An Irish writer follows the history of Trajan's Column along the ideological waves which have shaped the idea that Romanians are a Latin people, which must be „purified” at all costs.
From 2004 to 2009, I lived near the Jewish cemetery on Bl Ion Mihalache. It was an expanse of greenery viewed from the balcony of my 9th-floor garsoniera, which was at the rear of the block.
But I never visited it until relatively recently, by which time I lived in another part of town. And I did not learn until that bright Sunday morning that Mihail Sebastian was buried there. I knelt down and cleared the dust and dead vegetation off his grave with my hand, then looked up and saw the balcony of my old apartment, a couple of hundred metres away. I had been translating one of the author’s books within view of where he was buried.
Sebastian’s 1934 novel For Two Thousand Years had fallen into my hands by chance, and it was an illumination. It was the story of being Jewish in Bucharest in the 1930s, in the years before the Holocaust, with the ideological turmoil described lucidly and calmly by the young narrator. I had not heard of the writer before reading the book, but I felt that if he were alive I would want to know him personally. I began to translate the book, to get closer to the book and the personality that created it. Years later, my translation was published.
In 2009, I moved to an apartment near Piata Unirii. Most of the neighbourhood had been demolished by Ceausescu’s bulldozers in the 1980s, but on the map it was called Cartierul Evreiesc and some synagogues had been spared the destruction. I began to research the history of the neighbourhood and to interview people who had witnessed the demolitions. Also during those years I began to learn of the Holocaust in Romania. Researching the Iasi pogrom, I travelled to there and interviewed a local man who had witnessed a massacre of Jewish civilians by a Romanian army unit. He died several months after we met.
I had learned by this point that recent Romanian history is so shrouded in amnesia and mystification that I needed to do my own research.
The story of the Jews of Bucharest has been erased but it has pushed itself on me repeatedly, and in very strange ways. In 2018 I bought an apartment in the Hala Traian area of the city, in a small, rather dilapidated interbellic block. When I went to sign the papers to buy it I saw that the first transfer of ownership was in March 1941, to a couple called Betty and Nathan Coppel.
The name was Jewish. And the date was curious – only a month after the Legionary pogrom that ravaged the surrounding streets. Was somebody, presumably Jewish, taking the chance to get out, signing over to another Jewish family, while the neighbourhood still smouldered? Betty and Nathan sold up after the war.
“Romanians are a Latin people”. I have been told this many times. Perhaps as many times as I have been told that between the wars Bucharest was the Little Paris of the East. And from where I live, I can hear the cars moving down Strada Traian. Str Romulus and Str Remus are nearby. My local supermarket, a particularly handsome steel-structure building completed in 1882, is called Hala Traian. To be reminded of the Latin roots of the Romanian nation, all I need do is go to the Mega.
In 105 A.D. the Roman Emperor Trajan led his legions against the Dacian king Decebal, over a bridge across the Danube constructed for that very purpose. At over a kilometre long, with a superstructure of wooden arches supported by twenty masonry pillars, the bridge was unprecedented in scale. More than a thousand years would pass before any comparable structure spanned the lower Danube.
By 106, the Romans had penetrated the mountain heartland of Decebal’s kingdom and sacked his capital, Sarmizegetusa. Dacia would be under Roman rule for the next 170 years. The establishment a trans-Danubian province was something of an anomaly for what was a Mediterranean empire. Defending underdeveloped inland territories against barbarian incursions was costly and the Rhine-Danube line formed a naturally defensible frontier for most of Rome’s history. On one bank was the Latin language, Roman law, urban life and the Pax Romana. On the other, uncharted forests and savage warlike tribes.
Trajan erected a column in the Roman forum to mark his victory, completing it by 113. The engineer was Apollodorus of Damascus, who had also built the Danube bridge. The 35 metre-high monument still stands today. It consists of 20 marble sections, each weighing about 32 tons. Its 155 bas-relief friezes scroll upwards around the column 23 times, for a length of 190 metres. There are scenes of the construction of the bridge, of battle, the submission of the Dacians to Roman rule and the reemergence of civil life. Though the panels give a chronologically ordered account of the Dacian campaigns, they were never supposed to be read consecutively as you would the frames of a graphic novel. Rather, the column was conceived as a monumental visual support for Trajan’s Commentarii de Bellis Dacicis, a text we no longer possess, and originally formed an architectural ensemble with libraries that flanked it on two sides and included viewing platforms.
