Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology

Transylvania origin etymology

When it comes to Transylvania, this spellbound geographical and historical province of Romania, its origin and etymology have always stirred debates. From the identity of the first settlers to the rights over the land and even the etymology of its name, the two schools of thought still engage in heated discussions. For me, as a Romanian, the explanation is crystal clear, and a long and interesting story it is. Do read it and let me know what your conclusions are.

Transylvania, what is its origin and the origin of its Romanian people?

Transylvania is a historical province located at the heart of Romania, bordered by the lush forests of the Carpathian Mountains at the west and south and the Apuseni Mountains on the west.

Transylvania has known civilization hiking through its forests and swimming in its rivers since the Paleolithic era, as the cave paintings of horses from Cuciulat, near Someș river, prove. The Neolithic Precriş culture left us the boulder head of the locals’ burial rituals.

Near Turdaș the remains of a giant Neolithic fortress were recently discovered, perhaps the first ever kingdom in the history of the world. And archeological findings dating from the Bronze Age tell stories of a settled population busy with farming, animal breeding (later, the fast Dacian horses being renowned), as well as apiculture, viticulture, hunting, fishing, crafting, tool making.

Over 600 archeological sites of which 26 fortifications from the First Iron Age, Hallstatt, were discovered across the territory of Transylvania, and, of course, incredible pottery. For millenniums, Transylvania was known as a land rich in gold, silver, iron and salt- read all about it here.

Words of Dacian origin related to viticulture are still in use today in Romanian language: butuc (stump), strugure (grape), curpen (tendril).

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Roman Dacia - map of Dacia during Burebista and Decebal, I BC - II AD
Map of Dacia during the times of kings Burebista (in green) and Decebal (in yellow) – centuries I BC – II AD
In black font: Geto-Dacs. Source

During the middle of the first century BC the Dacians living on current day Romanian territory, especially Transylvania, were led by Burebista.

Burebista, “the first and greatest of the kings of Thrace.”

The Dionysopolitan decree made in honor of Acornion.

Why only Romanians speak a Latin Language in southeast Europe?

The origin of Romanian people

In 117 AD, when the Roman Empire had reached its most august magnitude under the ruling of Emperor Trajan, the Romanian territories at that time were known as Dacia and had just been conquered by Romans (after two bloody wars: 101-102, and 105-106).

Roman Empire 117 AD and Dacia (today Romania). Source Andrei Nacu-Wikipedia
Roman Empire 117 AD and Dacia (today Romania). Source Andrei Nacu-Wikipedia

Like with many other nations conquered by the Roman Empire, the local Geto-Dacian population (which was Thracian by origin) had to adopt and adapt to the Roman culture, including the Latin language. They had 150 years to do so, till the Roman Empire’s withdrawal from Dacia. Different times were those, with an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years and maybe slightly longer for women. So what looks like two generations today, meant four or five generations during Classical Rome.

Today there are at least eighty words of Dacian origin still in use in the Romanian language, mostly names of plants, animals, forms of relief. For example, Romanian word for Danube: Dunăre, derving from Donawi, Dunawi.

How Latin language was assimilated by Dacians during Roman occupation

I was reading an article about how Latin was assimilated by Dacians and how the new, Latin words were used alongside the native vocabulary, still in use.
Think of synonyms. For example white, alb in Romanian is still in use today. The Latin form, albus, denoted the color, generally speaking. But the synonym for white kept from Dacian language, bardzu (and still in use today in a few areas of Transylvania) is more specific, bălțată being used to describe animals whose fur is only speckled with white.

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology, Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn't ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).
Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn’t ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).

“The high number of Latin terms in agriculture, animal husbandry and the shepherds’ life prove that, besides the shepherds who drove their flocks throughout Romania’s territories, contributing by their movement to standardizing the language, there were also sedentary Romanians employed in farming and stock breeding”

Sextil Pușcariu, Limba română
Roman Dacia (years 106-271) - Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology
Roman Dacia (years 106-271). Note today’s Transylvania included (Porolissensis and Apulensis on the map), surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. Maris river is today’s Mures. Towns mentioned in in brackets are the names used today.

After the Roman withdrawal from Dacia and until the 4th century AD many neighboring tribes came to Transylvania, stayed for a while, took what they could and then went their separate ways – as you can read in my previous blog post here. Then the Slavs also visited, stayed longer as they were peaceful tribes, mingled with the local Daco–Roman population. Till the 9th century when the Bulgarian Empire stretched over Transylvania, coming from the south of Danube river although the degree to which most of the territory in Transylvania was under Bulgarian control is disputed.

The period of late antiquity and early Middle Ages, especially in Eastern Europe, does not provide much information. Nor for local Daco-Romanian population, nor for invaders, be it Bulgarians or Hungarians. But what does remain is the language used by the local population, the Dacians, reflected in contemporary vocabulary as well as in the names of cities and the geographical forms of relief, especially rivers, and in the folklore and the local traditions.

As the Romans withdrew from Dacia (Transylvania included), I believe it is exactly the apparition of the new, various invaders who came in waves for almost 1 000 years that helped the native Daco-Romanian population outline and strengthen its national identity. A pattern of establishing new relationships between the inhabitants of Dacia, Latin speakers, and the invaders would have also developed, while the product would have emerged as Vlachs. And instead of one place we can pinpoint on a map, there would have been a multitude of such places of origin from where the newly formed nation and its spirit would have spread out to the larger areas, the ones we know of for certitude today.

During the last fifty years archeological discoveries have unearthed more than 2000 settlements and necropolises discovered over the entire territory of Romania and dating between the 9th and 11th centuries. They show a demographical concentration in the plains, hills, highlands, but also in the subcarpathian areas, revealing various degrees of political organization. For example at Biharea, where Menumorut’s fortress was located, and around it, were discovered by I. Crişan, the remains of 133 archeological sites of Romanian and Romanian-Slav villages, fairs, and citadels dating from the 8th – 11th century, proving the existence of a Romanian, indigenous civilization and culture.

To summarize, we can see that most of Romania was part of Roman Empire and remained so for five generations, as were all of today’s Latin speaking European countries. Geto-Dacians learned Latin, as the words of Latin origin still in use in Romanian language today prove. After Romans withdrew from Dacia, a solid Latin speaking population stayed behind, away from the main roads, inhabiting deserted Roman temples and the sacred mountains, where they found refuge and peace. The tribes that washed over Romanian territories in the following years influenced the language and the culture of the Romanian people, in turn borrowing from them into their own culture, co-habituating with the local Romanian population. Latin names of rivers, agricultural terms, animal husbandry and terms used in a shepherds’ life still in use today all prove the existance of a strong Latin civilasation living throughout the centuries in today’s Romania.

Nestor’s chronicle (Povest vremennykh let) on the history of Slavs in Romania and the presence of Romanians, Vlachs, in Transylvania

Chronicle of Nestor or Kiev Chronicle or The Russian Primary Chronicle is a medieval historical work offering detailed accounts of the early history of eastern Slavs to the beginning of the 12th century. The chronicle was compiled in Kiev around 1113, based on materials from Byzantine chronicles, Slavonic literary sources, official documents, and oral sagas. The earliest manuscript still existing is dated to 1377. While the authorship was traditionally attributed to monk Nestor, modern scholars considers the chronicle to be a composite work.

Nestor’s chronicle provides us with some of the oldest testimony of the Romanians by referring to relationships between the Wallachians, the white Ugrii, and the Slavs. The same chronicle refers to the Hungarian’s initial advance though the Verecke mountain pass
towards the Tisa Plain, or Tizsa, and how the Hungarians fought the Wallachians and the Slavs living here (Tisa plains are located west of today’s north-west border of Romania).

For it was through the Verecke mountain pass that in 895 the Hungarian tribes entered the Carpathian Basin and during the next two centuries established the Kingdom of Hungary.

11th century Historian Gardizi and his Book, The Ornament of Histories, on the Romanians living in Transylvania

Gardizi was an author and historian living in the mid-eleventh century. In his work The Ornament of Histories he mentions the people in the Roman Empire, placed between Russians, Bulgarians and Hungarians, on a territory north of Danube and a mountain that can be easily identified with the Carpathians. He describes them as people more numerous than the Hungarians, but politically weaker. Dare I say it out loud, Daco-Romans?

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology - Romanian political countries during IX - XIII centuries
Romanian political counties during IX – XIII centuries. Notice: Țara Bihorului, Țara Oașului, Țara Maramuresului, Țara Romanilor, Țara Iaşilor, Țara Severinului, Țara Hategului, Țara Zarandului, Țara Alba, Țara Fagarasului, Țara Oltului.

Țara, country, its etymology and what its use on Romania’s political map of the IX – XIII centuries means

Țara in Romanian means land or country. It has an archaic form țeară. It derives from the Latin terra, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ters- (“dry”). (Wikipedia)

What is the significance of Țara Bihorului, Țara Oașului, Țara Maramuresului, Țara Romanilor, Țara Iaşilor, Țara Severinului, Țara Hategului, Țara Zarandului, Țara Alba, Țara Fagarasului, Țara Oltului on the map of Romanian political counties during IX – XIII centuries above? It shows that those political entities had a judicial community and a leader, that small communities of Romanians were organised in counties, Țara. Thus were territories already inhabited – at the time of the Hungarian invasion of Transylvania’s west territories.

According to Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu:

“The equivalent of terra [Țara] from the medieval documents has the
implication of a judicial community, of a region in which a certain local custom influences and determines the administration of justice… and which – as consensus – the leader of the country has to consider.”

Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu

The Latin etymological origin of the Transylvania noun

Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means beyond the forest.

Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means “beyond the forest.”
In Latin, trans means “beyond” or “on the other side of”, deriving in turn from from Proto-Indo-European “trhnts,” from “terh-” meaning “through, throughout, over.” It is found in Celtic too, as “trānss”, keeping its meaning.
And in Latin, silva means “wood, forest”.

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology - map Romanian forests
Map of Romanian forests today. From dark to light green: coniferous (forever green), mixed, leafy trees, oaks. Transylvania in the middle, surrounded by the dark green. Source

It is easy to see why outlanders would refer to Transylvania as the land beyond the forest, surrounded as it was – and still is – by the Carpathian Mountains, rich in coniferous and secular, lofty oak trees.

Did you know? On the plains once found between the gentle slopes of the Apuseni Mountains (west on the map above) and the low plain of Tisa (the river along north-west and west on the map), once stood an impressive deciduous forest. It was during the 18th century, that it started to be cut down and to make space for agricultural fields.

Alsoat the confluence of Tisa with quite a few rivers, among them Someş, Criş, Mureş, and Timiş on the map above, during antiquity and the Middle Age there was a rage of deltas and swamps.

