After screenings in Florence and Bucharest, film maker Dan Dimancescu talks to Romania-Insider.com about his groundbreaking documentary on the ancient inhabitants of Romania – Decoding Dacia – ahead of its US premiere at Fisher College in Boston on November 15.
Decoding Dacia's story begins with tragedy; Dan Dimancescu's 26-year old son Nicholas started the project, but was killed by a fall from a high cliff in the Carpathian Mountains during filming in 2011. His father decided to complete the film as a tribute to Nicholas and also created a scholarship program in his memory.
Dan Dimancescu, who is also the honorary consul of Romania in Boston, says that throughout the project, he had a central question, the deceptively simple “Who were the Dacians?” Although easy to ask, the answer is far from straightforward to answer as written records on the Ancient Dacians are scant. Like many other ancient peoples, the Dacians didn't record their own history. Indeed, written records were the exception rather than the rule in the Ancient World, and as with the Celts, the only extant sources on Dacians are by Greek and Roman writers. Dan said that during the film making he tried to see beyond the pedestrian recounting of historical facts, and instead look at the geography, the people and the lifestyles found in the Carpathians in an attempt to find the “essence” of Dacia.
From a historical point of view, Decoding Dacia, produced in 2011-2012 (Trailer below), uses Trajan's campaigns and the first century Sarmizegetusa Dacian fortress as a jumping off point. The Roman Emperor Trajan's campaigns between 101 and 106AD focused on the royal seat of Sarmizegetusa and culminated in its destruction. “That period is the one we focused on in the film because it is dramatically recorded in great detail on Trajan's Column in Rome (in picture, detail of the column). Sarmizegetusa was destroyed by Roman legions and today is visible in scattered ruins,” said Dan.
Despite its great archeological significance, Sarmizegetusa is only accessible by a 25km dirt track. The site has suffered in the modern era; an ill-conceived restoration during the Communist era caused damage and more recently looters have stolen golden artifacts from Dacian sites. However, the future looks a little brighter: stolen Dacian gold is steadily being recovered, Sarmizegetusa is now a UNESCO heritage site and the Romanian government has recently pledged EUR 4- 5 million for archeological studies and preservation work at Sarmizegetusa and other hill top Dacian sites.
For the first time, Decoding Dacia shows 3D reconstructions of the Sarmizegetusa site, as well as other hill top fortresses and Trajan's military bridge over the Danube. “The site was never a 'city' as we would know it - but rather a fortified sanctuary and royal residence with a community of a few thousand settled in its vicinity at 1500 meters altitude,” said Dan of the Dacian 'capital' Sarmizegetusa. The construction style is generally believed to be of Hellenic influence and the sanctuary, walls and nearby fortifications were built from massive stones from around 50 – 60 km away. According to Dan the Dacians were experts in the manufacture of iron and there is evidence of extensive ironworks at Sarmizegetusa and other Dacian sites.
The landscapes and people of the Carpathians played a big part in the project. “We spent time and effort capturing the exceptional beauty of Carpathian landscapes over a year of seasons - and most importantly the traditional lifestyle of people who live in this environment in ways largely unchanged over the millennia,” said Dan. The locals are all aware of the Dacians, however, to varying degrees of sophistication. Some locals known as “malorman” claim to be descendants of the Ancient Dacians and the peasants often tell stories with a semi-mythical slant of their ancient brethren. Farming, and in particular plowing, appears to have led to locals discovering many Dacian artifacts over the years.
As well as taking a look at geographical context of the Carpathians and the 'modern' Dacians, Decoding Dacia presents a thorough and up to date view of the historical tribes of the region. Pride of place goes to Decebalus, last king of the Dacians, but the monicker 'last king' is perhaps a little misleading. Generally, the phrase implies decay, the end of a civilization, the collapse of an empire, but this is not really the case with Decebalus and the Dacians.
According to Decoding Dacia producer Dan Dimancescu (in picture), although Dacian history spans some 800 years – from around 700BC to the time of Trajan and Decebalus – the records are sparse and the picture that emerges is not of a unified kingdom that passed from one king to another with a central capital city and a fixed hierarchical administrative system. Rather, the Dacians appear as a loosely associated group of tribes that shared geographical location, customs and presumably language. Occasionally, a king appears to have united them, as was the case with Decebalus, who rule from 87AD until 106AD.
Dacian raids into Roman territory on the other side of the Danube brought them into conflict with Roman Imperial might. The Emperor Domitian initiated a campaigns against the Dacians in 86AD and 88AD, but they ended in disaster and the Romans were forced to sue for peace, for which they paid dearly. If level of respect from enemies is a measure of greatness, then the Dacians received high praise.
From the end of the wars with Carthage until the decline of the Western Empire, Roman armies suffered very few military reverses and it's difficult to overstate how big a deal defeat in the Dacian campaigns was to the Romans. Precious few other notable adversaries emerge from the height of Roman military power during the Imperial period – apart from the great Arminius of Germania, it is difficult to think of another enemy accorded similar acclaim as Decebalus by the Romans. Historians of the time describe Decebalus as an extremely capable military commander, able to capitalize on victories as well as limit damage from defeats. He chose when to attack and retreat well and was an expert in both ambuscades and pitched battles.
It took two hard fought campaigns by the Emperor Trajan – widely considered one of the greatest emperors and a distinguished and highly able military commander – to finally subdue Decebalus and the Dacians. King Decebalus chose suicide rather than submit to being paraded through the streets of Rome as a prisoner in the triumph for the Roman victory. “Trajan chose to honor his defeated enemy by placing at least 100 marble statues of Dacians in his Forum. This is an unprecedented homage both in Roman times - not to speak of up into our own modern times - to an enemy,” said Dan.
Decoding Dacia, however, suggests another less noble motive for Trajan's campaign than Rome's honor – gold. “It is well known that Dacia was decimated and eradicated as a culture by the Romans, what is less known is that the plundered riches of Dacia changed the course of the Empire,” explained Dan. He presents the Roman conquest as an early example of imperial appetites for Romania's natural wealth, followed over the millenia by Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Ottomans, Nazis and the Soviet Union, who came looking for gold, silver, salt and later oil.
Trajan used the riches of Dacia to pay for public games and finance a grand building scheme in Rome, including Trajan's column and Forum. The plunder also bankrolled further military campaigns. As for the Dacians themselves, their view on wealth was perhaps quite different. “The great wealth accumulated by the Dacians in gold and silver due to rich mines on their territory was hoarded not as property of the King but as donations to the deities,” Dan explained.
The legacy of the Dacians, for Dan Dimancescu, survives in the places, the people and their spirit. “Decoding Dacia is about geography, imperial appetites, and a people who have endured and survived the harsh Carpathian environment as well as invasion, plunder, and abuse over centuries of time. It is in that survival instinct - especially in the mountain highlands - that is closest to the heart and soul of Romania.”
Decoding Dacia, produced by Kogainon Films, will be screened for the first time in the US on November 15 at the Alumni Hall of Fisher College, 118 Beacon Street, Boston. To reserve a seat, go here.
Liam Lever, [email protected]