarmatian tribes who settled this region
permanently, ruling over and mingling with the local Celts, Dacians and other
minor groups. This new Sarmata homeland inevitably became a buffer zone between
the rulers of Pannonia in the west and of Transylvania in the east. This was
true even on thos occasions when the Sarmates themselves accepted and earned
Roman pay as, for instance, when they built the "ditch and dike" Roman defense
system which spanned the entire Great Plains and was known as the Devil's
Ditch. At other times, however, either independently, or in league with the
Transylvanian Dacians, they endangered the peace of Pannonia and repeatedly
struck across the Danubian frontier. After the century-long fragmentation which
followed the murder of Burebista, a new and eminent Dacian leader, Decebalus,
who ruled from 80 to 106 A.D., again united the tribes of his nation. Thus --
seen in the clear light of retrospection -- it appears that the preparations of
the Romans against the Dacians were delayed for too long. The Roman sacrifices,
made for temporary peace, had been totally useless. It is a fact that shortly
after his appearance in the 80s, Decebalus's armies inflicted several
humiliating defeats on the Romans. The new Dacian ruler could blackmail the
Romans and the revenues of such blackmail further strengthened him and his rule
. It was only in 101-102 that the great Dacian campaign of Trajan reversed the
Romans' fortunes of war. The Dacian power, recently so expansive, was stopped,
withdrew and was forced on the defensive, at least temporarily. To insure the
supplies for his legions and for the security of his logistic organizations,
Trajan built the first permanent bridge across the Danube at the present
Turnu-Severin. This facilitated the definitive victory of the new, 105-106
Even though we don't share all the current Romanian enthusiasm for him,
Decebalus was clearly an outstanding figure of this age. The fact that an
enormous amount of gold, hidden during his time, was found, partly already in
Roman times and also very much later, may perhaps lead to the not unwarranted
conclusion that if Decebalus had not hoarded and hidden his gold, but had used
it to increase his military strength and to buy allies, the Dacian campaigns of
Trajan may have turned out quite differently.
On the other hand, the Dacian king could be described as a "Roman character".
He knew well the fate of the loser. He knew that he would be taken to Rome by
the victorious legionnaires like a captured animal, and there dragged along in
the triumphal march in front of the hysterical multitudes. For reasons unknown,
he could not escape the pursuing Roman mounted troops and on their arrival, he
killed himself. It was only his head that they could take to Rome.
The Provincia Dacia was established in 107 A.D. This Roman occupation,
protruding into the present Transylvania, or rather into its natural geographic
unit from below, fell far short of filling up the entire eastern bay of the
Carpathians. Its borders on the Great Plains only in the southwest. The
northeastern part of Transylvania, the upper Tisza region was not included.
And, although the Romans used the Carpathians in the east as a line of defense,
it was not the crest that they used, but an interior line. The southern border
of the province was provided largely by the lower Danube. This border was of
less importance, since here the province abuts on the neighbouring Moesia
Dacia Provincia -- later divided into smaller components -- was in existence
for barely more than 250 years. How significant is this period? What happened
during this time, and what became of the Dacians? According to the Daco-Roman
Continuity theory, the Romanian people, speaking the Neo-Latin language and
forming a majority of the population living in present day Romania, are the
direct descendants of the ethnic Dacians who became Romanized in the Dacia
Provincia. The Dacians, conquered and submissive at the time of Trajan, quickly
made Roman culture their own and remained in place after the withdrawal of
Rome. Their descendants still live there and have moved but little with time.
As far as Romanization is concerned, the Romanians foster the concept by
claiming that during the two great campaigns of Trajan, a substantial number of
the Dacians offered no real resistance. This would explain the sudden collapse
of the previously triumphant and clever Decebalus. They seem to have
anticipated the new status and culture that Rome offered to those who submitted
voluntarily in a new province. It was this surrender that created the
opportunity to accept the blessings of the advanced Roman civilization.
Everything that is subsumed by the single word, Romanization.
The counter-arguments are weighty. Trajan's troops had to fight long and
bloody battles to make the establishment of Dacia Provincia possible.
Furthermore, the Roman rule was never as complete and pervasive in
Transylvania, where the geographic configurations favored the defenders, as it
was in the gently rolling hill country of Pannonia. It is also possible that
while the upper crusts of the Dacians, the "Fur Hat People" suffered severe
losses during the fighting, the "Longhairs" became a Dacian subject people to
the Romans. It is also possible that some of the Transylvanian mountain
strongholds never came under Roman rule. These small spots survived Dacia
Provincia, or, at least a substantial portion of its existence.
