The true birthplace of the Romanian people: Dacians


The precise moment in which the Romanian people was formed is very little known in historiography, due to the few written sources from the period of the dark age that followed the late antiquity. Only a few centuries after the Aurelian withdrawal from Roman Dacia we find data about a series of locals who did not call themselves either Dacians or Romans, but “Romanians” following a synthesis difficult to decipher. The history of the origin of the Romanian people is still a generous research topic for specialists. The few clear evidences and testimonies regarding the formation of the “Romanians” gave rise to controversies, sometimes motivated by nationalist or political interests, especially in the interwar period. It is suspected that the Romanian people were formed somewhere in the early years of the Middle Ages, by the mixture of natives and newcomers following intense miga- tions from late antiquity and the dark ages, from all over the Carpatho-Danubian-Pontic area. The Romanians are attested clearly and without any doubt only in the XII-XIII centuries, especially by Hungarian or Slavic chroniclers. However, there are some very old written sources doubled by a series of archaeological research that can serve a possible reconstruction of the epic of the formation of the Romanian people. From the last Dacians to the first Romanians, a silence of several centuries With the year 275 AD, the history of Roman Dacia north of the Danube ended. Practically, in that year, the administration, the army and all the Roman citizens who wanted to cross the south of the Danube were moved by the emperor Aurelian to the Roman province of Moesia. The reasons were many and easy to understand. Dacia, that territory on which Romania is today, was inhabited by the barbarian tribes of the Geto-Dacians. They were conquered by Trajan during two heavy wars, ending in 106 AD with the occupation of part of Dacia, corresponding to Transylvania, Banat, Oltenia and part of present-day Muntenia. It was the most important area of ​​the Dacian kingdom ruled by Decebalus. And this is because here was the capital Sarmisegetusa, the spiritual and political center of Dacia. Kneeling Dacia was transformed by Trajan into a Roman province. However, there were Geto-Dacian tribes, called “free Dacians” who remained unconquered outside the borders of the empire, in areas such as Moldova, Maramures and part of Muntenia. Especially the northern Dacians, the dreaded tribes of the Costoboc and the Carps, along with the Germanic tribes of the Goths, stormed Roman Dacia and the southern Danube provinces for more than a century. Rome, faced with its own problems, could scarcely cope with these terrible plunder expeditions. Precisely because of this, the Roman emperors who no longer had the vitality, authority and genius of Trajan, found themselves unable to defend the province of Dacia. On the territory occupied by the Romans were important cities, such as Apulum, Napoca, Potaissa or Romula. Crafts, agriculture and gold mining were practiced at Alburnus Maior. It was an important province, but impossible to defend against the massive attacks of the barbarians, including the free Dacians.

1. About Dacia and Dacians

Dacia was a region inhabited by the Dacians in the north of the Danube (modern Romania). The kingdom of Dacia was the creation of Burebistas (c. 80-44 BCE), who conquered and united several other Dacian principalities. Burebistas practically destroyed the Celtic tribes of the Scordiscii and subjected, or allied with, the Greek cities of the Western Black Sea coast, from Odessus (today’s Varna) to Olbia (near today’s Odessa). During the Roman Civil War, the Dacians would probably have come to support Pompey. Burebistas was eventually killed in the same year as Julius Caesar, who allegedly was preparing an expedition against the Dacians and the Parthians.

Two of the eight marble statues of Dacian warriors surmounting the Arch of Constantine in Rome.

The Dacian kingdom crumbled into four (or five) principalities, only to re-emerge under Decebalus (c. 87-106 CE). He fought victoriously against Domitian’s general Cornelius  Fuscus, but he was eventually defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty which made the Dacian kingdom a client of Rome receive Roman money and technical support in return. The situation lasted until Trajan waged two extensive wars (101-102 CE and 105-106 CE) in order to crush the Dacian kingdom and raze all the strongholds.

Dacia Traiana was a Roman province for nearly 170 years, until the reigns of Gallienus and Aurelian when it was abandoned (c. 271 CE) ,and gradual reduction in the presence of imperial legions eventuated in the withdrawal of the local Roman administration in favour of creating Dacia Aureliana to the south of the Danube in what is now modern Serbia.

This was done, in part, to give the illusion that Roman imperial power persevered in the region, even though signs of sociopolitical stress were very apparent. Later, Dacia Aureliana was divided further into two separate provinces: Dacia Mediterranea with its capital at Serdica, and Dacia Ripensis, with its capital at Ratiaria. After 275 CE, Dacia north of the Danube was overrun by various hoards of Goths, Huns, and Avars during the barbarian invasions of the so-called ‘Migration Age’. However, Dacia was briefly ‘reconquered’ by Rome during the reign of Constantine the Great.

The Dacians (/ˈdeɪʃənz/; Latin: Daci; Greek: Δάκοι, Δάοι, Δάκαι were a Thracia people who were the ancient inhabitants of the cultural region of Dacia, located in the area near the Carpathian Mountains and west of the Black Sea. This area includes mainly the present-day countries of Romania and Moldova, as well as parts of Ukraine, Eastern Serbia, Northern Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Southern Poland. The Dacians spoke the Dacian language, a sub-group of Thracian, but were somewhat culturally influenced by the neighbouring Scythians and by the Celtic invaders of the 4th century BC.

