Decebalus was the last king of Dacia and a legendary figure in the history of the Romanian people. He was the man who led the armies of Dacia in one of the fiercest confrontations against the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for Decebalus, his long struggle against legions led by emperor Trajan ended with his suicide, and after his death, part of the territories under his control became a province of the Roman Empire.
Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, is one of the fascinating characters in the history of Romania. His reign, which lasted for two decades, took place at a time when the Roman Empire was in a continuous expansion and represented the greatest threat to the people who ruled the current territories of Romania.
The armies of the Dacian king were eventually defeated by the Romans, and part of the country became a province of the Empire. However, the defeated king went down in history as a formidable adversary even for the powerful Roman Empire.
1. Cassius Dio: most famous description about Decebalus
“At this time the Romans became involved in a very serious war with the Dacians, whose king was then Decebalus. This man was shrewd in his understanding of warfare and shrewd also in the waging of war; he judged well when to attack and chose the right moment to retreat; he was an expert in ambuscades and a master in pitched battles, and he knew not only how to follow up a victory well, but also how to manage well a defeat. Hence he showed himself a worthy antagonist of the Romans for a long time.” Cassius Dio, Roman History, Epitome of Book LXVII
2. Decebalus: Rise to power
According to some historians, Decebalus was born between the years 50-60 A.D and came to rule Dacia in 87, at a time when the Dacian Kingdom was under threat from the Roman legions. The power was, according to some historians, voluntarily ceded to him, by King Duras, and this decision allowed the reorganization and strengthening of the Dacian state. Decebalus is said to have been the son of King Scorilo, according to historians who studied and deciphered an inscription discovered in Sarmizegetusa Regia.
3. Situation of the Dacian Kingdom at the time of Decebalus rise to power
In the time of Decebalus, the Dacian Kingdom included modern-day: Transylvania, Banat, Oltenia, central and southern Moldova, being considered stronger and better organized than in the time of King Burebista, even if it was smaller in terms of territory. The borders of the Dacian state were to the south and west of the Danube, to the east the Prut and the Danube, Dobrogea being under Roman influence, and to the Tisza and the Prut. The capital was at Sarmizegetusa Regia, in the Orăştiei Mountains.
4. Decebalus first years of war
From the first years of Decebalus’s reign, Dacia was in conflict with the Roman Empire. During the reign of Emperor Domitian, the Romans invaded the southern territories of the country but were initially defeated and crushed.
In 88 A.D, the Romans returned and managed to obtain a victory against the Dacians, at Tapae (Iron Gates of Transylvania, in the area of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa), and later peace was established between the two nations. Although Decebalus had been defeated, the peace treaty with Rome was advantageous to him, according to historians.
Decebalus kingdom became a client state of the Roman Empire, which sent construction engineers and military instructors to Dacia so that the country could develop and organize.
5. The origin of Decebalus name
Historians claim that the name Decebalus means “the Brave” or “the Strong.” The Dacian king was called Diurpaneus, he gained his nickname after his glorious victory against the Roman armies led by general Cornelius Fuscus at Tapae in 87 A.D. In 87 A.D, the Romans crossed the Danube but were stopped at Tapae, following an ambush planned by Decebalus. Historians claim that almost all the soldiers of the 5th Aludae Legion were killed, along with General Cornelius Fuscus. Before this battle, Decebalus, seeing a large number of Roman armed forces, proposed concluding a peace treaty, but was refused.
6. How Decebalus tricked the Romans
Another testimony of the Dacian king’s skill in warfare came after the defeat in 88 A.D at Tapae, where the Dacians tried again to resist the invading forces led by the Roman General Tettius Iulianus. Historians claim that before the battle the Roman legionaries were ordered to write their names on the shield so that they could be pursued in battle. The Roman legions, better prepared this time, defeated the Dacians but suffered significant losses. Decebalus’s army retreated into the mountains, away from the Roman legions, who gave up pursuing and crushing the remaining Dacian armies. Legend has it that one of the traps set by King Decebalus was the chopping of tree trunks in a forest, which were after covered with weapons and armor so that the legionaries thought they had a large army in front of them and avoided the advance towards the capital city of Sarmizegetusa. Another story about the battle of Tapae tells about a Dacian called Vezinas, who escaped from being captured by pretending to be dead, on the battlefield, and then fleeing to shelter at night.
