Lately my eyes have been bleeding after spending countless hours reading through old Communist-era documents, chock full of interminable Marxist terms like “irredentist” and all of them written in the tiresome old Slavic orthography wherein ei sunt was written as ei sȃnt and the like.
Therefore I thought it would be a bit of a palate cleanser to tell a fun and interesting story from Romania’s distant past.
The further back you go in history, the fewer written records there are. For example, Jesus, the central personage in the Christian faith, appears almost nowhere in any written documents. In fact, modern scholars agree that there are only two minor references to Jesus, one by the renowned scoundrel Flavius Josephus (whom I regrettably had to study at length when I lived in Israel) and the other by Tacitus.
The only other references are from religious sources themselves, i.e. the Bible, particularly the first four “books” known as the Gospels (Ro: Evanghelie). Even if you have faith that these stories are factually true accounts of Jesus’ life, it must be remembered that they were written a minimum of 100 years after Jesus’ death and possibly even much later.
And what’s always been (intellectually) amusing to me is that the authors of the Gospels, be they the actual disciples of Jesus or someone else, made the interesting choice of writing down these stories in the Greek language when the “action” all took place between people (including Jesus) who spoke Aramaic, a much different language.
Greek was the “international language” of the time so I understand why they did it, as very few people outside of the immediate area of Israel would’ve been able to understand Aramaic. But still though, it would be the equivalent of me writing the only first-hand accounts in English if Jesus were alive in modern-day Romania and doing his preaching in the Romanian language.
Sometimes people ask me, “How do you know Jesus spoke Aramaic?” and I always tell them it’s very obvious. For one thing there’s a direct quote (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34) from Jesus speaking in Aramaic as he’s dying on the cross.
Secondly, there are all kinds of “funny” effects that happen when you translate from Aramaic to Greek, such as the name of one of the disciples, Thomas (Ro: Toma), whose “name” just means “twin”, and no one today knows whether that’s some kind of cryptic message or whether the guy just had the odd name of twin. Other interesting “lost in translation” passages abound such as the “son of man” controversy because “son” in Aramaic was expressed as “son of man” but the phrase takes on theological significance when referring to Jesus.
But hey, this isn’t a post about Biblical exegesis! Time to get on with the Romanian story.
The ancient Dacian kingdom is likewise poorly documented in history, with only a scant few references surviving in the modern age. This made it wonderful fodder for Romanian historians, who used documentary fragments to create all kinds of wonderful stories about the legendary past of the “original” inhabitants of this land.
Unlike the Romans, the Dacians were apparently all illiterate. That’s not actually as unusual as it sounds because literacy was reserved for a small priestly elite in most societies for the first 4000 years after its invention. Nowadays the charge of “illiteracy” is considered concomitant to stupidity so please understand that in no way am I casting aspersions on the intelligence of the ancient Dacians.
All I am saying is that they left no written records so we are forced to rely on a handful of references from other sources, all of which happen to be Roman or Greek and not Dacian/Goth.
In 1980, Nicolae Ceausescu unilaterally decreed that Romania would hold a large celebration to commemorate 2050 years since the Dacian leader Burebista united the varying clans of Dacians and Goths into a single kingdom. Stamps were printed, a big budget movie was released (domestically), parades were held and speeches were given and a fun time was had by all (I presume).
The only problem of course is that no one has the slightest idea when Burebista united his kingdom. There are barely any references to the fact that he existed at all, and none of them mention a specific date. But the myth of Burebista served Ceausescu well (which is why every Romanian alive has heard of Burebista) because the story was twisted to serve Ceausescu’s own personal mythology, that he bravely united a disparate people under his towering leadership and then stood up to the mightiest empire in existence (a metaphor for the Soviet Union).
There’s much more to tell about that story (which I will save for a later time) but what caught my eye while was reading through the old sources wasn’t the pompous nonsense about Burebista but the strange tale of his personal wizard, a man named Deceneus.
