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A Short History

Transylvania is Far from Mesopotamia

It is easy to draw Transylvania's natural geographic boundaries. The region lies in the mighty embrace of the crests of the eastern and southern Carpathians. It begins in the north at the sources of the river Tisza and extends in the south to that stretch of the Danube which once again flows in an easterly direction, and which by snuggling up to the southernmost tip of the Carpathians, separates the Carpathian and Balkan mountain systems. Its western boundaries are formed by the rivers flowing toward the center of the Carpathian basin. They emerge among their own detritus from the valleys of the central, isolated Transylvanian mountains, and both to the north and south of these mountains from the Carpathian ranges. Thus, it is enclosed on two sides by mountains, traversed only by nearly intractable passes, and on the third side by rivers and, formerly, extensive marshy areas. This conception of Transylvania as a geographic entity is currently widely accepted in Hungary. It is inaccurate and, more importantly, not historically correct. The term Transylvania may be used today to define three distinct territorial entities . There is a geographic Transylvania. It has an ideal shape and is a geographically homogenous basin surrounded by well defined mountain ranges with an area of approximately 57,000 square kilometers. We can talk about a historic Transylvania with a variable area which in the 17th century, as an independent principality, extended far beyond the boundaries of the geographic Transylvania. The attached areas were referred to as Partium. This Partium shifted back and forth between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Principality of Transylvania. The third Transylvania is the area that was assigned to Romania by the peace treaties of the 1920s, and which today still forms a part of Romania. This area is larger by 46,000 square kilometers than the geographic Transylvania and encompasses a total of 103,000 square kilometers.

The geographic Transylvania has magnificent natural boundaries. In the east and south we find the continuous 1,500-2,000 meter high walls of the Carpathians, while in the west there is the massive block of the Bihar mountains. This bastion is traversed by three wide, easily passable gates, all three of them pointing toward the west, toward the Hungarian Great Plains. They are the gate of the Szamos valley, the Meszes gate leading to the Berettyó region, and the gate of the Maros valley. The Carpathians and the Bihar mountains are traversed only by a few narrow passes, across extensive, poorly populated areas. In the lap of the great mountains there is a central basin, the Mezõség, and a hilly area fragmented by rivers, the Küküllõ region. There is also a whole range of small, peripheral, mountainous basins among the ranges of the Eastern and Southern Carpathians, and in their foothills. Outside of the historic Transylvania, there is a wide segment of the Hungarian Great Plains, given to Romania in the 1920s, now also referred to as Transylvania and extending from the plains to the watershed along the crest of the mountains. This region does not consist of adjacent, compatible parts and each part has a natural affinity toward a different area of the Great Plains.

At this point, however, we have advanced far beyond ourselves. As we turn to the beginnings of the historic development of Transylvania, let us return to the natural geographic considerations. Transylvania's valleys are in some places only 200-300 meters above the sea level, while the surrounding and central peaks rise to heights of 1500 to 2500 meters. Its climate is determined by its low average temperature and by relatively copious precipitation. This favored a hunting and grazing economy, while it was less favorable to agriculture. The latter is also limited by the contours of the land and by the relative poverty of the soil.

According to the earliest archeological findings, in ancient times Transylvania was a well circumscribed area, occasionally bypassed by ethnic and economic movements, but in which external forces or settlements, produced a transient but specific internal cultural environment, and led to tangible progress. Yet everything that can be found in Transylvania today and that can be subsumed under the heading of prehistory, is not sufficiently specific or detailed to warrant inclusion in this brief summary. It may suffice to say that the Neolithic evolution, which showied marked Mediterranean influences, suffered repeated and marked stops and regressions. Even though the domestication of animals did take place, hunting and the consumption of game was still significant. This can be easily explained by the environment. (It may be mentioned here, that very many years later the last European bisons and aurochs in the Carpathian basin were killed in Transylvania, and that the Carpathian brown bear can still be found in the forests.)