The column provides us with an abundance of information on uniforms, weaponry, transport and architecture. There are 2,662 individual human figures and Trajan himself appears 59 times. But Trajan’s column is primarily a narrative. It is the story of the triumph of civilisation over barbarism.
The image the Romans created of the savages beyond their frontiers have proved enduring. Or perhaps they are the kind of images that have a kind of archetypical validity and for that reason the narrative endures. It may make sense to ask if the categories of “civilized” and “barbarian” precede any group of facts that present themselves.
In 1765, the French diplomat Charles de Peysonnel published his Historical and Geographical Observations on the Barbarian Peoples who Inhabit the Banks of the Danube and Black Sea. His intention was to “unscramble the extreme confusion” caused by waves of barbarian invasions and to create an ethnic map of the region. The Wallachians and Moldovans struck him as especially exotic:
“One must in effect regard these peoples as a melange of Romans and Greeks, with the Dacians, The Getae, the Gepids, the Jazges, the Sarmatians, the Saxons, the Goths, the Huns, the Avars, the Slavs, the Pechenegs, the Turks, and all the Oriental and Septentrional barbarians who have successively occupied the land that the Moldavians and Wallachians inhabit today.”
Twenty years later, in 1785, Louis-Phillippe de Segur described the people he saw in Poland as “hordes of Huns, Scythians, Veneti, Slavs and Sarmatians”. In Russia, the peasantry reminded him of “those Scythians, Dacians, Roxolans, Goths, once the terror of the Roman world. All these semi-savage figures that one has seen in Rome on the bas-reliefs of Trajan’s column…”
The Romanian elite, venturing west in the 18th century from lands that corresponded, rather roughly, with the province of Dacia, encountered this precast narrative of the eternal struggle between civility and savagery. The choice being so stark, how could the Romanian intellectual ever hesitate? He was not the barbarian on Trajan’s column, he was the Roman.
The Romanian national anthem, written in 1848 and still sung today, proclaims:
“Awake, Romanian, from that deathly sleep
Into which you have been sunk by barbarous tyrants…
Now or never prove to the world
That Roman blood still flows in your veins
And that in our chests we bear a proud name,
One victorious in battle, that of Trajan!”
The ancient Greeks reflected on the structure of their language and equated speaking Greek with reason and civilization. This presumption that some languages are superior instruments for rational discourse was inherited by Latin. And it was present at the birth of comparative linguistics in 1786, when William Jones established the relationship of Sanskrit to European languages, praising its structure and refinement. He concluded that the similarities in verb roots and grammatical forms of Greek, Latin and Sanskrit proved that the three languages had sprung from a common source.
The classical languages of Europe and India became an aristocratic trinity from which most of the other languages of Europe and north India could be shown to have descended. Lord Monboddo (James Burnett) in his Of the Origin and Progress of Language (1773-92) linked language, civilisation and race, theorizing that the intrinsic rationality of certain languages granted their users a civilizational advantage. Around the same time, the philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder, in German, asserted that the progress of reason was language-dependent and language was therefore the very spirit of “a people”.
Romanian scholars, discovering the Latin roots of their language in this period, found such ideas irresisitible. In the last decades of the 18th century Samuil Micu – a theologian and key figure in the Romanian Enlightenment and the author of a Romanian grammar and dictionary – theorized that the Romanian people were descended from Romans who settled Dacia in the second century AD. In Micu’s history, Trajan’s army exterminates the Dacians and the Romans colonise a depopulated land. The colonists are all from the Italian peninsula rather than from other parts of the empire. During the barbarian invasions these Roman colonists seek refuge in the mountains and miraculously endure successive waves of invasion by Turks, Tatars, Magyars and Slavs.
