The Long War, and Renewal in the Severan Era

When, in the middle of the 2nd century, Gothic tribes in the northwest began to migrate in a southeasterly direction, people on the borders of the empire, in the northern half of the Carpathian Basin reacted with mounting alarm. The outcome was a terrible, fifteen-year long war. In their quest for a new home, the Germanic tribes — Goths, Langobards (Lombards), and Vandals — ultimately confronted Marcomanni, Quads, Jazyges, and Costoboci. For the latter groups, the empire's frontier was a wall that blocked escape or resettlement. Notwithstanding the occasional clash, relations between Rome and these long-established neighbours were generally peaceful and mutually beneficial, complete with alliances — to be sure, on terms dictated by the stronger party. Rome's aid consisted primarily of regular or occasional subsidies, in exchange for which the Barbarians provided military support as the need arose. In order to retain the initiative and forestall the formation of hostile coalitions, Rome forged a system of bilateral alliances. This strategy, nurtured over two centuries, succeeded in mitigating the threat of the Barbarian tribes, who lived in a broad swath along the empire's borders. When the tribes quarrelled, they often sought Rome's help or mediation. Rome's influence grew to the point that tribes would seek her permission and assistance to migrate and resettle even in areas external to the empire.

{1-86.} The Danubian region's defenses were weakened when, in 162, Marcus Aurelius had to transfer troops from the peripheral provinces, including Dacia, to fight in the Parthian War, which had broken out the previous year. As tensions mounted in the Carpathian basin, Roman governors negotiated skilfully to slow down escalation of the conflict, thus delaying by several years the outbreak of war. The prolonged negotiations revealed that the neighbouring peoples wanted to avoid war; citing the alliance commitments, they besieged Rome with requests for assistance and for a new home within the empire. (Another option, aired during the war, was to help the Marcomanni and Sarmatians defend their existing homes and turn their land into new provinces.) Disappointed with the dilatory nature of the talks and Rome's inability or unwillingness to give help, the Barbarians joined forces to wage war against the empire. However, the first attack, on Pannonia, came from new arrivals, the Germanic Langobardi and Obii. Luckily for the empire, war on the Danubian front erupted only in 167, by which time the Roman expeditionary force had returned from the Parthian War — bringing back a severe plague epidemic.

Apparently, war reached northern Dacia after 167: the last date found in the Tibód (Tibodu) treasure is 167, and that on the wax tablets (which were also hidden when an enemy attack seemed imminent) is 29 May 167. The onset of war prompted a series of administrative and military measures in Dacia, but information is too sparse to allow reconstruction of the sequence of events over the short, three-year period. Taken in the midst of military emergency, the initial measures were probably soon superseded by new ones. In late 167 or 168, the V Macedonica legion, which had returned to Troesmis after the Parthian campaign, was transferred to a camp at Potaissa (Torda, Turda), in northern Dacia; the location indicates that the military command anticipated an attack on Transylvania. Meanwhile, sometime between 167 and 170, Dacia's {1-87.} administrative structure was modified. The two-legion province once again came to be governed by a senator and former consul, replacing a governor of praetor rank. Administration of Dacia's three parts was consolidated under a single governor, who bore the title of legatus Augusti pro praetore Daciarum trium (governor of the three Daciae); the procurators of knightly rank who had ruled over the three parts were reduced to looking after economic matters. At the same time, two Dacian provinces were renamed after towns, as had happened with Dacia Porolissensis: Superior became Apulensis, and Inferior, Malvensis (after a town yet to be identified). Although the legion camp at Potaissa was attached to Dacia Apulensis, there is no concrete evidence of major boundary changes at this time. The renaming of the provinces reflected the equal status of the three parts under a single governor and did not necessarily signify territorial modifications.