2. Name and etymology

The Dacians were known as Geta (plural Getae) in Ancient Greek writings, and as Dacus (plural Daci) or Getae in Roman documents, but also as Dagae and Gaete as depicted on the late Roman map Tabula Peutingeriana. It was Herodotus who first used the ethnonym Getae in his Histories. In Greek and Latin, in the writings of Julius Caesar, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder, the people became known as ‘the Dacians’. Getae and Dacians were interchangeable terms, or used with some confusion by the Greeks. Latin poets often used the name Getae. Vergil called them Getae four times, and Daci once, Lucian Getae three times and Daci twice, Horace named them Getae twice and Daci five times, while Juvenal one time Getae and two times Daci. In AD 113, Hadrian used the poetic term Getae for the Dacians. Modern historians prefer to use the name Geto-Dacians. Strabo describes the Getae and Dacians as distinct but cognate tribes. This distinction refers to the regions they occupied. Strabo and Pliny the Elder also state that Getae and Dacians spoke the same language.

By contrast, the name of Dacians, whatever the origin of the name, was used by the more western tribes who adjoined the Pannonians and therefore first became known to the Romans. According to Strabo’s Geographica, the original name of the Dacians was Δάοι “Daoi”.The name Daoi (one of the ancient Geto-Dacian tribes) was certainly adopted by foreign observers to designate all the inhabitants of the countries north of Danube that had not yet been conquered by Greece or Rome.

The ethnographic name Daci is found under various forms within ancient sources. Greeks used the forms Δάκοι “Dakoi” (Strabo, Dio Cassius, and Dioscorides) and Δάοι “Daoi” (singular Daos). The form Δάοι “Daoi” was frequently used according to Stephan of Byzantium.

Latins used the forms Davus, Dacus, and a derived form Dacisci (Vopiscus and inscriptions).

There are similarities between the ethnonyms of the Dacians and those of Dahae (Greek Δάσαι Δάοι, Δάαι, Δαι, Δάσαι Dáoi, Dáai, Dai, Dasai; Latin Dahae, Daci), an Indo-European people located east of the Caspian Sea, until the 1st millennium BC. Scholars have suggested that there were links between the two peoples since ancient times. The historian David Gordon White has, moreover, stated that the “Dacians … appear to be related to the Dahae”. (Likewise White and other scholars also believe that the names Dacii and Dahae may also have a shared etymology – see the section following for further details.)

Dacian cast in Pushkin Museum, after original in Lateran Museum. Early second century AD.

By the end of the first century AD, all the inhabitants of the lands which now form Romania were known to the Romans as Daci, with the exception of some Celtic and Germanic tribes who infiltrated from the west, and Sarmatian and related people from the east.

Interestingly, post-Roman Dacian material culture continued to reveal a strong sense of ‘Romanness’. For example, a 5th century CE Dacian burial contained a Roman type brooch which would have belonged to a well-placed member of society. And at Napoca, cross-dating using pottery remains infers a post-Roman date for the construction of a Roman styled porticus. Similarly, at Porolissum, red-slipped ware (terra sigillata Porolissensis) has been found in a post-Roman (re)construction phase of the forum. If the ceramic dates are substantiated, it may be argued that the Dacians continued utilizing spatial foci and certain architectural designs that were characteristic of Rome. Regardless, collectively the material evidence underscores the centralization of Roman life within post-Roman Dacia.

Regarding post-Roman period Dacian religious identity, at Porolissum, a Constantinian styled Chi-Rho (symbolizing Jesus Chris) was found inscribed on a vessel. This, in addition to a bronze dove — the symbol of the Holy Spirit — were randomly excavated from unknown contexts (See Gospel of Luke 3:22; Gospel of John 1:32). Interestingly, a cruciform was also found in the forum of Porolissum. The presence of Christian artifacts from post-Roman contexts suggests a parallel Christianization of the province corresponding to contemporary events taking place within the greater Roman world.

3. Dacian Altar Piece

Additionally, 4th and 5th century CE burials also showcase more affluence and cultural diversity in post-Roman Dacia Porolissensis compared to the Roman period, suggesting a change in the urban status of the local community. For example, in Potaissa, burials containing iron buckles, flint-steel, gold and silver jewelry, amber and embroidery beads have been excavated. It should be noted that proportionately ‘rich’ burials only represent a small segment of Daco-Roman society. Then, as now, most people in society were not wealthy.

Perhaps the notion of ‘urban prosperity’ during a ‘Dark Age’ appears counterintuitive to more traditional early medieval models for the period. However, this may be explained by the continuous trade between the Eastern Empire and Potaissa. For example, numismatic evidence reveals that during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries CE Western Imperial minted coinage ceased to be used in transactions (by 262 CE in Porolissum), and was subsequently replaced by Byzantine minted coinage. In addition, burial evidence from Moigrad and Napoca suggest a cultural transition within social hierarchies, possibly related to the ascension of Ostrogothic nobility, much of which may be attributed to the post-Constantinian Romano-Gothic integration.

This is an ancient Roman altar piece — in votive style — to Publius Aelius Marcianus, who was of the decurial order and a holder of higher local offices in Napoca (a city in Roman Dacia). Today, Napoca is Cluj-Napoca, Romania. This lovely altar dates to c. 161-250 CE.Dimensions:
height: 75 cm
width: 40 cm
depth: 34 cm
letter size: 5.5-3 cm

Furthermore, declining population estimates in Napoca — based in large part on ceramic evidence — suggest a moderate catastrophe immediately followed the withdrawal of Legio V Macedonica from Dacia. Perhaps this is nascent evidence of the eventual fragmentation of the Western Mediterranean trade network? Chronologically, examining the material culture in total, it is clear that some crisis impacted portions of Dacian society immediately after Rome’s withdrawal, followed by increasing socioeconomic activity in later periods. In any case, post-Roman Dacia Traiana continued to maintain its urban hierarchical status in the region in a manner that consistently interested the imperial and merchant classes of the Mediterranean.