The first independent Romanian state, created by the union of Wallachia and Moldova in 1859, wasted no time in abandoning the Cyrillic script that Romanian had always been written in. In a region of mixed populations, the new nation was dressing its language in Latin garb in order to define itself against the barbarians that still surrounded it.
And while borders were still being squabbled over on the basis of claims as to who had arrived first, Trajan’s column was both the nation’s birth certificate and the deeds to the property. In 1882, the Romanian parliament passed a draft law to obtain a bronze copy of the column, using casts of the panels which Napoleon III had commissioned for exhibition in the Louvre. Though nothing came of the parliament’s plan, the intention was to erect a full-size imitation of the column in central Bucharest to celebrate the recent victory over the Turks in Romania’s war of independence.
And yet, no evidence exists of a Latinized population persisting north of the Danube for long after the abandonment of Dacia to the Goths in 275. During the 160 years of its existence, Roman Dacia was very much a frontier province. The wooden superstructure of Trajan’s bridge was destroyed several decades after its construction, under the Emperor Hadrian. Such a bridge, left intact, risked inviting a barbarian invasion in the opposite direction.
The areas north of the Danube would be home to a variety of “barbarian” peoples and kingdoms over the following centuries and there is no sign of the re-emergence of a people speaking a Latin-based language for over a millennium. In linguistics, diversity is the rule. In Italy and Spain, Latin fragmented over the post-Imperial centuries into numerous local languages and dialects. The tendency only reversed with the creation of national states in recent centuries, with a single dialect becoming the official state language. The relative homogeneity of spoken Romanian is evidence of a relatively recent migration of a Latinized population from further south.
“Romania deserves its fate between Paraguay and Albania,” proclaimed Mircea Eliade, in one his rhetorical outbursts; as the nation’s foremost interwar intellectual, Eliade was always frustrated at his country’s backwardness. But he was closer to the mark than he realized.
Romanian and Albanian share an extensive non-Latin lexicon with no other known source (other than presumably a proto-Balkanic language). The name Bucuresti is derived from Albanian, “bukur” being Albanian for “beautiful”. The “-esti” termination is also Albanian, and indeed there are a number of Bukureshts to be found in Albania. Albanian is itself a deeply Latinized language in terms of its lexicon (similar to how English is Latinized, through Norman French) and Albanian shares its Latinisations with Romanian in a way that cannot be coincidental. It is plain that the two languages evolved together in a similar area, presumably south of the Danube, over many centuries.
Or take the suffixing of the article to nouns, which distinguishes Romanian from other Latin languages: om - man, omul – the man. Romanian shares this feature with Albanian and Bulgarian. Even though each of the three languages belong to different families, such shared structural and lexical features has led linguists to speak of a group of Balkan languages. Such similarities have been evident to foreign linguists since the 1930s. For Romanian scholars, however, accepting the idea – from the fascist 1930s onwards – of a linguistically fluid south-Balkan melting-pot would have undermined the too-beautiful idea of a racially pure Latin people enduring barbarian invaders.
What we do know about the proto-Romanian Vlachs is that they were pastoralists. A transhumance economy, with sheep being herded to upland summer pastures, existed throughout the lower Balkans in the Middle Ages and was resilient in the face of the raids and instability which disrupted trade, agriculture and urban life. It would also have provided a natural route to colonising the area north of the Danube, following the long horseshoe curve of the Carpathians and later to the lowlands on each side, where repeated nomadic invasions has made the development of permanent settlements impossible. The earliest Romanian capitals, such as Targoviste, were in the foothills of the Carpathians. Targoviste means “sheep market”. The founder of Bucuresti was supposedly a shepherd. The earliest Romanian ballad, the Miorita, concerns a shepherd and his flocks.
The story of how this pastoral people endured in the southern Balkans after the fall of the Roman Empire and interacted with other populations remains relatively neglected beside the comic-strip martial narrative of Trajan and his legions. The story about making war eclipses the one about making cheese.
