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Dacia and Modern Politics

Roman Dacia: archaeology, history and politics: describe the impact of modern politics on the way Roman Dacia has been presented in the archaeological and historical literature.

In the study of History, the detachment of one’s own cultural values can be hard to achieve. In most examples of historical writing – including the ancient sources (e.g. Tacitus, Annals, 1.1; Livy, 1.1.1.) – the claim of impartiality rarely departs from the text; but, with most examples of historical writing, the execution of full impartiality is a rarity. It is, as it were, hard not to claim that cultural bias is ingrained at a subliminal level (Mattingly, 1997, 14). The mindset of the historian always resonates throughout his prose.

Take, for example, the below quotes:

‘[Rome is called] the nurse and parent of all other lands, elected by the gods’ will in order to make heaven itself brighter, to bring scattered peoples into unity, to make manners gentle, to draw together by community of language the jarring and uncouth tongues of nearly countless nations, to give civilization to humankind…’ (Pliny the Elder, NH, 3.39 [c.75 CE] quoted by Champion, 2004, 260).

‘Our civilization seems firmly set in many lands; our task is rather to spread it further and develop its good qualities than to defend its life. If war destroys it in one continent, it has other homes. But the Roman Empire was the civilized world; the safety of Rome was the safety of all civilization.’ (Francis Haverfield, 1915, 11).

It is evident that both authors are products of an imperial mentality (the former a product of the Roman Empire, while the other a product of the curiously similar British Empire): both have a sense of manifest destiny; both raise the notion that not all races have equal scope to contribute to wider ‘civilisation’ (Woolf, 1998, 5). In reference to the passage by Pliny, one can see that superiority, in every sense, was ingrained within the psyche of the Roman elite; this gave rise to both xenophobia and a sense of jingoism (Rich, 1995, 39), and this subsequently distorts modern perceptions of Rome.

Like many other historians of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Haverfield is very much of the opinion that the European imperialism of his time was the heir of the Classical imperialism of Pliny’s (Woolf, 1998, 6). Haverfield’s fully-fledged endorsement of the Roman Empire stems from the notion that the Empire was a model on which British Empire could be based. In his book The Romanization of Britain, Haverfield draws parallels between the ‘…rule of civilized white men over the uncivilized Africans…’ (Harverfield, 1915, 13), and the ‘civilizing’ nature of the Romans. Because a positive assessment of Rome would, in the eyes of Haverfield’s contemporaries, ultimately shine positive light on European imperialism, many ancient sources advocating the civilizing nature of Rome – such as the above quote from Pliny – are taken at face value (Haverfield, 1915, 12); this over-dependence on the ancient sources, as we shall see in the assessment of Roman Dacia (roughly modern-day Romania), will contribute to other forms of politically-influenced History.

Haverfield’s example of contemporary events influencing History did not just occur in isolation: Rome, as it were, has always been used a springboard for wider ideologies. Even the academically renowned work of the 19th-century historian Theodore Mommsen tells us just as much about the ideologies of his time as it does Rome. One could even go as far as to say that his most famous work, the Geschichte, was a political pamphlet founded in the light of the events of 1848 (Freeman, 1997, 30) – Mommsen, in many ways, viewed Italy’s unification during the Early Republic as a model of a unified Germany.

With the two above examples in mind, it is very easy to see that the study of Roman antiquity, alongside almost every other period of the past, deals not only with a pursuit of the past, but also with fulfilling one’s own political agenda (Freeman, 1997, 30). For the study of History can reinforce both a national and political identity. In the context of studying Roman Dacia, both of these concepts have coloured the subject. Whether we are looking at the province with an 18th-century mindset, or a near contemporary one, nationalism and political ideologies – even when at a subliminal level – dominate the pages of Dacian history (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 27). Before we proceed, however, it is first necessary to discuss the main Romanian schools of thought that highlight the interplay between they study of the past and identity.

In taking a highly generalised viewpoint, there are three main schools of thought on early Romanian History (Haynes & Hanson, 2004, 27): the so-called ‘Latinists’, who were of the view that Rome was a uniting force, and that modern-day Romanians have an ethic connection to Romans – the Romanian language does, after all, derive from Latin (Vékony, 2000, 218); the ‘Dacianists’, who held the opinion that, although much of native population if Dacia embraced the Latin language, they protected the cultural autonomy from external powers such as Rome (Haynes & Hanson, 2004, 28); and finally the more pragmatic and more widely accepted school of thinking, the ‘Daco-Romans’ – which is more devoid of political ideologies (Haynes & Hanson, 2004, 29) than the previous two, and therefore will play less of a part in this discussion – believe that intermingling between the Romans and native Dacians took place. What is most interesting about the first two viewpoints is that they both assert the assumption that the Romanian nation – be it in the form of Dacia or a Roman province – is not a recent concept.