4. Dacian Etymology and Early history of etymological approaches

The name Daci, or “Dacians” is a collective ethnonym. Dio Cassius reported that the Dacians themselves used that name, and the Romans so called them, while the Greeks called them Getae. Opinions on the origins of the name Daci are divided. Some scholars consider it to originate in the Indo-European *dha-k-, with the stem *dhe- “to put, to place”, while others think that the name Daci originates in *daca – “knife, dagger” or in a word similar to dáos, meaning “wolf” in the related language of the Phrygians.

One hypothesis is that the name Getae originates in the Indo-European *guet- ‘to utter, to talk’. Another hypothesis is that “Getae” and “Daci” are Iranian names of two Iranian-speaking Scythian groups that had been assimilated into the larger Thracian-speaking population of the later “Dacia”. They might be related to Masagetae and Dahae people who used to live in central Asia in 6th century BC.

In the 1st century AD, Strabo suggested that its stem formed a name previously borne by slaves: Greek Daos, Latin Davus (-k- is a known suffix in Indo-European ethnic names). In the 18th century, Grimm proposed the Gothic dags or “day” that would give the meaning of “light, brilliant”. Yet dags belongs to the Sanskrit word-root dah-, and a derivation from Dah to Δάσαι “Daci” is difficult.  In the 19th century, Tomaschek (1883) proposed the form “Dak”, meaning those who understand and can speak, by considering “Dak” as a derivation of the root da (“k” being a suffix); cf. Sanskrit dasa, Bactrian daonha.  Tomaschek also proposed the form “Davus”, meaning “members of the clan/countryman” cf. Bactrian daqyu, danhu “canton”.

Replica of the raven-totem helmet from Satu Mare County

5. Modern theories

Since the 19th century, many scholars have proposed an etymological link between the endonym of the Dacians and wolves.

A possible connection with the Phrygians was proposed by Dimitar Dechev (in a work not published until 1957).  The Phrygian language word daos meant “wolf” ,  and Daos was also a Phrygian deity. In later times, Roman auxiliaries recruited from the Dacian area were also known as Phrygi.  Such a connection was supported by material from Hesychius of Alexandria (5th/6th century), as well as the 20th century historian Mircea Eliade.

The German linguist Paul Kretschmer linked daos to wolves via the root dhau, meaning to press, to gather, or to strangle – i.e. it was believed that wolves would often use a neck bite to kill their prey.

Endonyms linked to wolves have been demonstrated or proposed for other Indo-European tribes, including the Luvians, Lycians, Lucanians, Hyrcanians and, in particular, the Dahae (of the south-east Caspian region), who were known in Old Persian as Daos. Scholars such as David Gordon White have explicitly linked the endonyms of the Dacians and the Dahae.

The Draco, a standard flown by the Dacians, also prominently featured a wolf head.

However, according to Romanian historian and archaeologist Alexandru Vulpe, the Dacian etymology explained by daos (“wolf”) has little plausibility, as the transformation of daos into dakos is phonetically improbable and the Draco standard was not unique to Dacians. He thus dismisses it as folk etymology.

Another etymology, linked to the Proto-Indo-European language roots *dhe- meaning “to set, place” and dheua → dava (“settlement”) and dhe-k → daci is supported by Romanian historian Ioan I. Russu (1967).

6. Mythological theories

Dacian Draco as from Trajan’s Column

Mircea Eliade attempted, in his book From Zalmoxis to Genghis Khan, to give a mythological foundation to an alleged special relation between Dacians and the wolves:

Dacians might have called themselves “wolves” or “ones the same with wolves”, suggesting religious significance.

Dacians draw their name from a god or a legendary ancestor who appeared as a wolf.

Dacians had taken their name from a group of fugitive immigrants arrived from other regions or from their own young outlaws, who acted similarly to the wolves circling villages and living from looting. As was the case in other societies, those young members of the community went through an initiation, perhaps up to a year, during which they lived as a “wolf”. Comparatively, Hittite laws referred to fugitive outlaws as “wolves”.

The existence of a ritual that provides one with the ability to turn into a wolf. Such a transformation may be related either to lycanthropy itself, a widespread phenomenon, but attested especially in the Balkans-Carpathian region,  or a ritual imitation of the behavior and appearance of the wolf. Such a ritual was presumably a military initiation, potentially reserved to a secret brotherhood of warriors (or Männerbünde). To become formidable warriors they would assimilate behavior of the wolf, wearing wolf skins during the ritual. Traces related to wolves as a cult or as totems were found in this area since the Neolithic period, including the Vinča culture artifacts: wolf statues and fairly rudimentary figurines representing dancers with a wolf mask. The items could indicate warrior initiation rites, or ceremonies in which young people put on their seasonal wolf masks.  The element of unity of beliefs about werewolves and lycanthropy exists in the magical-religious experience of mystical solidarity with the wolf by whatever means used to obtain it. But all have one original myth, a primary event.

7. Origins and ethnogenesis

Evidence of proto-Thracians or proto-Dacians in the prehistoric period depends on the remains of material culture. It is generally proposed that a proto-Dacian or proto-Thracian people developed from a mixture of indigenous peoples and Indo-Europeans from the time of Proto-Indo-European expansion in the Early Bronze Age (3,300–3,000 BC)  when the latter, around 1500 BC, conquered the indigenous peoples.  The indigenous people were Danubian farmers, and the invading people of the BC 3rd millennium were Kurgan warrior-herders from the Ukrainian and Russian steppes.

