Ancient Romania

First the Thracians, and later the Dacians fought to maintain their unique culture in the mountains of the southern Carpathian basin, eventually adopting a language of their Roman conquerors.

The Ancient Carpathian Tribes
Anthopomorphic Head, 6500-3500 BCE

Anthopomorphic Head, 6500-3500 BCE

The Thracian tribesmen, barbarous, hardy, and inured to war were much used as mercenaries by the Greek kings of Syria, Pergamum, Bithynia, etc. Thracian mercenaries were always in demand, as they were fierce fighters, although a bit expensive at times, and liable to switch sides. Thracians were considered by most to be the most ferocious fighters, especially in regions similar to their own rocky hills. The principal Thracian weapons in the fifth and fourth centuries were the spear and the knife. Much earlier Thracian infantry had been armed with axes, while their leaders rode chariots. Thracian light infantry could be armed with javelins, slings, or bows, with the first predominating. Thracian warriors, particularly the hillmen, were especially famous for an unusual weapon which combined elements of sword, sickle and polearm, which was called the Rhomphaia, and was carried increasingly by Thracian infantry in the centuries following Alexander the Great’s death until it became a trademark of the mercenary Thracian peltast. Even the Romans dreaded this fearsome weapon.

Thracian Warfare

An ancient Dacian helmet

Cavalry armament for all Thracians except the Getae consisted of 2 cornel wood javelins that could be thrust with or thrown, plus the usual Kopis. The Getae often used bows instead of javelins, and the akinakes instead of the kopis. Thracian tribes also used more exotic weapons such as spiked axles, or carts rolled down steep hills. Thracians were known for their hit and run tactics consisting of random melee attacks followed by quick retreats. The backbone of the Thracian military were the Thracian Peltast, a type of light infantry that was equally at home fighting hand-to-hand and at a distance (throwing javelins). Peltast were unarmored except for their curved shields. They carried some form of short sword or melee weapon and an assortment of javelins. The wealthy nobility wore helmets with pointed tops in order to accommodate their top-knot hairstyles.

The Thracians were extremely patralineal. Apart from practicing polygamy, men considered women placed on earth to pleasure men. Thracians considered death an honor and accepted it as a natural part of life. The Thracians were extremely proud people. If a man’s father was murdered, it was considered practical to slaughter the murderer, his family (extended), and his livestock. Also, upon the death of a husband, the wives would fight over who was loved more by the deceased. Usually determined by the winner of a match to the death. The wives would tie their left legs together and fight with strips of cowhide and a staff. The winner of this death match would then commit suicide and be given the honor of being buried at the right hand of her husband. Centuries later the Thracians were gradually assimilated into the Dacians, a culture thought to be the ancestral Romanian people, and perhaps of early Thracian descent.

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Dacian Origins

A Dacian warrior of the 1st century holding his distinctive Rhomphaia sword

In ancient times the Dacians inhabited a large area, including nowadays Romania, plus Moldova and parts of Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine. The Dacians were a part of the Indo European family of peoples. They were a sedentary people of brave and honest men, who lived a modest life. Their bravery was mostly due to their belief in immortality, which was taught to them by their prophet and god, Zalmoxis. The most important kings of the Dacians were Dromihetes, Burebista and Decebalus; they managed to organize powerful states and proved to be skillful military strategists. The civilization of the Dacians developed very much between 2nd century BC and 1st century AD, especially in the area of the capital of the Dacian state, Sarmizegetusa Regia. The system of fortifications around Sarmizegetusa, the sacred architecture, the workshops where iron was processed, are all unique in ancient Europe, outside the Roman-Greek world.

The Dacians fought fiercely with the Romans, but they were finally defeated. A great part of the territory inhabited by the Dacians was transformed into a Roman province, Dacia, which existed from 106-271 AD. In Dacia came a large number of Roman colonists, from all over the empire. Thus, during the Roman rule in Dacia, most of the Dacians were Romanized. The Romanians, who are the descendants of the Romanized Dacians, continue to live on the same land as their ancestors.

