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Burebista's Time

About the history of Dacia during the time of king Burebista we know some details from ancient sources. Strabo wrote about the great king:

”Boirebistas a Getan, on setting himself in authority over the tribe, restored the people, who had been reduced to an evil plight by numerous wars, and raised them to such a height through training, sobriety, and obedience to his commands that within only a few years he had established a great empire and subordinated to the Getae most of the neighbouring peoples. And he began to be formidable even to the Romans, because he would cross the Ister with impunity and plunder Thrace as far as Macedonia and the Illyrian country; and he not only laid waste the country of the Celti who were intermingled with the Thracians and the Illyrians, but actually caused the complete disappearance of the Boii who were under the rule of Critasirus, and also of the Taurisci. To help him secure the complete obedience of his tribe he had as his coadjutor Decaeneus, a wizard, a man who not only had wandered through Egypt, but also had thoroughly learned certain prognostics through which he would pretend to tell the divine will; and within a short time he was set up as god (as I said when relating the story of Zamolxis). The following is an indication of their complete obedience: they were persuaded to cut down their vines and to live without wine. However, certain men rose up against Boirebistas and he was deposed before the Romans sent an expedition against him; and those who succeeded him divided the empire into several parts. In fact, only recently, when Augustus Caesar sent an expedition against them, the number of parts into which the empire had been divided was five, though at the time of the insurrection it had been four. Such divisions, to be sure, are only temporary and vary with the times.”

Strabo, Geografia, VII, 3, 11
Trajan`s Column, Scene XXIV (C. Cichorius): Dacians besieged a Roman fortress during the war of AD 101-102. Color reconstruction after R. Bianchi Bandinelli.

From this reliable source (Strabo lived in that period, and he is a serious author, who selected his information in a proper manner), we find out that Burebista was a Getan by origin. From the inscription of Acornion, son of Dionysios, from Dionysopolis, we learn that this man had a diplomatic mission to Burebista`s father, who was in the settlement of Argedava. Some modern historians have located this settlement in the Argeș River area, others in Popești, in the Romanian Plain, or even Dobruja. According to other different opinions, the mysterious dava was situated near the mountains from Southern Transylvania.

Statue of a Dacian (Pitti Museum, Florence). Trajan`s time.

The name of the king is spelled differently by ancient authors. Strabo writes Boirebistas and Burebistas. The Acornion`s decree calls him Burebistas, but once, in the lines 33-34 of the inscription, is misspelled Burabeista. Jordanes mentions the king as Buruista. The name is not known in the Geto-Dacian onomastics, but has analogies with other Thracian names.

The decree of Acornion from Dionysopolis.

The beginning of the reign of Burebista can be placed around 82 BC. Jordanes, author from the 6th century AD, wrote that in Rome, the power was assumed by L. Cornelius Sulla, Burebista reigned and Deceneu was received by the Geto-Dacian king. From the decree of Acornion of Dionysopolis, we find out that the diplomat was sent to Pompey by Burebista, who wished to interfere in the Civil War between Pompey and Caesar, therefore in 48 BC. The last year of reign for Burebista is traditionally considered to be 44 BC, based on the connection between the Romans’ plans to send an army against him, according to Strabo, and Caesar`s intentions to start campaigns against the Dacians and the Parthians, plans which were stopped by the assassination of the Roman dictator, in March 44 BC:

”…at the time when Byrebistas, against whom already the Deified Caesar had prepared to make an expedition, was reigning over the Getae…”

Strabo, Geografia, VII, 3, 5

“When the civil war was over, with a view to training his remarkable talents by liberal studies, he sent him to Apollonia to study, with the intention of taking him with him as his companion in his contemplated wars with the Getae and the Parthians.”

Velleius Paterculus, Historia Romana, II, 59, 4

”When Caesar, after recovering the Spanish provinces, planned an expedition against the Dacians and then against the Parthians, Augustus, who had been sent on in advance to Apollonia, devoted his leisure to study.”

Suetonius, Viața celor 12 Caesar, Augustus, VIII, 4

Finally, it is also written that:

”However, certain men rose up against Boerebistas and he was deposed before the Romans sent an expedition against him.”

Strabo, Geografia, VII, 3, 11

So, the king Burebista reigned from before 82 BC up to 44 BC.

Bust of a noble Dacian (Hermitage Museum). Trajan`s time.

When he became king, Burebista started to unify the Geto-Dacian tribes, divided by civil wars, by extending his authority in all the teritorries known today as Dacia. From different sources, we know some names of kings who reigned before Burebista, like Oroles, who fought against the Bastarnae, or Rubobostes, about whom Trogue Pompey wrote that he raised the power of the Dacians. The archaeological discovery of the Geto-Dacian coins allowed the identification of some types that, on the basis of the places of discovery and hoard concentration in specific regions, represented the starting point of an interpretation about the issuers, tribes or unions of tribes that produced them. The overview on the Dacian political organization before Burebista is that of some tribes or unions of tribes that are allied or in conflict, with endless changes in their relations. Burebista probably unified the tribes through wars and diplomacy. Some of the dave seem to have been destroyed in the first half of the 1st century BC, which suggests violent conflicts, while others seem to have survived and prospered in the same period.

Bust of a Dacian nobleman, possibly king Decebalus (Vatican Museum). Trajan’s time.

The sense of the story of Strabo about the orders to have the vine pulled from its roots might be a moral one, but it emphasizes concepts like austerity, reforms and a concentration of the Royal authority. The measure can also be interpreted as a precaution against civil wars.