In his book From Zalmoxix to Genghi Han, Romanian religious historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade writes that when a nation’s ethnicity is the image of an animal, there is always a religious explanation behind it. We don’t know yet why, but we do know from Strabon that Dacians were the first to call themselves dáoi (wolves).

How interesting to discover this about Dacians, while the land where they lived, surrounded by forested mountains, was (later, in 10th century) known as “terra ultra silvam” -land beyond the forest. Then “Ultra Silvam” in a 1075 document, becoming Ultrasilvania in Medieval Latin, and eventually Transylvania.

A Mercurius Princeps Ultrasilvanus, a Transylvanian Voievode or ruler, was even mentioned in a document dated 1103.

The first Medieval Latin name for Transylvania, Ultrasylvania or terra Ultrasilvana dates from 10th – 11th century, at a time when Hungarian border still stretched to the west of the Apuseni Mountains (western Romanian Carpathians).

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology, Codrul Frate cu Romanu' - The Woodland, Romanian's Brother - The forest in Romanian folklore and its symbology

Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother – The forest in Romanian folklore and its symbology

From Dacian times, the woodland and the Romanians have been two inseparable entities. The forest has been, in turn, temple and refuge for the warrior, the citizen and, later, for the hajduk, haiduc (a Robin Hood-like figure from southeastern Europe during the 17th – 19th century). Even the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, during its two and a half centuries old warfare against the Romanians, had the thick forests of these lands on their three most difficult factors in fighting a war. The other two were the majestic Carpathian mountains and the cold winters.

Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology, forest symbology in Romanian folklore. An aphorism about trees and forest
Romanian folk aphorism about trees and forest
  • the name of the Teleorman County (in south of Wallachia, Tara Romaneasca, by the Danube, comes from Turkish (Cumanic) Deli orman, crazy forest.
  • in Romanian folklore and mythology the trees (sanctuaries for Gods and Demons), especially the sycamore, fir tree, willow, and apple tree are seen as guides, accompanying a human’s soul along his last road.
  • in Romanian symbology the tree of life represents rebirth and forever life.

“Codru’ este mare
Si lumina n-are;
Codru este des
Intri, nu mai iesi…”

“The woodland is wide
And has no light;
The woodland is thick
You enter, never to leave…”

AND

“Sufletul statea
Si mi se ruga:
Brade, brade!
Sa-mi fii frate:
Intinde-ti, intinde,
Eu sa le pot prinde
Varfurile tale,
Sa trec peste ele”

“My soul stopped
And it implored:
Fir tree, fir tree!
My brother thou be:
Spread thou, spread
Your tree tops shed,
May I over ’em fled.”

Romanian ritualistic funeral song, translated from Romanian by Patricia Furstenberg
Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology, fir tree symbology in Romanian folklore
Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ – The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother

The Hungarian etymological origin of the Transylvania noun

The earliest Hungarian records of Gesta Hungarorum, Chronicle of Anonymous

One of the earliest Hungarian records is Gesta Hungarorum, The Deeds of the Hungarians, is a 12th century manuscript with a previous 11th century version. It tells the history of Hungarian tribes from the time they arrived on the Panonian Plains (west of today’s Romania) around 896 and until the times of King Andrei I (1046 – 1060).

The Pannonian Basin (marked III.), enclosed by the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Plateau (IV.) to the east and north. Also shown: the Romanian Lowlands (II.) and the Outer Subcarpathian depressions (I.) beyond the Carpathians (also known as Transcarpathia)
Marked III is the Pannonian Basin
Marked IV are the Carpathian Mountais and Transylvania, to the east and north.
Marked II, Romanian Lowlands
Marked I, Outer Subcarpathian depressions beyond the Carpathians, also known as Transcarpathia
RO = today’s territory of Romania
H = Hungary today

In Gesta Hungarorum we find some of the earliest Hungarian records of the three Romanian duchies existing in Transylvania and to its west at the time of the first Hungarian invasion. Vlachs, Slavs and Bulgarians lived here, “Sclavi, Bulgarii et Blachii ac pastores Romanorum“(Blachii meaning Vlachs, the shepherds of Romans).

Transylvania lived up to its nickname being a pastoral land. Its wide valleys are fertile
and its mountain slopes offer lush grazing for countless flocks of sheep.

Proof that Vlachs, Romnaians, lived here is the use of word duca, ducatus in Gesta Hungarorum. Duca derives from Latin dux, ducis, meaning leader. Only Romanians living here would have called their leader duca, although eventually it was replaced by the Slavonic Voievod.

The Hungarian etymological explanation for the noun Transylvania

During the X – XI centuries, pushed by tribes of Bulgars and Pechenegs, the Hungarian tribes left he north steppe and settled on the plains of Crișana, between Tisa river on the west, Apusei Mountains to the east, Someș river in the north and Mureș river in the south, where they would have found tribes of Slavs and Avars, with Romaniansalready setteled higher up on the slopes.

Slavs have lived on the plains of Crișana for a few centuries now, while the highland region to the east, over the forests and into Transylvania, has a predominant Romanian, Latin-speaking population.

So the plain-loving Magyars of Hungarians found themselves surrounded by waters from three sides, and only forests on the rim of mountainous Transylvania shutting them off on the east. For Magyars, the space they took over was on this side of the forest, while what lay over the forest, on the other side of the forest, (ultra, trans) was unknown – the Duchy of Gelou.

In Hungarian erdő and ardo means forest. The first Hungarian name for Transylvania was Erde-elw, then Erdély, meaning the country over the forest.

It was only after year 1000 when King Stephen I of Hungary mass-converted the Hungarians to Christianity that Latin became the official language of Hungarian chancellery, thus Erdély translated to Ultransilvana, then Transilvana and eventually Transilvania, Transylvania. Various combinations have also been encountered, such as princeps Ultrasilvanus (for a leader), Provincia Transilvana, Ultrasilvam Regnum (Kingdom).

The first written evidence is from 1075: “Ultra silvam ad castrum quod vocatur Turda,” translating to “Beyond the forest to the castle which is Turda.”

The socio-cultural and historical setting at the time when Hungarian tribes settled west of Transylvania

To summarize the ethnogenesis of the Romanian people, the largest nation in southeast Europe (except for the Turkish one), we must list the three main constitutive ethnic elements: the native population (Geto-Dacians), the conquerors (Romans), and the migrating people (the Slavs).

The Slavs, who preferred the plains, called the mountainous region inhabited by the Geto-Dacian speakers of Latin either Zagoria (Slavic Zagore means beyond the mountains) or Vlahia.

When Hungarians first settled on the plains west of Apuseni Mountains the Slavs lived there. Hungarians call a Vlach Olah, which suggests that they borrowed from the Slavs the first information about neighboring places and peoples.

What the modern DNA analysis says about the origin of Romanians

Throughout millennia, Romania found itself on the chessboards of many empires, and a major crossroad between Europe and Asia.

What can the study of Romanian DNA tell us that we don’t already know, or can it shine a light on a new concept regarding the continuity of Romanian people on these lands?

A recent study analyzed mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) sequences from Romanian Neolithic samples.

Mitochondrial DNA, unlike nuclear DNA, is inherited from the mother, while nuclear DNA is inherited from both parents. Thus mtDNA is important because testing mtDNA allows for investigation into one’s maternal line and can help identify living relatives whose mtDNA is similar to yours, as well as ancient migration routes your maternal ancestors may have taken.

For this study, mtDNA from ten sites from the current territory of Romania, spanning a time-period from the Early Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, were analyzed.

  • mtDNA data from Early Neolithic farmers of the Starčevo Criş culture in Romania (the sites of Cârcea in south, Gura Baciului in north, and Negrileşti to the east on the map below) confirm their genetic relationship with those of the LBK culture (Linienbandkeramik Kultur, Linear Pottery Culture) in Central Europe Neolithic, 5500–4500 BC, and they show little genetic continuity with modern European populations.
  • mtDNA data from Middle-Late Neolithic cultures of Boian (south east of Decea Muresului), Zau (east of Decea), and Gumelniţa (south east) had a much stronger effect on the genetic heritage of the European populations.
mtDNA-study-Romanian-Neolithic
A recent study analyzed mtDNA sequences from Romanian Neolithic samples – image source

This study shows that Middle Neolithic populations, ‘M_NEO’, that lived in what is present-day Romania/Transylvania and modern populations from Romania are very close, in contrast with Middle Neolithic and modern populations from Central Europe.

Such genome analyses of living populations show that intra-European diversity is a continuum (with small exception). Romanians’ DNA is close to that of their Balkan and East European neighbors. Here, Romanian DNA is closest to that of Albanians, Greeks, and Bulgarians, then Macedonians, and further from the DNA of central and eastern Europeans like Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians.

On the other hand, the Balkans, because of the various migrations, are the most genetically diverse region in Europe.

But the Romans themselves, were a genetic pool already when their Empire reached its peak, think of the massive immigration into Rome and its vast army alone, spanning three continents, and tens of millions of people across Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.

The connection between central European mtDNA and mtDNA from the Romanina provinces, Transylvania, Wallachia, Dobrudja, and Moldavia

This 2017 study showed:

  • genetic affinities, illustrated by the mtDNA haplogroup frequencies, among the four Romanian provinces;
  • gene flow between Moldavia-Wallachia and Moldavia-Transylvania, suggesting gene flow between these provinces (mainly due to the substantial workforce movement from Moldavia towards these two provinces throughout the communist period);
  • genetic similarity of the Wallachia, Moldavia, and Dobrudja groups with the Balkans, especially the Slavic population;
  • Transylvania population closely related to the Central European groups, as influenced by the topology of the Romanian territory.

The Genetic pool of Roman Empire at the time of Dacian occupation

As we can see from the genetic map of Imperial Rome at the time they conquered Dacia, presented below, Rome and the Roman Empire was already a cosmopolitan place, people with different ancestry mingled and cohabited.

the genetic map of Imperial Rome - Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology.
the genetic map of Imperial Rome – Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology.

This is the genetic pool (eastern-Mediterranean, near-eastern, European, Mediteranean) that would have mingled with the Geto-Dacian own genetic pool – to later form the Romanian DNA.

You can follow the short explanation below, where Stanford researchers and their European colleagues drew on ancient DNA to construct the first genetic history of Rome. Their data reveal major shifts in the ancestry of people living in Rome, as well as several smaller shifts corresponding to important events in the history and politics of Rome. The original research is here.

I am still to find a more recent study looking at how present-day southeastern European populations was created, perhaps by aligning Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Medieval groups mtDNA and comparing them to present-day mtDNA of various European populations – while considering that there is a higher population density in the eastern Mediterranean Europe than it is in the west.
Also, I would like to read a study looking into genetic links between past populations inhabiting the Romanian territories.