Indo-Europeanization was complete by the beginning of the Bronze Age. The people of that time are best described as proto-Thracians, which later developed in the Iron Age into Danubian-Carpathian Geto-Dacians as well as Thracians of the eastern Balkan Peninsula.

Between BC 15th–12th century, the Dacian-Getae culture was influenced by the Bronze Age Tumulus-Urnfield warriors who were on their way through the Balkans to Anatolia.  When the La Tène Celts arrived in BC 4th century, the Dacians were under the influence of the Scythians.

Alexander the Great attacked the Getae in BC 335 on the lower Danube, but by BC 300 they had formed a state founded on a military democracy, and began a period of conquest.  More Celts arrived during the BC 3rd century, and in BC 1st century the people of Boii tried to conquer some of the Dacian territory on the eastern side of the Teiss river. The Dacians drove the Boii south across the Danube and out of their territory, at which point the Boii abandoned any further plans for invasion.

Dacian Draco as from Trajan’s Column

8. Identity and distribution

North of the Danube, Dacians occupied a larger territory than Ptolemaic Dacia, stretching between Bohemia in the west and the Dnieper cataracts in the east, and up to the Pripyat, Vistula, and Oder rivers in the north and northwest.  In BC 53, Julius Caesar stated that the Dacian territory was on the eastern border of the Hercynian forest. According to Strabo’s Geographica, written around AD 20, the Getes (Geto-Dacians) bordered the Suevi who lived in the Hercynian Forest, which is somewhere in the vicinity of the river Duria, the present-day Vah (Waag).  Dacians lived on both sides of the Danube. According to Strabo, Moesians also lived on both sides of the Danube. According to Agrippa, Dacia was limited by the Baltic Ocean in the North and by the Vistula in the West. The names of the people and settlements confirm Dacia’s borders as described by Agrippa. Dacian people also lived south of the Danube.

9. Linguistic affiliation

The Dacians and Getae were always considered as Thracians by the ancients (Dio Cassius, Trogus Pompeius, Appian, Strabo and Pliny the Elder), and were both said to speak the same Thracian language. The linguistic affiliation of Dacian is uncertain, since the ancient Indo-European language in question became extinct (?) and left very limited traces (?), usually in the form of place names, plant names and personal names. Thraco-Dacian (or Thracian and Daco-Mysian)  seems to belong to the eastern (satem) group of Indo-European languages.  There are two contradictory theories: some scholars (such as Tomaschek 1883; Russu 1967; Solta 1980; Crossland 1982; Vraciu 1980) consider Dacian to be a Thracian language or a dialect thereof. This view is supported by R. G. Solta, who says that Thracian and Dacian are very closely related languages. Other scholars (such as Georgiev 1965, Duridanov 1976) consider that Thracian and Dacian are two different and specific Indo-European languages which cannot be reduced to a common language (?). Linguists such as Polomé and Katičić expressed reservations about both theories.

The Dacians are generally considered to have been Thracian speakers, representing a cultural continuity specify from earlier Iron Age communities loosely termed Getic.  Since in one interpretation, Dacian is a variety of Thracian, for the reasons of convenience, the generic term ‘Daco-Thracian” is used, with “Dacian” reserved for the language or dialect that was spoken north of Danube, in present-day Romania and eastern Hungary, and “Thracian” for the variety spoken south of the Danube.  There is no doubt that the Thracian language was related to the Dacian language which was spoken in what is today Romania, before some of that area was occupied by the Romans. Also, both Thracian and Dacian have one of the main satem characteristic changes of Indo-European language, *k and *g to *s and *z.  With regard to the term “Getic” (Getae), even though attempts have been made to distinguish between Dacian and Getic, there seems no compelling reason to disregard the view of the Greek geographer Strabo that the Daci and the Getae, Thracian tribes dwelling north of the Danube (the Daci in the west of the area and the Getae further east), were one and the same people and spoke the same language.

Another variety that has sometimes been recognized is that of Moesian (or Mysian) for the language of an intermediate area immediately to the south of Danube in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romanian Dobruja: this and the dialects north of the Danube have been grouped together as Daco-Moesian.  The language of the indigenous population has left hardly any trace in the anthroponymy of Moesia, but the toponymy indicates that the Moesii on the south bank of the Danube, north of the Haemus Mountains, and the Triballi in the valley of the Morava, shared a number of characteristic linguistic features with the Dacii south of the Carpathians and the Getae in the Wallachian plain, which sets them apart from the Thracians though their languages are undoubtedly related.

Dacian culture is mostly followed through Roman sources. Ample evidence suggests that they were a regional power in and around the city of Sarmizegetusa. Sarmizegetusa was their political and spiritual capital. The ruined city lies high in the mountains of central Romania.

Vladimir Georgiev disputes that Dacian and Thracian were closely related for various reasons, most notably that Dacian and Moesian town names commonly end with the suffix -DAVA, while towns in Thrace proper (i.e. South of the Balkan mountains) generally end in -PARA (see Dacian language). According to Georgiev, the language spoken by the ethnic Dacians should be classified as “Daco-Moesian” and regarded as distinct from Thracian. Georgiev also claimed that names from approximately Roman Dacia and Moesia show different and generally less extensive changes in Indo-European consonants and vowels than those found in Thrace itself. However, the evidence seems to indicate divergence of a Thraco-Dacian language into northern and southern groups of dialects, not so different as to qualify as separate languages. Polomé considers that such lexical differentiation ( -dava vs. para) would, however, be hardly enough evidence to separate Daco-Moesian from Thracian.

