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Studies concerning ancient military activity in the Romanian area offer, a revealing insight into an original military culture gained developed through long experience, ancient teachings, an unbreakable desire for freedom (highly spread in the North-Balkan Thracian civilization) and skillful and renowned leadership under leaders such as Decebal. The decision to give Decebal the royal title had a precise reason: this choice was made by the king Duras and his council 86 AD in response to Roman preparations for military operations against the free land of the Getae in the North Danube.
In the face of this great threat the Dacians had to act quickly: the resistance in front of the attacks had to be organized, the anarchical tendencies of local leaders had to be put off, the whole population had to contribute to the general improvement of the defensive system ,discipline had to be imposed, the Dacian army mustered and organized, a reliable and practical system of alliances had to negotiated and so on. All these could be achieved only through the wise leadership of a young, strong commander and a skilled diplomat. Naming Decebal king of the Dacians was a practical and realistic solution as he possessed those strengths demanded of a Dacian leader. The Dacians could analyze objectively the current situation, their own economical, demographic and military powers (units, weapons and techniques, training, fortresses and so on) as well as those of the enemy. This is a known fact and Romanian military doctrine uses it as proof of the continuity of its thinking: all those who could fight were mustered in case of foreign attack.
The military ways of the Dacians and of their descendants, the Romanians, can be characterized by flexibility and ability to adapt to new situations. They were also very imaginative and creative, being able to create new tricks and military tactics astonishing to the enemy. The following examples are illustrative of this ability:
1. Dromichaites sent general Seuthes into the enemy lines as a traitor (a strategy used by Stefan the Great in 1486 at the battle of Scheia) with the purpose of luring Lysimacos' army onto a secondary road to the fortress of Helis through, "unfavourable places" in a dry and deserted land without water or any other means of survival. Following the exhaustion of the enemy the Dacians were prepared the attack against the Macedonians.
2. The strategy of the Odrisian king Seuthes, who, in response to an Athenian invasion of Thracian Chersones, "hired 2000 Getae Getae and secretly ordered them to assault, as if they were the enemy, to set fire to the whole country and to attack those who guarded the fortress' walls". When they saw such thing, the Athenians " took heart, got off the sailboats and approched the walls. Seuthes came out from the fortress and met the Athenians as the Getae would join his troops. When these reached the Athenians' back, attacked them from behind and, being assaulted from one side by the Thracians and from the other by the Getae, the Athenians were crushed".
3. The strategy used by Decebal during the first battle of Tapae (88 AD) when, overwhelmed by Tettius Iulianus' forces and in order to make the Romans withdraw, "he cut the trees about the place and he leaned the weapons against the trunks so that the Romans fear soldiers could be near and withdraw, which it happened". Decebal was famous for his skills in "setting traps" and he was, as Dio Cassius says, close to stopping the war with Trajan by using two unexpected methods :
a) he sent to Moesia, in July 105 A.D, a diversion unit which in nowadays terms we would call a "commando" unit with the mission of killing Trajan as "he could easily be reached" for the "war made him receive without selection any man who would want to speak to him. So, Decebal sent to Moesia some runaways to kill him but these could not do it; one of them was caught, tortured and he confessed the whole plan ploted by Decebal"
b) he invited to the negotiations and captured Gnaaeus Pompeius Longinus, the commander of the Roman legions occupying Dacia after the first Dacian war, whom he wanted to use as hostage for negotiations with Traian. Decebal would ask Trajan through messengers to free "the country as far as the Hister and to return the money he had spent with the war; only under these conditions he would see Longinus alive again". This plan failed too because Longinus committed suicide and Trajan proceeded to the "second Dacian war " which, given the famous "slyness" of Decebal, he carried through, “cautiously than with ardor". "
Avoiding war at any cost, saving the population and the goods from those who attacked was another feature of the Dacian and Getae military mental conception which, continued to become a general Romanian military conception. Burebista, Dicomes and Coson interfered in the fights between the emperors and those who were thought to be their people's enemies (Caesar, Octavianus) in order to sustain others in their political climbing whom they considered allies and with whom they had various negotiations (Pompeius, Antonius). This was the way of the Dacian's, practiced centuries later by Mircea the Old, who by sustaining Musa, Mustafa and Bedr-ed-Din between 1409-1418 against Mehmed I, the youngest son of Bayazid Ildîrîm and the ally of the Byzantine Empire, in order to eliminate the Ottoman danger.