Because of the wonderful things he does
Some five hundred years after the fact, a Roman writer named Jordanes (Ro: Iordanes) was commissioned to write Getica or The History of the Goths, apparently drawing on earlier sources that are now gone.
The original text was in Latin but someone else has done the heavy lifting of translating it. I’ve simply modified the spacing for easier reading as well as streamlined the names (which are spelled similarly but differently between texts):
Then when Burebista was king of the Goths, Deceneus came to Gothia at the time when Sulla ruled the Romans.
Burebista received Deceneus and gave him almost royal power. It was by his advice that the Goths ravaged the lands of the Germans, which the Franks now possess.
Soon Gaius Tiberius reigned as the third emperor of the Romans and yet the Goths continued in their kingdom unharmed. Their safety, their advantage, their one hope lay in this: that whatever their counselor Deceneus advised should by all means be done. And they judged it expedient that they should labor for its accomplishment.
And when he saw that their minds were obedient to him in all things and that they had natural ability, he taught them almost the whole of philosophy, for he was a skilled master of this subject.
Thus by teaching them ethics he restrained their barbarous customs. By imparting a knowledge of physics he made them live naturally under laws of their own, which they possess in written form to this day called “belagines”.
He taught them logic and made them skilled in reasoning beyond all other races. He showed them practical knowledge and so persuaded them to abound in good works.
By demonstrating theoretical knowledge he urged them to contemplate the twelve signs and the courses of the planets passing through them, and the whole of astronomy. He told them how the disc of the moon gains increase or suffers loss and showed them how much the fiery globe of the sun exceeds in size our earthly planet. He explained the names of the 346 stars and told through what signs in the arching vault of the heavens they glide swiftly from their rising to their setting.
Think about what a pleasure it was for these brave men, when for a little space they had leisure from warfare, to be instructed in the teachings of philosophy!
You might have seen one person scanning the position of the heavens and another investigating the nature of plants and bushes. Here stood a person who studied the waxing and waning of the moon while still another regarded the labors of the sun and observed how those bodies which were hastening to go towards the east are whirled around and borne back tot he west by the rotation of the heavens. When they had learned the reason, they were at rest.
These and various other matters Deceneus taught the Goths in his wisdom and gained marvelous repute among them, so that he ruled not only the common men but their kings.
That’s one hell of a story!
“Philosophy” in this context is less about theoretical conjecturing on metaphysical subjects but instead is closer in meaning to the modern term “science”. So Deceneus effectively was a scientist and taught the Goths (Burebista’s nascent empire) scientific techniques.
You can see that Deceneus was an educated person, who was able to read and write, knew astronomy (and how to make precise astronomical observations) and had evidently studied logic and rhetoric, two Classical Greek skills.
And even though I promised not to keep talking about the Bible, the “346 stars” reminds me of the mysterious story of Jesus catching exactly 153 fish in the Gospels. Some people believe that the strange specificity in the number of fish caught was a subtle reference by the Greek-speaking authors of the Gospels to Pythagoras, an extremely influential Greek philosopher (known today mostly for his mathematical theorems on triangles).
It’s well-known that Pythagoras was well-versed in astronomy and he (or his followers) taught such concepts as the Earth is round (a sphere) and that the sun, although it appears to be relatively small in the sky, was actually much larger in size than Earth. I have no idea what the “346 stars” reference in Jordanes was about other than to note that a Draconic year, or the time for the Sun to complete one revolution (turn) between eclipses, is 346 days.
Which brings me to Strabo, a much more contemporaneous source (he was alive during the reign of Burebista and the time of Jesus), whose Geography has survived until the modern day.
And he too mentions Burebista’s mysterious wizard:
In fact, it is said that a certain man of the Goths, Zamolxis by name, had been a slave to Pythagoras and had learned some things about the heavenly bodies [astronomy] from him and also certain other things from the Egyptians, for in his wandering he had gone even as far as Egypt.
