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Dacia the Contested Empire

Isaac C. Lopez
University of Texas at San Antonio
May 10, 2007
edited October 18, 2015

The empire that has come to be known as Dacia or Getae-Dacia was at its peak just before its

conquest by the Romans at the beginning of the second century A.C.E., occupying the land that is now
Romania, from the mouth of the Danube River to the Austrian Alps in the west to the plateau of Eastern
Gall and the steppe country of the Dobruja in the east. 1 The Dacians were a Thracian people whose
empire was forged in the cradle of the Carpathian Hungaro-Romanian Bronze Age and reached its peak
at the end of the late Iron Age, known as La T e, by the influence of the Celts that came to inhabit the
lands, bringing with them the knowledge of iron working. Dacia's decline and conquest at the hands of
the Roman Emperor Trajan came during the beginning stages of the European Feudal Age. Some
scholars say that Getae was the Greek appellation for the peoples and Dacia was Roman. It could be
that the names are both Iranian in origin.2 It is believed that the Dacians inhabited the Carpathians from
as early as the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.3
Many peoples came to occupy Dacia throughout the ages, bringing with them a diversity of
influences as evidenced by the archaeology of the region. Passionate, and oftentimes exaggerated
Romanian scholar Romulus Seisanu describes the greatness of the Dacian Empire: he Getae, or
Dacians engaged in many wars of defense or conquest, both against the barbarian neighboring tribes,
whom they subdued and compelled to live in peace, and against the Egyptians, the Persians, the
Macedonians, and the Romans.4 Indeed, Romanian Studies Professor S. Mehedinti describes the area
that was once Dacia as a hub lying in the center of many diverse cultures such as Greece, the Balkans,
Arabic tribes to the East and various northern Germanic barbarian tribes to the north. It was he last
change of direction in the course of the Danube before it flows into the sea, he gateway of the
invaders,and quoting an anonymous Romanian chronicler, as placed in the way of all evil comings.5
The earliest archaeology reveals similarities to western European Bronze Age artifacts such as those of
the Italics in pottery and other artistry. Later archaeology reveals more Eastern influence such as the
curved swords of the Arabian lands, during the Scythian invasions of the Hallstatt Period, or early Iron
The discussion of the origins of the Dacian people is a question of import to Romanians of today

because various ethnic groups would lay claim to being the heirs of this empire, and thus somehow to
the region. It may be difficult to study an empire in such circumstances as much of the scholarship
surrounding who the true Dacian people were carries with it great political consequences. Modern
Romanian scholars seem to prefer the Dacian people be linked more closely to ancient Western
European peoples than Arabic peoples. Another hotly debated issue surrounding Dacia is what exactly
happened to them after the Roman conquest. Many modern Hungarian and German scholars would say
that the people of Dacia actually evacuated the area when the Roman Emperor Aurelius recalled the
Roman officials from Dacia in 275 A.C.E. Whole towns in a great migration abandoned the Danubian
lands and went elsewhere, leaving the ancestors of the Hungarians behind and making them the rightful
ethnic heirs to Romania. Modern Romanian scholars would say this is absurd, and that no such thing is
possible, that modern Romanians are the heirs of Dacia.
Early Dacia: The People of the Carpathian-Danube
Bronze hoards and vessels uncovered in the Carpathian-Danube region of about 1000 B.C.E link
the Dacian people with those of Bohemia and Hungary. The collected lectures of Vasile Parvan, a leader
in archaeological excavations of the Carpathian-Danube and a professor of Bucharest University in
Romania in the earlier part of the twentieth century, inform much of my research of this time period. He
describes: he main characteristics of the industrial products of Dacia are derived from the west rather
than from the east. In other words, there is a more clearly marked connection with the west of Central
Europe, including Northern Italy, than there is with Eastern and Southern Europe or Asia Minor. 6
Metallic vases and hemispherical cauldrons link this area with that of Northern Italy, where it is believed
that the Carpatho-Danubian people enjoyed extensive trade routes with the Villanovan people, one of
the earliest Iron Age cultures identified in particular with cremation and burial urns. 7
Around 1600 B.C.E. the Scythian people from what is now Iran, began migrating West toward
Southern Russia, and by 800 B.C.E. the Carpathian-Danube areas as evidenced by tombs, vases, and
some swords unearthed there. It was at this time that the people of Dacia were in the midst of the