Roman monument commemorating the Battle

10. Dacian kingdom during the reign of Burebista, 82 BC

Dacian polities arose as confederacies that included the Getae, the Daci, the Buri, and the Carpi (cf. Bichir 1976, Shchukin 1989), united only periodically by the leadership of Dacian kings such as Burebista and Decebal. This union was both military-political and ideological-religious on ethnic basis. The following are some of the attested Dacian kingdoms:

The kingdom of Cothelas, one of the Getae, covered an area near the Black Sea, between northern Thrace and the Danube, today Bulgaria, in the 4th century BC. The kingdom of Rubobostes controlled a region in Transylvania in the 2nd century BC.  Gaius Scribonius Curio (proconsul 75–73 BC) campaigned successfully against the Dardani and the Moesi, becoming the first Roman general to reach the river Danube with his army. His successor, Marcus Licinius Lucullus, brother of the famous Lucius Lucullus, campaigned against the Thracian Bessi tribe and the Moesi, ravaging the whole of Moesia, the region between the Haemus (Balkan) mountain range and the Danube. In 72 BC, his troops occupied the Greek coastal cities of Scythia Minor (the modern Dobrogea region in Romania and Bulgaria), which had sided with Rome’s Hellenistic arch-enemy, king Mithridates VI of Pontus, in the Third Mithridatic War.  Greek geographer Strabo claimed that the Dacians and Getae had been able to muster a combined army of 200,000 men during Strabo’s era, the time of Roman emperor Augustus.

Dacian kingdom during the reign of Burebista, 82 BC

11. The kingdom of Burebista and The kingdom of Decebalus 87 – 106

The Dacian kingdom reached its maximum extent under king Burebista (ruled 82 – 44 BC). The capital of the kingdom was possibly the city of Argedava, also called Sargedava in some historical writings, situated close to the river Danube. The kingdom of Burebista extended south of the Danube, in what is today Bulgaria, and the Greeks believed their king was the greatest of all Thracians. During his reign, Burebista transferred the Geto-Dacians’ capital from Argedava to Sarmizegetusa.  For at least one and a half centuries, Sarmizegethusa was the Dacian capital, reaching its peak under king Decebalus. Burebista annexed the Greek cities on the Pontus. (55–48 BC).  Augustus wanted to avenge the defeat of Gaius Antonius Hybrida at Histria (Sinoe) 32 years before, and to recover the lost standards. These were held in a powerful fortress called Genucla (Isaccea, near modern Tulcea, in the Danube delta region of Romania), controlled by Zyraxes, the local Getan petty king. The man selected for the task was Marcus Licinius Crassus, grandson of Crassus the triumvir, and an experienced general at 33 years of age, who was appointed proconsul of Macedonia in 29 BC.

By the year AD 100, more than 400,000 square kilometres were dominated by the Dacians, who numbered two million.  Decebalus was the last king of the Dacians, and despite his fierce resistance against the Romans was defeated, and committed suicide rather than being marched through Rome in a triumph as a captured enemy leader.

12. Conflict with Rome

Burebista’s Dacian state was powerful enough to threaten Rome, and Caesar contemplated campaigning against the Dacians. Despite this, the formidable Dacian power under Burebista lasted only until his death in 44 BC. The subsequent division of Dacia continued for about a century until the reign of Scorilo. This was a period of only occasional attacks on the Roman Empire’s border, with some local significance.

The unifying actions of the last Dacian king Decebalus (ruled 87–106 AD) were seen as dangerous by Rome. Despite the fact that the Dacian army could now gather only some 40,000 soldiers, Decebalus’ raids south of the Danube proved unstoppable and costly. In the Romans’ eyes, the situation at the border with Dacia was out of control, and Emperor Domitian (ruled 81 to 96 AD) tried desperately to deal with the danger through military action. But the outcome of Rome’s disastrous campaigns into Dacia in AD 86 and AD 88 pushed Domitian to settle the situation through diplomacy.

Emperor Trajan (ruled 97–117 AD) opted for a different approach and decided to conquer the Dacian kingdom, partly in order to seize its vast gold mines wealth. The effort required two major wars (the Dacian Wars), one in 101–102 AD and the other in 105–106 AD. Only fragmentary details survive of the Dacian war: a single sentence of Trajan’s own Dacica; little more of the Getica written by his doctor, T. Statilius Crito; nothing whatsoever of the poem proposed by Caninius Rufus (if it was ever written), Dio Chrysostom’s Getica or Appian’s Dacica. Nonetheless, a reasonable account can be pieced together.

In the first war, Trajan invaded Dacia by crossing the river Danube with a boat-bridge and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Dacians at the Second Battle of Tapae in 101 AD. The Dacian king Decebalus was forced to sue for peace. Trajan and Decebalus then concluded a peace treaty which was highly favourable to the Romans. The peace agreement required the Dacians to cede some territory to the Romans and to demolish their fortifications. Decebalus’ foreign policy was also restricted, as he was prohibited from entering into alliances with other tribes.

However, both Trajan and Decebalus considered this only a temporary truce and readied themselves for renewed war. Trajan had Greek engineer Apollodorus of Damascus construct a stone bridge over the Danube river, while Decebalus secretly plotted alliances against the Romans(citation needed). In 105, Trajan crossed the Danube river and besieged Decebalus’ capital, Sarmizegetusa, but the siege failed because of Decebalus’ allied tribes. However, Trajan was an optimist. He returned with a newly constituted army and took Sarmizegetusa by treachery. Decebalus fled into the mountains, but was cornered by pursuing Roman cavalry. Decebalus committed suicide rather than being captured by the Romans and be paraded as a slave, then be killed. The Roman captain took his head and right hand to Trajan, who had them displayed in the Forums. Trajan’s Column in Rome was constructed to celebrate the conquest of Dacia.