In the 2nd and the 1st century BC, Rome began the expansion in the Balkan Peninsula. In 168 BC, king Perseus of Macedon is defeated, and his kingdom transformed, in 146 BC, into a Roman province. Rome is forced to deal with new adversaries and to interfere in the Balkan region. In 109-106 BC, Minucius Rufus, the governor of Macedonia, holds back an invasion of Dacians and Scordisci. C. Scribonius Curio (75-72 BC) follows transdanubian invadors up to the Danube, but is frightened by the dense and dark forests on the other bank and does not dare to cross the river. Some researchers consider that this episode took place in the Banat area.

At the same time, the growth of the power of Burebista is contemporary with the second half of the reign of Mithridates VI, king of Pontus (Asia Minor) and his antiroman policy. Mithridates will dominate the Western part of the Black Sea, placing his garrisons and minting coins in cities like Histria, Tomis and Kallatis, but also the populations from the respective region. The help he received from Thracians and Scythians was discussed and that:

„Mithridates asks them as friends. They are Scythians, Tauri, Bastarnae, Sarmatians and all that live around the rivers Tanais and Istros, and even around the Meotic lake.” Appian, Mithridate, XV, 53

It is possible that king Burebista had good relations with Mithridates, if we take into consideration the alliance system practised by the king of Pontus.

Bust of a Dacian (Vatican Museum). Trajan`s time.

The Roman intervention in 73-71 BC will stop the influence of Mithridates in the Western parts of the Black Sea. M. Terentius Varro Lucullus, the brother of general Licinius Lucullus, who commanded the war against Mithridates, will march towards the Greek cities from the Western shore of the Black Sea. Some of them are conquered, like Apollonia or even Histria, while others will change sides, for example in the case of Kallatis, if the foedus preserved until today dates from this time period.

The area of Sarmizegetusa Regia, the capital of the kingdom of Dacia (source: Carmen Maria Petolescu, Monedele regelui Coson, p. 10)

Burebista must have taken advantage of the disappearance of Mithridates and the power-vacuum created.

During the term as governor of Macedonia, the Roman general C. Antonius Hybrida plunders other regions from the Balkans, devastating the territory of the Dardani and campaigning, unsuccessfully, against them and the Bastarnae (Germanic population settled, it seems, in the East of the Carpathian Mountains). The corrupt behaviour of Hybrida and the harsh treatment undergone by the Greek cities from the Western shore of the Black Sea will trigger a great revolt. Antonius Hybrida is defeated by the „Bastarnae Scythians” neas the city of Histria in 60 BC.

Bust of a Dacian (Napoli Museum). Trajan`s time.

Vasile Pârvan posed the question if not ”Burebista himself would have been the commander of the Geto-Bastarnae troups that crushed Antonius and took his flags”. This theory is plausible, but the captured Roman flags were recovered by the Romans from the Genucla settlement in 29 BC, thus suggesting that the leader of the rebellion was local and Burebista did not get involved directly at this moment.

Dacia during the time of Burebista. The military campaigns of the king (source: wikipedia).

The kingdom of Burebista stretched from the Black Sea and the South of the Danube up to the Carpathian Mountains in the present day Slovakia. The Boii and the Tauriscii from the region around Tisa river were crushed by Burebista, who fought against them. It has been recorded by Strabo about the destruction of the Boii, but Caesar mentioned in De bello Gallico (I, 5, 4) that the Helvetii that prepared themselves around 59-58 BC for the migration towards West asked the help of the Boii from Noricum. This means that the expulsion (and not the destruction) of the Boii took place before 60 BC.

In the East, the Greek cities entered Burebista’s sphere of influence sometime after the defeat of Hybrida in 60 BC. Dio Chrysostom speaks about Olbia, stating:

”The last and the longest conquest took place not far from 150 years ago. The Getae took the city of Borystene and the other cities from the shores of the Left Pont, up to Apollonia.”

As Dio Chrysostom made this speach in AD 97, the event must have happened around 55/53 BC. If the city of Olbia (Borystene) was conquered, the diplomatic missions successfully carried out by Acornion of Dionysopolis suggest that other cities, like this one, had willingly accepted the kings’ authority. The title mentioned in the decree of Dionysopolis is the first and the greatest kings from Thracia and ruler of all the territory from both sides of the river is the best suited to describe the realm of the king.

In the last years of reign, Burebista was the most important ruler in the region. Strabo wrote about the military strength of Dacia, claiming that the king could mobilize 200,000 soldiers.

Caius Iulius Caesar.

The civil war between Caesar and Pompey determined both generals to try to obtain support from other states. Acornion negotiates with Pompey in the name of the king and his city, thus scholars consider that king Burebista became ally of the Roman general and Rome (rex amicus et socius populi Romani).

Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey)

The Civil War broke out in January 49 BC, when Caesar, against the orders of the Senate, crossed the Rubicon river in front of his armies. Pompey ran away with a part of the Senate in Epirus and Macedonia, claiming his legitimacy and counting on the help of the allies of Rome and his personal ones from the East. It is written that Pompey stated:

”We may say that all the nations of the East and around the Euxine Sea, both Greek and barbarian, stand with us; and kings, who are friends of the Roman people or of myself, are supplying us soldiers, arms, provisions, and other implements of war.” Appian, Războaiele civile, II, 51 (Loeb)

The prestige of Pompey in the Eastern parts of the Roman state was immense, after the successful campaigns in the last decades, and the resources and initial victory of Dyrrhachium (July 48 BC) seemed to favour him.

If Burebista had been a personal ally of Pompey, or hoped that from his victory, the relations with Rome would evolve in favour of the great king. It is considered that Pompey hoped to receive military support from Burebista, but this did not arrive in time, the defeat of Pharsalus in August 48 BC proving to be decisive for Pompey.

The victory of Caesar marked the deterioration of the relations with the Roman state, as it was obvious from the planned expedition of 44 BC.