Once war began, negotiations were only used to gain the necessary time to organize the defenses and to protect the goods and the civilian part of the population. Dio Cassius wrote in regards to this that, "Decebal was ready to accept (in the winter of 101-102 AD) all he would have been asked, not because he wanted to actually do what he would be asked, but to regain his breath". Considering their concern for their population and goods, the Dacians had another strategy of defense designed to protect them. This strategy involved every part of the population, acting as best it could to harass the enemy physically and psychologically, luring it into various traps and ambushes to reduce its strength bit by bit. We can easily use a remark made on Stefan the Greats' account as a general characterization for both the Dacians and the Romanians, "they did not dare to come in the open" (in front of the Turkish armies, in the plains of Buceac-1484), they preferred to stay in narrow, mountainous, wooden or swampy areas and to attract the enemy in these parts to prevent them from using all their forces" This exploitation of the terrain was a key feature of Dacian military practice. Other key features included the preferring flexible, mobile units, avoiding battle and retiring to fortifications. They exploited the large area of their territory to defend in depth and as a refuge in case of defeat. (as Decebal did after he left Sarmizegetusa and withdrew in the unoccupied territories inside the Carpathians.
Our ancestors possessed a dynamic military character that allowed them to create a varied strategy of defense. Avoiding high casualties and material losses were the key aims of the Dacians. Their methods and strategies aimed at achieving victory with little loss and in short time against various attackers, usually militarily superior to them. According to the great historian Radu Rosetti "it is most admirable the fact that the Dacian strategy although inferior as military force, but with great tactics succeeded in opposing the Romans such strength that could not be defeated if there weren't those powerful techniques and many years of effort" Key features of Getae and Dacian military strategy that continued into Romanian military doctrine included ensuring that the means were proportionate to the end, a strategy of defense followed by a counter attack and the pursuit of the enemy back and into his territory. More generally they included taking the keeping the initiative, choosing the place and time of battle, concentration of force, using allies, allocating an area to retreat and regroup in, adaptation to weather conditions and exploiting the terrain, whether it be hills, rivers, woods or swamps.
For Burebista (49-44BC), Cotyso (maybe a descendant of Deceneu at Sarmizegetusa, or perhaps only a local "king), Zyraxes ( 31-28 BC, a king from the Northern Dobrogea, who dwelled at Genucla and presumed father of Decabel) and Scorilo (Coryllus) or Duras (Dorpaneus) the key goals of their reigns were the freedom of the Getic throne of the southern Danube from the Romans. To build a strong system of alliances the Dacians, found allies against common enemies. Thus in 514 BC they joined with the Scythians against Darius and again in 325 BC (possibly 334,333,331 or 330 BC) against the governor left by Alexander the Great in Thracia Zopyrion. Against the Roman Empire they allied with the Celts (109BC), the Bastarnae (29-38BC, 85-86AD), the Quadi and the Marcomanni (88-89BC), the Sarmations, especially the Roxolane (69, 85-86, 101-105,117-118AD), the Boe (101-102AD), and the even the Macedonians (171-168BC) Invoking common military interests they allied with the Thracian tribes from the Northern Balkans (ex: the Tribalii in 335 BC, the Moesii, rebelled in 26, 69 and 86 AD), the Greek colonies (339 BC when controlling a Getae and Histrian coalition a "rex Histrianorum" shows up: in 326 BC when the Dacians are Olbia's allies against Macedonians; in 300-392 BC, when Dromichaites conducts all military efforts to put an end to Lysimachos' invading plans; in 72-71 BC and 61 BC against the Roman proconsul of Macedonia, and so on) Ariovist, the king of Suebii (60-50 BC) or Pacorus II, the king of the Partae (103-105 AD) etc.