The idea that inferior peoples were doomed to extinction was one with particular resonance in the 19th century, when Romania was coming into being as a nation.
In 1832, the 23 year-old Charles Darwin excavated the fossil remains of extinct creatures on the coast of Patagonia, including those of the Megatherium, an elephant sized ground sloth. “Certainly, no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated extermination of its inhabitants”, wrote Darwin. He had already accepted the theory propounded in 1796 by Georges Cuvier that such fossils were from a species of animal which no longer existed. Cuvier argued that there had been repeated waves of extinctions and predicted that all the creatures then in the world would die out, to be replaced by others. It was a revolutionary theory, in a world that accepted the immutability of the Biblical creation.
But Darwin went further. In the Origin of Species (1859), he proposed that extinction might not only occur as a result of sudden, cataclysmic events. Species might disappear or come into being gradually, through evolution, driven by natural selection.
It was a simple matter to extend the idea of biological superiority to explain the sudden domination of the globe by European civilisation. Entire peoples had been made extinct, or almost so. When Samuil Micu hypothesized the extermination of the Dacians by the Romans he might have been thinking of the ongoing decimation of the natives of the Americas in the face of European colonization. In 1832, in Patagonia, Darwin interviewed a Spanish commander of a campaign to exterminate the Indians of the Pampas, to secure the land for grazing for European settlers. “Everyone here is fully convinced that this is a most just war”, wrote Darwin, “because it is against barbarians.” And when the young zoologist arrived in Tasmania in 1859, only nine native Tasmanian women remained alive, all beyond childbearing years. The Tasmanians too had been exterminated by the European settlers.
Darwin was appalled by such cruelty, but if the survival of the fittest was the rule for animals, then why not apply it also to races and nations? This is what he did in The Descent of Man (1871): “At some future period… the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”
Cuvier had horrified his audiences by claiming that biological species could disappear. Within less than a century, few found it remarkable when Darwin substituted “race” for “species”.
In the 19th century, the science of biology altered the idea of what a barbarian people was. In classical times, the Roman Empire had absorbed and civilized many previously barbarian people. “Barbarianism” did not have a racial basis, just as slavery in classical times had nothing to do with race.
Bucharest’s old town has a small square with a Piata Roma, with a statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from a wolf. This is a copy of the Capitoline Wolf; the original is in Rome, but this copy was a gift from the city of Rome to Bucharest in 1904 to mark, inter alia, 1800 years since the colonization of Dacia by Trajan. Other copies of the statue are displayed in at least 25 Romanian cities and towns; a number of them were gifts from Mussolini.
The Roman fasces – a bundle of sticks bound around the shaft of an axe, symbol of the authority of the civil magistrate – became the symbol of Mussolini’s movement – i fascisti. The Roman salute (or what was believed to be Roman) was adopted by fascists in Italy, Germany and Romania. The Romanian fascists were called legionari.
As the heir to the Roman Empire, Mussolini set about securing what he called Italy’s spazio vitale, the equivalent of Hitler’s Lebensraum, an idea articulated in Friedrich Ratzel’s Der Lebensraum (1901). Ratzel, a German biologist, argued that the progress of civilisation was aided by Darwinian natural selection. In his youth, Ratzel had travelled in the United States and seen how Europeans had displaced the Native Americans. But he believed that a nation could best expand by colonizing geographically adjacent territory. Hitler was reading Ratzel in prison in 1924, while writing Mein Kampf. The lesson was clear. Germany was denied an overseas empire after WWI, so its Lebensraum had to be the barbarian lands to the east.
In Mein Kampf Hitler promised a version of the colonial-evolutionary game, accelerated by modern technology and decisive political will. That those already inhabiting the lands envisaged for colonisation would have to die out had become banal in intellectual long before Hitler, or even Ratzel. In 1869 Edouard von Hartmann, in the Philosophy of the Unconscious, had written: “There is little humanity in artificially prolonging the death struggles of savages who are on the verge of extinction. The true philanthropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion, and labour for that end”.
