BMCR 2021.02.38

Dacia felix: das antike Rumänien im Brennpunkt der Kulturen

, Dacia felix: das antike Rumänien im Brennpunkt der Kulturen. Darmstadt: Philipp von Zabern, 2020. Pp. 240. ISBN 9783805350594 €40,00.

Kai Brodersen’s book, Dacia Felix: Das antike Rumänien im Brennpunkt der Kulturen (Dacia Felix: —Ancient Romania as a focal point of cultures), combines the author’s two main interests, ancient and contemporary history. Although the approach of the aforementioned territory’s ancient history is typical of a specialist in Classical history, the overall outlook is set in a contemporary frame, as it covers the Dacian provinces (roughly the area surrounding the Carpathian arch) and only the northeastern part of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior—therefore areas which form part of the territory of modern day Romania.

The book is divided into nine chapters, plus appendices. The introduction summarizes the ancient history of the territory of the modern Romanian state, focusing on the Roman period, and using the Latinity of the Romanian language as a connection to the modern period. A quick description of Romania follows, setting it in the present context, as a member state of the EU and of NATO.

Brodersen briefly describes the sources available for ancient history—archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic, literary and toponymic—mentioning all the relevant information they provide (using examples such as the military diplomas or the wax tablets from Roșia Montană), as well as the traps they lay for the untrained eye. Regarding the latter, he presents the case of the clay tablets from Tărtăria, which are purported by some to constitute proof of prehistoric writing in Transylvania, as well as that of the lead tablets from Sinaia, which some believe represent Dacian written sources—both are correctly identified by the author as fakes probably created to support a nationalistic perspective of Romanian history.

The third chapter, called ‘Models’, draws attention to the false perception of the Roman “chapter” of the official history of the territory under study as being the most significant, while other equally-important (earlier or later) periods are much less known; Brodersen contends with the illusion that the Roman period constitutes the only moment in the history of the present-day Romanian territory when it became a focal point for the different cultures that came into contact with it. By contrast, the author provides an alternative perspective, suggesting that the modern state has used the Roman period as nationalist propaganda and integrated the Roman period into the Romanian historical narrative as part of a political agenda.Then Brodersen takes on the question of ethnic identity—which populations inhabited the lands of modern-day Romania in Antiquity? He stresses that ancient sources are very vague on the subject and that ancient authors did not mention many of these populations, as they were not considered important—they were peripheral geographically and culturally, which set them in an area of the imaginary that is closer to a mythic past, rather than to reality. It is only after the founding of the Greek colonies on the western Black Sea shore that the area of modern Romania starts to appear in written sources, especially during the campaign of the Persian king Darius I into the Scythian steppes—an event attested by an Achaemenid inscription found in northwestern Romania. He analyzes the accounts of Herodotus and Strabo, especially in relation to Zalmoxis, a learned slave of Pythagoras’ who became a close religious adviser to the king of the Gaetae and even a sort of demigod. He then takes a quick glance at Phillip II’s campaign at the mouths of the Danube, which piqued the Macedonians’ interest for the area—as proven by Alexander the Great’s and Lysimachus’ interventions in the region.

The fifth chapter focuses on the history of the Carpathian arch before the Roman conquest and on the sources for this period, the most important of which are the texts by Jordanes and Pompeius Trogus. The former’s work is analyzed, its inconsistencies highlighted, as is the exaggerated use of his writings as a direct source for Dacian history in some Romanian museums. The reign of King Burebista is analyzed especially through the rich, yet unclear epigraphic information and a number of ancient sources are cited for Augustus’ policy in the area. Brodersen discusses the first emperor’s policy of imposing Rome’s dominion over the Thracian king Cotiso, which—together with the relocation of large numbers of Dacians south of the Danube, within the imperial borders—largely calmed turmoil among the Dacian tribes caused by Burebista’s death. This process culminated with the establishment of the province of Moesia no later than AD 6, while the relocation of Dacians south of the Danube continued during the reign of Nero. Brodersen rejects the idea of a centralized Dacian state having existed in that era (—as promoted in communist-era Romanian propaganda) and instead —shows that two of the kings in the kings list used as argument for the continuity of a complex Dacian political system (Thiamarkos and Scorylus)—and mentioned by epigraphic sources were, in fact, a potter and probably a mere chieftain. During the presentation of the Dacian-Roman conflict during the reign of Domitian, he also cautions readers on the issue of the identification of the supposed Dacian kings Duras/Dorpaneus/Diurpaneus with Decebalus, an identification promoted by Romanian communist propaganda, who chose to make Decebalus a protagonist. The complicated relationship between Domitian and Decebalus is analyzed through a number of ancient texts, which generally attest to the fact that the latter became a client king.

