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Gold and the beast: a brief history of the Roman conquest of Dacia

Roman soldiers bringing civilization to Dacia (from the Trajan column in Rome). The Roman empire invaded Dacia at the beginning of the 2nd century AD seeking the control of the Carpatian gold mines. 

The ascent of the Roman Empire is best understood if we think of it as a beast of prey. It grew on conquest, by gobbling its neighbors, one by one, and enlisting them as allies for more conquest. By the first century AD, the Roman Empire had conquered everything that could be conquered around the Mediterranean sea; that for good reasons the Romans called “Mare Nostrum”, “Our Sea.” But the beast was still hungry for prey. 

And what a beast that was! Never before, the world had seen such a force as the Roman legions. Well organized, trained, disciplined, and equipped, they were the wonder weapon of their times. The great innovation that made the legions so powerful was not a special weapon or a special strategy. It had to do, rather, with a concept dear to the military: command and control. In the Roman system, command and control was based on gold (and silver). The Roman had not invented coinage, but they used systematically gold and silver coins to pay their soldiers. So, the size of the Roman army was not limited by the Roman population: almost anyone could enlist either as a legionnaire or as an auxiliary fighter; his reward was simply money. Gold was, in a sense, the secret weapon of the Roman Empire; it was the the blood, the lymph, and the nerves of the beast of prey.

Because of its command and control system, the Roman army could grow in size by means of a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more gold the Romans had, the larger their army could be. The larger their army, the more gold they could raid from their neighbors. Also, the more gold the Romans had, the more they could invest in extracting more gold from their Spanish gold mines. The beast kept growing bigger and, the more it grew, the more food it needed.

But even the mighty Roman legions had their limits. With the 1st century AD, the Spanish mines started showing signs of depletion. At the same time, the Empire had reached practical limits to its size and, with that, to the amount of gold it could loot from its neighbors. Already in 44 BC, the legions had been stopped at Carrhae in their attempt to expand in the rich East at the expense of the rival Parthian Empire. And in Teutoburg in 9 AD, a coalition of German tribes had inflicted a crushing defeat on the legions, stopping forever the attempt of the Romans to control Eastern Europe. There were no other places where the empire could expand: in the West, it faced the ocean; in the South, the dry Sahara desert. Confined in a closed space, the beast risked to starve.

Not only the Roman Empire couldn't get any more gold; it couldn't even keep the gold it had. The Roman economy was geared for war and it couldn't produce much more than grain and legions, neither of which could be exported at long distances. At the same time, the Romans had a taste for expensive goods that they could not produce: silk from China, pearls from the Persian gulf, perfumes from India, ivory from Africa, and much more. The Roman gold was used for pay for all of that and, slowly, it made its way to the East through the winding silk road in central Asia and from Africa to India by sea. It was a wound that was slowly bleeding the beast to death. 

With less and less gold available, the legions' power could only decline. That the Empire was in deep trouble could be seen when, in 66 AD, the Jews of Palestine - then a Roman province - took arms against their masters. Rome reacted and crushed the rebellion in a campaign that ended in 70 AD with the conquest of Jerusalem and the burning of the Jewish Temple. It was a victory, but the campaign had been exceptionally harsh and the Empire had nearly gone to pieces in the effort. Nevertheless, the empire had managed to bring home a considerable amount of desperately needed gold and silver. The beast was eating itself but, for a while, it was satiated. 

With the gold plundered in Palestine, the Roman Empire could gain some time, but the problem   remained: where to find more gold? It was at this point that the Romans turned their sight to a region just outside their borders: Dacia, an area at the North-East of the Empire that included Transylvania and the Carpatian mountains. The beast was smelling food. 

We don't know much about Dacia before the Roman conquest. We know that it was a thriving society that was expanding and that, probably, had ambitions of conquest of its own; so much that the Roman empire had agreed to pay to the Dacian kings a tribute. We know that the Carpatian region had been producing gold already in very ancient times and there is evidence (Bogden et al.) that, at the time of the Roman conquest, the Dacians were mining gold veins in the mountains. It may well be that they had learned new mining techniques from the Romans themselves. So, Dacia was probably experiencing a gold mining boom. It was a prey in the making.

The Dacians may have had plenty of gold at that time, but they were still building up their economy and their technology. The only gold coins that can be said to have a certain Dacian origin are a curious mix of Roman iconography and Greek characters spelling the term "Koson", whose meaning is uncertain. We don't know if these coins were actually minted in Dacia, although they were surely used there. It is possible that the Dacians had sent some of their  gold to Rome, to have it transformed into coins and brought back in Dacia – not unlike what oil producers are doing today when they send their oil to the United States to be transformed into dollar bills. The Romans were surely happy to work the Dacian gold, but they must have noticed that the Dacian mines were producing it. So, it was clear that a military conquest of Dacia could pay for itself. The beast had sighted its prey.  

