Romanians – Origins of the People and the Language

The following text is from the appendix of the definitive book on Romanian dance, Romanian Traditional Dance by Anca Giurchescu with Sunni Bloland, 1992, Wild Flower Press, Mill Valley, California. I have omitted the citations, though they are available in the book. I have added all headings, maps and illustrations, including their captions.


“The earliest traces of human culture within the territory now known as Romania were discovered in j.* Olt and date back to the proto-Paleolithic Age (ca. 600,000 – 480,000 B.C.). Archaeological exploration has uncovered vestiges of numerous paleolithic, mesolithic, and neolithic [lithic = stone-age. DB] cultures throughout Romania. In the transitional periods between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, (2,500-1,800 B.C.), the Thracians [see DB] and Illyrians [see ], both Indo-European peoples from the east, occupied a large part of the Balkan Peninsula. Tribes of the northern branch of the Thracian family settled in the territory that is now Romania and absorbed the native neolithic population.

*județ, one of 41 Județele României, administrative districts in Romania – roughly equivalent to counties in the USA . Olt is bottom left. Green region corresponds roughly to Transylvania, blue roughly to Wallachia, and rose roughly to Moldavia.


By the time of the Iron Age, around 1,150 B.C., the northern Thracians, after assimilating the influences of numerous cultures, began to emerge as a distinct civilization. The strongest influence came in the 7th century B.C. when Greek colonists founded the strongholds of Histria, Callatis, and Tomis on the shores of the Black Sea – the northernmost seat of Hellenic civilization.

Distribution of the Scythian cultures, of which the Scythians were part. Source: Wikipedia

Also in the 7th century the Scythians, a people of Persian origin, moved into the North-Pontic steppe and advanced westward into present day Dobrogea. [see: DB] Describing a battle in 514 B.C. between the army of Darius, the king of the Persians, and the indigenous Thracian tribe of Getae (during Darius’ militry campaign against the Scythians), Herodotus wrote that “although the Getae fought valiantly, they were quickly subdued, in spite of the fact that they were the bravest and most rightful of the Thracians.” With these words came the first mention in recorded history of the direct ancestors of the Romanian people.

Eastern Europe in 200 BC showing the Getae tribes north of the Danube river


‘Getae’ was one name which the Greeks used to describe the northern Thracian people who lived to the south and east of the Carpathians and north of the Danube. Later the Romans used the term ‘Daci’ (Dacians) to signify those of the same group living to the north and west of the Carpathians. In reality the terms Getae and Daci described a single distinct ethnic group which shared a common language and whose territory was traversed by the Carpathian Mountains and the Transylvanian Alps. The Geto-Dacians, as they are known today, resided in large numbers in the territory between the Tisa River, the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Nistru (Dniester) River.

Geto-Dacian contact with the Scythians continued into the 3rd century B.C. as the latter group, though only a small minority of the population, held dominion over the area to the west of the Black Sea (then known as Sythia Minor). Later, during the great Celtic migrations out of Central Europe, several Celtic tribes, among them the Anarti and the Britogaul, settled in the northern regions of the Geto-Dacian territory and were assimilated by the native population. These additional influences on their cultural development culminated by the end of the 2nd century B.C. in the ethnic delineation of the Geto-Dacian people from the remainder of the Thracian tribes.

Geto-Dacian people were the direct ancestral and ethnic predecessors of the present-day Romanian people and their culture. Historical references to their polytheistic religion, though scant, indicate that they believed in an eternal life-after-death — a belief which may have partly accounted for their outstanding courage and heroism in battle as well as their practice of human sacrifice in sacred rites. Their principal deities were the chthonian or underworld god, Zalmoxis, and the celestial god Gebeleisis, the “god of the lunimous sky”. The goddess Bendis was the mythological equivalent of the Greek Artemis and the Roman Diana. Priests, practitioners of healing and prophecy, performed sacred rituals on mountain tops. It is believed that vestiges of Geto-Dacian spiritual culture might still be found in contemporary Romanian folk medicine, witchcraft, beliefs, and funeral rites.

Within the Geto-Dacian culture were numerous sub-tribal groups which inhabited the diverse territorial niches created by the geogrphical bounds of the Carpathian mountain ranges. Around 300 B.C. several of these tribal groups living on the Danube Plain allied themselves under the leadership of Dromichaites of the Odrysae, a tribe inhabiting the Argeș plain. This alliance of southern Gatae tribes twice routed the Macedonian army of King Lysimachus during their drive northward. Thereafter a peaceful relationship was established between the two peoples.