The historic spotlight shone, albeit briefly, on this region after the discovery of the famous artifacts in Alsó-Tatárlaka, which showed pictographic writing and which were dated to 4000 B.C. It may be assumed logically that the local evolution in the Transylvanian area at that time led the inhabitants to a level of specialization and social stratification that required a system of permanent, written means of communication, and thus the introduction of writing. The Tatárlaka tablets are not unique. Their interpretation is supported by other pictograms dating to the same period, which had never been viewed in this light, and which suggest the evolution of a high civilization, extensive both in space and time and centered on the Vinca-Tordos Culture located in the Banate-Southern Transylvania region.

What is there in this period of the Transylvanian Neolithic age -- already leaning toward the metal and early Bronze Age -- which would permit that the Tatárlaka written tablets be interpreted as being indicative of an early, high civilization? We encroach here on an enormously complex problem. Is the Transylvanian Neolithic culture the result of an independent evolution, or is it inseparable from the Mediterranean Fertile Crescent evolution? In any case, it represents the existence of an astonishingly mature early Balkan metal culture.

In the wide-ranging and complicated archaeologic debate dealing with as yet insoluble chronological dilemmas and arguing whether the evolution of the various early cultures was independent or interdependent, whether they developed in isolation or whether they learned and borrowed from each other, one thing appears to be certain. The advanced Balkan metal culture produced gold and electron (gold-silver) masterpieces, found in the Várna area since 1972, which in their sum total equal the esthetic and historic significance of the Tutankhamen treasure or of pre-Columbian gold. It could not have developed without either extensive exploitation of the Aegean or Transylvanian metal ores and the exportation of the precious metals from the mines to the heartland of the Balkans. We believe that Transylvania was the source of these ores. Yet, even if the ores came from the Aegean, the history of Transylvania shows that this area served as the source of discord for a variety of peoples, and that this was due primarily to the salt mines and to the mining of certain metals, namely gold, silver and, most importantly, copper, which can be dated back to the Neolithic era.

The great step forward documented by the Tatárlaka findings was, however, only temporary, and the speculations linking Transylvania to Sumer are without foundation, as is the idea that Transylvania was the cradle of Sumerian civilization, and that the native "pre-Hungarian" people were the sires of the civilization in which the prehistory of man was turned into the history of humanity. This "theory" was developed and propagated as the completely erroneous Hungarian answer and as a spiteful reaction to the equally fantastic Romanian hypothesis of the Daco-Roman continuity. The further, sometimes slow, sometimes more vigorous, but never complete exchange of populations was the at times peaceful, at times violent fusion of migrating peoples who belong to a historic framework in which even the name of the tribes is unknown. The neighboring and sequential cultures can be separated only on the basis of certain indicators of their ethnicity, found in their burial grounds. It should be mentioned, however, that when the extensive Bodrog-Keresztúr culture, preferring the less wooded areas, was expanding toward Transylvania, even though the natural environment was not favorable for it, the motivation for this expansion is clearly shown by its use of copper, which was highest in the settlements closest to Transylvania and least in the settlements farthest from it.

Over the years, eastern pastoral tribes repeatedly invaded the Late-Neolithic and the copper and Bronze Age people of this region. The animal husbandry of these tribes was also a Neolithic achievement, but represented a less effective production of food than that of the early agriculturists. The belligerence and mobility of these tribes temporarily overshadowed the advantages of an agricultural economy. There was also a time when these pastoral people completely overwhelmed the developers of the Transylvanian metal mines, and the latter withdrew from their settlements to caves in the mountains.

Who Were The Dacians and What Became of Them?

During its prehistory, Transylvania never had a homogenous population and was divided into smaller, temporarily isolated areas. It was about 2,500 years ago that the first society appeared which, based on its burial customs and other remains, seems to have inhabited the entire Transylvanian region, and for which we can find a name. The findings indicate that these people were related to the Scythians. Herodotos refers to them under the name of Agathursos. During their expansion, they even appeared on the eastern edge of the Great Plains. They also continued the Transylvanian tradition and had an advanced metal culture, which is no longer considered to belong to the Bronze Age. The Agathursos supplied the people surrounding them with iron weapons. They became fugitives during the fourth and third centuries, victims of the arrival and territorial conquests of the Celts.