Sources used in Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology

Aurel-Pup, I., Radacinile Medievale ale regiunii (provinciei) istorice Transilvania (secolele IX – XIII)
Bogdan, Gh., Memory, Identity, Typology: An Interdisciplinary Reconstruction of Vlach Ethnohistory
Chronicle of Nestor, The Russian Primary Chronicle, Britannica
Cocoş, R., Schipor, S., Hervella, M. et al. Genetic affinities among the historical provinces of Romania and Central Europe as revealed by an mtDNA analysis. BMC Genet 18, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12863-017-0487-5
Collins., N. Stanford researchers lay out first genetic history of Rome
Djuvara, N., O Scurta Istorie a Romanilor Povestita celor Tineri
Hervella M, Rotea M, Izagirre N, Constantinescu M, Ancient DNA from South-East Europe Reveals Different Events during Early and Middle Neolithic Influencing the European Genetic Heritage
Sfrengeu, F., Dr. Aspects Regarding the Evolution of the Political Organization in North-Western Romania at the Beginning of the Middle Age
Ziarul Renasterea, Transilvania sau Ardeal, Prof. I. Lupas, Cluj, Editia 18 Februarie 1940

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank

symbols and symbolism in Mank movie

Released at the end of a year overshadowed by a pandemic, Fincher’s movie Mank reveals itself like the glowing star atop the Christmas tree, and we look here at the significant symbols and symbolism Mank the movie carries.

Before we dive in, I must thank my new blogosphere friend Jo, the brains and heart behind FilmSerial, a top Romanian blog where she does stellar translations. It was Jo who first introduced me to Mank, and it was Jo who first published my raw thoughts on this movie.

Symbolism means an artistic or a lyrical expression obtained by using an image to reveal an idea or an emotion, to unmask a hidden concept or a state of mind.

In a movie, many things can be symbolic such as color, an object, the setting, the use of light in a scene, camera angle, the transition from one scene to the next, even a feeling.

Symbols and Symbolism hidden in Movie Mank

What is exciting about symbolism in a movie, a book, or a work of art is that it can carry different meanings to different viewers, based on their perception and life experiences, and even based on the state of mind while watching the film or reading the novel.

Let’s look at three symbols that appear in David Fincher’s movie Mank.
Attention, this blog post contains spoilers.

The Symbolism behind Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding

Symbols and Symbolism in Mank, Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding
Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding. Source Imdb, Netflix.

Mank’s (Herman J. Mankiewicz) first meeting with actress Marion Davies takes place in 1929 (as we learn from one of his flash-backs), while Marion is filming a glamorous Old West movie on the grounds of Hearst’s massive estate, San Simeon.

Marion is about to be burned at the stake atop a pyramidal scaffolding and, during a shooting break, she asks Mank for a “ciggie”. Mank recognizes her as well as her wit and, although he wrestles a drunkard migraine, climbs the stairs to offer the diva a cigarette, like the gentleman he is.

“Watch those stairs. They’re treacherous,” Marion calls out.
“Every moment of my life is treacherous,” Mank replies in jest.

Mank by David Fincher, after a screenplay by Jack Fincher

The two enjoy a vivid conversation atop the scaffolding. We see them profiled against a brilliant sky, lined with fluffy Hollywood-style clouds (with their own symbol).

This scene takes place eleven years before the major events of the movie (Mank’s six weeks job of writing a script for Orson Welles), and both Mank and Marion are on top of the world (see the sky profiled in the background ad the height they are placed on); both are still filled with ideals, and both are still in the process of throwing themselves into their dreams – represented by the brilliant clouds overhead.

We see them standing above the Hollywood crowd, above L. B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst, who will later reduce both Mank and Marin to pawns.

But we also see Mank and Marion on a scaffolding, like lambs about to be sacrificed if they don’t give up their dreams (Mank doesn’t, Marion does) – for this is Hollywood, and here everything is worth sacrificing for the sake of ‘the magic of the movies.’

The low angle camera shot used during this scene highlights Mank and Marion’s moral superiority during this time in the story.

I thought that this particular shot is a nod towards ‘Gone with the Wind’. It makes a reference to a scene between Scarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara. His words were:

‘Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.’

Gone with the Wind by by Victor Fleming, produced by David O. Selznick, based on a book by Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind, Sarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara. 'The only thing that matters is Tara'.
Gone With the Wind, Image source imdb

In the movie Mank, the only thing that matters (for Mank and Marion) is the quality of the work they produce.

Symbolism behind Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst

Symbols and Symbology in  Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst. Source
 Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst. Source Imdb, Netflix

Leading to this scene:

It is 1933. During one of Mank’s flashbacks, we join a glamorous birthday party at San Simeon where the Julia Morgan–designed castle and Hearst’s inheritance are located. Champagne flows, all are gay, and a live piano punctuates a careless conversation.

When the discussion turns to Hitler’s speech followed by kissing babies, as witnessed by Marion Davies during the newsreel of a movie she watched recently, only Mank and Marion point out the potential danger of the growing Nazi regime, while L.B. Mayer (MGM’s co-founder and Birthday Boy at Heart’s party) and Irvin Thalberg (Mayer’s right hand and head of production) reveal their ignorance of the Nazi leader. Then the conversation turns to current affairs and the political climb of socialist Upton Sinclair, Marion makes a faux pas and leaves the party room.

Next, we witness a nod from Sara Mankiewicz towards her husband, showing us how well she knows him. Thus Mank, always the emotional caregiver, always the indulgent father, follows Marion into the garden to comfort her.

Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden:

We find Mank and Marion outdoors, away from the glitz and glam of the party, and we witness a true camaraderie blossoming between two fellow New Yorkers, both outcasts in their own way here, in Hollywood (Davies the child of a working-class family from Brooklyn, Mankiewicz the child of German-Jewish immigrants). Mank seems to be the only man (in a world dominated by boys) to notice and appreciate Davies’ intellect. While Marion Davies looks up at Mank, asking him for advice to further her career as an actress, and not only as a prized mistress of a newspaper magnate (Hearst.)

And now we discover the symbolism behind Mank and Marion’s garden walk.

It is past dusk, the sky is laden with plumb and here and there, between the trees, we spot Hearst’s castle-like mansion. The gardens Mank and Marion stroll through have pathways bordered with neatly trimmed hedges in heavy shades of iron and charcoal, while Marion’s dress gleams in the moonlight like a gray pearl.

Marion Davies party dress in movie Mank, glamorous gold or rosebud pink? Symbolism
Marion Davies party dress in movie Mank, glamorous gold or rosebud pink? Symbolism.

What is the symbol behind Marion’s gleaming party dress?

We don’t know what color her dress is. It could be gold, after all, she is a top-ranked Hollywood movie star, but it could just as well be satin pink, to match her rosy cheeks, as Mank states, or perhaps to match Hearst’s private nickname for her, Rosebud.

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank. Moonlight stroll, Marion’s dress gleams in the moonlight like a gray pearl
Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank. Photo source Imdb, Netflix

Further they stroll, past monkeys in a cage, just as Marion laments that ‘people think because you’re on the cover of “Modern Screen,” they know you.’ The monkeys flare up and Marion turns towards them and shouts out her anger, ‘Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ – then laughs.

The monkeys jump on the cage’s walls, yet they can’t reach Marion – much like a symbol for a flash of paparazzi.

‘Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ Marion Davies, symbolism behind the moonlight stroll in Mank
Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ (Marion Davies in Mank). Image source Imdb, Netflix

And on Mank and Marion’s stroll, under the moonlight, until they reach the maze made of shrubs, punctuated by garden statues and topiary. We get a sense of opulence even here, away from Hearst’s mansion. The maze is a symbol for crafting one’s future, a task that is never a straight walk. The menagerie of wild animals is a symbol for whimsy, for the make-believe that movie-business is.

The scene is lit by ball-shaped garden lights on stands. They glow in the night like one hundred moons, all casting their light on Hearst’s collection of wild animals. Are Mank and Marion part of this collection? We now spot elephants in the far background.

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank, Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden
Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank, Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden

There is a visual game of sharp shadows here, with Marion’s platinum blond curls glowing as if under their own spotlight, even in the darkness of the night, as though she has a designated spotlight forever shining brightly down on her. It is the spotlight Hearst keeps her under by the use of his newspapers, building her fame, for which he spends millions of dollars.

But Marion’s glowing curls seem to be lighting up the garden as much as the ball-shaped garden lights, presenting her like another one of Hearst’s prized possessions. This media-magnate who controls the news and owns a zoo, with caged monkeys, herds of silent elephants, and giraffes too, also has his very own movie Star, always kept under a spotlight, lit from above.

Among all this madness Mank and Marion share a heart-to-heart conversation by the water fountain. He is in the shadows, she is under the spotlight; a man of many dark shades (a big mouth and addictions) and a glowing Diva.

Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is their last innocent game before all hell brakes loose; MGM gets involved in politics, Marion Davies leaves MGM for Warner Brothers, Mank writes his script based on Hearst (pulling Marion in it).

Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is a playful exchange of wits. On one side, we have a gifted actress who is clever enough to understand and accept the compromises she has to make in exchange for ‘making an exit’. On the other side, we have an alcoholic writer who chooses the exact opposite course of action, that of being a participant observer who eventually learns that words throw long shadows even after their entertaining value has evaporated.

Their garden moonlight stroll reveals a game of light and shadow, of night and day, of right and wrong, co-existing, much like life at Hollywood must be, for actors and writers.

Mank and Marion by the fountain, moonlit stroll. Symbols and symbolism
Mank and Marion by the fountain, moonlit stroll. Imge source Netflix

Mank’s Shades of  Black and White

The idea of a black and white film might put off some movie-viewers, yet once watched, the monochrome Mank movie makes sense through its multiple gray-shaded pigments.

It was in keeping with Jack Fincher’s wish, his father and the writer of the original Mank script back in the ‘80s that David Fincher held the production until a production company (Netflix International Pictures) finally accepted to shoot Mank in black and white.

By shooting Mank in black and white, David Fincher forces the viewer to focus on the story and its characters, eliminating the distraction added by splashes of color. The black and white film draws the eye into following the actors, it emphasizes their performance. It is the perfect recipe for a movie that deals with actors portraying other actors.

By shooting Mank in black and white Fincher zoomed in, and brought the story-line and the ‘40s Hollywood drama into focus. His zooming creates an instant nostalgia, but not over a by-gone era, yet over a loss of moral values. It symbolizes Mank’s nostalgia over the debut of his career at Hollywood when all the doors were open, and were gilded, and he seamed to have reached the stars. It is Marion’s nostalgia too, over a time when her career was still on the rise and Hollywood was just that, a movie-making industry, not a business.

