Thursday, September 4, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Ioana A. Oltean, Dacia. Landscape, Colonisation, Romanisation. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies. London/New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. xii, 248; figs. 79. ISBN 978-0-415-41252-0. $120.00.
Reviewed by Elias K. Petropoulos, Democritus University of Thrace

The last decade has witnessed a virtual revolution in scholarship on the history and archaeology of the entire Black Sea Area, especially during the Roman period.1 Dacia is a product of the first aerial reconnaissance programme exclusively for archaeological purposes started by Prof. W. S. Hanson and the author of the book in Western Transylvania (Romania, West Black Sea Region) during the years 1998-2004. The aims of the present monograph are to develop understanding of the impact of Roman civilisation on native cultures as an Empire. In other words, "to redress some of the bias that hinders current interpretations of how Dacia became Roman" (18). The case study used throughout is the area of Dacia on the Lower Danube which, as the only province to be conquered through warfare in the second century AD, offers a unique opportunity to assess that impact on neighbouring cultures and on conquered territories during the period of Rome's highest power. The exact geographical limits of the study, however, do not include the whole of the province of Dacia, but focuses on the area within the territory surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. This was the geographical core of both pre-Roman and Roman Dacia, the colonial settlement and provincial capital at Sarmizegetusa along with its hinterland in the area of Hateg and the Strei River valley extending further along the whole middle Mures River valley, beyond the colony and legionary base at Alba Iulia.

Through extensive comparison with provinces conquered previously, the book also addresses the changing character of the Roman approach to conquest and administration. Providing a detailed consideration of previous theories of native settlement patterns and the impact of Roman colonization, Oltean attempts to offer a fresh insight into the province of Dacia and the nature of Romanization. She analyzes Roman-native interaction from a landscape perspective, focusing on the core territory of both Iron Age and Roman Dacia. She considers the nature and distribution of settlement in the pre-Roman and Roman periods, the human impact on the local landscape and the changes which occurred as a result of Roman occupation. Consequently, studying the implementation and the impact of Roman administration in Dacia provides a unique insight into the pattern of conquest and occupation of provincial territory at the height of Roman power (1).

In "The Dacian heartland", the author offers a description of the natural environment of western Transylvania, its topographic setting, climate, resources and environmental changes from late antiquity to modern times. It seems likely to the author that the general environmental conditions faced by the Romans on their occupation of Transylvania were not dissimilar to those experienced in rural Romania today (33). She goes further by concluding that if natural factors little affected the landscape over time, human exploitation and use produced some significant transformations. Those transformations range from the creation of drainage systems to artificial lakes and quarrying at various scales for material ranging from gold to clay, to the creation of huge sterile deposits around industrial centres such as Hunedoara, Calan, Deva and Mintia (37). The evidence collected by Oltean forces her to conclude that the arable land, the metal and other natural resources, and the geographical/topographical setting favourable for both communication and defence were further enhanced by one of the best climatic regimes within the study area. It seems likely that the natural conditions of western Dacia presented all the advantages of setting, climate and resources needed to attract human settlement and for this reason it became the core territory of the Dacian kingdom and of the later Roman province.

The third chapter of the book, "The historical setting", is a concise but comprehensive historical framework of Dacia.The author concludes that no other region in Dacia would seem to offer better conditions for studying the impact of the Roman conquest and occupation on the native landscape. From the point of view of the settlement pattern, the most important centres in Roman Dacia were the places where Roman state authority was exercised through its representatives. From a military point of view, the most important centres would have been the legionary bases at Apulum, Bersobis and Potaissa. The financial centre was at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.

The next two chapters are a parallel presentation of the people living in the study area and the transformation of the landscape during pre-Roman and Roman times. The framework is that of a profoundly social and active landscape. Society created this landscape for its own convenience and this is expressed through the types of settlement, the choice of their location and in the way main activities were carried out therein: work and use of available resources, worship and death, networking and administration. According to the author, this parallel presentation of the changing landscape during the pre-Roman and Roman times offers the reader the opportunity to better understand and form an opinion on the similarities and the differences, and the pattern of continuity and disruption visible in the dataset presented.

The fourth chapter, "Settlement and society in the late pre-Roman Iron Age", aims to "deepen the analysis by considering settlements in direct relation to the occupants and their way of life, and to link the structure of the micro (in-site) and macro- (landscape-scale) space to settlement function" (61). Oltean believes that the typological system of settlement is a product of the site-focused traditional approach to research and as a result it fails to assess how the society as a whole and its diverse spheres of activity functioned within the landscape seen as a taskscape. For this reason she present her analysis by addressing the social, economic, religious, mortuary, and administrative status and function of the sites, based on their layout along with their associated finds, but also on their setting both within the natural landscape and in relation to other sites.

