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The Dacians: Wolf Warriors and Their People

The history the ancient Roman empire is a subject I have studied extensively for many years and with that always expanded my studies of interest regarding the different tribes of people and other civilizations they encountered and battled in their expansion across Europe, Norther Africa and into the East. One of these groups of people are one of my favorites during that period of history and they were the Dacians. The Dacians much like the Celts were not always one unified group of people but in Dacia, which today is modern Romania, they were many different tribes of people who lived in one territory but it would be their encounters with Rome that would eventually cause reason to become one Wolf and rip into the Lion of Rome. Here is their story.

The date and credibility of the earliest reports concerning a Dacian people are contested. The ancient assumption, that slaves, who figured in New Attican (4th century B.C.) plays under the name of Daos, were in fact Dacians, is less than plausible, for the first confirmed report of the Dacians’ existence refers to a time at least two centuries later, whilst the Romans first reached the Danube even later, between 76-73 B.C. The utility of our data is limited both by the fact that only fragments of the detailed chronicles survive, and by the fact that the reflections on individual peoples found in these chronicles often compress events stretching over several historical periods. Thus historical research has not been able to establish clearly whether King Oroles of Dacia made war against his eastern neighbours, the Celtic Bastarnae, in the 2nd century B.C., or in some much later, equally indeterminate period. There is a similar lack of consensus over such an essential question as the identity of King Rubobostes, who is claimed by one source to have built up the power of Dacia; was he the first significant Dacian ruler, some time during the 2nd century B.C., or was his name merely a misspelling of Burebista, the king who is generally credited with founding a powerful Dacia? A further difficulty derives from the fact that more than one name has been attributed to the Dacians. The tribes that spoke Thracian and lived in the eastern half of the Balkan peninsula, the lower Danube valley, and Transylvania were called by a variety of names in Greek and Roman literature. The Thracians proper, who had very early contact with Greek culture, inhabited a region bounded in the north by the Balkan Mountains and in the west by Macedonia, while the Getae lived in a region north of the Balkan Mountains, along the lower reaches of the Danube. The Dacians of Transylvania, who were the {1-43.} last Thracian-speaking people to come to the notice of Greco-Roman world, are also called Getae in Greek sources; and Roman historians, who drew upon Greek sources, often — and arbitrarily — translated the appellation ‘Getae’ as ‘Dacian’, even when, as it happened, they were referring to authentic Getae. Thus caution must be exercised when dealing with the fragmentary sources that mention Dacians in the context of the wars, waged by the Romans in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., on the northern borders of Macedonia, against various Thracian, Getian, and Celtic tribes. Continue reading HERE.

The Dacians or Geto – Dacians were part of the great people of the Thracians. They were organized into tribes that are scattered throughout the Tisa, the Carpathians, and the Black Sea, and one side of the lower Danube. They had a developed civilization , made money, searched for gold and silver and they made from them, with great skill, jewelry, religious objects, etc… was the first king who united , in 82 BC, the Geto-Dacian tribes into one kingdom, great and powerful. He had a conflict with the Roman emperor, Cesar. Burebista was assassinated in 44 BC. After the assassination of Burebista, the kingdom broke into 4 – 5 smaller kingdoms.

They dealt mainly with farming, bee keeping, grazing and making pottery. It have been found many ceramic vessels.

The ancient Greeks called them Dacians or Geto – Dacians. The Romans cold them Dacians and their territory was called Dacia. They were well known for their organization, their bravery and diligence. Continue reading HERE.

Romania was internationally recognized in 1878, but its history is much older. To understand the people who inhabit this country, one must go back thousands of years and meet the first king who united the local tribes, Burebista. He and his successor, Decebal, warred against Roman legions, and although they displayed extraordinary bravery and military prowess, it wasn’t enough to preserve their independence. In this book, you will discover how Romania developed from a distant Roman province on the fringes of the Roman Empire to a modern state in eastern Europe, one ready to adopt Western values.