Symbols and symbology in Mank, day night, black white, Netflix. What color is Marion's dress?
Mank, black and white, day and night. Image source Netflix

Yet Mank is not monochrome per se. It has plenty of silver in it and this gives the film an aura of eerie wistfulness as if Fincher does more than re-creating the past, he communicates with it, just as Mank does with his flash-backs (communicating in a way with his past self). The use of black and white makes the story-line feel more intense, it has immediacy, we sense Mank approaching his six weeks deadline; we taste his impending need for alcohol; we witness his climbing of the Hollywood ladder and his rapid falling out with Hearst.

Because the movie is in black and white, the audience can relate to Mank’s point of view. Hollywood is not all that glamorous as Mank thought it to be when he first arrived, moving from the east coast and trading his career as a playwright and drama critic for that of a Hollywood screenwriter.

Life in Hollywood is filled with threat, layered corruption, even an underworld of crime that creates weaponized movies, and no-one can escape its suppression. Mank believes he can, by going after Hearst the magnate, by exposing him, escaping his toxic friendship. Mank hopes he can free the monkey in the parable of the “organ grinder’s monkey” (see below for the symbology behind the “organ grinder’s monkey”).

Yet Mank, after the release of the American (Citizen Kane) is never to write another script again. He never works again, he never writes an original screenplay again. And he will never fight for credit again.

Shooting in black and white also afforded Fincher his darkness and shadow signature. At times, Mank the movie looks like a glossy ‘40s magazine, especially when it affords Marion Davies to glow in the scene. And this, the old-world glamour, is something Fincher is familiar with since the times he filmed Madonna’s ‘’Vogue,’ and it is how he shakes off any old-fashioned connotations that might come with making a black-and-white movie in the 21st century.

By shooting in black-and-white, Fincher created a delicate, old-world look that is fit for a contemporary of Citizen Kane rather than a film merely about Kane’s creator (Mank). And Fincher, or rather Ren Klyce, the sound designer, gave it a sound fit for Hollywood’s golden age, warm, albeit crackly, popping, that evokes a sense of remembrance, of daydreaming rather than reality.

Black and white (with the many gray shades in between, with the glistening silver, the pearls, the glowing beige) symbolizes the glamour of classical cinematography. Even the music for the movie has been recorded with older microphones.

The symbolism behind Fincher’s use of black and white to shoot Mank resides in the kaleidoscope of shades of greys found between dark and light, evil and righteousness, corruption and idealism. The two timelines that spiral around one another in Mank, each with their own threads of plots, form a symbolic kaleidoscope-like image in shades of grey, as there is no right or wrong in Hollywood, there is no good choice or bad choice, anything goes as long as it’s for the sake of the movie.

Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt  (Mank’s director of photography) used a RED specially-made black-and-white camera, the RED Monstro Monochrome (Monstrochrome). 

‘The Monstrochrome captures black and white imagery with more precise resolution and enhanced light sensitivity. Capturing monochrome natively is better than shooting in color and then eliminating the saturation in post. What you will get is a real, pure, stunning, accurate black, and white artistic image.’

Y.M.Cinema Magazine

Fincher tells Mark Harris for Vulture that they shot the movie in super-high resolution, then they softened it ‘to an absurd extent to try to match the look of the era’, and added ‘little scratches and digs and cigarette burns.’

Symbolism Behind the Parable of the Organ Grinder Monkey

Mank the movie, Symbolism Behind the parable of the Organ Grinder Monkey
An Organ Grinder Monkey

The parable of the organ grinder monkey is mentioned only twice in Mank, yet it is what fuels Mank in going after Hearts, it is the motor that pushed the action forward.

Mank is the first to mention the parable of the organ grinder monkey to John Houseman.

John Houseman: Why Hearst? Outside his own blonde Betty Boop, you were always his favorite dinner partner.
Herman Mankiewicz: Are you familiar with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?

Mank the Movie

What is the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?

Tagging someone as an “organ grinder’s monkey” means that they do anything a powerful person wants them to do, without having any real power. They make money for their boss without whose presence they are nothing – yet they don’t know it.

Mank first heard about the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey from ‘Willie’ Hearts, during what was to be their last encounter, albeit a drunken one for Mank.

At this moment in time Hearts sees Mank as his grinder monkey, whom he thought to be a “Shakespeare of talking pictures.” Yet Hearts knows that Mank would not have been afforded the audience and the connections he made has it not been for Hearst and his glamorous parties.

And Mank understands the parable of the grinder monkey and his associate with the ape, but it is now, after Sinclair lost the campaign due to Meyer and Thalberg’s smear campaigns; after his friend and co-worker Shelly Metcalf commits suicide, that he just discovers that his words are important. That he can be a monkey without an organ-grinder.

But can he?

It is the same parable, placing Mank as the grinder monkey, that Mank refers to at the beginning of the story, when he chats to Houseman.

Yet Mank sees himself as a monkey who can prove his organ grinder wrong. A monkey who will free himself and will still be able to sing, dance, and receives everyone’s attention.
On his own.
This is why Mank went after Hearst. This is why he fought his demons and finished the screenplay.

Yet no one can destroy the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, for without his organ-grinder, the monkey is just a primate. While without his monkey, the organ grinder, by definition, can always find himself another monkey.

Perhaps this is what David Fincher and his father Jack Fincher, who wrote the screenplay, tried to prove in the first place, by focusing on Mank’s character. That the monkey can live outside the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey. As Fincher told Mark Harris for Vulture, in an interview, ‘My dad, […] was a journalist, lived by the axiom that the greatest entertainment was written by people who understood the real world.’.

Have they succeeded in giving the monkey a new life in the spotlight? Had they aimed as high as Mank did when writing his screenplay? Or have they shows that the parable is true and that the monkey’s chance of survival without his organ grinder is just in the monkey’s perception?

Either way, I think that the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey will prove to be that gold thread that will render the movie Mank timeless.

Mank by David Fincher is a kaleidoscope in black and white, portraying the golden era of Hollywood in a modern way, with its good and bad, with its stars adorned atop a scaffolding and its moonlit secrets, and with its monkey and organ grinder too. Perhaps Fincher placed less symbols in his movie than I enjoyed picking, but this is the magic of ‘the magic of the movies,’ isn’t it?

Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight

A story about the Hungarian conquest Transylvania

In Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight I tell the story of the very first attempt to conquer Transylvania led by Hungarian tribes (Magyars).

This is the third post in my series on Transylvania, living and understanding the history of this Romanian historical province. During the last year I read extensively on the subject as part of my research for an upcoming historical novel set in Medieval Transylvania.

Join me and let’s dive into the turbulent waters of the Balkan history since this area from the southeastern Europe was often the subject of imperial greed and national goals.

Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight  - On the Hungarian Conquest of Transylvania

Many said, few believed, yet they all came to see for themselves, and to take with both hands when the legend proved true… many said that the gold found in the Carpathian Mountains bordering Transylvania, as well as the salt and the iron found here underfoot, in the Carpathian Basin, were the best gold, the strongest iron, and the whitest salt there was.

If you read Stories and History of Transylvania, Prehistory to Roman Dacia and Transylvania during the Roman Dacia and until 4th century AD, you will definitely want to find out:

First, what happened in Transylvania between the 4th and the 9th century?

Starting with the end of the 3rd century the Carpathian-Danubian space has witnessed an intense process of migrations. First were the German tribes, the Goths (235 – 376). They soon disappeared south of Danube, chased away by Huns and Mongolian horsemen, (375 – 454), living from predatory expeditions and soon disappearing too, like a quick fire, after being defeated.

Then the Slavs arrived, people that were more sedentary, less predatory, between the 7th and the 9th century, choosing to settle in the valleys and the planes of Dacia (mostly Moldavia in east and Muntenia at the north of Danube), while the remainder of the Dacian population still occupied the forested hills and the mountains, living as farmers and shepherds – in an attempt to hide, as Christians, from the pagan tribes.

But they did mingled, eventually, and truth is that the Slavonic language influenced the Latin language spoken by the Romanians. Although the Slavs learned Latin too, but speaking it with a heavier accent that, in turn, seemed to have been adopted by the Romanian population. And we can hear it today, as Romanian is pronounced different compared to the other Romance languages such as French, Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Provenҫal, Rhaeto -Romanic (and let’s remember the lost Dalmatian too).

Romanian words of Dacian origin relate to household, body parts and animals:

“The high number of Latin terms in agriculture, animal husbandry and the shepherds’ life prove that, besides the shepherds who drove their flocks throughout Romania’s territories, contributing by their movement to standardizing the language, there were also sedentary Romanians employed in farming and stock breeding”

Sextil Pușcariu, Limba română

Abur (steam), argea (among other, a room below ground level where weaving tools were kept), baci (head shepherd), balaur (dragon), balegă (cow dung), baltă (swamp), barză (stork), brad (fir-tree), brânză (cheese), brâu (man’s wide belt), bucurie (joy), buză (lip), căciulă (hat), căpușă (sheep tick), cătun (hamlet), ceafă  (nap of one’s neck), cioară (crow), cioc (beak), ciuf (tuft), a ciupi (to pinch), copac (tree), copil (child), curpen (tendril), cursă (trap), fărâmă   (bit), fluier (whistle), gard (fence), gata (ready), ghimpe (torn), ghionoaie (wood-pecker or which), gresie (whetstone), groapă (pit), grumaz (neck),  jumătate (half), mal (river’s bank), mazăre (pea) măgură (hilock), mărar (dill), mânz (colt), moș (old man), mugur (bud), murg (dark – about horses), năpârcă (adder), noian (heap),  pârâu (brook), pupăză (hoopoe), searbăd  (tasteless), a  scăpăra (to sparkle), scrum (ashes), sâmbure (kernel), spuză (hot ashes), sterp (barren), strung (sheep-pen), șale (back near lumbar area), șopârlă (lizard), țap (billy-goat), țarc (fold),  țeapă (stake), urdă (whey cheese), vatră (hearth), viezure (badger),  zăr (whey),  zgardă (dog-collar).

I. I. Rusu, Elemente autohtone în limba română – Romanian words of Dacian origin
Romanian words of Dacian origin: Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn't ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).
Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn’t ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).

The origin of the Romanians is to be found in the “Getae who had once ruled Dacia and the Romans commanded by Flacus”

Johannes Honterus, 16th century Transylvanian Saxon, renaissance humanist, Protestant reformer, theologian

When Slavs immigrated into the Dacian territory they did not give new names to places, but adopted their Daco-Roman names already in use, something that was only possible if there was a Daco-Roman  population to tell them those names: Alutus became Olt, Maryssus became Mureș, Samus is Someș, Ordessos is Argeș, Pyretos-Porata became Prut.