The fifth chapter, "The Roman social landscape", deals with the appearance of Roman colonists (both military and civilian) and their associated apparatus, resulting in substantial changes in the landscape and settlement pattern in the study area.

The final, sixth chapter, "The Romanisation of the landscape", is the concluding section of the monograph. It highlights in detail the way in which the Roman conquest affected the native landscape following the transformations in the settlement hierarchy, typology, and choice of settlement location, and the specific impact of the Roman army on the creation of this new landscape. The author tries to give an answer to some of the preliminary questions raised above and offer an alternative interpretation scheme for the way the process of Romanisation developed in Dacia. As a result of her study, it seems that Oltean has managed to show that during the pre-Roman and Roman period the settlement patterns present significant differences as well as elements of continuity. These reflect equally the impact that Rome had on the Dacian landscape and the transforming effect that the particular nature of Dacia had on the overall Roman approach to dealing with the province.

Concerning the transformations in the settlement hierarchy and in settlement typology, one may observe that the pre-Roman settlement pattern seems to show greater complexity, directly reflecting the social structure. Apart from the fortified sites and the settlements for the masses, Oltean's study has identified a new intermediate category of sites, whose significance has escaped previous studies, tower-houses, some of them with traces of open settlement around. Places of central interest seem to be the most functionally complex settlements, according to Oltean. One of those places is without any doubt the capital of Decebalus, Sarmizegetusa: the most important site in Dacia before Roman conquest. The Roman conquest produced multiple changes in the existing settlement typology and hierarchy such as the disappearance of high-status settlements of the previous period (hillforts and tower houses), and substantive changes of the wider landscape (mainly because of the emergence of Roman-type urbanism, as well as the large increase in settlement numbers and settlement density, the diversification in the range and function of settlements, and probably also diversification in the organisation and division of the land itself. The investigation has shown that outside the Dacian centres (Apulum and Sarmizegetusa) a dense occupation has been traced. About 270 settlements are attested as opposed to only 140-150 in the period before the Roman conquest.

Despite all of the significant changes, the author's analysis has revealed that there were more elements of continuity than previously thought. Continuity of population is manifested by continuity of occupation in a number of settlements throughout the study area and by survivals from the pre-Roman period in both the typology and architecture of sites, such as the persistence of traditional forms of sunken houses and storage pits in several locations including where continuity of site occupation was not necessarily applicable.

Nonetheless, there were differences. Before the Roman conquest the natural landscape in Dacia had already experienced significant changes in topography and possibly vegetation through human exploitation. The most significant effort in changing natural topography is documented by the construction of hill forts, most of them located on hilltops flattened by soil removal. By contrast, the Roman settlements in the study area are located in the lowlands and compared to the modern land-use, within areas which would have had arable potential. Topography and the water courses are the major factors in determining the access network throughout the area.

The Roman army was clearly an important factor in Dacia. Military sites are associated with the emergence of highly Romanised settlements, the canabae (Apulum and Potaissas) and military vici (possibly six in number), which played an important role in the urbanisation of the province. Many army veterans colonised the province as landowners (legionary veterans) or as the inhabitants of towns and some of them became active in local municipal administration. Within the central area of Dacia, these military settlements provided important centres for a large number of activities and services directed at both the army and the civilians, including industry, trade, transport and religious activities. The Roman army crucially influenced the development of the rural landscape through the construction and maintenance of the communication system, and this influenced the location of settlements and ultimately made the whole landscape mechanism work.

Another important result of the investigation provided by Oltean is that is seems likely that the settlement pattern in central Dacia only partly supports the view that Dacia experienced its massive influx of population from outside its boundaries as result of a rapid, extensive and deliberate policy instigated and actively supported by the state. This new approach is contrary to the current orthodoxy, according to which after the Roman conquest Dacia experienced the first large influx of populations from outside its cultural boundaries as a deliberate imperial policy to organise the newly conquered province quickly and efficiently. The author considers that political factors impacted on the settlement pattern and distribution only to a limited extent, largely restricted to the reign of Trajan. It was the establishment of forts after the conquest that infuenced the emergence of further civilian groups through the founding of military vici. "This deliberate policy had probably echoes in a larger-scale individual migration into Dacia, as well as into neighbouring provinces. Such individual colonisation was supported by Hadrian who, granting Roman citizenship, contributed to an increase in the number of citizens in the area" (222).