The ethnic and spiritual Romanization, which must be assumed as an essential
component of the Daco-Roman continuity theory, did not take place even where
Roman sovereignty, hegemony and cultural influence were much stronger and where
the local resistance was much weaker both initially and later -- in Pannonia,
for instance where, compared to Dacia, Roman rule lasted two to two and a half
times as long and was maintained for almost half a millennium. The local
Pannonian and Celt populations barely resisted the Romans initially, and later
on, there were no outbreaks against the Roman rule, such as were fomented
repeatedly by the Dacians in their own territory.
If we were writing the history of the Romanian people and of the Romanian
"National State", we could list numerous arguments why so many Romanians should
consider the Daco-Roman relations and the emphasis on continuity, so logical
and indeed inevitable, both politically and psychologically. In addition, this
theory is strengthened by the many Latin elements in the Romanian language. On
the other hand, the precise findings provided by archeological excavations
hardly serve to support the continuity hypothesis. Although psychologically
weighty, this theory of national identity and occupation by "historic rights"
is legally just as inconsequential, and worth exactly as little as the
declarations on the Hungarian side which claim that the Carpathian basin is our
"Hun inheritance" and that we had occupied it at the time of the Arpadian
conquest as direct descendants of Attila's Huns...
Significant ethnic changes appeared early in Dacia Provincia. The fact that
Roman veterans began to settle the land very rapidly, points to an optimistic
attitude. The fact that large numbers of people moved in for the exploitation
of the gold mines suggests that the precious metal supplies in Transylvania --
in the absence of any data from the Dacian times -- had again become a valuable
asset. These new settlements, however, did not fulfill the earlier
expectations. They did not bring peace to the area. The uprisings suggest that
the complete pacification of the Dacians was not achieved in spite of the
Romans' considerable military superiority. In fact, the area became even less
secure for the Romans, particularly when internal uprisings coincided with
attacks from the outside. Finally, in the middle of the third century, the
Romans yielded Dacia to the Goths. This shortened their overly long border
(limes) which was subject to numerous assaults and freed troops, very much in
demand in other areas.
For us, the fate and problems of the Roman Empire, weighty though they may be,
are of less interest. We are much more interested in those who -- perhaps --
stayed in place. Is it possible to assume a Daco-Roman Continuity on the basis
of what we know about them? We will try to approach this problem from two
sides. One is the appearance of the Neo-Latin people. This can be seen only
within the original patrimony of the Roman Empire and even there only
considerably later than the cession of Dacia. The second approach is more
direct. It evaluates the local events on the basis of the changes that took
place in Transylvania at that time and which can be properly documented.
The Roman withdrawal from Dacia was followed by a reasonably peaceful time. By
then, however, wars and epidemics have made significant inroads into the local
population. This made it possible for the departing Romans to take a major
portion of the remaining inhabitants with them -- primarily those most closely
allied with them -- and settle them within the boundaries of the new borders.
The former Dacia was left as the spoils, battle ground and living space to the
Goths, Carps, Sarmatians, Gepids and Vandals. The complete excavation of some
contemporary cemeteries could irrevocable prove -- or disprove -- the continued
survival of a "Romanized Dacian population". We know of no such excavation in
contemporary Romania. It must be noted that in the Latin Dacian inscriptions we
find that the majority of names are Oriental rather than Latin (Italian).
Perhaps Christian inroads had already begun under the Roman rule. In Pannonia
we have evidence of episcopal sees, shortly after the Roman occupation. Such
evidence from Dacia is lacking. Even more damaging is the almost complete
absence of place names of Latin origin in the area of present Transylvania.
Rome is remembered only by the name of some rivers. (The recently introduced
place names -- e.g., Cluj-Napoca -- have been revived artificially after an
interval of almost 2000 years.
What then was the fate of the Dacians? Those who remained in the old Dacia
Provincia, disappeared in the great melting pot of the great migrations. Those
who moved toward the south and southwest were assimilated by the hot-blooded
people of the Balkans. After the dissolution of Dacia Provincia, we hear
practically nothing about contemporary Dacians during the following three to
four centuries. This is not at all surprising. Just the opposite! Many people
and ethnic groups of the Great Migrations continued their biologic existence
only by giving up their former individuality. Their units and groups lose their
identity or rather gain a new one. This is not their triumph or their shame;
this is as it should be in an orderly progression in nature and history.
Then, if not descendants of the Dacians, who are the Romanians? Whence and
when did they come and settle in the former lands of the Dacians - or, at
least, on part of that land? It is a much later story which begins somewhere
else and we will return to it at the proper place and time.
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