Next, between the 8th century when the Avars visited and the 10th century when the Magyars came forward, the Bulgarian Tsar had time to extend his authority north of Danube, over a part of our lands, Muntenia and Transylvania. Much later more neighboring tribes visited, as well as the Székely and the Saxons (German migrants) in Transylvania, culminating with the Tatars in 1241.

Why would a neighboring tribe invade another land? For the promise of a better life, abundance of food and resources. A greener pasture. Although one must admit that their visit gave economy and social relations a boost,

Again, the wealth of resources found in the Southern Carpathians and Transylvania, salt, copper, iron and gold, becomes the reason of intense trade as well as foreign interest in this old territory of today’s Romania. The salt was a rare commodity in these regions and was essential for the nomadic herders, thus trade flourished along the Danube and its tributaries. And through trade, various cultures influenced one another.

The word român was first ever recorded in Romanian in The Book Palia de la Orăștie, 1581, the first Romanian translation of the Old Testament.

When the Hungarians (Magyars) arrived in Transylvania

The Hungarians (Magyars, how they call themselves), are people of Fino-Ugric descent who traveled from the Ural Mountains along Volga, then south west and settled in the Pannonic  plain in the dusk of the first millennium.

Thus, it is written (by Anonymous) in Gesta Hungarorum, The Deeds of the Hungarians (a 12th century manuscript with a previous 11th century version), that Tuhutum (or Tétény) was one of the Seven Magyar Chieftains that lived with their clans along the Ural Mountains during the 9th – 10th centuries, around year 934. Tuhutum did not live to become chieftain based on his fighting skills alone, but through good planning and a cunning mind too.

Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight, On the Hungarian Conquest of Transylvania
Kinda Old, Corvin Castle and a Story

One day Tuhutum heard of a rich land, called the Land Beyond the Forest, or Transylvania. And he felt his money pouch suddenly too light for his liking. And the more he thought about the riches they said that Transylvania owned, the more he felt his mouth water.

Perhaps he was a visionary too – and some might argue my reasoning. For he saw greener pastures where his people could live a better life. A land with enough iron for strong weapons, with forests filled with game and valleys drenched in sweet rivers, rich in fish. A land where a local population of not really warriors, but herders established within transhumance already lived. A land where life was good and promising.

Had Tuhutum’s mind worked like this? None can tell for sure, but we can presume. For the decision he made changed the lives of two nations, for ever.

Except that one thing stood in his way. More precise, three people: Gelou, Glad and Menumorut.

Gelou was the brave Vlach (ruler of Transylvania) – as mentioned in Gesta Hungarorum. Glad ruled over Banat (today south-west of Romania and part of Serbia).
Menumorut ruled in the west, the lands between the rivers Mureș, Someș and Tisza .
Oh, and the fact that the land he wanted so much was not his. Yet.

Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight – Tuhutum thought.

First, what was a Vlach? Where did the word came from and what does it mean?

Etymology of the term Vlach

A Vlach, from Proto-Germanic walhaz, is a Romance-speaker person or group of people, a speaker of a Latin language.

The first proto-Germanic word known to be used with this connotation was walhiska during Roman Iron Age, when on a bracteat (disc made of gold and engraved) was written in runic alphabet walhakurne, “Roman/Gallic grain” (gold coin).

The first proto-Germanic word known to be used with this connotation was walhiska during Roman Iron Age, when on a bracteat (disc made of gold and engraved) was written in runic alphabet walhakurne, "Roman/Gallic grain" (gold coin).
The first proto-Germanic word known to be used with this connotation was walhiska during Roman Iron Age, when on a bracteat (disc made of gold and engraved) was written in runic alphabet walhakurne, “Roman/Gallic grain” (gold coin).

The prefix walh– / walha-/ later wala– is important as it means foreign.
In the Frankish Table of Nations compiled in 520 there is a mention of a the Walagothi or Ualagothi people, the Romance-speaking Goths, probably the Visigoths of Spain.

Later, a Walhaz (in proto-Germanic) became the name a Celtic tribe neighboring the Germanic people and known to Romans as Volcae (after a northern legend). By extension, Walhōz was applied to any southern neighbors of the Germanic people – who by then were all Romanised. German speakers soon used the term Walhōz to name any Celt or Romanised tribe.

Walh– and walhisk from Old High German (750 – 1050) became Walch and welsch in Middle High German (1050 – 1350), and Welsche in Early New High German (1350 – 1650) and Swiss German as the exonym (external name for a group of people) for Romance speakers.

Before 7th century, in Central and Eastern Europe Walhs was used in Proto-Slavonic (volxъ) to describe the Romance people, although the first source of Walhs usage comes from an 11th century writing by a Byzantine historian, George Kedrenos.

From the Slavs, Walhs was passed on to Hungarians, becoming Oláh when referring to Romanian Vlachs and Olasz when referring to Italians. From Hungarians and Romanians it sipped into the Ottoman Empire, the Turks using Ulahlar (to denote native Balkan Christian due to the cultural link between Christianity and Roman culture), to the Polish people (Włoch), while the Byzantines used Βλάχοι, Vláhi.
In Serbia the term Vlach (Serbian Vlah, plural Vlasi) is used to refer to any Romanian speakers.

From 1222 we have the first written document (signed by Andrew II of Hungary) mentioning the Romanians in Transylvania and referring to the land where they lived as Vlach lands (“Terra Blacorum“). It was the Făgăraș Region.
All these forms refer to the same group of people, Latin speaking people of the Balkans, living north and south of Danube – and later also to shepherd, as this was the occupation of many of the Vlachs of Central and Eastern Europe.

Hungarian conquest of Transylvania - Romanian territory IX - XIII centuries. We can see in the middle the Dutchy (Voievodatul) of Gelou / Gyula. Left is  Dutchy of Menumorut and below it is Dutchy of Glad / Aftum.
Romanian territory IX – XIII centuries. We can see in the middle the Dutchy (Voievodatul) of Gelou / Gyula. Left is Dutchy of Menumorut and below it is Dutchy of Glad / Aftum. And complete left of Tisa River is Regatul Ungariei (Kingdom of Hungary). We can also see all the little dutchies that today form Romania: Timisului, Craiovei, Iasilor, Maramuresului, Banatul, Baragan, etc – all the way to Danube in the south, Prut in the east, close to Tisa in north west.

The Hungarian tribes under Tuhutum attack Vlach Gelou’s Transylvania

So Tuhutum sighed, and sighed some more, and thought of the easiest way to gain this rich land. Wish I May, Wish I Might…

First he sent a spy, a sly and clever man by the name of Ogmand, his most trusted man for their minds worked the same, to steal into that land of riches, like a fox would, and observe its people, their habits and trades, and mostly check if the land’s fertility is just as everyone said it was. Then return and report, and advise – will it be possible? Will it be easy for Tuhutum to gain ownership of this land? For Tuhutum wished for fame and riches.

Not long after, Ogmand returned in quick gallop and told Tuhutum that he felt like a wolf among lambs, for as far as human eyes could see the earth was fertile, fed by the sweetest of rivers, naming quite a few of them for they shone with the gold that mingled with sand through their riverbeds. He said next that the gold found here was of the purest kind, that salt is abundant too, as is the water from the wells.

When Tuhutum inquired of the people living in Transylvania, Ogmand said that they are of the worst kind, the Blachi (medieval Latin term for Vlach) and the Slavs, for they only know agriculture and forestry, trade and mining, but nothing of war.

“és azon föld lakosai az egész világon a leghitványabb emberek, mivel oláhok és szlávok, s mivel íjjon és nyilon kívül más fegyverük nincs, és hogy vezérük Gelou
sem igen bátor és nincsenek körötte jó vitézek, hogy ellene mernének állni a magyarok merész-“

“and the inhabitants of that land are the worst people in the world, Olahs and Slavs, because except for the bow and arrow they do not have no other weapon and that their leader is Gelou, nor is he very brave, and there are no good knights around him, that they would dare to oppose the bold”

Gesta Hungarorum

And then he added that they, the Olahs, have the poorest of weapons, even those kept for hunting, bows and arrows only and so is their leader, Duke Gelou, who does not own a great personal army nor is his army strong, especially after the continuous attacks of the neighboring tribes of Cumans and Pechenegs.

‘Can I take them?’ thundered Tuhutum and his eyes shone at the thought, life flooding in his cheeks, his mouth watering, thinking to himself ‘Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight.’
‘An easy catch. They will not know how to fight you,’ said Ogmand with a bow.

On hearing about the richness of the Land Beyond the Forest, of its pure gold and abundant salt mines, this white gold his people craved (for cattle and for preserving the meats), and what easy a pray would be for him to take it all, and even from the mouth of his own man, Tuhutum rubbed his hands. Choosing to desert the other two Hungarian warlords, Zobolsu and Thosu, who were already fighting the Dutchy of Menumorout, Tuhutum sent ambassadors to sigh at the ears of Duke Arpad (the Arpads were the ruling dynasty of the Principality of Hungary in the 9th and 10th centuries and of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1000 to 1301), and to ask permission for him to march with his mighty troops beyond the forest, to Transylvania, and attack Gelou and its people.

Attack, not take over the land. And his request for attack was soon granted permission.

Word soon reached Gelou of invaders coming his way and perhaps of other Magyar troops having conquered the land of Menumorut, to the west. And Gelou gathered his army and rode as fast as the wind to the west border of his intra-Carpathian Duchy, to stop the Hungarian invaders. But Tuhutum had divided his army and sent one part upstream, to cross the Almaş water and surprise Gelou. The two troops indeed met and fought near Almaș and then Gelou was killed on the banks of the Căpuș River, while retreating to his Liteni Fortress on Someș, where only vultures dared.
(Some sources mention Fortress Dăbâca as being Gelou’s stronghold).

wish own Transylvania Hungarian, Gelou-Liteni
Gelou’s Liteni fortress, Cluj county, Transylvania, X century. Photo by Andrea Polereczky, public domain

Eventually Tuhutum’s wish came true and he became the ruler the Land Beyond the Forest, Transylvanian, a title he kept for himself as well as for his sons and their son’s sons.

This is how by the end of the early Middle Ages Transylvania had known a prosperous cultural diversity on a strong Dacian-Roman foundation, still assimilating newcomers. Now it was the Hungarian’s turn to explore its rich and prosperous land.

Over eighty voievods ruled Transylvania after Tuhutum until 1441 when Iancu de Hunedoara took over (aka John Hunyadi, perhaps the first Transylvanian ruler of Romanian origin after Gelou), and forty more till 1599 when Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) “unified” for the first time Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia. Around year 1000, when St. Stephen I become Prince of Hungarian, Transylvania is annexed to the Hungarian Kingdom.