Romania lies on Europe’s eastern border, and as such, it is often neglected in history. Although it is a culturally very rich country, the world displayed little interest in its promotion. By reading this captivating history of Romania, you will learn about the turbulent past of the region, the many wars it fought, and the people who led them. You will also learn the truth behind the character of Vlad the Impaler and decide for yourself if he was a ruthless, bloodthirsty ruler or a politician, tactician, and national hero.
Map of the Roman province of Dacia, part of modern-day Romania and Serbia, between the era of Trajan (106 CE) and the evacuation of the province in 271 CE. Roman settlements and legion garrisons with Latin names included. SOURCE

The Carpathian Mountains were a favorable environment for the Dacians’ economic development, primarily due to seasonal migration of livestock from the hills to the mountains (a practice called “transhumance”), the Dacians’ main occupation being sheep-herding. For practicing sheep-herding, the Dacians created paths through the mountains in order to reach the Carpathians’ abundant pastures. Transalpina is nowadays the most famous tourist route as the highest altitude road crossing the Carpathian Mountains; it still serves as a transhumance route, a tradition kept alive since the Dacians’ times.

Apart from transhumance, the Dacians were known for beekeeping and for their knowledge in the usage of medicinal plants. The tradition of producing honey and collecting medicinal plants was maintained until today in the traditional Transylvanian village and ancient works from the 1’st and 2’nd century BC certify that the Dacian practitioners of natural medicine had principles similar to those of the school of Hippocrates, father of medicine.

The usage of medicinal plants was woven with the spiritual-mystical side of the Dacian people and transposed into their rich mythology. Thus, according to the supreme Dacian deity, Zalmoxe, one could not try healing the body without healing the soul. Hereby, the Dacian people showed that they understood the connection between the body and the soul, these psycho-somatic notions being probably particularly rare at that time.

The Dacians believed in the immortality of the soul, for them death being only a passage from the material world to the spiritual one, governed by Zamolxes. The harmonious blending with Christianity led to the conservation of some aspects and traditions; Some Dacian deities evolved into Christian characters such as St. Elijah or Romanian fairy tale characters such as Prince Charming (Făt-Frumos – son of the sun) and Ileana Cosânzeana (daughter of the moon). SOURCE

The Dacian Wars

Deep within the wild and mysterious Carpathian Mountains of modern day Romania, nestled upon a series of hillsides, lie the ruins of an ancient metropolis that reached its heyday nearly two thousand years ago. It’s name was Sarmisegetuza, and it’s from this great mountain stronghold that Decebalus, the last king of the Dacia, masterminded his wars against the Romans.

After securing peace with Domitian in 89 CE, the Dacian King – Decebalus – was viewed as a rex amicus (a king friendly to Rome). However, the peace was seemingly weighed in favor of the Dacians, which irked the Romans. Worse still, the empire was suffering from shortages of metals – both gold (affecting the currency) and iron and copper (for arms and armor) – which needed to be addressed as a matter of priority. Fortunately for the Romans, Dacia was rich in these precious raw materials, and the belligerence of Decebalus and the lopsided Domitianic treaty meant that conflict could be justified. This is the casus belli given by Cassius Dio, writing some time after the war, but who nevertheless remains the most complete account of Trajan’s campaign.

Trajan’s Dacian War actually occurred in two stages. The first war lasted from 101-102 CE. The Romans advanced into Dacia from the city of Viminacium. The city had been the base for the Roman invasion of Dacian territory during Domitian’s war previously. After crossing the Danube River and marching into the heart of Dacia, Trajan and the Roman forces decisively defeated a Dacian army at the Second Battle of Tapae. With winter looming, Trajan hesitated in the advance on Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital. Decebalus took advantage of the pause and marched to assault the Roman province of Moesia.

A first battle, near the future city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, was a tentative Roman victory. The second engagement, the Battle of Adamclisi, was a hard-fought Roman victory. Decebalus, seeing that defeat was inevitable, requested a truce. Trajan agreed, under the provision that the Dacians yield territory held by the Romans, as well as the weapons and materials they had received after the treaty of 89 CE. Although Decebalus acquiesced to the terms, this would only be temporary… Continue reading HERE.

