Touring the Balkans in the spring of 2013, I cruised by a monumental head of the Dacian leader Decebalus. He reigned 87 CE – 106 CE over a region that roughly corresponds to modern Romania. This sculpture is in many ways the quintessence of Balkan history: it commemorates acts of great savagery, touches on topics too often forgotten in Western Europe, and embodies powerfully emotional interpretations of the past that are unimpeded by historical accuracy or logic.
This image of Decebalus is the tallest rock sculpture in Europe: 40 meters high and 25 meters wide; [130 ft. by 80 ft.]. It was carved on a hill on the north [Romanian] side of the Danube between 1994 and 2004. The effort was funded by a Romanian businessman named Iosif Constantin Drăgan.
On the south [Serbian] side of the river is a plaque identifying the location of a bridge built by the troops of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who invaded Dacia and defeated Decebalus.
At the time of its conquest by Trajan, Dacia was inhabited by a people who spoke a satem language, part of the “eastern” or Balto-Slavic branch of Indo-European, as opposed to the centum branch of Indo-European, which includes Italic and Germanic languages. Romanian derives from Vulgate Latin, and maintains a significant number of words based on the military speech of Roman times. The use of variants of the name Romanian to describe the language dates back only to the 16th century, however. The first book on Romanian grammar was published in Vienna in 1780.
It is important to remember that the Dacians did not speak a language that derived from the Italic family of tongues. Dacian was not a Romance language.
The Dacians had traded and fought with the Greeks, who called them Getae, since the 7th century BCE. Their cultural development was influenced by both the Greeks and Celts. The Dacians were a warlike people, given to raids on the territories of Romans and Roman allies south of the Danube, and civil wars. They built defensive works that evidence advanced architectural and engineering skills. One mountain stronghold roughly contemporaneous with Decebalus consisted of a number of fortresses, walls, and towers. It covered an area of over 500 square kilometers [190 square miles].
The Roman Emperor Domitian [81 – 96] oversaw two major invasions of Dacia. The first ended in catastrophic defeat for the Romans. After a battlefield victory in the second invasion, Domitian, facing rebellions in other parts of the Empire, agreed to pay Decebalus a subsidy to keep the peace. This outraged many Romans. Domitian was assassinated in the year 96. Nerva, an elderly man, followed him. Nerva’s greatest contribution to the Roman Empire was his selection of Trajan as his successor.
Trajan came to power in 98. He invaded Dacia in the spring of 101, fighting a sanguinary though inconclusive battle against Decebalus. The Dacians and Romans both withdrew from the field. Decebalus quickly violated the terms of the treaty that had ended this round of fighting.
Trajan returned and ordered a bridge built over the Danube. It was a marvel of Roman military engineering, over 1,000 meters long [3,300 feet]. The bridge was designed and built under the supervision of Apollodorus of Damascus. Trajan also ordered roads be cut into the cliffs of the Iron Gates of the Danube, and a canal built to avoid the river’s rapids.
As Trajan gathered his forces for another invasion of Dacia, Decebalus sent spies who nearly succeeded in assassinating the Emperor. In 105 a deliberately paced Roman invasion began. By 106 the Romans had methodically proceeded through Dacia to its capital, which they razed to the ground.
Trajan’s account of the Dacian War is lost, as are the writings on the subject by major classical historians. The tombstone of a Roman cavalryman named Tiberius Claudius Maximus, however, tells us what happened at the end of the hunt for Decebalus. Tiberius did everything in his power to capture Decebalus alive. Decebalus, out of options, committed suicide. Tiberius presented Trajan with Decebalus’ head and right hand. These were brought to Rome in triumph.
The death of Decebalus effectively ended the war, aside from a few Dacian guerilla raids and a further scorched earth program by the Romans. As Tacitus noted in another context, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant: [the Romans] make a wasteland and call it peace.
After the native population had been driven off or extirpated, settlers were brought into Dacia from many parts of the Empire. Romanians have often claimed that their ancestry can be traced to this Roman colonization of the 1st century CE. Many object strenuously when others point out that there is no substantive evidence for the survival of Latin colonies in what is modern Romania from the overthrow of the Roman province in 270 to the first recorded mention of Romanian speaking Vlachs in Romania in 1230. For almost a thousand years, the geography now known as Romania was dominated by a succession of nomadic tribes. It appears more probable to many that the current Romanians derive from Romanized populations south of the Danube who moved into present day Romania in the late Middle Ages when the nomads’ hold on the region began to weaken.
But none of those debatable points affect the basic irony of the current Latin-based population of Romania adopting as a culture hero a military leader who did his considerable best to keep their ancestors from coming to live in his lands. Decebalus has been lionized as a Romanian hero by Romantic poets, artists, and movie makers, among others. Politicians ranging from 19th century nationalists to Stalinists and the Maoist wannabe Ceauşescu promoted Decebalus as well. Bank notes were printed pairing the mortal enemies Trajan and Decebalus as complementary heroes of the nation.
This might be likened to the Americans somehow honoring Washington and King George III together on a dollar bill. A more general and closer analogy can be found in the United States’ cultural appropriation of Native American chiefs, warriors, and clothing. The Balkan nostalgia and ahistorical enthusiasm for a people on the losing end of genocide is far from unique.
• Philip Matyszak’s The Enemies of Rome consists of 17 brief but detailed biographies of brave men and women who resisted the Thousand Year Reich of Rome.