In Chapter 6, dedicated to the defeat of the Dacians, Brodersen starts by painting a portrait of Trajan, the optimus princeps, mainly using the texts of Pliny and Cassius Dio. Then the preparations for the Dacian War are described through different literary and epigraphic sources that reference the gathering of supplies and the building/repair of military roads. The invasion of Dacia is recounted, with its start in AD 101, the first major battle at Tapae and the counterattack that led to the clash at Tropaeum Traiani (modern day Adamclisi), the renewed attack in 102, the peace and, finally, Trajan’s triumph. Noting the one-sidedness of the sources—as there are, of course, no sources that record the Dacian version of the facts—Brodersen uses information provided by Cassius Dio to explain the origin of the second Dacian campaign, specifically that it was caused by Decebalus’ calling the Dacians to arms again, by the repairing of his fortifications, by taking in Roman deserters, by creating new alliances and even by an attempt to have Trajan killed. Cassius Dio is also the main source describing the victorious second Roman campaign that saw the final defeat of the Dacians and the suicide of Decebalus. A huge bounty was obtained—as Ioannes Lydus informs us – consisting of over 500,000 pounds of gold and silver and many valuable objects, as well as a huge number of slaves. Dacia capta coins were minted, and Trajan’s victory was mentioned even in private inscriptions and on pottery. Brodersen also correctly notes that it was modern propaganda that transformed Decebalus into a father-of-the-nation figure. He provides a very detailed description of the decoration of Trajan’s column and its use in propaganda, followed by an equally detailed description of the monumental trophy at Adamclisi,—noting that its shape was reproduced at the Mărășești mausoleum, built in honor of the soldiers fallen in World War I, thereby establishing a subtle connection between the creation of Greater Romania and that of the province of Dacia.

The seventh chapter is dedicated to the creation of the Roman province on the territory of Dacia. Brodersen follows the steps the Romans took: taxation estimates, then road building and founding of new cities, in order to colonize the newly conquered territory. The military and political situation at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign provides a good context for understanding the emperor’s decision to reorganize Dacia into three smaller provinces, which could be better administered and defended. Two important points of the new province’s economy are treated: the gold mines in the Apuseni Mountains—an example of a mining contract written on one of the spectacular wax tablets discovered at Roșia Montană is cited—and the salt mines that were exploited by the Romans, as attested by archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources.

The eighth chapter starts with the presentation of the complex military and political context in the Dacian provinces in the second half of the 2nd c. AD, when a series of powerful barbarian attacks threatened the Roman domination of the area—especially the incursions of the Marcomanni and the Iazyges. The measures later taken by Septimius Severus, who allowed the soldiers to live with their families in the settlements developed outside the forts, are considered as arguments for the strong urban development in the Dacian provinces. Brodersen notes the effects that the quick succession of emperors during the 3rd c. crisis had on the Roman rule in the Dacian and Moesian provinces, notably its gradual weakening north of the Danube. The provinces were constantly attacked from the east, north and west, which led to their eventual abandonment by Aurelianus, who established a new province of Dacia in part of Moesia, where he moved Roman citizens.

The final chapter looks at how the abandonment of Dacia and the resettlement of Dacian populations was used in the modern political conflict between Hungarians and Romanians, the former claiming that Transylvania was not settled when their ancestors arrived, while the latter claim an ethnic continuity linking Romans to Romanians. Brodersen notes that the successful, long-lived Roman domination was actually not military and political, but cultural, as the area of the former provinces continued to be influenced by the neighboring empire, of which they once used to be a part.

It is difficult to fit this work into a specific category of books. Although the quality of the argumentation and the use of the sources meet the highest standards, the format of the book is not that of an academic publication. There are almost no notes, apart from the primary sources, and the views of the many scholars who have studied the controversial historical positions the book focuses on are not indicated. Also, as mentioned previously, only the territory of modern-day Romania is treated, which is inconsistent with an analysis of ancient Dacia. But this is only because, in fact, the audience targeted by this work is formed neither of academics, nor of the general public in the broadest sense; but rather the intended audience consists of a cultured, well-educated public with a special interest in history and politics. As Brodersen states at the beginning of the book, he is trying to bring Romanian civilization closer to the European public, by analyzing one of its foundations, namely the period when Dacia was integrated in the Roman Empire. From this point of view, Kai Brodersen’s book is a rara avis, while the quality of the arguments and the profound knowledge of the sources make it an excellent read for understanding a fascinating episode of ancient history, as well as certain aspects of modern Romanian civilization.