In the following paper, the roots of identity will be analyzed on the basis of the historical link between the inhabitants of today’s Romania and the Roman Empire.
Romania is a relatively young country, with unity being achieved only at the turn of the 20th century within the so-called Kingdom of Greater Romania (1918). Nevertheless, language has always been a central point of connection between what had been the people of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova. As historian Neagu Djuvara points out, Romania is the only big country in Europe whose unity is founded upon a common language, as opposed to a common history. It is crucial to notice that Romanian is the only Romantic, Latin-based language in the middle of a Slavic sea-Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and Serbian all have Slavic roots. To be fair, the Slavic influence can be felt in the Romanian language as well, as it constitutes one of the layers of the language. Yet, this layer has not altered its Latin nature. A fun fact is that Romanian sounds more similar than anything else to dialects of southern Italy. How did this come to be? It is the responsibility of the Roman Empire.
The Kingdom of Dacia
Romanian history can be traced through written word back to the 6th century B.C., more specifically to Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, who mentions the ‘Getae’ also called ‘Dacians’ in his account of the military campaign by the Persian emperor Darius I against the Scythians. The separate Dacian tribes had been unified by the leader Burebistas through military conquest. The newly established Kingdom of Dacia was, at its highest, spread on a territory encompassing southern Ukraine, the Pannonian Plain, and northern Bulgaria.
The first interaction between Dacia and the Roman Empire is signaled by Burebistas’ interference in the internal affairs of the latter. During the Roman civil war, the Dacian leader had sided with Pompey. The victory of the rival Caesar put Dacia under threat, but with the death of both Caesar and Burebistas (44 BC), the danger vanished. Nevertheless, the tribal entities of the Kingdom had torn it apart once more. Also, as the Romans were moving closer to the south of the Danube River (present-day Bulgaria), the necessity to eliminate any effort of consolidation by the Dacians was increasing.
Re-unification was achieved by Decebalus (87-106) with the new Kingdom of Dacia, a less-extended, but more cohesive entity than Burebistas’. At this moment, the leadership of the Romans had been assumed by the Emperor Trajan, who was determined to put a stop to the rising power of the neighboring kingdom. As such, in 101 AD, 11 Roman legions were moving north towards Sarmizegethusa, the capital of Dacia. It was the first episode of a series of conflicts called the Dacian Wars. This first military engagement concluded with the Roman victory, and with harsh conditions against the Dacians: for Decebalus this had been only a temporary ceasefire. Among the conditions were the destruction of fortresses, orders to keep away from allying with Rome’s enemies, to accept Roman architects and engineers, and ultimately to obey Trajan’s directions.
Decebalus did not abide by such rules, and as a result, in 105 AD, after engineer Apollodorus of Damascus built a bridge over the Danube, Trajan initiated a second military campaign, the result of which had been the transformation of the Kingdom of Dacia into Roman Province, with the capital in Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa (established around 108-110 AD). During the war, Decebalus had killed himself on the verge of being captured. Geopolitically, the conquest of Dacia was highly beneficial in terms of border security along the Danube river, together with the elimination of a powerful adversary which was creating instability for the Empire.
Dacia: the Roman Province
Rome’s dominion over Dacia lasted 165 years, period during which the two cultures had been mixed by means of the administration, the military, and the colonists. Assimilation had been intense, rapid and successful. The best example is the replacement of the local language with Latin as instrument of communication. Allegedly, only around a maximum of 160-170 Dacian words are being used today by Romanian-speaking people. In consequence, Latin had been the fundamental instrument of Romanization.