Both Dacianist and Latinist are guilty of using the study of the past as a springboard for nationalist fervour. The Latinist school of thought can trace its origins to the formation period of the late 19th Century, when lobbyists for the unification of Romania’s principalities confidently asserted that Romanians of their time were the direct descendents of the Roman colonists planted in the area directly after the conquest (Seton-Watson, 1934, 98). This belief is rooted in the heightened national consciousness circulating the Romanian principalities at that time – Roman Dacia, to these nationalists, was an advert of what could be achieved if these ‘pure-blooded heirs of Trajan’ were to unite once more (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 28).

This school of thought also taps into the notion the indigenous population of Dacia were exterminated. Similar to the attitudes of Haverfield, the Latinist standpoint is supported by ancient texts taken at face value. In regards to the apparently total extermination of the native Dacains in favour of Roman settlers, we have in our possession three sources (Eutropius, Breviary, 8.6.2; Julian, Caesares, 28; and Lucan, Scholia, 24.16 – quoted by Ruscu, 2004, 75-77). If these sources are not sufficiently scrutinised, they can be regarded as an accurate account of ‘ethic cleansing’ suffered at the hands of Rome. If, however, they are put into context – which, of course, was not done by early Latinists – several holes can be poked in the Latinist perspective. Lucan and Eutropius, for example, do in fact state that Dacians were killed en mass, but only in a military context (Ruscu, 2004, 76-77); whereas the writings of Julian were used for the purpose of a political pamphlet and are thus less credible than the former two (Ruscu, 2004, 76). Further, archaeology has proven that, although various socio-political strata of Dacian society were indeed eradicated, there was continuality of the indigenous population alongside Roman settlers (Ruscu, 2004, 82) – which is now the basis of Daco-Roman perspective. Thus we see another example of historical manipulation for the purpose of political gain.

The Dacianists too also employed the past as a platform for the assertion of national identity. The Dacianists, quite rightly, rejected the Latinist claim that the Romans supplanted the native Dacians; they were of the opinion the Romanians could trace their origins back to the Dacians of the time of King Burebista (c88-44 BCE) (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 28) – which, as we will see, is sometimes seen as the ace in the sleeve of Romania when debating the issue of Romanian sovereignty (Oltean, 2007, 6). This view not only implies that the Romanians of today had origins of a more ancient nature than the Latinists would have you believe, but this manner of thinking also entitles the Romanians to a greater amount of territory – the Dacian kingdom of Burebista was almost twice as large as the Roman province (Oltean, 2007, 47).

The Dacianist perspective of the past only really came to fruition during the Communist era of Romanian history – and most exclusively under the rule of N. Ceausescu in 1970s-1980s (Oltean, 2007, 6). During his rule of Romania, Ceausescu pursued a remarkably deviant foreign policy for an Eastern-block state – deviant in the sense that, unlike his predecessor, Gheorgiu-Dej, Ceausescu took steps to swerve away from Soviet influence (Sweeney, 1991, 78-9) – and thus the study of the independent Dacia of old was integrated with the concept of a centralised independent Romanian state (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 28). During this period, it was the academic ‘norm’ to stress the positive elements of pre-Roman Dacia: the opinion expressed by (Condurachi and Daicoviciu 1971, 110), to use one of many examples, was that ‘…Dacian culture was nevertheless developing along similar lines [to Classical culture]…’ which implies that obvious parallels can be drawn between Dacia of old and Ancient Greece, which subsequently depicts Ceausescu’s Romania in a positive light.

Archaeology was another field to suffer from Ceasescu’s political stage management as the main brunt of academic focus was on pre-Roman and post-Roman sites – even excavations at notable sites such as the Roman colonia of Dacia Sarmizegetusa were neglected for 25 years (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 29). The chronic lack of correspondence between Dacian and Romanist archaeologists also mired the study of interaction between the Dacians and their occupiers (Haynes and Hanson, 2004, 29).

Studying the history of Dacia as a platform for nationalism has not always been used in the favour of Romania. There are cases of Dacian history being carefully stage-managed to give it a more Hungarian-oriented gloss, particularly when issues of sovereignty are on the agenda. The sovereignty of the Romanian-ruled district of Transylvania has long been the locus of intense political debate, and for years the area has been contested by both Hungary and Romania – and evidently, this political wrangling has surfaced in historical and archaeological record (Oltean, 2007, 6). Even in recent historiography this still occurs. For example, Vékony (2000) presented an archaeological study immersed in the pro-Hungarian belief that, contrary to the Latinist and Dacianist viewpoint, Transylvania was almost devoid of its Daco-Roman population before the Hungarian tribes beset the area.