Historians believe that the Dacians and Getae were essentially the same group of tribes during successive periods, related to Thracian tribes from territory south of the Carpathian Mountains, but their exact relationship in place and time is a subject for debate. Those called the ‘Getae’ by ancient Greek sources were actively expanding by at least the 4th century BC; some enlisted as mercenaries in Roman armies during the 1st century BC, and others later clashed with the army of Augustus, fighting alongside the Sarmatians. The people whom the Romans called the ‘Dacians’ are best known from wars against the emperors Domitian in AD 85–89 and Trajan in 101–106. At their peak, the Dacians and Getae defeated neighbouring peoples stretching from modern Slovakia to southern Ukraine and it is believed that the effectiveness of their weapons caused modifications in Roman infantry armour.

The Dacian Draco

A Dacian Draco relief of Trajan’s Column.

The Dacian draco was a military standard used by troops of the ancient Dacian people, which can be seen in the hands of the soldiers of Decebalus in several scenes depicted on Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy. This wind instrument has the form of a dragon with open wolf-like jaws containing several metal tongues. The hollow dragon’s head was mounted on a pole with a fabric tube affixed at the rear. In use, the draco was held up into the wind, or above the head of a horseman, where it filled with air and gave the impression it was alive while making a shrill sound as the wind passed through its strips of material. The Dacian draco likely influenced the development of the similar Roman draco. SOURCE

This Dacian Draco military standard hangs above my desk in my living room.

Gods and Goddesses of The Dacians

GEBELEIZIS, He is the Thunder. He is a celestial god. His attribute is the eagle. Gebeleizis, represents the clear sky. Everything that disturbs his harmony, storms, clouds, have to be combated. That’s why the Dacians shoot arrows towards the sky, in the clouds – to drive them away, to help Gebeleizis (this custom is related by Herodotus).

The goddess Bendis is corresponding to Artemis, in the Greek mythology, or Diana, in the Roman mythology. Therefore, Bendis is a goddess of the moon, of the forest. Herodotus wrote that this goddess is adored by the Thracian women, being borrowed from the populations at the north, who can only be the Dacians.

The cult of this goddess was confirmed by the archeological discoveries (a head of bronze found at Costesti, a medallion of clay, discovered at Sarmizegetusa, and a bronze bust from Piatra Rosie).

Her cult survived during the period of Roman occupation, in the form of Roman godess Diana. The name of Diana can be traced in the Romanian words zana, sanziana (Sancta Diana) or cosanziana (Quo Sancta Diana).

Derzelas (Darzalas) is a Thracian chthonic god of health and human spirit’s vitality.

Darzalas was the Great God of Hellenistic Odessos (modern Varna) since the 4th century BC and was frequently depicted on its coinage and portrayed in numerous terra cotta figurines, as well as in a rare 4th-century BC lead one, found in the city. There was a temple dedicated to him with a cult statue, and in 238 AD, games (Darzaleia) were held in his honor, possibly attended by Gordian III. Darzalas was often depicted in himation, holding cornucopiae with altars by his side. Continue reading HERE.

Herodotus goes on to describe a ritual that the Getae perform once every five years. For this ritual, the Getae would cast lots to determine who to send to Zalmoxis as their messenger. He would be given instructions as to what favors the Getae want their god to grant them on that occasion. After that, the messenger would be sent to Zalmoxis via the following means:

“They arrange three lances, with men to hold them, and then others grab the hands and feet of the one being sent to Zalmoxis and throw him up into the air and on to the points of the lances. If he dies from being impaled, they regard this as a sign that the god will look favorably on their requests. If he does not die, however, they blame this failure on the messenger himself, call him a bad man, and then find someone else to send.” SOURCE

Dacians and The Wolf

The wolf is the symbolic animal of the Dacians, who also called themselves “wolves”. The legend says they could turn into wolves. Some legends say that a big white wolf fought next to the Dacians when their capital Sarmizegetusa fell to the Romans. SOURCE

The oldest mentioning of the werewolf comes from 6th century BC and has its origins on the actual territory of Transylvania, according to the ancient historian Herodotus, all of this happening centuries before any other European references in regard with this subject.