Hallstatt Period (early Iron Age), a time that came to a halt with the waves of Scythian invaders.
Artifacts of this period in Dacia do not compare with he magnificence of the Scythian tombs of South
Russia,8 a fact which attests to the Scythian presence in Dacia not being so strongly felt. The Scythians,
arriving at a time when Dacia was already eavily influenced by the forms of the first Iron Age as it
developed in Italy and the Alpine lands . . . put a stop to these relations with the West. 9 This came at an
unfortunate time, since this was the time that Transylvania had eached its highest point of artistic
development before the Scythian invasion.10
The Scythians did not succeed in onqueringDacia, but inhabited various pockets of the region,
influencing the culture, but also causing conflict. The Scythian people were nomadic bowmen whose
military technology was not as advanced as the more agriculturally experienced Dacians, already masters
at using the bow and arrow on horseback. evertheless their constant plunderings combined with the
nomadic nature of their life to disturb and impoverish, during the next few centuries11 served to
diminish the inertia with which Dacia had been flourishing culturally in preceding centuries. The
Scythians effectively delayed the advancement of Dacia's participation in the Hallstatt period, only to be
continued once again through the influence of the Celts later on. This could be considered a Time of
Troubles for the Dacians because it was through these constant battles that he nobles . . . suffered
heavily. They were for the most part either killed in battle, or reduced to serfdom or else to the status of
the free commoners.12 However, orth Thracian nobility did not disappear completely. It was merely
being reorganized, for in the La T e period we shall see it once again in all its ancient power and
glory.13 It is during this period of Scythian occupation that archaeologists uncovered Dacian yataghans,
or curved daggers that are identifiably Persian in origin, which is evidence of the influence of the
Scythian people. Curved daggers such as these are trademark weapons of the East.
The Dacian people were a Thracian people, as mentioned in Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey and
mentioned by Herodotus as he second-most numerous people in the part of the worldknown by him.14
irgil [in The Aeneid] mentions that the Agathyrsi [the Scythian-Thracian-Dacian people] used to paint

their bodies.15 Indeed, it was around the sixth century, a ery rich, and on the whole, fairly
peacefultime in Dacia, when the Greeks arrived.16 The Scythian chieftains of the region ven regarded
it as very fashionable to become thoroughly Hellenized,though the rosperity of this little Greek world
of the Black Sea coast depended to a very great extent upon the individual caprice of the Scythian rulers
of the hinterland.17 All of these foreign lords remained in the region of Dacia, but Parvan points out that
the Dacians which ad settled down long since, accepted the rule of these lords of the Steppe, though
they were ultimately to succeed in denationalizing them.18
The Celts
By the fourth century there was a great influx of Celtic people throughout the lands of Dacia.
This was the peak of Dacian civilization, and the La T e period (late Iron Age). Indeed, Parvan says
that ne might well maintain that Dacia had become completely Celtic.19 lexander the Great, King
of Macedonia, also made an expedition against the Getae of the Danube regionaround the fourth century
B.C.E., but reat conqueror though he was, Alexander was nevertheless obliged to retreat. 20
This was also the period of the famous king Burebista. he Getic king Burebista should stand
out above all others. His period was precisely that of the fine Dacian La T e III, and only his power
and his wealth can adequately account for the monumental greatness of an effort of which even the
Romans themselves would scarcely have been capable.21 Burebista (rule 82-44) is known for unifying
the Thracian people, conquering the Celts of the Ukraine region, nationalizing the ones within the
Dacian empire, but most of all for siding with Pompey against Julius Caesar, which inspired the ire of
Caesar. During his reign, the Dacian Empire covered more land than the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
1914, extending from ources of the Danube in the west to the Black Sea and the Bug River in the
east, and from the northern Carpathians to the gorges of the [Balkans] to the south. 22
Parvan describes the Dacian dwelling places of this period:
he inhabitants of the Dacian villages of the La T e period lived in fairly
small square houses (of dimensions of approximately six feet by twelve), all crowded
together. The walls were constructed either of timber or, if near the Danube, of reeds

held together by rough mortar made of earth and built exactly as in the Neolithic Age.
The roofs were either of straw or of reeds, while a ditch and palisade defended the
house on its most exposed side. As a general rule, these houses were built on a
promontory situated near a river or a lake and easy to defend on the land side. The
people burned their dead and buried the ashes either in the neighborhood of the
village or under the actual houses in the village itself. 23

He continues:
he villages are very small and hardly cover more than from three and a
half to five acres. The number of dwellings cannot have been more than a hundred or
so. It would be out of place to speak of streets, for all we find are narrow and irregular
passages between the houses.24

By looking at the particular construction and geographical positioning of the fortresses of the
Dacian Empir,e one can surmise the greatness of the Dacian princes or peripheral ruling class, as well as
their capability of being centers for the accumulation of booty and great riches.
he mountain fortress of Southwest Transylvania . . . are like a series of
towers with concentric terraces rising up to the summit, where the dwelling of the
prince himself was situated. This latter comprises one or more square towers, with
walls of as much as nine feet in thickness. The terraces, which must have called for the
application of an enormous amount of labor to the rocky massif are themselves
protected on the outer side by palisaded earthworks 25