Following the transient dominion of the Celts and in spite of the permanent residence of many of their people, the Dacian era of Transylvania and of a significant portion of the Carpathian basin had arrived. It is a particularly difficult era to discuss. Everything connected with them belongs to the highly sensitive area of the prehistory of the Romanian people and of modern Romania. From a Hungarian perspective, this fact makes this entire matter a delicate and highly controversial issue.

The prehistory and origin of these people, who came from Thrace, who slowly advanced from the Balkans northward and who had active and lasting contacts with the Greeks, remain obscure and much debated. This happens to be true for most European nations. The genesis of their Neo-Latin language is a peculiar and specific problem. They presumable infiltrated into Transylvania primarily from the Great Plains area of the Carpathian basin, although their "conquest" may have originated from several different areas simultaneously.

Dacian society itself was internally sharply divided into two groups. The elite group, the "cap wearers" or more accurately the "Fur Hat People" were the aristocracy which lived in mountain fortresses, well supplied with expensive imported Greek goods. Their subjects, the "Longhaired People" had their poorer and more defenseless dwellings in the open country. The outstanding personality among the Dacians was King Burebista, who ruled for as much as four decades during the first half of the first century B.C. The foundations for his strong administrative organization and stormy conquests may have been laid down by his father. This is similar to Hungarian history where (Saint) Stephen I only completed the initiatives of his father, the great Prince Géza, and yet Stephen is considered as the founding father of the country.

Under Burebista Dacian rule extended far beyond Transylvania. In the east it reached the Greek cities along the Black Sea. In the west, it extended to Transdanubia and to parts of the area of the present Slovakia. In the south, it encompassed Macedonia and the Adriatic. Thus, about half a century before the birth of Christ, the Roman Empire had to view the Dacian Empire as its greatest foe in the Balkans. Yet this empire, which very rapidly conquered a large number of tribal groups, was just as fragile as many other powerful organizations of antiquity.

The first major confrontation between Rome and the Dacians should have occurred during the rules of Caesar and Burebista. The situation was ripe for it. Both rulers, however, were eliminated by a political conspiracy and "regicide". The showdown between the two powers, Dacian and Roman, was critical for the control of the vital Middle and Lower Danubian space, and could thus be only delayed but not ignored. The causes and conduct of the conspiracy against Julius Caesar are well known from Roman historiography. Burebista's fate is much harder to elucidate. He most probably fell victim to his greatest accomplishment, the unification of the Dacian tribes, which inevitably led to the curbing of the jealously guarded prerogatives of the tribal leaders. (Nota bene, Burebista's administrative problems may have been similar in many respects to the problems encountered 1000 years later by the Hungarian Stephen.)

The rapid disintegration of the Dacian Empire following the murder of its charismatic leader, does not mean that we no longer have to be concerned with the Dacians. Rome, much beset by problems, slowly but consistently proceeded in strengthening its position in the northern Balkans and in East-Central Europe to ensure the flanks of its Eastern conquests, which now extended to Mesopotamia. Heading northward from Illyricum, it brought the Pannonian tribes under its rule, encompassing all of Pannonia, which corresponds to the entire present Hungarian Transdanubia. In a northeasterly direction it moved toward the Iron Gate in order to eventually control the entire lower reaches of the Danube. During this period it preferred to live in peace with the Dacians, rather than fighting them. In order to maintain this peace, it made major financial sacrifices and offered and provided technical assistance as well.