13. Roman rule and death of Decebalus (Trajan’s Column, Scene CXLV)

The Roman people hailed Trajan’s triumph in Dacia with the longest and most expensive celebration in their history, financed by a part of the gold taken from the Dacians. For his triumph, Trajan gave a 123-day festival (ludi) of celebration, in which approximately 11,000 animals were slaughtered and 11,000 gladiators fought in combats. This surpassed Emperor Titus’s celebration in AD 70, when a 100-day festival included 3,000 gladiators and 5,000 to 9,000 wild animals.

Only about half part of Dacia then became a Roman province,  with a newly built capital at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, 40 km away from the site of Old Sarmisegetuza Regia, which was razed to the ground. The name of the Dacians’ homeland, Dacia, became the name of a Roman province, and the name Dacians was used to designate the people in the region.  Roman Dacia, also Dacia Traiana or Dacia Felix, was a province of the Roman Empire from 106 to 271 or 275 AD. Its territory consisted of eastern and southeastern Transylvania, and the regions of Banat and Oltenia (located in modern Romania). Dacia was organised from the beginning as an imperial province, and remained so throughout the Roman occupation. It was one of the empire’s Latin provinces; official epigraphs attest that the language of administration was Latin.  Historian estimates of the population of Roman Dacia range from 650,000 to 1,200,000.

Death of Decebalus (Trajan’s Column, Scene CXLV)

Roman Dacia, Moesia Inferior, Moesia Superior and other Roman provinces

Dacians that remained outside the Roman Empire after the Dacian wars of AD 101–106 had been named Dakoi prosoroi (Latin Daci limitanei), “neighbouring Dacians”. Modern historians use the generic name “Free Dacians” or Independent Dacians.  The tribes Daci Magni (Great Dacians), Costoboci (generally considered a Dacian subtribe), and Carpi remained outside the Roman empire, in what the Romans called Dacia Libera (Free Dacia).  By the early third century the “Free Dacians” were a significantly troublesome group, by now identified as the Carpi. Bichir argues that the Carpi were the most powerful of the Dacian tribes who had become the principal enemy of the Romans in the region. In 214 AD, Caracalla campaigned against the Free Dacians. There were also campaigns against the Dacians recorded in 236 AD.

Roman Dacia was evacuated by the Romans under emperor Aurelian (ruled 271–5 AD). Aurelian made this decision on account of counter-pressures on the Empire there caused by the Carpi, Visigoths, Sarmatians, and Vandals; the lines of defence needed to be shortened, and Dacia was deemed not defensible given the demands on available resources. Roman power in Thracia rested mainly with the legions stationed in Moesia. The rural nature of Thracia’s populations, and the distance from Roman authority, encouraged the presence of local troops to support Moesia’s legions. Over the next few centuries, the province was periodically and increasingly attacked by migrating Germanic tribes. The reign of Justinian saw the construction of over 100 legionary fortresses to supplement the defence. Thracians in Moesia and Dacia were Romanized, while those within the Byzantine empire were their Hellenized descendants that had mingled with the Greeks.

Roman Dacia, Moesia Inferior, Moesia Superior and other Roman provinces

14. After the Aurelian Retreat

Roman Dacia was never a uniformly or fully Romanized area. Post-Aurelianic Dacia fell into three divisions: the area along the river, usually under some type of Roman administration even if in a highly localized form; the zone beyond this area, from which Roman military personnel had withdrawn, leaving a sizable population behind that was generally Romanized; and finally what is now the northern parts of Moldavia, Crisana, and Maramures, which were never occupied by the Romans. These last areas were always peripheral to the Roman province, not militarily occupied but nonetheless influenced by Rome as part of the Roman economic sphere. Here lived the free, unoccupied Carpi, often called “Free Dacians”.

Dacian on the Constantine Arch

The Aurelian retreat was a purely military decision to withdraw the Roman troops to defend the Danube. The inhabitants of the old province of Dacia displayed no awareness of impending dissolution. There were no sudden flights or dismantling of property. It is not possible to discern how many civilians followed the army out of Dacia; it is clear that there was no mass emigration, since there is evidence of continuity of settlement in Dacian villages and farms; the evacuation may not at first have been intended to be a permanent measure. The Romans left the province, but they didn’t consider that they lost it. Dobrogea was not abandoned at all, but continued as part of the Roman Empire for over 350 years. As late as AD 300, the tetrarchic emperors had resettled tens of thousands of Dacian Carpi inside the empire, dispersing them in communities the length of the Danube, from Austria to the Black Sea.

15. Society, occupations, currency and construction

Dacian tarabostes (nobleman) – (Hermitage Museum)

Comati on Trajan’s Column, Rome

Dacians were divided into two classes: the aristocracy (tarabostes) and the common people (comati). Only the aristocracy had the right to cover their heads, and wore a felt hat. The common people, who comprised the rank and file of the army, the peasants and artisans, might have been called capillati in Latin. Their appearance and clothing can be seen on Trajan’s Column.

Comati on Trajan’s Column, Rome


Dacian tools: compasses, chisels, knives, etc.