The reasoning behind these alliances can be see in Decebal's call to his neighbors in the spring of 105 when, as Dio Cassius tells us ,"he instigated them to war" saying that if they left him, they would endanger themselves, that freedom was more easily kept if they fought by his side and that if they left the Dacians to die, later, all alone without any allies, they would follow them in death. In their plans of defense Getae and Dacian leaders tried to construct them to leave room to adapt to their enemies' force and objectives.
From the data we have, in the year 514 BC in front of the huge Persian army (around 700,000 warriors and 600 galleys) "being determined to stubbornly resist", the Getae attacked the invaders "even before they arrived to the Hister".
In front of the most powerful military units of the age (the Macedonian phalanx of Alexander the Great) the Thracians from the North-Balkans decided in 335 BC to close the passes in the Balkans and to crush the enemy through an unusual tactic: they besieged the enemy in a uneven, dangerous land specially arranged "Posada" style and then the concentric attack should give them full victory.
Arrian wrote, "they had brought wagons and putting them in front, used them as entrenchments to fight from them if they were attacked. At the same time, they thought of crushing those wagons against the Macedonian phalanx from the highest place of the mountain. They imagined that, the harder a wagon hit a compact phalanx the easily it was scattered by the violence of the hit". Arrian also mentions the pursuit of Syrmos' Tribalii, who followed the enemy as far as the Danube, and the coming of the state union's army in the Southern plain with 4000 horsemen and 10 000 infantry determined not to let the enemy cross the river. In the same way, the last great Dacian ruler, Decebal, would defend the whole of the Danube's shores, as would his descendants - Mircea the Old, Vlad the Impaler, Stefan the Great, Ion the Terrible or Mihai the Brave. Crito, an eyewitness to this, said that in forcing the Danube frontiers by the Romans in 101 AD had brought upon themselves, "an attack, as they passed the river and prepared to disembark". The point of defense was chosen where conditions were very difficult (uneven land, wooden mountains, deep and wide river) in Haemus, the Banat's Carpathians or near the Danube. Florus writes about the, "Dacian's who depend on the mountains" and the proconsul of Macedonia, C. Scribonius Curio, who gave up his campaign of crossing the Danube in 75-74 BC "terrified" by "the darkness of woods" and about Vergilius' fear of the, "Dacian's who come from the Hister which plots against us".
If the enemy succeeded in crossing the frontiers, the second stage of Dacian military strategy emerged: a flexible defense, organized as the army moved, with their own camps well organized. In 101-102AD the Romans managed to penetrate the Dacian lines at various points, in an attempt to turn the left flank of the Dacian front in order to fully surround Sarmizegetusa. Some units passed waited in reserve and when the initiative was regained and maintained they arranged and "engineered" the whole place. With the enemy upon Dacian territory "Popular war" involving all social classes was carried out. This involved the harassment of the enemy day and night, the crushing of scouts or defense systems with the mobile light cavalry, the luring of the enemy on dark secondary unsafe roads, the burning of the land and all in all the artificial arrangements to get the perfect Getic desert (in which Zopyrion's army died in 326 B.C.) were the most common methods used to exhaust and madden the enemy. The villages were set on fire, the wheat was buried, the cattle and the population hidden and as Arrian wrote, Alexander marched through "deserted places" in the Southern plain.
This depressing picture was very much alike the one offered to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1462 by the army of Vlad the Impaler. The sources regarding Lysimacos' campaign from 292 B.C. against Dromichaites tell us that Seuthes, "had brought the Macedonians in unfriendly territories where they suffered of hunger and thirst; Lysymachos' army was tortured by hunger. Friends advised the king to get away as soon as he could and to abandon the thought that his army could save him. Lysimachos answered that it was not fair to leave his men and friends, organizing some shameful escape for himself". At the end of such 'Psychological" war, when the enemy could not oppose with the same force, the third stage of the Dacian military strategy emerged, the final battle. Battle was given at pre chosen sites, well prepared in advance. It is well known that the Tribalii used a tactical plan based on 4 lines: in the first line were the skirmishers, young men armed with missile weapons. In the second were the adult warriors armed for melee attacks. In the third the horsemen and finally the women watched to encourage those who fought.