In a world of biological struggles between superior and inferior peoples, the idea of racial mixing was a fundamental anxiety. Hitler believed that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire of his youth had condemned itself by proclaiming equality for all and allowing its capital become overrun by “a promiscuous swarm of foreign peoples”. Most of all he blamed a parasitic landless people – “that bacillus which is the solvent of human society – the Jew”. Even in assimilation they were pathogenic, by producing racial corruption.
Romania emerged from WWI with its territory and population doubled and all Romanians gathered in a unitary state. But Greater Romania was not the pure-blooded nation the nationalist poets had dreamed of. Non-Romanians made up a third of the population of the country, and the major powers had made recognition of the new state conditional upon the granting of citizenship to minorities - including, for the first time, to Jews.
Having won its long-desired Lebensraum, the national appetite found new dissatisfactions to feed upon. A.C Cuza’s Christian Democratic National Party adopted the swastika upon its establishment in 1922 and called for the expulsion of Jews from the country. The vehemently anti-Semitic Iron Guard was established in the same decade.
The myth that Romania had been invaded by Jewish hordes following the signing of the peace treaties was widespread. King Carol himself believed 250,000 Russian Jews had poured into the country, though the Central Bureau of Statistics determined in 1936 that the numbers of such refugees was insignificant. Marshall Ion Antonescu, upon assuming power in 1940, believed there were 2-3 million Jews in the country, though the 1936 census had shown only 758,000 Jews. He condemned previous treaties Romania had been forced to sign, going back to 1878, for “the Judaization of our country and the erosion of the purity of our race”.
In 1934, when Pope Pius commissioned a series of copies to be made of Trajan’s column in reinforced concrete, Emil Panaitescu, the director of the Romanian School in Rome, saw an opportunity. He wanted an additional set to be made in order to be sent to Romania and began lobbying the Romanian state to fund the project.
“Iosif Hechter, don’t you feel the darkness and cold enfolding you?” concluded Nae Ionescu’s infamous anti-Semitic preface to Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 novel For Two Thousand Years, about the struggle of a young Jewish-Romanian man to belong to a nation determined to reject him. There is particular aggression in Ionescu’s use of the author’s birth name, Hechter, rather than his pen name, Sebastian. The implication is that Sebastian was trying to hide his blood-line, and would not be allowed to get away with it.
But not only Jewish Romanians changed their names. Mihai Eminescu, the 19th “national poet” – who vehemently opposed the granting of civil rights to Jews – was born Mihai Eminovici. Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the leader of the Iron Guard, was born Zelinski.
Eminovici’s and Zelinski’s Jewish obsession perhaps had something to do with their sensitivity to the problem of defining the essential Romanian. A problem became that impossible in 1941, when the government attempted to define the concept legally. “It is very hard to prove one is of Romanian stock,” said Justice Minister, Constantin Stoicescu. “Each of us will find it hard to prove this. We have prepared a draft bill in response to this problem.” The solution was to define who was a Jew. A register was drawn up of “persons of Jewish blood”, including those “contaminated” with Jewish blood (one Jewish grandparent was enough). Being Jewish was now a racial rather than a religious designation. Patriarch Nicodim, asked about the validity of recent Jewish conversions, replied that the matter was no longer a spiritual issue: “Please note that the baptism of Jews is forbidden in the Regat under the decree-law on the conversion of Jews, for reasons of protection the race”.
Obsessed with their nation’s claim to being a civilized state, Romanian intellectuals in the 1930s vented their frustration on the racial scapegoat. E. M. Cioran was explicit about his disgust at being Romanian and equally categorical, in Romania’s Transformation (1936), about the need to ethnically cleanse the country of Jews and Hungarians. Eliade, in an article published in the early ‘30s, asked what would have become of the great intellectuals of history had they been born in Romania. Not much, he concludes: “The mentality of Romanian politics cannot accept pure whole people.” He concluded that existing political order needed to be swept away for such a man as himself to be able to take his rightful place and believed the force for purification was the Iron Guard, with its messianic goal of national redemption. Constantin Noica, another Guardist, believed that “those who know better than the rest could construct a better society for everyone” and, suspecting that he might be one such philosopher-king, travelled with Cioran to Heidelberg to study under Heidegger (at that point a member of the Nazi party).
