Rome's Enemies: Germanics and Dacians
RELIGIOUS MEANINGS OF ETHNIC NAMES
According to Strabo,
the original name of the Dacians was daoi. A tradition preserved by Hesychius
informs us that daos was the Phrygian word for "wolf.' P. Kretschmer had
explained daos by the root *dhäu, "to press, to squeeze, to strangle."'
Among the words derived from this root we may note the Lydian Kandaules,
the name of the Thracian war god, Kandaon, the Illyrian dhaunos (wolf),
the god Daunus, and so on. The city of Daous-dava, in Lower Moesia, between
the Danube and Mount Haemus, literally meant "village of wolves. Formerly,
then, the Dacians called themselves "wolves" or "those who are like wolves,"
who resemble wolves. Still according to Strabo, certain nomadic Scythians
to the east of the Caspian Sea were also called daoi. The Latin authors
called them Daliae, and some Greek historians daai. In all probability
their ethnic name was derived from Iranian (Saka) dahae, "wolf." But similar
names were not unusual among the IndoEuropeans. South of the Caspian Sea
lay Hyrcania, that is, in Eastern Iranian "Vehrkana," in Western Iranian
"Varkana," literally the "country of wolves" (from the Iranian root vehrka,
"wolf'). The nomadic tribes that inhabited it were called Hyrkanoi, "the
wolves," by Greco-Latin authors. In Phrygia there was the tribe of the
We may further cite the Lycaones of Arcadia, and Lycaonia or Lucaonia in Asia Minor, and especially the Arcadian Zeus Lykaios" and Apollo Lykagenes; the latter surname has been explained as "he of the she-wolf," "he born of the she-wolf," that is, born of Leto in the shape of a she-wolf. According to Heraclides Ponticus (Fragm. Hist. Gr. 218), the name of the Samnite tribe of the Lucani came from Lykos, "wolf." Their neighbors, the Hirpini, took their name from hirpus, the Samnite word for "wolf." At the foot of Mount Soracte lived the Hirpi Sorani, the "wolves of Sora" (the Volscian city). According to the tradition transmitted by Servius, an oracle had advised the Hirpi Sorani to live "like wolves," that is, by rapine. And in fact they were exempt from taxes and from military service, for their biennial rite-which consisted in walking barefoot over burning coals-was believed to ensure the fertility of the country. Both this shamanic rite and their living "like wolves" reflect religious concepts of considerable antiquity. There is no need to cite other examples. We will note only that tribes with wolf names are documented in places as distant as Spain (Loukentioi and Lucenses in Celtiberian Calaecia), Ireland, and England. Nor, indeed, is the phenomenon confined to the IndoEuropeans.
The fact that a people takes its ethnic name from the name of an animal always has a religious meaning. More precisely, the fact cannot be understood except as the expression of an archaic religious concept. In the case with which we are concerned, several hypotheses can be considered. First, we may suppose that the people derives its name from a god or mythical ancestor in the shape of a wolf or who manifested himself lycomorphically. The myth of a supernatural wolf coupling with a princess, who gives birth either to a people or a dynasty, occurs in various forms in Central Asia. But we have no testimony to its existence among the Dacians.
A second hypothesis comes to mind: the Dacians may have taken their name from a band of fugitives - either immigrants from other regions, or young men at odds with the law, haunting the outskirts of villages like wolves or bandits and living by rapine. The phenomenon is amply documented from earliest antiquity, and it survived in the Middle Ages. It is necessary to distinguish among:
a) adolescents who,
during their initiatory probation, had to hide far from their villages
and live by rapine;
b) immigrants seeking a new territory to settle in;
c) outlaws or fugitives seeking a place of refuge. But all these young men behaved "like wolves", were
or enjoyed the protection of a wolf-god.