7. The strength of Decebalus army
According to historians, Decebalus army could number 60,000 men, of whom 40,000 were Dacians, and the rest came from the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes, who were allied with the Dacians against the Romans. According to Vasile Parvan, the Dacian armies were led by commanders skilled in war (especially in guerrilla tactics) but also in armament and war machines.
Most likely, the Dacians / Getae acquired this knowledge from the Hellenistic kings of Macedonia and Thrace, who were constantly in battles against each other, the Dacians often serving as mercenaries in these wars.
But the main wars of the Dacians were not with the Greeks or Romans but with the barbarians who surrounded the kingdom: Scythians, Sarmatians, Suebi, Bastarni, Celts.
Therefore most of the time the Dacian army represents a mass mobilization of the entire people at arms, not a professional army made of skilled warriors, like the Roman legions.
After the treaty of 88 A.D with the Romans, the kingdom of Decebalus benefited from the expertise of the Romanian engineers for the construction of fortifications in the mountains from the Dacian Kingdom.
8. The Dacian wars(Trajan’s Dacian Wars)
In the first war for the conquest of Dacia, the Romans used a massive expeditionary force that reached 150,000 soldiers. The war began in the spring of 101 A.D but had been prepared in previous years. The gold and other resources of Dacia and the threatening force of Decebalus state were the reasons why Emperor Trajan wanted to conquer this territory. During the First World War, the Romans managed to destroy several fortresses in the Orăştiei Mountains, but the approach of winter forced them to slow down their advance.
According to a legend, during this war, the Roman legions discovered the skulls of the Roman prisoners from the legion led by Cornelius Fuscus, which were mounted by the Dacians on spears on top of a stronghold, to demoralize Trajan’s troops.
The battles between the Dacians and the Romans lead to great losses on both sides and the war ended in 102 A.D with an armistice dictated by Trajan, unfavorable to the Dacians.
Decebalus was forced to recognize the territorial losses, he was also forced to hand over all Roman prisoners and to demolish all Dacian fortresses from the mountains. This peace was not one that is going to last, because the Dacian king was not willing to accept it.
The second Daco-Roman war began in the spring of 105 A.D , when Decebalus, rellying on the support of his allies, attacked the Roman legions stationed in the conquered parts of Dacia, with the intention of recovering the lost territories.
The retaliation of the Romans, who at that time had an army of up to 200,000 men, is strong. They lead in the summer of 106 A.D, to the conquest and destruction of Sarmizegetusa Regia. The war thus ended with the defeat of the Dacians, the death of King Decebalus, and the proclamation of Dacia as a Roman province.
9. Decebalus treasure
Historians who wrote on the Daco-Roman wars claim that the armies of Emperor Trajan took loot that it is estimated to 160 tons of gold and 300 tons of silver. The conquest of Dacia was celebrated for 123 days on the streets of Rome, and its citizens were exempt from paying taxes for a year.
Before Dacia was conquered by the Romans, however, Decebalus managed to hide some of the treasures in the bed of the Sargeţia river, which flowed near the capital Sarmizegetusa Regia, according to Cassius Dio. “The treasures of Decebalus were also discovered, though hidden beneath the river Sargetia, which ran past his palace. With the help of some captives Decebalus had diverted the course of the river, made an excavation in its bed, and into the cavity had thrown a large amount of silver and gold and other objects of great value that could stand a certain amount of moisture; then he had heaped stones over them and piled on earth, afterward bringing the river back into his course. He also had caused the same captives to deposit his robes and other articles of a like nature in caves, and after accomplishing this had made away with them to prevent them from disclosing anything” said Cassius Dio.
Decebalus was betrayed by Biciclis, one of his relatives, who was taken prisoner during the war, and the Romans discovered the treasure about which it was believed that it belonged to the Dacian king.
10. Decebalus death
The dramatic scene of Decebalus’ death was illustrated on Trajan’s Column in Rome. The fresco depicts him surrounded by Roman soldiers while cutting his neck with a dagger. “Decebalus knew well that after all was lost he would be dragged into captivity, to adorn the triumph of the victorious emperor.
The scene was also narrated by the Latin historian Cassius Dio. “Decebalus, when his capital and all his territory had been occupied and he was himself in danger of being captured, committed suicide; and his head was brought to Rome. In this way, Dacia became subject to the Romans, and Trajan founded cities there”, said the Latin historian Cassius Dio. Less is known about where the event took place. Some historians place the suicide near the fortress of Sarmizegetusa Regia, and a legend says that this is Poiana Omului(a historical landmark in Romania), from the Orastie Mountains.