Underneath this joke of Nicolaos of Damascus we can identify the organization of the Dacian army in battle. The infantry bore the brunt of the battle whilst the cavalry turned the enemies flanks and surrounded him. On occasion they could launch frontal assaults in a wedge formation but more commonly they would be reserved for the pursuit of the enemy once he was defeated. Defeated, the enemy could be taken prisoner, as happened with Lysimachos' Macedonian army, could be killed as it happened with Fuscus' legions or forced to withdraw chaotically, a situation in which, the Dacians followed the enemy until it crossed the frontier or until it was totally crushed. This pursuit was made with the light cavalry detachments upon the rear or the flanks of the enemy In the latter situation the enemy could be surrounded and stopped from withdrawing by blocking passes. In these given circumstances, the army of Zopyrion was completely crushed on its way back to Oblucita. It was surrounded on swampy land while a storm broke loose and destroyed all its fleet and the Getic army managed to, "erase it from the face of the earth". When the enemy wasn't completely crushed and retired across the river with great loss, the pursuit could be longer. Organizing on the move, the Dacian's continued the attack in order to free the Southern parts of the Danube, occupied by their enemies. The Gatea acted in such manner in 514 BC, when permanently harassing the Persian army on its way back. They organized a counter-attack with the Getae and Scythian army joined by other Balkan tribes and Greek colonies. The consequences of this attack were felt all the way to Asia Minor. The counter-attack was prepared and while the approach of enemy troops could not be stopped; the Getae wanted to open a second battle front which, would ease the efforts on the main front or allow for the Dacians to regroup. . According to some ancient authors, this plan of battle brought Decebal final victory in 87 AD. The contradictory evidence that has come to our attention, regarding the Roman attack in the Northern parts of the Danube lead by Cornelius Fuscus, takes us to a contradictory hypothesis. Petrus Patricius, Tacitus, Iordanes and Juvenal offer us the first version whereby, the Roman Seante was deliberately provoked by a demand that the peace be compensated by a certain sum of money collected from each Roman citizen, "two oboli each citizen" Decebal decided the start and the direction in which the war would go. The invading army crossed the river from the West from Oescus (Ghighen) on a pontoon bridge, commanded by Fuscus and moved South-North, on the Olt valley. He aimed to force the Turnu-Rosu pass and maneuver for an attack on the Secas and Mures valleys thereby isolating the powerful Dacian fortress from the Orastie mountains.
"Skilled in setting traps", Decebal prepared a huge ambush in the mountains in the narrow pass Olt. He was the first, in a long line of leaders to exploit this position for battle, a decision that was repeated in 1330 and 1395. Experts in exploiting the mountains and woods, "the Dacians even from the first encounter defeated the Romans, killed their general Fuscus and robbed the riches from their military camp, even capturing the flag of the V legion Alaudae" (Iordanes).
The second hypothesis sustained by Suetonius and the poet Martial, suggests the existence of slight victory of Fuscus in the beginning of the campaign. To stop his advance Decebal launched a powerful counter-attack in Dobrogea, trying to weaken the rear of the Roman front by destroying their military bases in Moesia. Forced to withdraw, Fuscus had to send troops to defend the fortresses from the Lower Danube, weakening him before he was crushed in the final battle, which is said to have been somewhere around Adamclisi. The mausoleum from Adamclisi is said to be his and upon it are carved the names of the 3800 soldiers he lost. After some years, it is said that Trajan added to this mausoleum s trophy representing his victory over the Dacians. Both hypotheses lead us to the same conclusion: the Dacians obtained a great victory due to their warriors' courage, to their clever strategy and of course to their skilled leader-Decebal.
A second counter-attack took place in a similar situation in the early spring of 102AD, when Trajan returned to the front from Hateg. Several months before, after the victory from the second battle of Tapae (autumn 101AD), while the main Roman forces began to "climb mountains" getting close to "the Dacian royal dwelling place", the Moorish cavalry, commanded by Lucius Quietus, had began to force the Valcan pass in order to surround the place and, "attacking from other side, it slaughtered many and many it had caught alive. Decebal sent his messengers," a ruse to gain time to re-organize. The Dacian king, "knew how to escape sane from a defeat", so he used the short time he got because of the winter. Counting on the Getae support, the Thracians and Getae in Moesia Inferior - ready to rebel against Roman authorities, on the alliances with the Roxolane , Bastarnae and perhaps on the Partian king Pacorus II, he attacked the Romans in Moesia before the Danube thawed . He also tried to intercept "Trajan's communicating with the Empire's resources" and to catch the Roman army from the mountains between two battle-fronts.