In the year 101 AD, a young and aggressive Roman Emperor, Trajan, invaded Dacia. It was a bold attempt, given the difficult terrain and the strong resistance of the Dacians. Surely, the nightmare of the Teutoburg disaster of nearly a century before must have haunted the Romans but, this time, the legions overcame all obstacles. After two campaigns and five years of war, the gamble paid off and Dacia was transformed into a Roman province. The beast had made another kill.

We have no reliable data on how much gold and silver the Romans looted in Dacia, although it had to be a considerable booty. We also know that the Romans invested in the Dacian mines, probably bringing in their expert miners from Spain. However, the overall effect of this inflow of gold seems to have been small on the Roman economy. If we look at the data for the silver content of Roman coins (data from Joseph Tainter) there is no evident effect of the Dacian conquest. We see an increase in silver content at about 90 AD, but that's a decade before the Dacian campaign and we may attribute it, rather, to the inflow of precious metals deriving from the conquest of Palestine. The Dacian mines, apparently, couldn't match the wealth that the Spanish mines had been produced in their heydays. The beast had become too huge to be fed just with crumbles.

But the content of silver in coins doesn't depend only on the looting of foreign countries. It depends also on the policies of the government. So, if we look at the graph above, we see that both the Palestinian and the Dacian campaigns correspond to drops in the silver content of coins. That makes sense: of course the Roman government would see the advantage of debasing a little their currency when it was question of having to pay large numbers of troops. Trajan, indeed, didn't stand still after the conquest of Dacia and, in 113 AD, he attempted another bold project: that of expanding in the East, attacking once more the Parthian Empire after the failed attempt at Carrhae, in 44 BC. But the task was too much even for an expert commander as Trajan. After some initial successes, the Romans simply had to stop; possibly they understood that the campaign had become too expensive. Asia was just too big for them to conquer. The beast had found a prey too big to swallow.

With the death of Trajan in 117 AD, the new emperor, Hadrian, took the decision of stopping all attempts of the Empire to conquer new territories, a policy that was basically kept by all his successors. In a sense, it was a wise decision because it prevented the Empire from collapsing. But the final result was unavoidable as gold continued to bleed away from the Roman territory and could not be replaced. The Western Empire, which included the city of Rome, disappeared forever after a few centuries as an impoverished shade of its former self. The beast was to die of starvation, slowly.

And Dacia? Over nearly two centuries of Roman rule, it was "romanized", in the sense that it adopted Roman customs and the Latin language - at least in the cities. However, it was also one of the first Roman provinces to lose contact with the central government when, around 275 AD, the legions abandoned it (for comparison, Britannia was not abandoned before 383 AD). We have no data on gold production in Dacia during this period but the simple fact that the Romans decided to abandon the province means that the Dacian mines had been thoroughly depleted, just like the Spanish ones. There was no food left for the beast.

From then on, we have scant data. For sure, Dacia was exposed to all the invasions that were to sweep through Europe in the period we call “The Great Migrations”. Apparently, however, the region maintained its Roman roots better than Britannia. However, we have no records of a Dacian King who bravely fought the invaders, as King Arthur did in Britannia, and we don't have to think that Dacia always remained a Roman fortress. Indeed, the earliest records we have of the Romanian language go back only to the 16th century and we have no clear evidence that its origin went back all the way to the times of the Roman colonization. However, it is a fact that, still today, the region we call "Romania" - the land of the Romans - is a Latinized island in a Slavic sea. Were the gold mines still producing some gold during this period? We cannot say but, if they did, it may be possible that the wealth they generated, even though modest, helped to maintain the cultural and social unity of Dacia. 

This brief survey tells us a lot of how important is gold in human history. For the region that we call Romania today, the gold mines located in Roșia Montană, in the Carpatian Mountains, have been a fundamental element. Exploited from remote times, these mines have periodically experienced new waves of exploitation as technological improvements made it possible to recover lower and lower grade gold ores. And with these cycles of boom and bust, there went invasions, migrations, kingdoms, and empires. The cycle is continuing today with a project to restart exploiting these ancient mines using the last technological wonder in gold mining: the cyanide leaching process. But getting more gold from the exhausted Carpatian mines is costly and the damage it could do to the land is tremendous. The drop in gold prices of the past few years may soon make these new gold mines too expensive even to be dreamed of. Even existing gold mines may have to be closed

So, it looks like the beast of prey that, today, we call "Globalization" is facing the same problem that the old Roman Empire was facing in its times: the disappearance of the vital minerals it is preying upon (and gold is just one of them). Since today there are no perspectives of conquering unexploited lands, it is an unsolvable problem. The globalized beast will have to die of starvation, or it will survive only if it will accept to change its diet. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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