During his probation the Lacedaemonian kouros led the life of a wolf for an entire year: hidden in the mountains, he lived on what he could steal, taking care that no one saw him. Among a number of lndo-European peoples, emigrants, exiles, and fugitives were called "wolves." The Hittite laws already said of a proscribed man that he had "become a wolf.'' And in the laws of Edward the Confessor (ca. AD. 1000), the proscribed man had to wear a wolf headed mask (wolfhede). The wolf was the symbol of the fugitive, and many gods who protected exiles and outlaws had wolf deities or attributes. Examples are Zeus Lykoreius or Apollo Lykeios, Romulus and Remus, sons of the wolf-god Mars and suckled by the she-wolf of the Capitol, had been "fugitives." According to the legend, Romulus established a place of refuge for exiles and outlaws on the Capitol. Servius informs us that this asylum was under the protection of the god Lucoris. And Lucoris was identified with Lykoreus of Delphi, himself a wolfgod. Finally, a third hypothesis that may explain the name of the Dacians centers on the ability to change into a wolf by the power of certain rituals. Such a transformation may be connected with lycanthropy properly speaking-an extremely widespread phenomenon, but more especially documented in the BalkanoCarpathian region-or with a ritual imitation of the behavior and outward appearance of the wolf. Ritual imitation of the wolf is a specific characteristic of military initiations and hence of the Männerbünde, the secret brotherhoods of warriors. There are reasons to think that such rites and beliefs, bound up with a martial ideology, are what made it possible to assimilate fugitives, exiles, and proscribed men to wolves. To subsist, all these outlaws behaved like bands of young warriors, that is, like real "wolves."
A major exhibition with over 800 objects (mostly on view for the first time outside Rumania) tells the story of the ancient Dacians, with the help of excellent photographs and graphics. Also known as Getae, the Dacians were an amalgamation of Thracian tribes who created a formidable state on the eastern confines of the Greco-Roman world. Their neighbours to the north-west were the Germanic tribes, to the north-east the Scythians, to the west the Celts, in Pannonia and to the south-west of the Danube the Illyrians, and to the south the Greeks.
The Dacians had relations with all these peoples, and became famous in antiquity as warriors. After a period of domination by foreigners they achieved independence in the first century B.C. under King Burebista, and flourished until King Decebalus was defeated by the Emperor Trajanin 106 A.D. Trajan's Column in Rome and the monument of Adalmclisi bear witness to the greatness and prestige of the Dacians. However, for centuries they were relegated to the backwaters of history, and only recently have they come into their own, thanks to a vast programme of excavations carried out in Rumania over the last few decades.
This is the first major European exhibition dedicated to Dacian civilisation in all its complexity. After centuries of neglect, the gold and silver necklaces, warriors' armour, vases, funerary steles, every day utensils in bronze and iron, cultic objects used for strange and disconcerting rites, are all beautifully displayed in ten rooms of Palazzo Strozzi, revealing the secrets and mysterious life of anentire people from the bronze age to the second century A.D.
The first two rooms
have amazing extremely early objects (12th to 4th century B.C.) from the
treasures of Radeni, Hinova and Ghidici, including beautiful vases from
the tomb of Prince Cotys, and a votive carriage in bronze and iron. In
the third room are the products of contacts with neighbouring peoples:
a ceramic Siren, an iron and bronze helmet surmountedby a great winged
bird, a bronze statuette of a wild boar. The fourth and fifth rooms have
precious objects from the royal tombs of Craiova, Agighiol, Baiceni and
Peretu: astonishing helmets in gold and silver; spiral bracelets; fantastical
birds, serpents and bears' heads; finely worked chalices. The sixth through
the eighth rooms are devoted to everyday utensils and coins, from the reign
of Burebista to the reign of Decebalus. The ninth has more jewellery from
the most recent Dacian treasures, and the tenth has plaster casts from
Trajan's Column and the monument of Adalmclisi, which celebrate the Roman
In the vast Russian steppe, a group of mounted Indo-Europeans, known as Iranians, lived a highly developed nomadic life. They had moved into areas vacated by those Indo-Europeans now living in Europe. Some had invaded India in about B.C. 1200, others had founded the empires of the Medes and Persians. By about the 5th century B.C., those still living on the Eurasian steppe were the Scythians to the west, with Sarmatians to the cast of them and Sakas further to the east. Probably as a result of Chinese operations against nomads on their western frontiers, the steppe was set in motion. The Sarmatians moved west and obliterated the Scythians, whose remnants fled to the Danube and Crimea. By the middle of the 2nd century B.C. the Sarmatians became known in Europe as the lazyges and Roxolani, and those remaining to the cast, the Alans. It is believed that Sarmatian success against the Scythians was due to the creation of a force of super-heavy cavalry, both man and horse being completely armoured in some of the formations. These 'cataphracts' operated as a shock force alongside the traditional horse-archer formations used by all mounted nomads.