The events carved in Trajan's Column, scenes XXXI-XLIV, proved the realism of his strategic ideas. nature was against him however, and a early thaw caused great loss to the Dacian cavalry when they crossed the river and at the same time, gave Trajan time to embark quickly and to move his units to support the garrison at Moesia. The courageous decision to attempt to turn the right flank of the Romans failed, 3800 soldiers dieing in the final battle from North-Eastern Durostorum (Silistra) and South of Axiopolis (Cernavoda) Upon this site a monument would be built and the new city of Tropaeum Traiani. Trajan managed to stop the attack and to keep the situation under control. In great hurry he embarked with his available forces on his fleet (Classis Flavia Moesica), returning to the main battle-front to continue the assault in the mountains of Orastie. Decebal's newest attempt to gain time by sending "the most brave pilleati" as messengers failed. The main forces of the Roman army, led by Trajan in person, together with the Moorish cavalry started to advance again to Sarmizegetusa, organizing its positions by building the so called "castrum" (military base) "on the high cliffs of Jigoru Mare, Comarnicel and varful lui Patru".
Many of the forces from Moesia Inferior penetrated Transilvania through the Bretcu pass and Bran (after the military base from Targsor, Malaiesti, Pietroasele, Drajna de Sus were built), through Turnu Rosu; the latter bases being commanded by the governor Manius Laberius Maximus which organized the attack in the Western front. Many of these counter-attacks' failed, mainly due to weather conditons. (in the exact way in which 19 centuries after this moment the same failure would occur to the Romanians in Turtucaia) and because of the direct results of the rich legacy of military art left by the grand era of the brave leaders Burebista and Decebal. Called in front of the Getae and Dacian armies joined together by the great poet and king, Deceneu, the Getae king Burebista started in extremely short time (61-55 BC), with the purpose of stopping the aggression (the proconsuls actions), 3 great military campaigns one after another which had a great success but disturbed the unity of the North-Balkan Thracian state. One was against the Boe and Teurisci from North-West, another against the Greek fortresses from the Western parts of the Black Sea which wanted an alliance -as a continued action of the one that took place in 61 BC when C. Antonius Hybrida's legion was crushed in Histria and against the Scordisci and Illyrians from the united land of Tisa and Danube.
These were actions were meant to answer the Roman aggression which, wanted to rule after 111 BC the Thracian and Getae lands between the Hister, Haemus and the sea. They were continued after the Romans created Moesia (15 AD) and after they left a bastion (Scythia Minor) as a permanent threat to the unified Dacian state from Sarmizegetusa. As a first military action, these kings, (Scorilo or Duras), initiated the campaign from 69 AD to free the land from the Southern Danube as far as Haemus mountains; this campaign was surprising, because of the great number of Getae and Dacian units and because of the large parts of Moesian, Thracian and Getic population involved and encouraged to rebel. The Roxolane were also involved against Romans. To prevent any Dacian military action from taking place, the emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) charged Rubrius Gallus to take strong measures in order to defend the new province of Moesia: the emperor gave him 4 legions, reinforced the Danubian fleet (Classic Flavia Moesica) whose base was established at Aegyssus (now called Tulcea) and Noviodunum (Isaccea). A grave threat began to hang over the Dacian state from the Northern Danube. The military base system, the Moesic territories and the Roman fleet, not only made any attempt at freeing the land almost impossible, but gave the Romans the possibility of returning through Scythia Minor to the Dacian front and to start an invasion from the best possible situation.