In 1939 Emil Panaitescu’s five years of lobbying the Romanian government for the funds to create a copy of the panels on Trajan’s column bore fruit. As Hitler’s armies began their conquest of the east, supported by the Romanians in their sector, work began on creating a copy of Trajan’s column, in re-enforced concrete mixed with white marble.
On 11 June 1941 Marshall Antonescu penned a memorandum to Hitler in which he portrayed Romania as Europe’s martyr in the struggle against expansionism by the barbarian Slavs – “a race with an amorphous culture and primitive cultural concepts”. When the two leaders met on 12 June 1941 to coordinate their war plans, Antonescu stressed the need to eliminate this historical threat: “Because of its racial qualities, Romania can continue to play a role as an anti-Slavic buffer for the benefit of Germany”. Hitler, much gratified, promised Romanian “unlimited” expansion in the east. Antonescu afterwards expressed himself content to have consolidated cooperation with Hitler “in accordance with the permanent interests of our spatiu vital”. The use of the term, echoing Mussolini’s spazio vitale, shows Romania’s leader was imbued with the racial-biological idea of Lebensraum. Germany and Romania launched their attack ten days later.
The first mass killing of Jewish civilians occurred at the outbreak of the war, with the slaughter of as 14,000 Romanian Jews in the front-line city of Iasi. The Romanian army continued to eradicate Jewish civilians as it advanced. The ferocity of the Romanians was not initially matched by the Germans, but by August German forces too were conducting such operations. In late August, Hitler told Goebbels: “As regards the Jewish question, it may be stated with certainty that a man like Antonescu is pursuing much more radical policies in this area than we are so far.”
Too radical as it turned out. Both Romania and Germany wished to deport their Jews eastwards but disagreements arose concerning timing. The Germans felt that excessive Romanian zeal in deporting their Jews was causing logistical difficulties close to the front. This conflict was resolved with the signing of the Tighina Agreement at the end of August 1941. Under the agreement, Romania’s spatiu vitale was to include the lands between the Dneister and Bug rivers, an area of over 40,000 k2. Romania now had the right to deport its Jews to this territory, called Transnistria, but committed itself not to send the deportees further east until military operations were still underway.
The Romanian forces in Transnistria advanced members of the local Romanian minority to key administrative positions, including in relation to security and the extermination of Jews. These local Romanians (who numbered about 11% of the prewar population of about 3 million) and newly arrived Romanians would form the territory’s new elite, once the Jews had been eliminated and the Slavic population diluted. Romanians were relocated to Transnistria from occupied southern Russia and Ukraine in order to strengthen the Romanianization process.
Using Roman nomenaclature, each of Transnistria’s 13 districts was governed by a prefect and each subdistrict governed by a pretor. In a speech to the pretors on 29 November 1941, Governor Gheorghe Alexianu, spoke of Romania’s civilizing mission:
“[Whoever thinks] our presence here is temporary or for exploitative purposes is wrong. Our presence here […] is justified by a million and a half Romanians in the province, and many others across the Bug [fighting the Soviets]. We are here with a purpose – to rehabilitate and rebuild the province. We are here as a creative element, disseminating culture and bringing about an economic and intellectual rehabilitation. We are attempting to rebuild a new country on the ruins of the old one left by the Bolsheviks”.
Interior minister Mihai Antonescu, (no relation to Marshall Ion Antonescu) wished to enlist the other Latin nations “in the racial sense” in the struggle for civilization, was rather more blunt when he met Hitler on 27 November 1941: “Tomorrow’s Europe will abide two races only – the Latins and the Germans… We must adopt principles of colonization and the biological removal of the Slavs… My objective… is to destroy the Slavs.”