Military activity reached its peak in the same period, between 167–170. Undeterred by the epidemic, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus Caesar both travelled to the Danubian provinces, the latter probably to the battlefronts in Moesia and Dacia. Dacia, being exposed to attack on three sides, was particularly difficult to defend; and since Dacia could not halt all the attacks, the two Moesiae also came under heavy pressure from the Barbarians. Rome dispatched several excellent officers to serve as governors and proconsuls, and some fell in battle, notably M. Claudius Fronto, who became governor of Moesia Superior in 167. In order to hold back Jazyges attacking across the Banat, Dacia's western front and Moesia Superior were administratively merged so that a single governor could direct operations by the two provinces military forces. Fronto thus acted as governor of both Dacia Apulensis and Moesia Inferior in 168; shortly thereafter, he was named governor of the Tres Daciae. Later, when Moesia Superior's army suffered a defeat, in the course of which its governor was killed, the province was attached to Dacia. The powerful offensive of combined {1-88.} Sarmatian and German forces made the military situation critical. According to the epigraph on the memorial that was raised to Fronto at Trajan's Forum, in Rome, the governor, 'after successfully fighting several battles against the Germans and Jazyges, fell in the midst of his courageous combat for the state'.[32]32. CIL VI, 1377. Another memorial honouring his accomplishments was raised at Sarmizegethusa.[33]33. CIL III, 1457. That town also raised a memorial to Marcus Aurelius, thanking him — according to the inscription — for sending troops to save it from a great peril.[34]34. CIL III, 7969.

Clearly, there was heavy fighting in northern and western Dacia, but no information survives regarding developments on the eastern front. It is unlikely that major battles were fought there, for the enemy's main offensive was aimed southward. Skirting Dacia, the Costoboci and Sarmatians invaded Moesia Inferior and advanced south as far as Achaia, plundering the shrines at Eleusis. They were finally defeated in 171 or 172 by Cornelius Clemens, consularis et dux trium Daciarum, who was helped by one of the Vandal tribes, the Hasdingi.[35]35. Cassius Dion, LXXI, 12, 1. Rome was thus resorting to diplomatic devices to extricate itself from a critical situation. Similarly, 'a neighbouring tribal leader, Tarbus, who went to Dacia demanding annual financial aid and threatened war if his demand was not granted'[36]36. Cassius Dion, LXXI, 11. was dissuaded by Rome's allies. By then, Rome was allowing certain tribes to settle in Pannonia, Moesia, and Germania, as well as in Dacia; clearly, at least some of the warring Barbarians simply wished to settle behind safe borders. In later years, Rome held the military initiative and pursued the enemy on the latter's territory. When they made peace, the Jazyges returned 100,000 prisoners of war to the Romans. Eventually, Marcus Aurelius gave them permission to establish contact — across Dacia — with the eastern Roxolani, subject to the concurrence of the province's governor.[37]37. Cassius Dion, LXXI, 19, 1-2.

The conflict had spread into the region north of Dacia, where Roman combatants included the I Italica legion from Moesia {1-89.} Inferior. Around 180, Emperor Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, waged war in this region, principally against the Buri. The campaign was successful, for 'when the Buri became exhausted, a treaty was made with them and [Commodus] took away hostages as well the 15,000 prisoners-of-war. He had the rest of the Buri swear that they would not settle or graze their animals within forty stadia [approx. 7 km] of Dacia's borders. And Sabinianus offered land in our Dacia to 12,000 Dacians living beyond the border'.[38]38. Cassius Dion, LXXXII, 3; Vettius Sabinianus was governor of Dacia.

By the end of the long war, Rome had rebuilt its network of alliances along the border of the empire. However, Germans had begun to settle on the northern approaches to Dacia, and fighting would flare up again. There is mention in Commodus' biography of a defeat of the free Dacians. These conflicts, like the earlier ones, were triggered off by the arrival of the Goths, who were progressively moving towards the Black Sea. The turbulence of the era is attested by the many finds of buried coins east of the Carpathians, in Ukraine. Tribes that were driven back by the Goths frequently warred against Rome. Dacia's northwestern and western frontiers must have remained relatively calm: finds in Sarmatian-Jazyge areas of Roman export goods and coins indicate that the trade between Romans and Sarmatians — sanctioned originally by Marcus Aurelius — enjoyed a revival.