Archeology has discovered xes, knives, swords, and lances of South-eastern Dacia [which]
frequently correspond with those of Illyria, and even with those so far afield as Italy.26 The ax was a
typical weapon of this period because of its usefulness to the peasants as a tool as well. In the
Transylvanian Bronze age, there were bronze, copper, and gold axes used. Unique to Dacia, as opposed
to the West and in particular the Celts, were curved knives and swords, shaped like scythes, obviously of
Scythian origin. eltic swords were quite well known in Dacia, but yataghans [scythe-shaped swords]
were nevertheless used in preference to them.27 Another object that sets Dacia aside from the Celts and
the West is the dragon crest, which is comprised of wolf's head and serpent's tail, very much in the style

of the Arab cultures which often adorned their artifacts with zoomorphic figures.
Dacian religion remained northern in character despite the Celtic influences. heir industrial art
is geometric in design, even when they adopt decorative patterns with animal heads. Their religion
remains aniconic and their supreme god is still the sole master of the clouded sky whom they worship in
caves or on high mountain peaks.28 This od of the hidden skythey called Zalmoxis. Aniconically
represented, that is without zoomorphic or anthropomorphic imagery, but rather mathematical and
geometric shapes, the Dacian deity more closely resembled a Scythian deity rather than those of the
Celts. Nevertheless, like other lands of the region that underwent Hellinization, many of the Greek gods
were worshiped at later periods, soon to be supplanted by Roman ones, such as the cult of Cybele. 29
Zalmoxis, along with Dionysus, were particularly Thracian deities that came to be honored among the
larger pantheon of the Greeks and Romans once imaged gods became customary for Dacian people.30
Roman Conquest
For years the Dacians managed to keep the Roman forces at bay, but allowing many citizens to
live within the boundaries of the empire. After Burebista's aiding in the conspiracy against Julius Caesar,
(who was also assassinated through conspiracy at a later date), the exorbitant tributes Decebalus, the
last of the Dacian kings exacted from the Roman Empire, as well as the many forts and growing army of
Dacia, raised the fear and ire of Emperor Trajan of Rome.31 Authorized by the Senate, Trajan engaged in
campaigns to subdue Dacia. rajan, who had led his best legions to the Danube, was obliged to make
two expeditions. The first . . . ended in a peace which Decebalus violated. The second . . . ended in the
final defeat of the Dacians in the Roman conquest.32 This monumental conquest for Emperor Trajan
prompted his erecting the monumental achievement of Trajan's column in Trajan's Forum, 30 meters high
with a spiraling depiction of the campaign and conquest of Dacia, pictorially depicting the conflict much
like a modern comic book.
Dacia had already been a subject of Rome since the reign of Claudius around 46 A.C.E. 33 The
Latinization process had begun already, and after Dacia's final defeat in 106 A.C.E., Trajan sent imperial

officials and colonists to thoroughly Latinize the region. Even after Trajan's death in 117 A.C.E. Dacia
adopted the Latin language and became one of Rome's strongest territories. By 275 A.C.E. Aurelius
recalled the legions and officials that had run Dacia under Roman rule, leaving Dacia to run itself.34
There are many reasons postulated for this. Around this time Rome was in dire trouble trying to fight
back its own invaders from the north. Perhaps Rome also trusted in the thorough Latinization of the
Dacian lands, leaving them to their own devices.
The Latin Dacians that survived would be the ancestors of today's Romanians, a people who's
language is considered by some to be one of the closest linguistically with Latin, with a mixture of Slavic
etymology. s [Dacia] was a rich country,describes Romanian linguistic scholar Virgiliu Stefanescu
Draganesti, t was quickly colonized by the Romans who brought there a large number of colonists as
stated by historians from all over the Roman Empire, but chiefly from Rome and Italy, a fact proved by
present-day Romanian, which is a Romance language, closer to Latin than Portugues . . . as well as
French, Italian, Spanish, etc., and in very many respects very close to Italian. 35
Some historians, mostly German and Hungarian, claim that the original Dacians abandoned their
land with Aurelius' evacuation of the Roman officials in fear of the onslaught of barbarian invasions,
traveling south of the Danube. Coupled with this theory is the notion that modern Romanians are not in
fact the descendants of Dacian peoples. Seisanu's argument against this theory stresses the hypothesis
that Roman military did not abandon the Dacian territories out of fear of the barbarians that were to
invade Dacia, but in order concentrate its efforts on Rome itself, in urgent need of fortification in the
face of its own barbarian invasions. He says:
t is obviously impossible that all the natives should have left Dacia in this way. It is
barely possible that some of the inhabitants of the cities might have been able to follow
the legions across the Danube. But the peasants attached to the land of their ancestors
certainly remained where they were, whatever the conditions of existence may have
been and however insecure may have been the country, exposed as it was to the
barbarian invasions. There is no example in antiquity or in modern times of a

sedentary population, living in the country of its ancestors, abandoning en masse its
homes, its cities, its villages, its houses, its farm, all its wealth, out of fear of a
probable or possible invasion.36