The chief occupations of the Dacians were agriculture, apiculture, viticulture, livestock, ceramics and metalworking. They also worked the gold and silver mines of Transylvania. At Pecica, Arad, a Dacian workshop was discovered, along with equipment for minting coins and evidence of bronze, silver, and iron-working that suggests a broad spectrum of smithing. Evidence for the mass production of iron is found on many Dacian sites, indicating guild-like specialization. Dacian ceramic manufacturing traditions continue from the pre-Roman to the Roman period, both in provincial and unoccupied Dacia, and well into the fourth and even early fifth centuries. They engaged in considerable external trade, as is shown by the number of foreign coins found in the country (see also Decebalus Treasure). On the northernmost frontier of “free Dacia”, coin circulation steadily grew in the first and second centuries, with a decline in the third and a rise again in the fourth century; the same pattern as observed for the Banat region to the southwest. What is remarkable is the extent and increase in coin circulation after Roman withdrawal from Dacia, and as far north as Transcarpathia.

Dacian tools: compasses, chisels, knives, etc.


Geto-Dacian Koson, mid 1st century BC

The first coins produced by the Geto-Dacians were imitations of silver coins of the Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander the Great. Early in the 1st century BC, the Dacians replaced these with silver denarii of the Roman Republic, both official coins of Rome exported to Dacia, as well as locally made imitations of them. The Roman province Dacia is represented on the Roman sestertius coin as a woman seated on a rock, holding an aquila, a small child on her knee. The aquila holds ears of grain, and another small child is seated before her holding grapes.

Geto-Dacian Koson, mid 1st century BC


Dacians had developed the murus dacicus (double-skinned ashlar-masonry with rubble fill and tie beams) characteristic to their complexes of fortified cities, like their capital Sarmisegetuza Regia in what is today Hunedoara County, Romania. This type of wall has been discovered not only in the Dacian citadel of the Orastie mountains, but also in those at Covasna, Breaza near Făgăraș, Tilișca near Sibiu, Căpâlna in the Sebeș valley, Bănița not far from Petroșani, and Piatra Craivii to the north of Alba Iulia. The degree of their urban development was displayed on Trajan’s Column and in the account of how Sarmizegetusa Regia was defeated by the Romans. The Romans were given by treachery the locations of aqueducts and pipelines of the Dacian capital, only after destroying the water supply being able to end the long siege of Sarmisegetuza.

16. Material culture, Language, Symbols, Religion, Pottery and welfare

According to archaeological findings, the cradle of the Dacian culture is considered to be north of the Danube towards the Carpathian mountains, in the historical Romanian province of Muntenia. It is identified as an evolution of the Iron Age Basarabi culture. The earlier Iron Age Basarabi evidence in the northern lower Danube area connects to the iron-using Ferigile-Birsesti group. This is an archaeological manifestation of the historical Getae who, along with the Agathyrsae, are one of a number of tribal formations recorded by Herodotus.  In archaeology, “free Dacians” are attested by the Puchov culture (in which there are Celtic elements) and Lipiţa culture to the east of the Carpathians.  The Lipiţa culture has a Dacian/North Thracian origin.  This North Thracian population was dominated by strong Celtic influences, or had simply absorbed Celtic ethnic components. Lipiţa culture has been linked to the Dacian tribe of Costoboci.

Specific Dacian material culture includes: wheel-turned pottery that is generally plain but with distinctive elite wares, massive silver dress fibulae, precious metal plate, ashlar masonry, fortifications, upland sanctuaries with horseshoe-shaped precincts, and decorated clay heart altars at settlement sites. Among many discovered artifacts, the Dacian bracelets stand out, depicting their cultural and aesthetic sense. There are difficulties correlating funerary monuments chronologically with Dacian settlements; a small number of burials are known, along with cremation pits, and isolated rich burials as at Cugir.  Dacian burial ritual continued under Roman occupation and into the post-Roman period.


The Dacians are generally considered to have been Thracian speakers, representing a cultural continuity from earlier Iron Age communities. Some historians and linguists consider Dacian language to be a dialect of or the same language as Thracian.  The vocalism and consonantism differentiate the Dacian and Thracian languages. Others consider that Dacian and Illyrian form regional varieties (dialects) of a common language. (Thracians inhabited modern southern Bulgaria and northern Greece. Illyrians lived in modern Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.)

The ancient languages of these people became extinct, and their cultural influence highly reduced, after the repeated invasions of the Balkans by Celts, Huns, Goths, and Sarmatians, accompanied by persistent hellenization, romanisation and later slavicisation. Therefore, in the study of the toponomy of Dacia, one must take account of the fact that some place-names were taken by the Slavs from as yet unromanised Dacians.  A number of Dacian words are preserved in ancient sources, amounting to about 1150 anthroponyms and 900 toponyms, and in Discorides some of the rich plant lore of the Dacians is preserved along with the names of 42 medicinal plants.


The Dacians knew about writing. Permanent contacts with the Graeco-Roman world had brought the use of the Greek and later the Latin alphabet.  It is also certainly not the case that writing with Greek and Latin letters and knowledge of Greek and Latin were known in all the settlements scattered throughout Dacia, but there is no doubt about the existence of such knowledge in some circles of Dacian society.  However, the most revealing discoveries concerning the use of the writing by the Dacians occurred in the citadels on the Sebes mountains.  Some groups of letters from stone blocks at Sarmisegetuza might express personal names; these can not now be read because the wall is ruined, and because it is impossible to restore the original order of the blocks in the wall.


Detail of the main fresco of the Aleksandrovo kurgan. The figure is identified with Zalmoxis.