During Commodus's reign, unrest and disturbances were rife among the people of Dacia. The causes were many: fifteen years of devastating war, the plague, the inadequacies of military defence and public security, the slow pace of reconstruction, economic difficulties, and progress toward urban self-government that was slower than in other provinces. It is briefly noted in the Emperor's biography that a local revolt broke out in Dacia around 185.[39]39. SHA, vita Commodi, 13, 5-6. There is no indication that indigenous Dacians participated in the insurrection. Similar turbulence shook Germania. In Dacia, the multiple grievances may have been exacerbated by the fact that the {1-90.} population was ethnically fragmented and socially unintegrated. It was possibly during Commodus' reign that the Dacian legions were rewarded for their loyalty with emblems inscribed 'pia fidelis, pia constans'; the legion based at Apulum raised a statue in honour of Commodus.[40]40. CIL III, 1172.

Commodus was assassinated in 192. In March 193, at Carnuntum (Deutschaltenburg, Austria), the Pannonian governor, Septimius Severus, was proclaimed Emperor by his legions. The Dacian army (along with those of the other Danubian provinces) rallied to the new Emperor, who named his brother governor of the province. In the ensuing civil war, Dacian troops helped Septimius Severus to prevail over his rivals. The province would thereafter benefit from the Emperor's goodwill, as well as from peaceful conditions that favoured economic development. The main evidence of Dacia's reconstruction lies in the growing level of urbanization: Severus granted autonomy to three towns, and raised another to the status of colonia. It is probably during his reign that several Dacian towns were granted the privilege of ius Italicum, a property law that exempted the recipients from land tax. This extraordinary privilege, seldom granted in other provinces, was designed to encourage settlement in Dacia. References to merchants — many of them Syrians — in contemporary epigraphs became more numerous. A provincial council was set up, as was a central organization for the Emperor's cult. A detailed account of Dacia's revival during the reign of Severus must await further archaeological finds and analysis. There is evidence, however, that the revival touched Transylvania much more than the rest of Dacia. This may be accounted for by the region's large military establishment (two legions, as well as auxiliary units), which was the principal beneficiary of the period's prosperity. The development and expansion of towns may have been the consequence of an active policy; this is suggested not by archaeological data but architectural details (decorated ledges, capitals, statues) that survive from Sarmizegethusa and Apulum.

{1-91.} Thus, in the time of the Severus emperors, the consolidation of Dacia's internal security was belatedly promoted by a series of measures and privileges. The population's gratitude is attested by numerous epigraphs, honouring Septimius Severus and his son, Caracalla, in Sarmizegethusa, Micia, Ampelum, Apulum and Germisara.

Dacia remained free of foreign attacks during Septimius Severus' reign. Damage caused by the long war to military camps was repaired; where this had not been done before, defenses were rebuilt in stone, and some experts believe that the Limes Transalutanus was constructed in this period. The first recurrence of war, in 212–213, apparently only touched northern Transylvania: the attackers were probably free Dacians, Carpi, and Vandals. When peace returned, Caracalla visited Dacia, then headed with his armies to the eastern end of the empire.

In 218, following Caracalla's assassination, the free Dacians 'laid waste part of Dacia and had the impudence of retrieving the hostages who had been taken by Caracalla in keeping with the peace treaty'.[41]41. Cassius Dion, LXXVIII, 27. Few epigraphs remain in Dacia dating from the time of the last Severus emperor, Alexander (222–235); in keeping with the cult of the emperor, the army displayed its loyalty by erecting in its camps epigraphic tributes to Alexander and his mother, Iulia Mammaea.