And when he came back to his homeland he was eagerly courted by the rulers and the people of the tribe because he could make predictions from the celestial signs. And at last he persuaded the king to take him on as a partner in the government on the grounds that he was competent to report the will of the gods.
And although at the outset he was only made a priest of the god who was most honored in their country, afterwards he was even addressed as a god. After moving into a certain cave that was inaccessible to anyone else, he spent his life there, only rarely meeting with people other than the king and his own attendants.
The king cooperated with him because he saw that the people paid much more attention to him [the king] than before because they believed that the decrees which he [the king] promulgated were in accordance to the counsel of the gods.
This custom persisted even down to our own time because a man of that description is always to be found who, even though he’s nominally just a counselor to the king, is called a god by the Goths.
So too at the time when Burebista, who the Deified Caesar was prepared to go to war against, was reigning over the Goths, the office was held by Deceneus. And somehow or other the Pythagorean doctrine of abstention from eating any living thing still survived as taught by Zamolxis.
So you can see Strabo is much more specific. Zamolxis, a former slave of Pythagoras, learned all about astronomy and vegetarianism (Pythagoras and his followers were famous in antiquity for being vegetarians) from his old master, as well as “certain other things” from the Egyptians and then became the court wizard of the Goths.
And according to Strabo, Deceneus was the latest “chief wizard”, counseling the current king, Burebista.
Back to Strabo:
To help him [Burebista] secure the complete obedience of his tribe he relied on the help of Deceneus, a wizard, a man who had not only wandered through Egypt but had thoroughly learned certain methods of predicting the future.
And within a short time he [Deceneus] was set up as a god, much like the story that I earlier related about Zamolxis.
The following is an indication of the Goths’ complete obedience: they were persuaded to cut down their vines and live without wine.
Not only was Pythagoras (and his followers) vegetarian but they also did not drink alcohol, something that was beyond inconceivable to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Considering just how much wine is produced today in modern-day Romania and Moldova (the former Dacian and Gothic empire of Burebista), that must’ve been a hell of a change to induce them to stop drinking wine.
It must be understood however that the ubiquity of wine drinking in the Classical period was less about a love of being drunk and more about health. No one in those days, including Pythagoras, understood microbiology. All water (even today) is home to trillions of micro-organisms in every drop and some of these can sicken or kill you. That’s why campers (or travelers to developing nations) boil their water before drinking it.
Alcohol is a wonderful disinfectant. Any water turned into wine (or other alcoholic drinks) is therefore safe from any harmful microbial agents. Greeks and Romans would produce very strong wines and then water them down substantially before consuming them, thereby knowing that they were safe to drink even though they didn’t understand the mechanism of why it worked.
Therefore it wasn’t just adults at a party who were drinking wine (and other alcoholic drinks) but men, women and children consuming it regularly throughout the day and so switching to water would’ve been a very odd concept indeed. Pythagoras, of course, abstained from wine and alcohol to escape its intoxicating effects although I have to wonder just how many of his followers died from cholera and related diseases due to not understanding the action of microbes and bacteria.
We’ll never know whether Zamolxis and Deceneus were real people but it certainly makes for an interesting story, to think of how Pythagorean knowledge and Greek philosophy was beginning to take root in neighboring cultures.
Had the Roman Emperor Trajan (Ro: Traian) not wiped out the Dacian culture 150 years later, it is entirely reasonable to assume that the Gothic proto-empire would’ve soon developed a full-fledged bureaucracy with a literate priesthood, written court records, taxes, properly minted coins and even greater architectural accomplishments, giving the modern day Romanian people a much more solid historical framework with which to understand their ancestry.
Unfortunately for the Dacians and Goths however, the far better organized and more literate Roman Empire was too far ahead in the game to be able to resist for long and so they were quickly subsumed into the greater Latin world, eventually arising as a nation and culture named directly after their former conquerors, with a despotic leader stealing their history to buttress his cult of personality.
AND NOW YOU KNOW THE STORY OF THE VEGETARIAN WIZARD OF ROMANIA!