Dacian religion was considered by the classic sources as a key source of authority, suggesting to some that Dacia was a predominantly theocratic state led by priest-kings. However, the layout of the Dacian capital Sarmizegethusa indicates the possibility of co-rulership, with a separate high king and high priest.  Ancient sources recorded the names of several Dacian high priests (Deceneus, Comosicus and Vezina) and various orders of priests: “god-worshipers”, “smoke-walkers” and “founders”. Both Hellenistic and Oriental influences are discernible in the religious background, alongside chthonic and solar motifs.

Detail of the main fresco of the Aleksandrovo kurgan. The figure is identified with Zalmoxis.

According to Herodotus’ account of the story of Zalmoxis or Zamolxis,  the Getae (speaking the same language as the Dacians and the Thracians, according to Strabo) believed in the immortality of the soul, and regarded death as merely a change of country. Their chief priest held a prominent position as the representative of the supreme deity, Zalmoxis, who is called also Gebeleizis by some among them. Strabo wrote about the high priest of King Burebista Deceneus: “a man who not only had wandered through Egypt, but also had thoroughly learned certain prognostics through which he would pretend to tell the divine will; and within a short time he was set up as god (as I said when relating the story of Zamolxis).”

Votive stele representing Bendis wearing a Dacian cap (British Museum)

The Goth Jordanes in his Getica (The origin and deeds of the Goths), also gives an account of Deceneus the highest priest, and considered Dacians a nation related to the Goths. Besides Zalmoxis, the Dacians believed in other deities, such as Gebeleizis, the god of storm and lightning, possibly related to the Thracian god Zibelthiurdos.  He was represented as a handsome man, sometimes with a beard. Later Gebeleizis was equated with Zalmoxis as the same god. According to Herodotus, Gebeleizis (*Zebeleizis/Gebeleizis who is only mentioned by Herodotus) is just another name of Zalmoxis.

Another important deity was Bendis, goddess of the moon and the hunt.  By a decree of the oracle of Dodona, which required the Athenians to grant land for a shrine or temple, her cult was introduced into Attica by immigrant Thracian residents, and, though Thracian and Athenian processions remained separate, both cult and festival became so popular that in Plato’s time (c. 429–13 BC) its festivities were naturalised as an official ceremony of the Athenian city-state, called the Bendideia.

Known Dacian theonyms include Zalmoxis, Gebeleïzis and Darzalas.  Gebeleizis is probably cognate to the Thracian god Zibelthiurdos (also Zbelsurdos, Zibelthurdos), wielder of lightning and thunderbolts. Derzelas (also Darzalas) was a chthonic god of health and human vitality. The pagan religion survived longer in Dacia than in other parts of the empire; Christianity made little headway until the fifth century.


Fragment of a vase collected by Mihail Dimitriu at the site of Poiana, Galaţi (Piroboridava), Romania illustrating the use of Greek and Latin letters by a Dacian potter (source: Dacia journal, 1933)

Fragment of a vase collected by Mihail Dimitriu at the site of Poiana, Galaţi (Piroboridava), Romania illustrating the use of Greek and Latin letters by a Dacian potter (source: Dacia journal, 1933)

Fragments of pottery with different “inscriptions” with Latin and Greek letters incised before and after firing have been discovered in the settlement at Ocnita – Valcea. An inscription carries the word Basileus (Βασιλεύς in Greek, meaning “king”) and seems to have been written before the vessel was hardened by fire.  Other inscriptions contain the name of the king, believed to be Thiemarcus,  and Latin groups of letters (BVR, REB).  BVR indicates the name of the tribe or union of tribes, the Buridavensi Dacians who lived at Buridava and who were mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century AD under the name of Buridavensioi.

Clothing and science

The typical dress of Dacians, both men and women, can be seen on Trajan’s column. Dio Chrysostom described the Dacians as natural philosophers. A 19th century depiction of Dacian women.

17. Dacians warfare and weapons

The history of Dacian warfare spans from c. 10th century BC up to the 2nd century AD in the region typically referred to by Ancient Greek and Latin historians as Dacia. It concerns the armed conflicts of the Dacian tribes and their kingdoms in the Balkans. Apart from conflicts between Dacians and neighboring nations and tribes, numerous wars were recorded among Dacian tribes as well.

A 19th century depiction of Dacian women


The weapon most associated with the Dacian forces that fought against Trajan’s army during his invasions of Dacia was the falx, a single-edged scythe-like weapon. The falx was able to inflict horrible wounds on opponents, easily disabling or killing the heavily armored Roman legionaries that they faced. This weapon, more so than any other single factor, forced the Roman army to adopt previously unused or modified equipment to suit the conditions on the Dacian battlefield.

Notable individuals

This is a list of several important Dacian individuals or those of partly Dacian origin. Zalmoxis, a semi-legendary social and religious reformer, eventually deified by the Getae and Dacians and regarded as the only true god.


Burebista was a king of Dacia, 70–44 BC, who united under his rule Thracians in a large territory, from today’s Moravia in the West, to the Southern Bug river (Ukraine) in the East, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains to Southern Dionysopolis. The Greeks considered him the first and greatest king of Thrace. Decebalus, a king of Dacia who was ultimately defeated by the forces of Trajan. Diegis was a Dacian chief, general and brother of Decebalus, and his representative at the peace negotiations held with Domitian (89 CE).

“The ducks come from the trucks” – Romanian language pun about a mistranslation (duck and truck sound like dac and trac, the ethnonyms for Dacian and Thracian).

Modern Romanian statue of the Dacian King Burebista (located in Călărași).


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