The discovery of large quantities of gold in the Province had been a solid motivation for Roman colonists all over the Empire to re-locate to Dacia. Some associate the situation on the ground with the 19th century American gold rush. The temporary prosperity is exemplified by the term ‘Dacia Felix’, namely Happy Dacia. It was a temporary state of affairs which lasted until the first waves of barbarians started to be felt around the Carpathian Mountains. Administratively, Emperor Hadrian divided the Province into Dacia Superior and Dacia Inferior. Subsequently, a further division was put into place: Dacia Malvensis, Dacia Apulensis, and Dacia Porolissensis. Militarily, a network of castra was spreading throughout the Dacian territory. Each castrum could host approximately 500 soldiers. Around the castra, military dependents and civilian contractors would be housed in canabae. Some examples are the canaba around Apulum, the canaba around Amutria, and the canaba around Capidava.
Under pressure from the free Dacians, the Sarmatians, and the Goths, the Romans had to retreat to the south of Danube (271 AD). Under the leadership of Marcus Aurelius, the new Province was named Dacia Aureliana, as opposed to the previous Dacia Traiana. This event is surrounded by controversy in history. According to one thesis (of Robert Roesler), the territory to the north of the Danube river had been entirely de-populated after 271. In consequence, when the Hungarians moved into Transylvania (10th century ), there had been no Latin-speaking people which we would today call the forefathers of the Romanians. As such, sovereignty over this piece of land cannot be claimed by the Romanian authorities on the basis of history. Nevertheless, a piece of writing by Anonymus, Gesta Hungarorum (Hungarian chronicle from the 12th century), does mention the existence of three political entities ‘across the forest’ (literal translation of Transylvania), under three leaders: Menumorut, Gelu, and Glad. Therefore, the claim that this particular territory had been uninhabited is weak. Finally, it can be practically difficult, if not impossible for an entire population to re-locate, even in the face of adversity. It can be argued thus that the bulk of the Daco-Romans had remained to the north of Danube.
Paradoxically, some scholars attribute the survival of Latin on the territory of current-day Romania precisely to Marcus Aurelius’ decision to relinquish Dacia. Had he engaged the barbarians militarily, the latter would have destroyed the Roman legions, and with it the entire Roman culture in this part of the world. The reality on the ground is that between the indigenous people of Dacia, and the invading tribes,peaceful relations had been established around commerce. Migration waves coming from what is today Eastern Europe and Central Asia did not always entail permanent destruction and violence.
In conclusion, the Romanian-Rome nexus goes back to almost two millennia ago. Etymologically, Romania derives from ‘romanus’, meaning ‘citizen of Rome’. Moreover, the first to call the Wallachians, Romanians, had been 16th-century Italian humanists traveling to Transylvania, Moldova, and Wallachia. In a time when national identity matters less and less due to European integration, and to dilution of sovereignty all over the continent, a topic such as the one discussed in this paper remains merely a curiosity. Nevertheless, throughout history, the Roman roots of the Romanian people had been employed in political ways to build and solidify feelings of national belonging when the idea of a Romanian state was an utopia. For instance, during the 18th century, the Romanians in Transylvania had been engaged in a fight for political rights and for national emancipation. Representatives such as Bishop Inocentiu Micu Klein were demanding an equal status to that of Hungarians, of Szekelys, and of Saxons. The rationale was that Romanians had been the first inhabitants of Transylvania, pointing to the Roman colonists, but also that the Romanians were representing the majority of the population. Furthermore, the intellectual elite of the time (Scoala Ardeleana), educated in Vienna and Rome, presented to the Austrian Court a memo entitled Supplex Libellus Valachorum. In this document, Inocentiu’s arguments had been re-proposed in a more solid manner. It was the birth of a conscious national identity. At a time like that, the Roman link was more than a curiosity: it represented the lost soul of a people striving to come back to life.
Constantiniu Florin (tr.) (2011). O Istorie Sincera a Poporului Roman. Univers Enciclopedic Gold;
Djuvara Neagu (tr.) (2002). O Scurta Istorie a Romanilor Povestita celor Tineri. Humanistas;
Dacia on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dacia;
Dacia on New World Encyclopedia: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dacia;
Dacian Wars on UNRV History: http://www.unrv.com/five-good-emperors/dacian-wars.php .