It is important to digress at this point and to mention the unusually significant changes which took place at this time of continuous national dislocations, in the lap of the Carpathian basin, in the Great Plains. This area was infiltrated from the north by Sarmatian tribes who settled this region permanently, ruling over and mingling with the local Celts, Dacians and other minor groups. This new Sarmata homeland inevitably became a buffer zone between the rulers of Pannonia in the west and of Transylvania in the east. This was true even on thos occasions when the Sarmates themselves accepted and earned Roman pay as, for instance, when they built the "ditch and dike" Roman defense system which spanned the entire Great Plains and was known as the Devil's Ditch. At other times, however, either independently, or in league with the Transylvanian Dacians, they endangered the peace of Pannonia and repeatedly struck across the Danubian frontier. After the century-long fragmentation which followed the murder of Burebista, a new and eminent Dacian leader, Decebalus, who ruled from 80 to 106 A.D., again united the tribes of his nation. Thus -- seen in the clear light of retrospection -- it appears that the preparations of the Romans against the Dacians were delayed for too long. The Roman sacrifices, made for temporary peace, had been totally useless. It is a fact that shortly after his appearance in the 80s, Decebalus's armies inflicted several humiliating defeats on the Romans. The new Dacian ruler could blackmail the Romans and the revenues of such blackmail further strengthened him and his rule . It was only in 101-102 that the great Dacian campaign of Trajan reversed the Romans' fortunes of war. The Dacian power, recently so expansive, was stopped, withdrew and was forced on the defensive, at least temporarily. To insure the supplies for his legions and for the security of his logistic organizations, Trajan built the first permanent bridge across the Danube at the present Turnu-Severin. This facilitated the definitive victory of the new, 105-106 campaign.

Even though we don't share all the current Romanian enthusiasm for him, Decebalus was clearly an outstanding figure of this age. The fact that an enormous amount of gold, hidden during his time, was found, partly already in Roman times and also very much later, may perhaps lead to the not unwarranted conclusion that if Decebalus had not hoarded and hidden his gold, but had used it to increase his military strength and to buy allies, the Dacian campaigns of Trajan may have turned out quite differently.

On the other hand, the Dacian king could be described as a "Roman character". He knew well the fate of the loser. He knew that he would be taken to Rome by the victorious legionnaires like a captured animal, and there dragged along in the triumphal march in front of the hysterical multitudes. For reasons unknown, he could not escape the pursuing Roman mounted troops and on their arrival, he killed himself. It was only his head that they could take to Rome.

The Provincia Dacia was established in 107 A.D. This Roman occupation, protruding into the present Transylvania, or rather into its natural geographic unit from below, fell far short of filling up the entire eastern bay of the Carpathians. Its borders on the Great Plains only in the southwest. The northeastern part of Transylvania, the upper Tisza region was not included. And, although the Romans used the Carpathians in the east as a line of defense, it was not the crest that they used, but an interior line. The southern border of the province was provided largely by the lower Danube. This border was of less importance, since here the province abuts on the neighbouring Moesia Provincia.

Dacia Provincia -- later divided into smaller components -- was in existence for barely more than 250 years. How significant is this period? What happened during this time, and what became of the Dacians? According to the Daco-Roman Continuity theory, the Romanian people, speaking the Neo-Latin language and forming a majority of the population living in present day Romania, are the direct descendants of the ethnic Dacians who became Romanized in the Dacia Provincia. The Dacians, conquered and submissive at the time of Trajan, quickly made Roman culture their own and remained in place after the withdrawal of Rome. Their descendants still live there and have moved but little with time.

As far as Romanization is concerned, the Romanians foster the concept by claiming that during the two great campaigns of Trajan, a substantial number of the Dacians offered no real resistance. This would explain the sudden collapse of the previously triumphant and clever Decebalus. They seem to have anticipated the new status and culture that Rome offered to those who submitted voluntarily in a new province. It was this surrender that created the opportunity to accept the blessings of the advanced Roman civilization. Everything that is subsumed by the single word, Romanization.

The counter-arguments are weighty. Trajan's troops had to fight long and bloody battles to make the establishment of Dacia Provincia possible. Furthermore, the Roman rule was never as complete and pervasive in Transylvania, where the geographic configurations favored the defenders, as it was in the gently rolling hill country of Pannonia. It is also possible that while the upper crusts of the Dacians, the "Fur Hat People" suffered severe losses during the fighting, the "Longhairs" became a Dacian subject people to the Romans. It is also possible that some of the Transylvanian mountain strongholds never came under Roman rule. These small spots survived Dacia Provincia, or, at least a substantial portion of its existence.

The ethnic and spiritual Romanization, which must be assumed as an essential component of the Daco-Roman continuity theory, did not take place even where Roman sovereignty, hegemony and cultural influence were much stronger and where the local resistance was much weaker both initially and later -- in Pannonia, for instance where, compared to Dacia, Roman rule lasted two to two and a half times as long and was maintained for almost half a millennium. The local Pannonian and Celt populations barely resisted the Romans initially, and later on, there were no outbreaks against the Roman rule, such as were fomented repeatedly by the Dacians in their own territory.

