The rock sculpture of Decebalus is a 42.9 m in height and 31.6 m in width carving in rock of the face of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, who fought against the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan to preserve the independence of his country, which corresponded to modern Romania. The sculpture was made between 1994 and 2004, on a rocky outcrop on the river Danube, at the Iron Gates, which form the border between Romania and Serbia. It is located near the city of Orșova in Romania. It is the tallest rock sculpture in Europe.
Decebalus (r. 87–106) was the last king of Dacia. He is famous for fighting three wars, with varying success, against the Roman Empire under two emperors. After raiding across the Danube, he defeated a Roman invasion in the reign of Domitian, securing a period of independence during which Decebalus consolidated his rule.
When Trajan came to power, his armies invaded Dacia to weaken its threat to Roman border territory. Decebalus was defeated. He remained in power as a client king, but continued to assert his independence, leading to a final and overwhelming Roman invasion in 105. Trajan reduced the Dacian capital Sarmizegetusa in 106, absorbing Dacia into the Empire. Decebalus committed suicide to avoid capture.
Since the mid 19th century Decebalus has been portrayed as a national hero in Romania, the modern successor to ancient Dacia. There are several monuments depicting him.
Romanian National Hero
Decebalus is considered a national hero in Romania and has been portrayed in numerous literary works, movies, public sculptures, and other memorials.
Decebalus began to be seen in these terms during the 19th century, when he came to be associated with Romantic ideals of national freedom, and resistance to imperialism. Romanian politician Mihail Kogălniceanu gave a speech in 1843 in which he called Decebalus “the greatest barbarian king of all time, more worthy to be on the throne of Rome than the rascally descendants of Augustus!” Alecu Russo compared him to the medieval hero Stephen the Great, saying “The one and the other both had the same aim, the same sublime idea: the independence of their country! Both are heroes, but Stephen is a more local hero, a Moldavian hero, while Decebalus is the hero of the world.” Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian national poet, wrote the historical drama Decebalus. George Coșbuc’s 1896 poem Decebal către popor (Decebalus to his People) lauds the Dacian leader’s scorn of death.
Decebalus was often paired with his enemy Trajan, with the former representing national identity and the latter the grandeur and classical values brought by Rome. Decebalus and Trajan were depicted as a pair on many Romanian banknotes. Decebalus and Trajan were regularly invoked at the coronation of new rulers. Both featured significantly in the imagery of Ferdinand I of Romania and his wife Marie of Romania. The Romanian poet Aron Cotruş wrote a long poem “Maria Doamna” (“Lady Marie”) after Marie’s death, invoking both Decebalus and Trajan as admirers of Marie.
He remained a hero in the Communist era, especially in the Stalinist “national Communism” of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. According to Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, “In a process paralleling the way modern Serbs perceive their defeat by the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, Decebal’s defeat at the hands of Trajan in 101–107 CE and the resulting population mix were reclaimed as the cornerstones of Romanian ethnic identity.” The nationalist model progressed further under Nicolae Ceaușescu, under whom Decebalus was listed as one of the 10 great leaders of Romania. He was depicted as a great national leader in two major epic films in this period, The Dacians (1967, directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu), and The Column (1968, directed by Mircea Drăgan). In both films he was portrayed by Amza Pellea. Several public statues of Decebalus were also set up in the Ceaușescu era, including an equestrian statue in Deva created in 1978 by the sculptor Ion Jalea, and a column topped by a bust in Drobeta-Turnu Severin, created in 1972.
He was central to the nationalist protochronism movement, which identified Romania as the cradle of civilisation. During the 1990s, a team of sculptors carved a 40-meter tall rock sculpture of Decebalus from a stone outcrop near the city of Orşova, Romania. It was devised and funded by Iosif Constantin Drăgan, a supporter of the protochronism movement. He is quoted saying, “Anyone travelling towards ‘Decebal Rex Dragan Fecit’ [King Decebalus made by Dragan] is also travelling towards the origins of European civilization and will discover that a United Europe represents the natural course of history”.
It was commissioned by Romanian businessman Iosif Constantin Drăgan and it took 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, for twelve sculptors to finish it.According to Drăgan’s website, the businessman purchased the rock in 1993, after which the Italian sculptor Mario Galeotti assessed the location and made an initial model. The first six years involved dynamiting the rock into the basic shape, and the remaining four years were devoted to completing the detail.