The exploration of Roman Dacia (as well as Rome as a whole) is not just confined to issues regarding nationalism; it has also been used as a springboard for wider ideologies. During the communist rule of Gheorghiu-Dej of 1950s and 1960s, the study of Romanian antiquity was, through the medium of historical analogy, just as much about feeding Marxist theory as it was about the assertion of autonomous sentiment (Oltean, 2007, 5). Most history of this time almost always related to issues of social class. Although not mentioned directly in most cases, Romanian history of this nature seems to parallel Roman Imperialism with the so-called ‘western imperialism’ Marxism resists (Oltean, 2007, 5) – Ancient Rome was, after all, an epitome of everything detested by Marxist theory (Marx, 2000, 77). The historical and archaeological record of Roman Dacia was, therefore, completely absorbed in issues regarding the oppression of the native Dacians. (Condurachi and Daicoviciu, 1971, 125), to use as generic example, describe the Roman occupiers of Dacia as being only ‘…concerned to extract its immense human and natural resources…’ and that the natives were ‘…exposed to ruthless exploitation.’

The main discrepancy that I have with the above is not so much that modern politics have manipulated history, but more that modern ideologies such as communism have been taken out of their modern context and have been applied the ancient world. We thus get more of an insight into theories that probably would have bore little or no relevance to the peoples of antiquity, and more of a view about the concerns of contemporary society. These modern political thoughts do not just echo through the works of Romanian scholars. Despite the fact that the Romans had a limited knowledge of how ‘the economy’ was an integral organ of ‘the state’ (e.g. Matyszak, 2003, 176), the Roman statesman Crassus has often been described as being a ‘capitalist’; and although Woolf (1998, 27-28) scrutinises the term ‘globalisation’ in relation to the Romanisation of Gaul, the fact that he uses modern analogies to deduce the Gallic experience of Roman imperialism highlights issues regarding modern globalisation that were never far from the author’s mind. I am sure that even the opinions expressed in this paper will possess pockets of cultural bias. The fact that I described the hypothetical historian of the first paragraph as a ‘he’ could be interpreted as my inability to part from the apparently patriarchal nature of our society. And maybe my own slight distain of the British Empire is the result of a postcolonial, modern mindset. As already stated, the mindset of the historian always resonates throughout his prose.

This article was written by forum member Wotwotius

Champion, C. B. (eds.) 2004 Roman Imperialism Readings and Source. Blackwell Publishing.
Freeman, P. W. M. 1995 ‘Mommsen through to Haverfield: the origins of Romanization studies in late 19th-c. Britain’ in Mattingly, D.J. 1997 (eds.) Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, iscourse, and discrepant experience in the Roman Empire. JRA Supplementary Series. 27-51.
Haynes, I.P. and Hanson, W.S. 2004 ‘An Introduction to Roman Dacia’ in Hason, W.S. and Haynes, I.P. 2004 (eds.) Roman Dacia: the making of a provincial society. JRA Supplementary Series 56. 11-31.
Mattingly, D. J. 1997 ‘Introduction’ in Mattingly, D.J. 1997 (eds.) Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, iscourse, and discrepant experience in the Roman Empire. JRA Supplementary Series 23. 7-26.
Marx, K.2000 Karl Marx: Selected Writings, eds. McLellan, D. Oxford University Press.
Matyszak, P. 2003 Chronicles of the Roman Republic. Thames and Hudson.
Oltean, I. A. 2007 Dacia: Landscape, Colonisation, Romanisation. Routledge.
Rich, J. 1995 ‘Fear, Greed and Glory: The Causes of Roman War Making in the Middle Republic’ in Rich, J. and Shipley, G. 1995 (eds.) War and Society in the Roman World. Routledge. 38-68.
Ruscu, D. 2004 ‘The supposed extermination of the Dacians: in literary tradition’ in Hason, W.S. and Haynes, I.P. 2004 (eds.) Roman Dacia: the making of a provincial society. JRA Supplementary Series 56. 75-85.
Seton-Watson, R.W. 1934 A History of the Roumanians: from Roman times to completion of unity. Cambridge University Press.
Sweeney, J. 1991 The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu. Hutchinson.
Vékony, G. 2000 Dacians-Romans-Romanians. Toronto (http://www.hungarian-history.hu/lib/chk/index.htm).
Woolf, G. 1998 Becoming Roman. The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge.
Individual ancient sources:
Livy, The Early History of Rome. trans. Sélincourt, A. 1960. New York: Penguin.
Tacitus, Annals. trans. Grant, M. 1996. New York: Penguin.


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