Dacia as Empire
Dominic Lieven in Empire: the Russian Empire and its Rivals describes two main schools of
thought concerning what makes up an empire. The first, put forward by Michael Doyle describes an
empire along the lines of its elationship between [a] metropolitan core and colonial periphery, usually
viewed in terms of economic exploitation and cultural aggression, and always in terms of political
domination.The second emphasizes he great military and absolutist land empires, often linked to
universalist religions, which existed from antiquity into the twentieth century.37 Lieven goes on to
include some of his own thoughts on what makes up an empire such as significant cultural influence on
the periphery during that period and a cultural legacy that would stand the test of time.
In light of these theories, the question can be raised: could Dacia be considered an empire? And
furthermore: in what ways? There are two obvious and major difficulties in studying an empire such as
Dacia. First, it is such an ancient culture that the majority of knowledge we can glean from this culture is
through archaeology and the study of linguistics. Archaeology attests to the fact that the region that was
once called Dacia maintained a culture in the midst of many various invasions and colonizations, such as
the Villanovans, Scythians, Greeks, and Celts up until the time of the Roman conquest, and then various
other barbarians after that. Whether the Dacians maintained control and to what degree throughout
these waves of invasion is left to some speculation. The second difficulty in studying such an empire is
the extreme bias on the part of modern historians to write Dacian history according to their own political
agendas. Linguistics attests to the fact that the Romanians were obviously thoroughly Latinized, and that
pre-Latin Dacian must have been some sort of Indo-European language related to that of other Thracian
As mentioned previously, Seisanu describes how Dacians ngaged in many wars of defense or
conquest.Mehedinti describes Dacia as a cultural hub, that though it did not control the periphery

cultures as proposed by Doyle, it somehow became the receptacle of the various cultural ideals. In fact,
it is a recurring theme throughout my research that Dacia quickly assimilated other cultures, and by no
means was a religious absolutist empire as described by Lieven's second model. The Dacians adopted
many cultural traits of the Villanovans, such as their cremation practices; the Scythians, including the
yataghan, animal-like art designs, geometric depictions of God; from the Greeks various gods, and from
the Romans the Latin language.
During the La T e period do we perhaps see Dacia as a more suitable candidate for being an
empire. Under Burebista and the preceding kings, Dacia held a vast region, conquered and subdued the
Celts of the Ukraine, nationalized the diverse peoples within, and maintained very powerful princedoms
fortified within rich and lavish mountain fortresses. Another great testimony to Dacia's greatness is the
fact that Rome feared Dacia and had such difficulty in finally conquering the land. After years of
negotiations, trade, even making them subjects, it took two campaigns to finally subdue Dacia at the
hands of Trajan. I will not attempt to draw a conclusion as to whether or not the Hungarian and German
scholars are correct in proposing that the Dacians abandoned the lands after Aurelius' recall of Roman
officials in 275 A.C.E, or that the Romanian scholars are justly outraged at the preposterousness of such
a notion, but the fact that such a heated debate exists bears testimony to the fact that Dacia's cultural
influence and political importance bear bear grave implications on the national identity of diverse groups.
This is perhaps the greatest argument in defense of Dacia's import as an empire and cultural legacy for
future generations.
Draganesti, V. St. Romanian Continuity in Dacia. Miami Beach, FL Romanian Historical Studies,
Lieven, Dominic. Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals. New Haven and London, Yale
University Press. 2000.
Mehedinti, S. What is Transylvania? Miami Beach, FL. Romanian Historical Studies, 1986.

Parvan, Vasile. Dacia. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press. 1979.

Seisanu, Romulus. Rumania. Miami Beach, FL. Romanian Historical Studies. 1987.
Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Malden, MA. Blackwell Publishing, 1992.


Parvan, pg 1
Parvan pg 84
Parvan pg 84
Seisanu pg 10
Mehedinti pg 19
Parvan pg4
Parvan pg 18
Parvan pg 39
Parvan pg 49
Parvan pg 57
Parvan pg 67
Parvan pg 73
Parvan pg 73
Herodotus Book 5 qtd in Parvan pg 74
Seisanu pg 9
Parvan pg 75
Parvan pg 86
Parvan pg 75
Parvan pg 115
Seisanu pg 11
Parvan pg 121
Seisanu pg 12
Parvan pg 115
Parvan pg 116
Parvan pg 119
Parvan pg 122
Parvan pg 124
Parvan pg 140
Turcan pg 65
Parvan pg 140
Seisanu pg 13
Seisanu pg 13
Seisanu pg 16
Seisanu pg 17
Draganesti pg 7
Seisanu pg 24
Lieven pg 25