Neither Thracians nor Sarmatians were Germans. The reasons for their mention in this small work are several. The Dacians were a Thracian people, but Dacia was occupied also by Daco-Germans, and in the north-cast by Celto-Dacians. The Sarmatian Roxolani became firm allies of the Dacians, supplying them with the only heavy cavalry force in the Dacian army. With the destruction of Dacia, Rome brought her forces into direct contact with the eastern German tribes, an area which was, in due time, overrun by the German Gepids. In 85 A.D., Dacian forces attacked Roman defences in Moesia, harrying the countryside and killing the Governor. The Emperor Domitian commanded initial operations to clear Moesia of invaders, but later passed control of the operations to Cornelius Fuscus. The campaign was carried into eastern Dacia, but the weight of Dacian numbers gradually drove the Roman forces back, and, in a final battle, they were wiped out, Fuscus suffering the fate of his army
The dominant articles on the pedestal reliefs are the large, richly decorated, oval shields. They are the only type of body shield shown; all are of uniform shape and style of decoration. The exceptions are examples which are covered in a scale pattern. Another example of an unusual Dacian design is found on an oval shield carried by a man in Dacian costume on another Trajanic relief which was moved to the Arch of Constantine. It has four monster-headed trumpets radiating from the central boss, and two Celtic-type torques of twisted metal which, together with the monster trumpets shown in groups all over the pedestal, may illustrate Celtic influence.
With these exceptions,
Dacian shields, as shown on the carvings, are heavily decorated with floriate,
braided, geometric and planetary designs, as well as the ancient Thracian
shield known as the Pelta (this symbol is used in normal and distorted
form). These shields are very large and, it would appear from the carvings,
flat, the patterns being in proud relief to facilitate periodic painting.
The bosses are hemispherical with round boss plates, both being decorated.
I suggest that the Thracian lunate shield motif, repeatedly used on these
shields, confirms them as Dacian or
The helmets on the reliefs fall into two categories: one with a neat, rounded, cone-shaped shell, the other with its apex curved forward into the characteristic 'Phrygian' peak. Both are highly decorated in the same fashion as the shields on the column base. It is the decoration on one of the solid crests running over one of these helmets, together with the close general resemblance to various examples of helmets worn by ancient Phrygians shown in art, and the obvious connection between them, which leads me to suggest that the 'Phygian'-type helmets may well be a variety peculiar to the Dacians.
The Dacians, as stated
above, were a Thracian people, as were the Phrygians and those Thracians
living north of the Greek states throughout the classical period. The distinct
lunate shield used by Thracian infantrymen, the pelta, illustrated frequently
in Greek art, is present on the solid crest of a 'Phrygian' -type helmet
as a running pattern, as shown on the pedestal reliefs; this motif was
used repeatedly on the large oval shields. It would be very neat to see
in the plainer, domed helmets Scytho-Sarmatian examples, but they resemble
the construction of these in only one way-they are conical. The helmets
worn by Iranian armoured horsemen on the column and other Roman reliefs
are of a composite construction. The banded floriate designs decorating
the non'Phrygian' helmets on the pedestal duplicate the designs shown on
the 'Phrygian' helmets. That these helmets represent a newer type of Dacian
helmet is a more probable proposition
a-e phyrgian helmet, f-g phyrgian helmet, h Sarmatian helmet, i, j Domed Helmet