Sextil Pușcariu noted that a number of Latin words from Daco-Romanian were preserved exclusively in Western Transylvania, Apuseni mountains, as regionalisms, this supporting the idea that here, in Transylvania, lived one of the main groups of the Daco-Roman population: ai (garlic), păcurar (shepherd), nea (snow),  june (youth),  pedestru (pedestrian).

The Hungarian conquest of Transylvania started as a small migration of tribes in search of a greener pasture (perhaps pushed by the Bulgar-Pecheneg coalition), while exploiting local conflicts and slowly strengthening their position in the Intra-Carpathian region, Transylvania, and to its west through military raids, gradually establishing a Christian Hungarian monarchy.

Also to read (coming soon): Romanian Transylvania, It’s Origin and Etymology

Sources for Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight:

Brie, Mircea, A Social History of Romanian Space. From the Beginning of Dacian state until
the rise of Modernity

Giurescu, Constantin C., The Making of the Romanian People and Language
Hanners, Melodie, The History of the Romanian Language
Niculescu, Alexandru. Outline History of the Romanian Language
Rusu, I.I., Elemente autohtone în limba română
Internet Archive, A magyar honfoglalás mondáiGesta Hungarorum
Pușcariu, Sextil,  Limba română

Die Reusagtige Olifant, The Giant Elephant and the Rain

Die Reusagtige Olifant, The Giant Elephant and the Rain

Die Reusagtige Olifant and The Giant Elephant and the Rain are the next chapter in die babadiertjies van Afrika, baby animals from Africa series you can enjoy here, on my blog.

Jump to:
Die Reusagtige Olifant
The Elephant
The Giant Elephant and the Rain, a Folktale Retold

Die Reusagtige Olifant


Die geboorte van ‘n olifantkalfie is ‘n besondere gebeurtenis in die olifantwêreld. Die hele trop kom kyk gewoonlik hierna, en die moeder het regte olifant – “vroedvroue” wat haar bystaan.

Wanneer hy in die wêreld kom, kan die kalfie ‘n massa van tot ‘n honderd kilogram hê. ‘n Volgroeide olifant het ‘n massa van nagenoeg vyf duisend kilogram, wat hom die wêreld se grootste landdier maak.

Die jong olifantkalf word met ‘n slurpie gebore, maar vir die eerste paar weke van sy lewe is dit ‘n nuttelose liggaamsdeel . Hierdie slurp is eintlik net ‘n lang neus wat die olifant het. Hy gebruik dit om voedsel mee in sy mond in te voer. ‘n Olifant se tande slyt baie gou af omdat hy so ‘n groot hoeveelheid kos moet fynkou.

Hierdie kos is grof en gevolglik word sy maaltande gedurigdeur deur nuwes vervang. Die oues skuif geleidelik meer na agtertoe en dan groei splinternuwe tande in hulle plekke uit. Wanneer hy sestig jaar oud is, het die olifant gewoonlik al ses stele tande gehad. Dan kry hy ook nie weer nuwe tande nie.

Die pragtige voortande van die olifant is sy sierlike wapens wanneer hy om die leierskap van die trop meeding.

Die olifant kan allerhande toertjies geleer word.

Sy oë is swak, maar hy kan baie fyn hoor en ruik. Verder help sy sensitiewe slurp hom om sappige takkies en blaartjes bo van die boomtoppe af te pluk.

In droogtetye grawe olifante met hulle voorpote gate in rivierbeddings en dan slurp hulle die syferwatertjies op.

The Elephant

Die Reusagtige Olifant, The Giant Elephant and the Rain
A matriarch and two elephant calves by a water hole. Photo by Matthew Bradford, Unsplash

The birth of an elephant calf is a special event in the life of a herd of elephants. The entire herd usually comes to assist, and the mother has real elephant – midwives who assist and support her.

When he is born, the calf can weigh up to a hundred kilograms. It sounds like a lot, but an adult elephant has a mass of almost five thousand kilograms, which makes it the world’s largest land animal.

For the first few weeks of its life the baby elephant is quite helpless, and he doesn’t even uses his trunk. Elephants use their trunk, that’s nothing but a long nose, to pick up food and deposit it into their mouth.

Interesting, because the food an elephant eats is pretty coarse, his teeth wear out very quickly as he has to chew such large amounts. So his molars are constantly being replaced by new ones. The old ones gradually move backwards and then brand new teeth grow in their place. By the time he is sixty years old, the elephant can have up to six sets of teeth. After this age he will get no more new teeth.

An elephant’s tusks, his beautiful ivory front teeth, become graceful weapons when he competes for the leadership of his herd.

Elephants are very intelligent and can learn all kinds of tricks, although their eyesight is weak, but they can hear and smell very well. Furthermore, their sensitive trunk helps them to pick juicy twigs and leaves from the tops of the trees. Much like giraffes do.

In times of drought, when water is scarce, the elephants dig holes in riverbeds using their front paws and then swallow the seepage water.

The Giant Elephant and the Rain, a Folktale Retold

A herd of elephants splashing by a water hole. Mist in black and white..Die Reusagtige Olifant, The Giant Elephant and the Rain
A herd of elephants splashing by a water hole. Mist in black and white. Photo by Richard Jacobs, Unsplash

Long ago, when the Sun and the Moon were the best of friend and none even thought to compete over the blue skies, when man still lived in caves and had just learned to make fire, long ago the Elephant was one of the greatest powers of the world. All animals accepted him. Even the African Crowned Crane. And Elephant was a good king. A powerful one too. Except that the Spirit of Rain, was just as powerful.

But although he was kind, being the only leader among all the animals, men included, the Elephant was quite boastful. He enjoyed to remind everyone what a great leader he was. And everyone agreed, over and over, except for the Spirit of the Rain.

Quite often, the boastful Elephant and the Spirit of the Rain fought. It was very noisy. The Elephant, never losing an opportunity to try convince the Spirit of the Rain into agreeing to what a wonderful leader he, the Elephant, was. The Spirit of the Rain, never giving in.

One hot morning, while they were arguing, again, the Spirit of the Rain burst with anger like never before. He sounded like a cascade throwing its waters over the rocks and into the ocean, not like the young spring he once had been.

‘How dare you?’ The Spirit of the Rain bubbled. ‘How dare you, but an Elephant, to think of yourself being more than me? Me, who quenched your thirst. Me, who made the trees grow to feed you. Me, who cooled your skin and that of your entire herd?’ he plummeted further, from the celestial height of its clouds.

At this, the Elephant lifted his trunk, trumpeted twice, then turned around and left, only his little tail swishing, nonchalantly. After a few steps he slowed down and replied, throwing the words over his shoulder, ‘You do not feed me and thus you are wrong in presuming that you do. For I feed myself. With my trunk.’ And to prove his point he picked a bunch of soft leaves from the heights of the closest tree and swallowed them. ‘Hmm, tasty.’

The Spirit of the Rain let out a low rumble that rolled along the entire length of the horizon, then frowned with the darkest clouds one had ever seen. Then he exhaled the chilliest blow, turned and stormed away.

Die Reusagtige Olifant, The Giant Elephant and the Rain. A bull elephant against stormy clouds. Photo by Geran de Klerk, Unsplash
A bull elephant against stormy clouds. Photo by Geran de Klerk, Unspla. Photo by Geran de Klerk, Unsplash

And life went on. Sunny days came, turned into moon-lit nights that rolled into more bright mornings, hotter as the days became weeks, weeks baking into months. And soon, the only smile left was that of the stars. At night.

Had they seen it all? Is that why they beamed? For no one else was.

The land animals were boiling on the hot slopes, water sources reduced to meager ponds not enough to house two fishes. The sea animals were crowded worst than a mall on Christmas Eve would be today. The birds suffered too, out of heat, thirst, withered trees and lack of fruits and insects.

Everyone suffered. Some even pretended they forgot the sight of clouds, the feel of the breeze, the taste of fresh water. Had it even existed? Had it all been a dream?

So they went to see the Elephant. After all, he was their leader. He was the only one who could make it right. Make it rain.

The Elephant did not like to be cornered like that, from the land, from the air, from under the ground. So he tried to shake them off as quickly as he could. And once alone, he called for the majestic Eagle. Who, among others, could make it rain by using only its powerful beak and strong wings.

But the Eagle just shook his head. He was powerless without the clouds.

The Eagle said ‘no more’, he just gave the Elephant a side glance, no more clouds without the Spirit of the Rain.

At this, the Elephant turned red in the face – if this was possible since he was already burning hot. But he shrugged and turned towards the White-breasted Crow, wise old Crow, a bird of many tales…

Crow shook his head, twice left, not in negation but as a twitch he had developed a while back, after the Snaked lost its legs – but this is a story for another time. So Crow shook his head, twice left, and flew away. And no one knew how, but that evening it rained. A bit. Yet it rained.

How animals partied! How they thanked Elephant who was rather full of himself. Again. Basking in the general attention, not for once mentioning Crow’s help.

Until… until one day (actually three days later) when the water that rained was all gone, drank, sipped into the ground, evaporated, and the animals came to Elephant again. To ask for more rain. And the Elephant turned to Crow. But the spot where Crow always stood, the branch he called his own, was empty.

Elephant scratched his head with his trunk. He looked left, searching for Crow, he peered above, he even bent on his front knees and to seek below. But no sign of Crow. Not even a feather. Where was Crow? And what was he to do now? He was alone. Alone he could not make it rain. Alone he could not face all the angry animals. Alone was just that, alone. Cold and lonely, abandoned amidst all the animals that once were his friends.

You might ask about his herd. Well, truth is that Matriarch had taken control over it long ago.

So Elephant did what he should have from the beginning. He turned around and headed for the horizon. And for an opportunity to say he is sorry.

Well, the Spirit of the Rain was not that far away, just at the end of the Savannah. And was very happy to accept Elephant’s apologies, for he, too, was missing the animals, the sea creatures, the green forests and the tiny insects.

But Matriarch, she never abdicated the leadership of the herd. To teach Elephant a lesson or perhaps, perhaps because she quite enjoyed it.

As retold by Patricia Furstenberg, after a Bushman story

More elephant stories:

The Elephant and the Sheep

When a lamb meets an elephant calf the two are happy to share a small patch of grass and a tiny water puddle available during the Big-Bad Thirst.

die Olifant en die Skaap

Twee klein stertjies het een dag ontmoet,
Heel per ongeluk onder warm sonstrale het hulle gegroet:
“Hallo, kom ons speel!” met swaaiende sterte wat wys.
Hulle was nie dieselfde nie, tog albei was grys.
Een het groot voete, die ander was korter;
Een glimlag wyd, die ander se mond was kleiner.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia and until 4th century AD

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia and until 4th century AD

The Roman Army went through great pains and two bloody wars to conquer the great nation north of Danube and own the riches of its land, so life changed in Transylvania too, during the times of Roman Dacia, until 4th century AD.