But first the Jews had to be dealt with. Transnistria facilitated the racial purification of the motherland. Mihai Antonescu, in a government session on 17 June 1941, had stated: “We must seize this moment to achieve the cleansing of the population. Therefore Basarabia and Bukovina will be reminiscent of the policy of Titus… and not only in regard to the Jews.” The Titus in question was the Roman commander, later Emperor, who subdued a revolt in Judaea and destroyed the Second Temple, precipitating the diaspora of Jews throughout the Roman Empire.
In 1941 and 1942, 174,000 Romanian Jews were deported from Basarabia and Bukovina. For these deportees and local Jews, Transnistria became a vast holding camp, intermediate between Romania-proper and the ultimate destination somewhere far to the east, when the Slavs were driven back.
“The Romanian nation must prepare itself to face this crisis, in order to rid itself of this parasite,” said Antonescu. “If I fail to take advantage of this great historical moment, the results will be felt forever, and if the Jews win this war, we shall cease to exist.”
Of the over 400,000 Jews the Romanian state was responsible for killing, relatively few died in Romania. The majority, Ukrainian Jews and deportees from Romania, perished in Transnistria, in mass executions and from the conditions in the camps.
Fully a quarter of the scenes on Trajan’s column depict war. Trajan watching a battle while being presented with the severed heads of enemy combatants. Naked captive soldiers being tortured by three women. The destruction of the Dacian capital Sarmizegetusa, and Dacian villages in flames. King Decebal about to cut his own throat to avoid capture, then his head being brought to the Emperor. (Trajan would exhibit the head at his triumph in Rome.)
But the column shows many more scenes of the spread of civilisation and the fruits of peace – agriculture and commerce and the building of infrastructure and towns. Legionaries, the fighting backbone of the army, are shown engaged in the construction and harvesting.
Brutality, in this narrative, is the momentary sacrifice civilisation makes so that the seeds of civilisation can be planted on the savage’s despoiled land.
The invasion of Dacia involved tens of thousands of Roman troops and extended over several years, with three mobile armies. Such lengthy campaigns had to undermine the ability of the enemy to feed its army, by destroying its villages and crops and provoking famine. We do know that the Dacian capital was razed to the ground, but we do not know the fate of the inhabitants. We have no surviving accounts of the treatment civilians received at the hands of the Roman armies. The column does show Roman soldiers fighting with decapitated heads in their mouths, and one scene appears to show a Roman soldier packing a mules’ saddlebags with Dacian loot. One contemporary claimed that Trajan took 500,000 prisoners – such a figure seems fantastical - and brought 10,000 to Rome for gladiatorial contests staged for 123 days.
It is hard to begin to measure how different the barbarians were to the Romans. Decebal had been able command armies that defeated the Romans on several occasions. The Dacians had been trading with the Greek and Roman worlds for centuries. They mined and smelted iron and created ornamented jewellery.
Indeed, what interested the Romans was Dacian gold. It is believed that Trajan brought 250,000 kilos of Dacian gold back from his campaign. The Dacian war was the classical era’s equivalent of the looting by the Spanish conquistadores of the Aztecs and the Incas. The Romans would work the Dacian gold mines for the duration of their stay on the far side of the Danube.
Killing and looting are activities best attributed to somebody else. More eloquent is the idea that civilisation must defend itself through violence. If the violence of the barbarian is brutish and instinctual, stemming from his unreasoning way of life, the violence of the civilised must be premeditated, rational, and effected in full consciousness.
“Nature knows no political frontiers,” wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf. “Now it is unfortunately true that too often the best nations – or to speak more exactly, the only really cultured nations, the chief bearers of human progress – have decided, in their blind pacifism, to refrain from the acquisition of new territory.”
When an army crosses a river, into the land of the barbarian, the story of what it did there is slow to arrive back to the civilised centre that sent it out. What will return are versions, to be inscribed on monuments.