If we were writing the history of the Romanian people and of the Romanian "National State", we could list numerous arguments why so many Romanians should consider the Daco-Roman relations and the emphasis on continuity, so logical and indeed inevitable, both politically and psychologically. In addition, this theory is strengthened by the many Latin elements in the Romanian language. On the other hand, the precise findings provided by archeological excavations hardly serve to support the continuity hypothesis. Although psychologically weighty, this theory of national identity and occupation by "historic rights" is legally just as inconsequential, and worth exactly as little as the declarations on the Hungarian side which claim that the Carpathian basin is our "Hun inheritance" and that we had occupied it at the time of the Arpadian conquest as direct descendants of Attila's Huns...

Significant ethnic changes appeared early in Dacia Provincia. The fact that Roman veterans began to settle the land very rapidly, points to an optimistic attitude. The fact that large numbers of people moved in for the exploitation of the gold mines suggests that the precious metal supplies in Transylvania -- in the absence of any data from the Dacian times -- had again become a valuable asset. These new settlements, however, did not fulfill the earlier expectations. They did not bring peace to the area. The uprisings suggest that the complete pacification of the Dacians was not achieved in spite of the Romans' considerable military superiority. In fact, the area became even less secure for the Romans, particularly when internal uprisings coincided with attacks from the outside. Finally, in the middle of the third century, the Romans yielded Dacia to the Goths. This shortened their overly long border (limes) which was subject to numerous assaults and freed troops, very much in demand in other areas.

For us, the fate and problems of the Roman Empire, weighty though they may be, are of less interest. We are much more interested in those who -- perhaps -- stayed in place. Is it possible to assume a Daco-Roman Continuity on the basis of what we know about them? We will try to approach this problem from two sides. One is the appearance of the Neo-Latin people. This can be seen only within the original patrimony of the Roman Empire and even there only considerably later than the cession of Dacia. The second approach is more direct. It evaluates the local events on the basis of the changes that took place in Transylvania at that time and which can be properly documented.

The Roman withdrawal from Dacia was followed by a reasonably peaceful time. By then, however, wars and epidemics have made significant inroads into the local population. This made it possible for the departing Romans to take a major portion of the remaining inhabitants with them -- primarily those most closely allied with them -- and settle them within the boundaries of the new borders. The former Dacia was left as the spoils, battle ground and living space to the Goths, Carps, Sarmatians, Gepids and Vandals. The complete excavation of some contemporary cemeteries could irrevocable prove -- or disprove -- the continued survival of a "Romanized Dacian population". We know of no such excavation in contemporary Romania. It must be noted that in the Latin Dacian inscriptions we find that the majority of names are Oriental rather than Latin (Italian). Perhaps Christian inroads had already begun under the Roman rule. In Pannonia we have evidence of episcopal sees, shortly after the Roman occupation. Such evidence from Dacia is lacking. Even more damaging is the almost complete absence of place names of Latin origin in the area of present Transylvania. Rome is remembered only by the name of some rivers. (The recently introduced place names -- e.g., Cluj-Napoca -- have been revived artificially after an interval of almost 2000 years.

What then was the fate of the Dacians? Those who remained in the old Dacia Provincia, disappeared in the great melting pot of the great migrations. Those who moved toward the south and southwest were assimilated by the hot-blooded people of the Balkans. After the dissolution of Dacia Provincia, we hear practically nothing about contemporary Dacians during the following three to four centuries. This is not at all surprising. Just the opposite! Many people and ethnic groups of the Great Migrations continued their biologic existence only by giving up their former individuality. Their units and groups lose their identity or rather gain a new one. This is not their triumph or their shame; this is as it should be in an orderly progression in nature and history.

Then, if not descendants of the Dacians, who are the Romanians? Whence and when did they come and settle in the former lands of the Dacians - or, at least, on part of that land? It is a much later story which begins somewhere else and we will return to it at the proper place and time.

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A Short History