Another significant point that stems from the study of Oltean is the way the Romans established their rule in Dacia.Violence in the post-conquest treatment of the natives should be regarded as limited in its extent and not necessarily generalised. This is contrary to the generally accepted position, according to which the natives were forced to move from the top of the mountains and settle in the lowlands, with the Romans taking the fertile lands for their own and forcing the natives to move away or work on their properties as cheap labour. Furthermore, the archaeological evidence examined in the Oltean's study provides no clear traces of Dacian resistance to occupation and Romanisation. Although there is persistence of certain elements of native material culture, particularly pottery, the author believes that they are more likely to represent temporary cultural reminiscences, a form of cultural conservatism, rather than deliberate rejections of Roman culture (225).

The final question that Oltean raises is the development of the Romanisation in Dacia. According to the available archaeological evidence for the period following the Roman conquest one may see a society of colonists and natives, which varied hierarchically and ethnically, involved in a sustained process of acculturation. In contrast with the British Fishbourne or Gaul, the Dacian native elite was not involved in provincial administration, was not encouraged to take its place in the Imperial ruling class and for this reason it showed a different attitude on the part of the Romans towards the conquest and organisation of the province. In conclusion, the author believes that the level of political encouragement and the apparent lack of resistance are the probable explanations for the fact that Dacia was more rapidly integrated in comparison to other provinces.

To sum up Oltean has written an inspiring and fascinating book that competently summarises current research about the province of Dacia and the nature of Romanisation and Roman-native interaction. The book sheds new light upon many seemingly well-established concepts and theories of the Roman presence in Dacia. The examination of ancient sources and modern research into the way that the Roman conquest and organization of Dacia impacted on the native settlement pattern and society will make it valuable both for experts and for students.


1.   See for example the study of Octavian Bunegru, Trafiquants et navigateurs sur le Bas-Danube et dans le Pont Gauche à l'époque romaine. PHILIPPIKA. Marburger Altertumskundliche Abhandlungen 9. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2006. See also, Rome and the Black Sea Region: Domination, Romanisation, Resistance. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, January 33-26, 2005, edited by T. Bekker-Nielsen. Aarhus University Press, 2006.


  1. Archeological investigations from the air have added considerably to our understanding of numerous long vanished people. Dacia, Landscape, Colonisation, Romanisation by Ms. Oltean is a welcome addition to this genre.

    Regrettably this tome and its review fail to address an important aspect of the archeology of the considered region, the area west of the Carpathians: the imprint of conquerors who displaced Dacians and their successors. With only one Roman legion and some auxiliary troops stationed in Dacia, there is lack of verifiable evidence for the supposition that legionary veterans colonized the province and "became active in local municipal administration". Up to around 200 AD (Septimius Severus) legionnaires were not even allowed to marry. Verifiable evidence that legionnaires after completion of their service remained in Dacia is lacking. After a brief period of colonization (106 to 270 AD), the Romans evacuated Dacia in 275 AD before the Goths. After Roman withdrawal, Dacian-speaking Carpi were resettled elsewhere in the Empire. From parts of Upper and Lower Moesia, south of the Danube, a new Dacia was constituted. Without a written language, posterity's knowledge of the Dacians is based on the observation of others. Following the Roman retrenchment, the territory under discussion was conquered by Goths, Huns, Avars, and Slavs. In the ninth century the Hungarians conquered the territories west of the Carpathians. Then Cumans and later Tatars invasions left their marks.

    Missing from Ms. Oltean's book and its review is any mention of how the presence of these conquerors altered the discussed archeological sites. How much of the existing archeological findings can be attributed to the Dacians? Surely, the people who conquered and replaced the original inhabitants made their mark at these sites. Admittedly, their footprints are difficult to ascertain and to separate in a region that was the scene of so much turmoil.

  2. I'm sorry to inform you that you have too few pieces of information regarding veterans and their living in Roman Dacia, veternas were not allowed to marry legitimately, but they had families outside legal mariage. When they finished their military service, they were granted Roman citizenship, therefor the right to grant legitimacy to their wifes an children. There are noumerous military diplomas stating this fact, furthermore, we have many funerary monuments stating that veterans settled in Dacia died there.

    Regarding the fact of alteration of these archaeological sites, in Transylvania, Dacian settlements were generally on high ground and Roman, on lower areas. Usually, you can determine quite easy the tipe of the settlements by dating artefacts. There are few cases when Romans had their settlements over the native ones, and that mainly outside the Carpathian Mountains, even in this case you have evidence to demonstrate this overlaping.

    Overall, Ms. Oltean's book brings a well diserved contribution to Romanian archaeology, a new perspective to the old ways of handling ancient information, bringing together a much expected combination of diferent fields of specialities (aerial photography, reconstructing landscapes, archaeology, social studies and ancient economics)