The first attempt to unite Geto-Dacian tribes from both sides of the Carpathians under one centralized government was made by Burebista, “foremost and greatest of the Thracian kings” (from a Greek inscription at Dyonisopulos-Balcic), around 48 B.C.

This well-organized slave-state, with its military, cultural, and religious center located at Sarimizegetusa in the Orăștie Mountains of Transylvania, extended its power from the Black Sea coast and both sides of the Danube all the way to Bohemia, and soon posed a direct threat to the Roman Empire.

Ruins of sanctuaries and solar disk at Sarmizegetusa Regia, Romania. Image from Wikipedia


Around 43 B.C. Burebista was deposed by a conspiracy which resulted in the fracturing of the nation-state into several smaller kingdoms. Shortly thereafter the Romans advanced northward to the Geto-Dacians’ southern boundary – the Danube – and conquered Dobrogea in 29-27 B.C. This intrusion catalyzed a new Geto-Dacian consolidation under King Decebal around 85 A.D. The new state was called Dacia.

In 106 A.D. after two major campaigns, the Roman emperor Trajan defeated Decebal and conquered Dacia, which then became a province of the Empire. This marked the beginning of a period of Romanization through colonization which lasted 165 years. But by the middle of the 3rd Century A.D., Daco-Roman territory was penetrated by the Goths, followed by attacking Carpian tribes — groups of free Dacians who resiced in Moldavia and were allied with the Goths. These invasions, combined with a revolt of the poorer Dacian population, forced the Emperor Aurelian’s army and administration to retreat to the south of the Danube in 271 A.D. By this time, however, the newly evolved Daco-Roman population had already begun to speak a Latin language, the direct precursor of modern Romanian. Dacia remained within the Roman sphere of influence until the 7th century via steady cultural contact across the Danube. The Romans introduced Christianity to the Dacians in the 4th century, and by the 7th century it had been assimilated throughout the population.**

**[Under the Communist regime the Greek Catholic Church (founded in Transylvania in 1700) has been violently repressed and was forced to converge with the official Romanian Orthodox Church…General persecution of priests, the closing of monasteries, and the prohibition of all kinds of sacred activities (whether or not related to the church) were intended by the Party to drastically change the people’s traditional life.]


During the period of Roman influence the Daco-Romans continued their sedentary agriculture and herding in the Carpatho-Danubian milieu with occasional interruptions by transient populations of Goths, Gepids, Huns, Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars who passed through the Daco-Roman territory from the east. During these intrusions the native population took refuge in the vast forests which covered the land.

Slavic migrations, ca. 450 – 600 A.D.

In the late 6th and early 7th centuries some of the migrating Slavic groups remained to live among the Daco-Romans who readily assimilated many Slavic cultural and linguistic traits. By the 10th century the Slavic settlers had been entirely assimilated, and the ethnogenisis of the Romanian people and their language was complete. In Byzantine, Slavic, and Hungarian documents of this period, they were referred to variously as Vlahi, Volohi, or Olah Volohi and in German Valachen — in other words, Wallachians. [Emphasis mine, DB]

SUMMARY & Composition of Romanian Language

In summary, Romanian culture and language are products of the Romanization of the early Geto-Dacian population from the 2nd through 7th centuries and the assimilation of the Slavs and other groups which settled the lands on either side of the Danube from the 3rd to the 9th centuries. The Romanian language, in its origin, structure, phonetics, and the majority of its basic vocabulary is a Romance language. Other linguistic influences are recognizable in the vocabulary as well as a few morphological patterns; Slavic is the strongest of these influences. Approximately 16 per cent of the modern Romanian vocabulary is Slavic in origin. About 160 words of the ancient Thracian-Illyric language have been retained to the presrnt day. Examples of these are abur (steam), baci (shepherd leader), balaur (dragon), brad (fir tree), copac (tree), pîrîu (brook), șopîrla (lizard), vatră (fireplace).

Between the 10th and 12th centuries the common Romanian language branched into four dialects: Daco-Român, which became the national and literary language, and three minor dialects which evolved in outlying regions — Aromân, a dialect still found today in some regions of Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria; Megleno-Român which is spoken in certain areas of southwestern Bulgaria and northeastern Greece; and Istro-Român which today is spoken in only about eight communities on the Istrian peninsula in Yugoslavia. The contemporary Daco-Român vocabulary includes words of Slavic, Hungarian, Turkish, and Medio and Neo-Greek origin. The French language became strongly influential in the last two centuries.”

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