The Legend of the Great White Wolf states that in lost times, a high priest of Zamolxis was roaming through Dacia’s forests in order to help the needy. Zalmoxis realizing the potential of his servant, called him into the mountains to be close to him. Far beyond human territory, the beasts of Dacia considered him their leader, wolves appreciating him the most. After some time Zalmoxis summoned him and asked him to serve in another way, and with his approval, the deity transformed him into a large and mighty White Wolf, the most respected and feared beast from all of Dacia. His purpose was to gather all the wolves from the forests and protect Dacia when needed. Whenever the Dacians were in danger, the wolves came to their aid when they heard the howl of the Great White Wolf.

The incorrect international adaptation of the werewolf concept, due to the lack of information and folklore research, reinvented him as a negative character, although according to the Dacian mythology this creature has a divine role of man’s protector.

The Dacians used to call themselves “daoi”, a word inherited from the ancient Phrygian language, daos, meaning wolf, as they had a strong connection to these animals. Their battle flag called Draco was formed out of a wolf’s head with its mouth wide open alongside the body of a dragon, symbolizing the spirit of this vivid animal guardian.

Thus, the basic legend of the Great White Wolf has its origins in the Dacians’ respect for the wolf and from this picture the werewolf idea came to life. However, its purpose was a noble one, as the werewolf was protecting the Dacian people in times of war. SOURCE

The legend of the Big White Wolf is part of the Romanian folklore. That means it has been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times. Here is my own translation of the legend from Romanian to English:

The Big White Wolf is not an animal, he is human…

Once, in forgotten times, a priest of Zamolxis was wandering the realms of Dacia without respite. He was helping those in need, and conveying to the Geto-Dacians that the great god was watching over them. In contrast to all others, without being old, he had hair and beard as white as snow. His faith, courage, and perseverance were known not only by humans and by Zamolxis himself, but also by the wild beasts. The god, realizing the value of his servant, keeps him at his home in the mountains to have him closer. Far away from humans, the priest continued to serve with the same determination as before. In short time, the wild beasts of Dacia came to obey him and consider him their leader. He was most adored by the wolves, for they were the only ones without a leader, only hunger keeping them in a pack.

After a while, Zamolxis speaks to his priest and decides that time has come for the priest to serve him in another shape, thus transforming him into an animal. However not into any animal, but into the most feared and respected beast of Dacia. Into a White Wolf, as big and strong as a bear, giving him the mission to gather all the wolves from the forests in order to defend the realm. In this way, whenever the Dacians where in danger, the wolves came to their aid. It was enough for the Big White Wolfs howl to be heard and from wherever they were, the wolves jumped forth to defend those who had become their brothers. But the White Wolf was also a judge, punishing the cowards and the traitors.

One day however, the god summoned his servant again, this time to give him the possibility to choose for the last time whether he wants to remain wolf or become human again. Although feeling sorrow in his heart, knowing what times are to come, he decides to remain by his god, hoping that this way he will better serve his territory and his people. Despite the vigilance of the Geto-Dacians, of the wolves and of the Big White Wolf, the Romans manage to infiltrate into their ranges. When the big invasion was about to start, the Romans planted in the hearts of some cowards the seed of mistrust towards the big god. Thus, some Dacians start fearing that the god will not be by their side in the great battle. The traitors taken over by fear start killing all the wolves that come in their way hoping that one of them would be the Big White Wolf whose head they could offer to the Romans in exchange for their lives. The wolves that managed to escape run into the heart of the mountains and never returned to help the brothers who had betrayed them. The White Wolf and Zamolxis withdraw into the Sacred Mountain from where they will see with grief in the heart how the Geto-Dacians will be conquered by the Romans because of the betrayal.

Dacian Wolf Legend

The Dacians had such a rich culture in all regards and it still carries great influence in Romania and surrounding areas to this day. As you have seen there is so much written about them and yet there is still so much we do not know but hopefully through ethical Archeology and other research we can uncover more about the fierce and proud Wolf warriors and their people of Dacia.

Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire – Episode 6: Dacian Wars (Documentary)

Further Resources

The Dacians, The Wolf Warriors

The Celts and The Dacians

The Dacians: Wolf Warriors

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