While the war was underway in the East, the philosopher-turned-diplomat Mircea Eliade was representing the Antonescu government as cultural attache to the Romanian embassy in Lisbon. He served as direct liaison between the Portuguese dictator Salazar and the Romanian “Titus”, interior minister Mihai Antonescu. In a slim volume titled Os Romenos, Latinos do Oriente (The Romanians, the Latins of the East) Eliade theorised on the historic mission of the Latin peoples. “…A great similarity can be seen between Rome’s historic mission and that of the Latin genius; the assimilation of the world and its transformation into universal spiritual values.” Romania’s destiny, historically, was to defend the frontiers of civilisation against hordes of barbarians from the Eurasian steppe and Turks from Asia Minor. The present war against Russia, wrote Eliade, was the “defence of European Christian values against Euro-Asiatic mysticism”.
The German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin might have met the famous Romanian philosopher Eliade in Lisbon, had he succeeded in his aim of reaching neutral Portugal, from where he wished to travel to the United States. Unfortunately, after fleeing the Wehrmacht through France killed himself in September 1940, in despair after not being permitted to cross the border into Spain.
Earlier that year, in Paris, Benjamin had completed his final work, an essay known as his Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he argues that those who project theological or philosophical meaning on history are beautifying the tale of raw human violence. His seventh thesis contains these words:
“All rulers are the heirs to those who conquered before them… Whoever emerged victorious participates in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who sprawl underfoot. As ever, the spoils are borne along in the procession. They are known as cultural treasures. There is no document of civilisation which is not simultaneously a document of barbarism, and barbarism also taints the manner in which it is transmitted from one set of hands to the next.”
There has been no reckoning with the story of Romania’s spatiu vital, the massacres, or the camps in Transnistria where civilians were corralled together to die in conditions so squalid and cruel that the use of the gas chambers can seem more logical than shocking.
From 1944, when the genocide against the Jews became apparent to the Soviets, an attempt was made to document in The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, a project coordinated by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and overseen by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman. It would eventually include Grossman’s own account of the functioning of the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland.
In 1946 a Soviet report on war crimes in Transnistria established that 200,000 “Soviet citizens” were killed in the Odessa district. The report was never published in Romania, its findings never used in Romania to indict war criminals and its existence was never acknowledged in print in any way. A much abridged version of the Black Book (Cartea Neagra) appeared in Romania in 1946, containing information on Transnistria, but plans to publish a Soviet edition were abandoned in 1948. Stalin did not wish to acknowledge the racial aspect of the war by differentiating between categories of Soviet victims. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committeee was dissolved in 1952 and most of its leaders killed in a wave of Soviet antisemitism led by Stalin. The Romanians banned their version in 1949 and anybody possessing a copy made sure to dispose of it. The Soviet desire to ignore the Holocaust on its soil made it convenient for the Romanian communist party to pretend that the cleansing of Jews from Romania’s brief spatiu vital had never happened.
Unlike their co-religionists to the east, most of the Jews of Bucharest survived the war. Adolf Eichmann, the logistician of the Holocaust, had obtained the rail-stock needed to effect the deportation to Auschwitz of the Jews of Bucharest and southern Romania. But by then the tide of war had turned and Antonescu decided he would not kill the last of his Jews after all. By April 1944, Soviet forces swept into Romanian-controlled territory. In May, allied forces took Rome, and the recently completed reproductions of the panels of Trajan’s column that were destined for Bucharest were deposited in the basement of the Lateran Museum in Rome.
Though the reproductions of the panels of Trajan’s column remained in storage in Rome for over two decades after the war but they were not entirely forgotten. The Romanian embassy in Rome continued the business of its fascist predecessor and these cultural treasures were finally loaded onto 17 train wagons, to arrive in Bucharest in May 1967. For several years they were kept at the Museum of the Romanian Communist Party (today the Peasants’ Museum). In 1972 they were installed in the National History Museum in central Bucharest. Only a small part of the Museum has remained open for the past 17 years and only a fraction of its collection is displayed, due to a saga of mismanagement and corruption, but the column has always remained proudly on display. The copy of Trajan’s column dominates Romania’s National History Museum just as the idea of it dominates Romanian history. And today you can still admire those panels showing the Romans crossing their bridge and constructing forts and towns, and bringing peace to the land of the barbarian.