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Roman Dacia

Dacians fighting during the Roman conquest


The Roman province of Dacia was limited to the modern Romanian regions of Transylvania, the Banat and Oltenia, and temporally, Muntenia and southern Moldova. It was under a governor of praetorian rank, and Legio XIII Gemina with numerous auxiliaries had their fixed quarters in the province. Due to a decrease in population of the conquered territory, caused by the Dacian Wars and consequent flight of many Dacians north of the Carpathians, colonists were brought over to cultivate the land and work the gold mines alongside the native Dacian population. Today these seem people can be seen on the ancient monument in Rome, Trajan’s Column, submitting to Trajan during the Dacian Wars. The colonists, besides the Roman troops, were mainly first- or second-generation Roman colonists from Noricum or Pannonia, later supplemented with colonists from other provinces: South Thracians (from the provinces of Moesia or Thrace) and settlers from the Roman provinces of Asia Minor.

For protection against the attacks of the Free Dacians, Carpians and other neighboring tribes, the Romans built forts and delimited the Roman held territory with limes. Three great military roads were constructed, that linked the chief towns of the province. A fourth road, named after Trajan, ran through the Carpathians and entered Transylvania through the Turnu Roau mountain pass. The chief towns of the province were Sarmizegetusa (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa), Apulum, Napoca and Potaissa).

In 129, Hadrian divided Dacia into Dacia Superior and Dacia Inferior, the former comprising Transylvania and the latter Oltenia. Marcus Aurelius redivided it into three (tres Daciae): Porolissensis, from the chief town Porolissum, Apulensis, from Apulum, and Malvensis from Malva (site unknown). The tres Daciae formed a single society insofar as they had a common capital, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, and a common assembly, which discussed provincial affairs, formulated complaints and adjusted the incidence of taxation. However, in other respects they were practically independent provinces, each under an ordinary procurator, subordinate to a governor of consular rank.

A map of ancient Dacia

A map of ancient Dacia

After the Dacian Wars, Dacians were recruited into the Roman Army, and were employed in the construction and guarding of Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia, or elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Several Cohors Primae Dacorum (“First cohort of Dacians”) and Alae Dacorum fighting in the ranks of the Legion were stationed at Deva (Chester), Vindolanda (on the Stanegate) and Camboglanna (Birdoswald Fort or Castlesteads), in Britannia. The Marcus Aurelius’s Column and the Arch of Galerius depict Dacian troops with their characteristic phrygian cap and Draco. The English word dagger might come from Vulgar Latin daca, a Dacian knife, and it also may be related with the medieval Romanian word daga, a kind of knife with three blades, used only for assassination.

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Dacian Society and Belief

Tarabostes, the last King, and leader of the Dacian uprising

According to Herodotus History (book 4) account of the story of Zalmoxis (or Zamolxis), the Getae (speaking the same language as the Dacians – 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. The chief priest was also the king’s chief adviser. The Goth Jordanes in his Getica (The origin and deeds of the Goths), gives account of Dicineus (Deceneus), the highest priest of Buruista (Burebista). Besides Zalmoxis, the Dacians believed in other deities such as Gebeleizis.

Dacians were divided into two classes: the aristocracy (tarabostes) and the common people (comati). The aristocracy alone had the right to cover their heads and wore a felt hat (hence pileati, their Latin name). The second class, 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.

A Warrior with a Rhomphaia from a Roman marble

A Warrior with a Rhomphaia from a Roman marble

Dacians had developed the Murus dacicus, characteristic to their complexes of fortified cities, like their capital Sarmizegetusa in today Hunedoara (Romania). The degree of their urban development can be seen on Trajan’s Column and in the account of how Sarmizegetusa was defeated by the Romans. The Romans identified and destroyed the water pipelines of the Dacian capital, only thus being able to end the long siege of Sarmizegetusa.

Greek and Roman chroniclers record the defeat and capture of Lysimachus in the 3rd century BC by the Getae (Dacians) ruled by Dromihete, their military strategy, and the release of Lysimachus following a debate in the assembly of the Getae.

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