Emperor Trajan first came with ten legions of Roman soldiers, nearly 100 000 men, then be brought thirteen. Romans would start their attack marches in May, when the earth was dry and there was enough grass underfoot to feed the horses, for they covered 30 kilometers a day, 20 Roman miles, only to fight in June – July. Ahead, squads searched for food, spies, clues, trees were cut, roads were build. Behind, a Roman legionary carried a load up to 45 kilograms, as much as a contemporary soldier or Marine fighting in Afghanistan.

Roman Army did overpower the Dacians by its number, weapons and strategies, but Dacians under KIng Decebalus fought until the last man – and these are stories told on Trajan’s Column in Rome.

The Romanian land we know as Transylvania during Roman Dacia

Thus, Dacia became a Roman province after the two bloody Dacian – Roman wars ((101–102, 105–106), and will remain like this for two more centuries. Romans burned Sarmizegetusa Regia from Grădiştea Hill, the ancient capital of king Decebalus (the last king of Dacia, 87 – 106 AD) built of bricks and wood, to the ground.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD, Sarmizegetusa Regia from Grădiştea Hill

So little is known about the Dacian language. Although the elite of the Dacians, its priests, nobles, the administration, was literate, any records must have been destroyed in the aftermath of the Roman conquest.

After finally conquering the Dacians, Emperor Trajan was so chafed with himself that he ordered a marble column to be built in Rome, adorned with basoreliefs that will tell the story of his conquest of Dacia, as well as the bravery of Dacians. Trajan would have been mighty proud of this conquest as Dacia, with Transylvania at its heart, was a rich land. It is with the the Dacian gold that Trajan embellishes Rome with a Forum and Baths in his name.

Below is a scene from Trajan’s Column depicting the Burning of a Dacian Town:
* We can see in the front, left, two Roman soldiers torching Dacian wood houses held together by nails, built on planks, with wooden fences.
* There are even a few Roman skulls stuck on poles along the brick wall of a Dacian fortress – yet Romans have decapitated many Dacian warriors too, as depicted in other scenes of Trajan Column.
* Front center, we see Dacian soldiers retreating towards the woods; they carry oval – round shields curly, have long hair and beards. They don’t wear hats as only high rank Dacians were a allowed to cover their heads with tarabostes. They wear long pants.
* In the center foreground we can see the Dacian Draco flag, a wolf’s head on a serpent body. When wind blew it produced a howl, wolfish sound, thus intimidating the adversary.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - Scene from Trajan's Column in Rome, scene XXV, The Burning of a Dacian Town
Scene from Trajan’s Column in Rome, scene XXV, The Burning of a Dacian Town

Everyday life of Dacian people of Transylvania during Roman Dacia

During these times, the Dacians of Transylvania mined the ground extracting iron, gold, copper, and salt; grew grains, vineyards, had herds of cattle. They were skilled craftsmen, turning metal into nails to build homes, tools to farm the land, weapons to protect their own – such as the falx, a two-handed sword curved at the tip and later adopted by Romans as a siege hook.

Transylvania’s Dacians would trade too, traveling southwards and eastwards on their horses, for the borders of Dacia extended all the way to the Black Sea.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - Roman monument commemorating the Battle of Adamclisi shows Dacian warriors wielding a two-handed falx, weapon later used by Romans as siege hook
Roman monument commemorating the Battle of Adamclisi (101 – 1-2 AD) shows Dacian warriors wielding a two-handed falx, weapon later used by Romans as siege hook

The folklore and culture of Dacia and of the old Transylvania

Rituals connected with important life stages, as well as with religion and war, often involved music and dance. We know that Dacians made music using the whistle, the drums and, as Ovidius said, ‘whistles held together by resin‘ (panpipes), as well as magadis, a Dacian harp. War dances were also performed, especially involving a group of men dancing together holding weapons, the flax or a dagger, and also the mace, the mace remaining one of the favorite weapons of the Romanian peasant.
The Romanian bucium, the Carpathian horn use especially by shepherds, has its origin in Latin buccinum, bent horn. Its sound was meant to send signals, announce life-changing events, but also announce the Judgement Day (when played by Angels).

Listen to these peaceful Carpathian horn signals from Transylvania:

Dacian war dance, the origin of Transylvania’s Călușari?

Could it be possible that the Dacian war group-dance represents the origin of the Călușari dance traditions, still very much present all over today’s Romanian territory?

Today, the Călușari use a staff and are still known for “their ability to create the impression of flying in the air” as Mircea Eliade said, a dance move he believed represented the galloping of a horse (remember the fast horses Dacians were renowned for breeding?) as well as the dancing of the fairies, namely Diana, the patroness of countryside of hunters, and of Moon.

It is this lyrical quality of Dacian folklore that proves, in the view of B.P.Hașdeu, Romnian writer and philologist, the continuity of Romanian people on these lands, since Dacian times.

What happened in Transylvania during Dacia’s Romanisation?

Most of today’s Transylvania was included in Roman Dacia either in 102 or later, in 106 (except for its north, Maramures, and north-west, Crisana). Other provinces of today’s Romania that were included in Roman Dacia were Banat, Oltenia, and west of Muntenia. Dobrogea (south-west of Romania today) was part of Roman province Moesia Inferior, as were most of west Muntenia and south of Moldavia.

But there were free Dacian lands too, the ones not incorporated in Roman Dacia at all. It makes sense to imagine that when Roman soldiers set foot in Dacia and especially after the two bloody Dacian-Roman wars, part of the local Dacians fled to join the free Dacians. But some remained. And it seems that part of the Dacians who fled returned, some years later.

Two major the Roman legions stationed in Transylvania during Roman occupations, 13th Gemina Legion, LXIIIG, at Apulum (today Alba Iulia) and 5th Macedonica, LVM, stationed at Potaissa (today Turda, Cluj County, where my mother was born). Besides these two legions, other auxiliary Roman troops settled in Dacia Romana, bringing along a mix of Roman soldiers originating from all the corners of the Roman Empire – sharing one common language, Vulgar Latin, the common speech.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - A map of Roman Dacia (in purple) superposed over Romania's borders as they are today. North we see the tribes of free Dacians, the Costoboci (more free Dacians), the Carpi (free Dacians or Thracians).
A map of Roman Dacia (in purple) superposed over Romania’s borders as they are today. North we see the tribes of free Dacians, the Costoboci (more free Dacians), the Carpi (free Dacians or Thracians).

Were the Roman soldiers happy to leave their families behind, all for the sake of conquering strange lands, for fame and kill? Some think they were, for they had a great leader, Emperor Trajan.

“He was a great general, mastering all the secrets of military art and bearing all hardships and sufferings of the war together with his soldiers who worshiped him for it. Besides military virtues he also had those of a civilian ruler.”

Constantin C. Giurescu on Roman Emperor Trajan, The Making of the Romanian People and Language.

With such faithful warriors Trajan colonized Dacia, most of his men speaking vulgar Latin, the common speech. The colonizers, at least some of them, eager to go on with their lives on strange lands would have married Dacian women adopting, even partially, the local lifestyle, learning the Dacian language and, in turn, teaching Latin to their families. Learning local traditions and culture and, in turn, sharing their own.

All in just over 150 years, while the Roman occupation lasted in Dacia, 107 – 271/276. But those were different times, with an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years, slightly longer for women. So what looks like two generations today, meant four or five generations during Classical Rome.

How else?

True, adopting the Roman culture did not caught in Pannonia (present-day parts of Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia), nor in Britania (today Great Britain), each with nearly 400 years of Roman ruling.

Why Romanisation caught in Dacia (and in Transylvania)?

Then why Romanisation caught in Dacia? Surely not only because Roman soldiers married Dacien women and started families. But also because many other Roman soldiers were of Dacian origin. The service in the Roman army lasted for 25 years, after which the soldiers received Roman citizenship extended to every member of his family – no matter where they’ve been born. So a Roman sldier, apart from being fluent in Latin, he would have dopted, at least up to a point, the Roman culture. And if he had distinguished himself in fight, he would have been rewarded with land too, land from a Roman colony, such as (Transylvania and) Dacia.

Truth be told, Romans did a lot of hard work in the lands they conquered. Such as bringing their own administration for Dacia was an imperial province now, building roads, establishments for their troops that later turned into urban centers with rural area nearby, and bringing missionaries too. And the roads would have brought merchants and travelers and a flourishing economy. Roman missionaries would have brought a public worship service sung in Latin and a sense of community that would have planted the seed of peace and hope in the harts of the Dacians.

King Decebalus escaped the Roman pursuit only to commit suicide than be taken prisoner. Many Dacians were sent as slaves to various Roman colonies bordering Danube, and the Roman settlers made a new life in Dacia, building the new Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa some 40 km away from the Dacian Sarmizegetusa and near Haţeg.

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa
Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD – Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. Source Historia.ro

But the Dacians who remained hidden in the forests and mountains would often revolt, thus Romans were soon forced to bring colonizers from Pannonia, Thrace, Moesia, Macedonia, Gaul, Syria and other provinces, in an attempt to overpower these Dacians. The Latin language was imposed locally for admin purposes.

The years of Roman withdrawal from Dacia (including Transylvania)

Yet no Empire ever lasted forever and under the Roman Emperor Gallienus (253-268) and again under Aurelian (270 – 276 AD) the Romans withdrew from Dacia Trajana considered now too difficult to protect under the threat of Carp and Visigoth tribes.

Between these two Roman withdrawals, Roman Emperor ClaudiusGothicus‘ (268-270) did reclaimed Dacia, defeating and destroying the force of Gothic cavalry during the battle of Naissus (Niş, Serbia today) – which earned him his nickname, Gothicus. The Goths fled, but not to Dacia, since they did not lived there, but to Thrace and from there on their ships further north, to south of Russia.

Already in 117 AD, after the death of Emperor Trajan and under Emperor Hadrian, Dacia was nearly abandoned as Asian tribes were eating up at the far western border of the Roman Empire so Hadrian had chosen to abandon the Roman Asia provinces annexed by Trajan. Hadrian was also thinking to abandon Dacia at that time, but his advisors changed his mind at the last minute pointing out that too many Roman citizen will be left at the hands of the barbarians, and that Dacia had an advanced administration and a great number of Roman colonists, unlike the far west territories. Plus it had riches too.

Eventually, the neighboring tribes that kept attacking the Roman province Dacia year after year became the final drop that coincided with the weakening of the Roman Empire after 234 AD.