Under the face of Decebalus there is a Latin inscription which reads “DECEBALUS REX—DRAGAN FECIT” (“King Decebalus—Made by Drăgan”). The carving was placed opposite an ancient memorial plaque, carved in the rock on the Serbian side of the river facing Romania. The plaque, known as the Tabula Traiana, records the site of Trajan’s Bridge and thus commemorates the final defeat of Decebalus by Trajan in 105, and the absorption of the Dacian kingdom into the Roman Empire. Drăgan wanted the Serbs to carve a giant head of a Roman Emperor, as if confronting Decebalus on the opposite side of the river, but the Serbs refused.
Drăgan was a leading figure in the protochronism movement, a nationalist ideology which attempted to portray Romania as the major cradle of civilisation and which identified Romania with an ancient Thracian empire that supposedly dominated central Europe. In this ideology, Dacia, the pre-Roman name of Romania, was the inheritor of this Thracian culture, a view expounded by Drăgan in his book and journal Noì, tracii (“We Thracians”).
The Fundatia Europeana Dragan, Drăgan’s foundation, states that “Giuseppe Costantino Dragan is a strong supporter of the theory that the original ‘flame’ of civilization started on the ancient territory of Romania and argues as much in his work”. Drăgan saw the sculpture as a signpost to the cradle of civilisation. He is quoted saying, “Anyone travelling towards ‘Decebal Rex Dragan Fecit’ is also travelling towards the origins of European civilization and will discover that a United Europe represents the natural course of history”.
Hunted, having his army defeated and finally cornered by Roman detachments seeking his head. Rather than being captured to be exhibited and humiliated at Rome, Decebalus committed suicide by slashing his own throat, as depicted on Trajan’s Column.
It is likely that he killed himself as a Roman cavalry scout named Tiberius Claudius Maximus from Legio VII Claudia was approaching. He was probably still alive when Maximus reached him, as is claimed on Maximus’ funerary stele discovered at Gramini in Greece. Maximus is presumably the figure seen on Trajan’s column reaching out to Decebalus from his horse. Decebalus’ head and right hand were then taken to Trajan in “Ranisstorum” (an unidentified Dacian village, perhaps Piatra Craivii) by Maximus, who was decorated by the emperor. The trophy was sent to Rome where it was thrown on the Gemonian stairs. Tiberius Claudius Maximus’ tomb cites two occasions where the legionary was decorated for his part in the Dacian wars, one of which being the acquisition and recovery of Decebalus’ head.
The Decebalus Treasure is a legendary story written by Cassius Dio concerning events said to have happened in the Roman world during the 2nd century AD. During the Second Dacian War many Dacian nobles surrendered or were caught. One of them, Bicilis, disclosed the location of the treasure, buried in a river’s bed.
“The treasures of Decebalus were also discovered, though hidden beneath the river Sargetia, which ran past his palace. With the help of some captives Decebalus had diverted the course of the river, made an excavation in its bed, and into the cavity had thrown a large amount of silver and gold and other objects of great value that could stand a certain amount of moisture; then he had heaped stones over them and piled on earth, afterwards bringing the river back into his course. He also had caused the same captives to deposit his robes and other articles of a like nature in caves, and after accomplishing this had made away with them to prevent them from disclosing anything. But Bicilis, a companion of his who knew what had been done, was seized and gave information about these things.”
Decebalus used Roman prisoners to deviate the course of the Sargetia river and buried the treasure. He buried “so much silver and gold and some other artefacts who can survive moisture”, after that the river was returned to its original course. The rest was of the treasure was deposited in surrounding caves, and the Roman prisoners were slaughtered.
T. Statilius Crito of Heraclea, Trajan’s procurator and medic, compiling a Getica, wrote that the Decebalus Treasure had 5,000,000 lbs (2,200 tonnes) of gold and 10,000,000 lbs (4,500 tonnes) of silver. Some modern historians, such as Julian Bennett believe that this is a copy error. Still if the real treasure was one-tenth thousand those figures, its value is still the equivalent of 160 million denarii and 31,5 million aurei.
Jérôme Carcopino has estimated the treasure at 165,500 kg of gold and 331,000 kg of silver. Between 1540 and 1759 in Sarmizegetusa Regia 700 kg of gold was recovered, much more was discovered in the 19th century.
However, the Roman’s claim that they looted in a single hoard 165 tons of gold and 300 tons of silver is accepted by some historians. This amount is perhaps credible in terms of the massive Dacian exploitation of precious metals in the Apuseni Mountains along with trade payments and tributes from abroad paid to Dacians. Also, its existence in one spot suggests that Dacian State had a central control of precious metal circulation.
A similar legend to the concealment of Decebalus’ treasure concerns the treasure of Alaric I king of the Visigoths (dead in 410 A.D.).