This attack was necessary for the Romans as its successful conclusion would finally defeat the Dacian kings who could not accept the loss of their southern lands. Ruling over the Danube was important given its economic and military importance. Given these circumstances, when the confrontation between the Northern Thracians and the Romans had reached its final stage (after a quarter of a millennium, from the Macedonian collapse in the battle from Pydna on June 6th 168 B.C., and after its last attempt to regain freedom in 146 B.C.), Decebal's ascension as Dacia's king took place. He was a prince, perhaps a son or nephew of Duras; Decebal could have been apprenticed as a commander in 82 AD when the Dacians took the initiative of attacking the Romans in order to free the Dacian-Moesian lands and when Domitian (81-96 AD) managed with difficulty to put an end to these attacks by asking the help of the Germans. It is likely that Decebal conducted the campaign over the winter of 85/86 AD which was very close to succeeding in reuniting the great Dacian state of Burebista. Except for the names and the peoples participating to this battle, we could easily compare this campaign of Decebal - the only Dacian campaign thoroughly described - with the campaigns described in the Medieval chronicles of Mircea the Old, Vlad the Impaler, Stefan the Great or Mihai the Brave. Crossing the Danube in the winter and attacking the Roman units at every military base along the Danube, the Dacians managed to annihilate most of Roman garrisons. They "started to sack the Danube shores, ruled a long time now, by the Romans, destroying the units and their commanders", wrote the Goth historian, Iordanes.
The ruler of this province at that time was Oppius Sabinus and the Goth (Get) ruler was Dorpaneus; "in the battle, the Romans were defeated and Oppius Sabinus was beheaded". The whole Southern Danube military system was ruined, numerous "military bases and cities" fell, the communication lines were interrupted and as Tacitus says, "the legions' fortresses and our very ruling was doubted in those times". To save this whole situation, Domitian was forced to use all Empire's resources. He arrived at Naissus (Nis) to personally watch the military operations, engaged the Pretorian guards in the battle giving Cornelius Fuscus the title of "Pretorian prefect", commander of all armies gathered at the Danube. After he put an end, with difficulty, to the Dacian attacks, the emperor tried to organize the defense of the region. He split the newly conquered province of Moesia in two, Inferior and Superior, attaching to each one a powerful military unit. These two were meant to be bases incursions into Dacia. This was the beginning of the final period of Dacian-Roman conflict. It became, "the biggest war for the Romans in those times", that lasted for 20 years. Lead by their, "fierce" king Decebel, the war ended in defeat at the hands of the Dacians greatest enemy, Marcus Ulpius Nerva Trajan (98-117AD)
It is from these two civilization, Thraco-Dacian and Roman that the Romanian people can trace their historical legacy. As the great historian Vasile Parvan wrote, Dacian opposition was like " a love song that peoples rarely sung to their endangered countries". The Dacians leave a mental and military legacy that would continue to emphasis the importance of protecting the civilian population whilst seeking to defeat the enemy through a strategy of harassment, scorched earth policy and finally battle.
The archeological evidence together with written sources allow us, with a certain amount of certainty, to reconstruct Thracian-Getic-Dacian military practices. At the same time we are also able to establish the similarities between the Northern Thracians and the Romans in terms of military units, materials, techniques, army composition, defensive fortifications, tactics and strategy. This reconstruction allows us to assess the originality of Dacian thinking and its key features that include the mobilizing of the male population, protection of the civilian one, exploitation of terrain and using proportionate force to the importance of the objective. Active in political and diplomatic areas the Dacians had a clear strategy when it came to defending their homeland. An active defense was organized that included harassing the main army, preparing a scorched earth policy and luring the invaders into deserted regions before attempting to turn his right flank and counter attacking him in a final effort to remove him from Dacian territory.
Attacks were always strategically well prepared and aimed, especially when attempting to retake Dacian territory, for example the Southern lands invaded by the Romans. In Burebista's era these attacks were accompanied by an attempt to unify the Dacian peoples and organize a Dacian state. Dacian military commander always aimed to to surprise the enemy tactically and strategically, employing unusual ruses and exploiting the advantages the terrain offered them. In conclusion there are many similarities between the military practices of the Dacians, the Romans, Medieval Romania and the Modern day. Some general features include:
1) the originality and high degree of evolution of Thracian and Dacian military practices are similar to Roman ones.
2) the continuing presence of Romanians in the Dacian homeland is provable through the evolution of the specific features of military practice.
3) the legacy that the Dacians left to the Romanians was the doctrine of mobilizing all able bodied people in defense of the Thracian-Dacian homeland.