After the second Roman withdrawal from Dacia, under Aurelian, the Roman Emperor created Dacia Aureliana, a small territory south of Danube, between the two Moesiae, perhaps as a reminder of great Dacia Traiana. Here it is said that he brought from old Dacia Traiana the remainder of the Roman soldiers and the Roman citizens.

Who remained in Dacia (and in the intra-Carpathian land of today’s Transylvania) after Roman withdrawal?

When Romans left the Dacian territories they occupied for approximately 165 years, two categories of Dacians were left behind. The people from the occupied land, the Roman Dacia, and the free Dacians still living outside the Roman Dacia.

Many Roman soldiers were of Dacian origin, so when they were forced to leave Dacia with the Roman army, and their families would have joined them. Romans involved in administration, civil and military, left too. Perhaps some craftsmen and tradesmen whose earning relied heavily on the army would have also left, but not all .

What the Roman retreat from Dacia did not intent was to give up the wealth of Dacian resources.

Romans still wanted access to Dacian minerals, gold, silver, iron, grains, honey, livestock. Proof being that Romans did not destroyed their Dacian fortifications prior to their retreat and that they kept a foothold in Dacia till the 3rd century AD. And the Roman Empire offered some level of protection too, partially because of the newly increased Christian connections between the two, partially because they still relied on the Dacian resources, especially gold and salt, a prized commodity.

Roman military insignina and equipment discovered in today Transylvania at Vețel (Hunedoara), at Mintiul Gherlei (Cluj), and at Feisa (Alba) prove that some form of local military organization remained in place even after the Roman retreat.

But the vast majority of Dacians stayed put, predominately in the countryside.

The years of Roman colonization might have changed their language, their religion, their lifestyle, but it wouldn’t have altered their being, their ancestral behavior and connection with their land, its natural cycle. They could go on with their lives, grateful to be left alone. Perhaps they moved away from the big roads, choosing the back-country. Its peace and tranquility. Why would they need the wide, easy access roads since there were no more fairs, no more markets, no more trade? No more monuments to raise, no more inscriptions to commemorate far away kings. No need for coins either, for there was nothing to buy. All that was needed to survive was that what their own two hands could grow. And that’s what they did, they survived the best they could. Free.

Life went on in Dacian Transylvania after the Roman Withdrawal

Romans had build an impressive Basilica at Ulpia Trajana Sarmizegetusa. Perhaps a century after they left, when life seemed peaceful at last, local Dacian peasants, not finding any practical use to such grand spaces, had made use of them by dividing and creating a few homes within, as the remains of inner walls built with river stone and reinforces with earth, not mortar (as Romans did), shows us today. And the grand amphitheater of Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa was now used as a defense fortress.

Graves around a Roman thermae and dating from the first half of the 4th century AD were discovered at Apulum, today Alba Iulia, Transylvania. Proving perhaps not an urban lifestyle, but a rural continuity of a Dacian lifestyle taking place in Transylvania, as well as in other areas of Dacia, after the Roman withdrawal. And there are also rural settlements where life knew no change whatsoever after Romans left Dacia, much like it happened in Britannia.

If you travel around Romania today, if you’re in a train, speeding past valleys or crawling through mountains, try to erase the villages and to look at the land itself. It is the same land the Dacians occupied, lived and died on. Look at the land and imagine how they would have seen it, where they would have lived, and maybe you will grasp their culture and their lifestyle. And life choices.

Life went on in Transylvania after the Roman Withdrawal

Soon after the Romans abandoned Dacia, in the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire experienced an unprecedented military anarchy. Political instability and building grand establishments, minting more coins, meant the value of the Denar and Sesterț depreciated considerably. They were even made out of less silver, no gold, and even copper. And less of these coins reached the old Dacia (and who would have wanted them now?), none being minted here.

Dacians, including those living in today’s Transylvania, went on with their lifestyle, men working the earth, planting, growing grapes, fruit trees, animals, especially sheep, making tools, mining, going on with their pottery, building homes, while women were weaving, sewing, telling stories, raising children, planting dreams. At the heart of their peaceful world was the hamlet, the village, while the village council was the highest power – just as it’s always been. The home, its animals and immediate belongings were individually owned, while the land, rivers, forests were shared by all. This explains why villages spread over such vast expenses (and still are). The homes and the immediate land is here, but the forest, share, is there, the vineyard spreads over the hill, the pasture, well, a stone throw away too.

Christianity in Dacia (including Transylvania)

Geto-Dacians had a reputation for profound religiosity and strong belief in the immortality of the soul. On the other hand, the long series of martyrs hailing from the towns along Lower Danube (thus including Dacia) during the 3rdcentury AD is proof that the Christianity had a solid foot-hold in Dacia.

Even before 313 AD, when Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan that allowed freedom of worship in the Roman Empire and thus legalized Christianity, we know that there were already Christian Dacians.

In addition to them, between the 2nd Century AD and year 313, prosecuted Christians from the Roman Empire would have also seek refuge in Dacia. And after 313 Christianity flourished in Dacia, in part because it was supported by the Christian Dacian population living south of Danube and in part because Dacia became soon surrounded by centers of Christianity.

Between 350 and 450 AD Bishop Niceta of Remesiana christened extensively north and south of Danube and thus an extensive use of the Latin language was introduced in Dacia – in addition to the Christian Dacians living here and already familiar with the Latin language.

Furthermore, the sycessful campaign of Constantine the Great in 336 in Dacia partially restored the Roman sovereignty, thus protecting and permitting the free propagation of Christianity in the region.

Romanian liturgical language rooted in the Latin language

Today the Romanian ecclesiastic vocabulary still resonates of its its Latin origin: Dumnezeu (Deus, God), cruce (crucis, cross), a boteza (baptizare, to baptize), înger (angelus, angel), păgân (paganus, pagan), creştin (christianus, christian), păcat (peccatum, sin), cimitir (caemeterium, graveyard). Essential life aspects and feelings show their Latin origin too: durere (dolor, pain), viață (vita, life), femeie (femina, woman), fecior (filius, son), fiica (filia, daughter), frate (frater, brother), soră (soror, sister), casă (casa, house) and so many more – an account of the christian beginnings of Romanian people.

Although the most suggestive being the term designating the church itself, biserică in Romanian (ancient form beseareca), deriving from Latin basilica (which entered the Latin vocabulary after 313) and not, as with other European languages, from Greek ekklesia.

Moreover, the term basilica was used in Latin only between the IV and VI centuries. After the 6th century the basilica as a construction type disappeared with the meaning we’ve addressed to it thus far, referring in Byzantine Greek only to profane buildings.

It makes sense to conclude that only during the 4th and 6th centuries could the Latin term biserica have entered the Romanian language, as it was only then that Dacians (thus the future Romanians) would have used it to designate both the Christian Church and the church as a building. And the term biserica stuck in this Christian population that spoke a Latin language.

Therefore, we can conclude that the Latin language used by Dacians was the result of a tight weave between local Dacian speech (more on this later) and vulgar Latin introduced by Roman colonists, adopted by the local families they created here during the 160 years of Roman occupation and reinforced with the Latin used by the wave of Christianity washing over Dacia during the 3rd and the 4th century AD.

These were peaceful times before the Hunic invasions of 376 and allowing for the continuations of the Romanisation process up here in Transylvania and acros most of the old Dacia (today Romania).

Archaeological proofs of Romanian Christianity and continuity in Transylvania after 2nd century AD

In Micia, where a Roman fort used to be (today Veţel, Hunedoara county, Transylvania) two grave stones dating from the 2nd century AD were discovered. This is one of them, depicting a family with two children:

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - Archaeological proof or Romanian Christianity and continuity in Transylvania after 2nd century AD, Micia-Funerary monument 2nd century AD

More archeological findings dating from centuries II – IV AD have been unearthed around today’s Transylvania, in Potaissa (today Turda, Cluj county), in Alba-Iulia, the famous bronze from Biertan, Sibiu, with its Latin inscription ‘Ego. Zenovius, votum posui‘ (translating to ‘I Zenovius, do swear’ or ‘I, Zenovius, offered this gift’).

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia until 4th century AD - The Biertan Donarium is a 4th century Christian offering found near Biertan, Transylvania, Romania.
The Biertan Donarium is a fourth-century Christian votive object (an offering) found near Biertan, Transylvania.

Christian symbols crafted or etched on pottery have also been unearthed, dating from 3rd century AD (vessels with symbols in the form of crosses, carved or scratched); vessels with the symbol of Jesus Christ (the Chrismon symbol), cut after burning, thus showing they’ve been created at a later stage, on a preexisting vessel.

The symbol of Jesus Christ, the Chrismon symbol:

Another inscription depicting Christian motives, this one on a pottery vase and dating from 4th century AD, was discovered at Porolissum (Moigrad, Sălaj county, Tranylvania and Crișana), perhaps surviving a local Christian establishment. Here, clear Christian symbols and inscription were inscribed on the inner side of the vessel: the Chrismon, the dove (the Holly Spirit), the breads, the Life Tree completed with a Christian wish utere felix. Based on the letter types, the character of the writing, and the Christian symbols, the vessel is considered as dating from the middle of the 4th century AD. As is the Christian funeral ritual, the west – east orientation, attested in cemeteries from Apulum (Alba Iulia), Napoca (Cluj), Porolissum (Sălaj), and Potaissa (Turda) – all found in what we know today a Transylvania.

Although dispersed, cores of Christianity did exist in Transylvanian between the II – IV centuries AD and their existence is of high significance if we consider that Dacians lived here in sparse hamlets and village or in forsaken Roman forts. The lack of Christian establishments to this day could be explained by Dacian’s building material of choice at that time, wood. But the archeological proofs that did survived, together with a Romanian vocabulary rooted in Latin and Dacian speech, tell of a perpetual Christian and Dacian existence in Transylvania and around it, wherever Dacians lived, especially after the retreat of the Roman Empire.

NB In this text, although we look at the first four centuries AD, I refer to the intra-carpathian land we know today as Romania’s Transylvania by its modern, Transylvania, although around the times of Roman Dacia it would have been known as Dacia Apulensis and Dacia Porolissensis.

Have you read the beginning, Stories and History of Transylvania, Prehistory to Roman Dacia?
Still to come on Transylvanian history:
Wish I May, Wish I Might, Own Transylvania by Tonight
Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages
Romanian Transylvania, It’s Origin and Etymology

Sources for Transylvania during the Roman Dacia and until 4th century AD

Constantin C. Giurescu, Dinu C. Giurescu, Istoria românilor din cele mai vechi timpuri şi pînă azi
Floru, Ion S., Istoria Romanilor, Cursul Suoerior de Liceu, 1929
Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient & Medieval History
Madgearu A., The Significance of the Early Christian Artefacts in Post-Roman Dacia
Nicolae Gudea, Note de arheologie creştină, Some notes on Christian archaeology, source