Dacian Military Organization and Tactics

Ancient Warfare VI.2

Ancient Warfare VI.2 with ‘The Dacian Wars of Domitian and Trajan’.

From a cultural point of view, the Dacians were quite different from the Thracians: across the centuries, they had developed a sedentary way of life in which agriculture played a prominent role. Most of the Dacians were free farmers, who lived on several acres of fertile land and had a good number of domestic animals. Their agricultural production was abundant enough to provide food for the whole year to their families, and thus each Dacian community was completely autonomous from an economic point of view. From the days of Burebista’s reign, the Dacians also started to extract large amounts of natural resources from the numerous mines of their homeland. This enabled them to become richer and to improve their general conditions of life. When the various tribes of Dacia were unified under Decebalus’ rule, their way of life changed quite significantly: the central state started to exert some form of control over agricultural production and several public constructions were built on the territory. Decebalus ruled over Dacia as an absolute monarch, but with the fundamental support of the country’s aristocracy. The aristocracy was particularly powerful, since nobles were the only members of society capable of raising warriors in case of conflict; as a result, they could greatly influence the military and foreign policy of the king. Generally speaking, the Dacian farmers were excellent warriors. They were used to harsh living conditions and knew how to employ their weapons in the most effective way. The infantry were the main component of the Dacian military forces, since cavalry consisted of just a few mounted skirmishers with light equipment. Under Decebalus, however, the Dacian Kingdom was able to conclude an alliance with the Roxolani (Sarmatians), who provided the Dacians with large and excellent cavalry contingents. These used the equipment and tactics that were typical of the steppe peoples: they could be heavily armoured cataphracts or lightly equipped mounted archers. During their first war against Trajan, the Dacians were also supported by large numbers of foot soldiers provided by the Bastarnae and Scordisci, ferocious fighters who were particularly feared by the Romans because of their great combat skill. Consequently, we could say that the Dacian Army – especially under Burebista and Decebalus – was a multinational force, comprising Dacian infantry and cavalry, Sarmatian cavalry, Bastarnae infantry and Scordisci infantry. The basic Dacian infantryman was different from the Thracian peltast: he was armed with throwing javelins but carried a large shield, and was armed with a sword with a straight blade. Most of the Dacian warriors did not wear armour, except for the nobles, who usually also had helmets and mostly fought on horse. In addition to the light skirmishers mentioned above, the Dacian cavalry also included some small contingents of heavy horsemen provided by the aristocracy. These were known as tarabostes. Almost 75 per cent of the Dacian Army consisted of infantry armed with javelins or spears, the remaining part comprising small quotas of archers and the cavalry (divided between light horsemen and armoured nobles). Considering the standards of the Ancient World, the Dacian armies deployed by Burebista and Decebalus were impressive from a numerical point of view. With the support of their allies, the Dacians could easily deploy an army of 100,000 warriors against their enemies. Unlike the Thracians, the Dacians had no problems in fighting pitched battles and were equipped to face the Roman legions in close combat. Since the days of Burebista’s wars against the Celts of Transylvania, the Dacians had adopted the large oval shields used by the Celts, and this enabled them to fight against any kind of heavy infantry. The Dacian warriors, however, always retained a high degree of mobility, since they never used armour on a large scale. Like the Thracians, no permanent military units existed in peacetime except for the small bodyguards of the king and the major nobles. In times of war, the warriors were assembled on the battlefield according to their tribal origins and were commanded by the nobles of their respective community. They were not paid for their military services and did not receive their personal equipment from the administration of the state. When operating on enemy terrain, however, they were permitted to pillage and raid unrestrictedly.

After the war with Domitian, in view of future conflicts with Rome, Decebalus decided to retrain part of his military forces according to contemporary Roman models. This was something that the Thracians had already done during the previous decades and that could have transformed the Dacian Army into a much more effective fighting force. Decebalus, in particular, was interested in improving the general quality of his infantry: he wanted to introduce the same close tactical formations as the legions, and to do this he needed Roman instructors. Initially he hired Roman deserters who had joined his cause or Roman prisoners of war who had been captured during the conflict with Domitian. Later, as a result of the peace conditions agreed with the Romans, he could count on the Roman military engineers who were sent to Dacia to rebuild the local fortifications. Apparently, however, Decebalus’ programme of military reforms never became effective as the Romans in his service were too few to retrain the whole Dacian Army and the king had to face serious internal opposition that made the introduction of military innovations practically impossible. The Dacian nobles did not want to change their traditional way of fighting, and were against their warriors being equipped like the Roman legionaries. Since the tribal contingents of the Dacian Army were all controlled by the aristocracy, Decebalus had no choice but to renounce his plans. Generally speaking, the Dacian Army always suffered from the divisions emerging between the king and his aristocracy: no standing royal army existed, which greatly limited the personal power of Decebalus.

The allies of the Dacians, who were a fundamental component of their army, always retained their own military organization and tactics, which for the Bastarnae and Scordisci were clearly Celtic. At the beginning of a battle, Celtic infantry were deployed in great masses according to their own tribal/family provenance. Before charging the enemy, they used all their weapons of psychological warfare in order to spread terror in their opponents’ ranks. First of all they slashed the air with their long swords and poured abuse on the enemy, producing a great noise with terrible war cries and by banging their weapons on their large shields. This incredible spectacle was completed by the tossing of standards and by the terrific braying of horns and trumpets. During this initial phase, some champions – chosen warriors – usually came out of their ranks and engaged in duels with the best fighters of the opposing army. The outcome of these single combats usually had a deep impact over the morale of the two armies deployed on the field, so were not merely a secondary part of a battle’s early phase. After some time spent carrying out these preliminary activities, the Celtic warriors charged the enemy en masse, during which they continued to scream and to slash the air with their swords, hoping to cause a breaking of the opponent’s line due to panic. Shortly before investing the first line of the enemy, Celtic warriors equipped with javelins – who were deployed in the first lines – used their missile weapons to break the integrity of the enemy formation. Once in direct contact with the enemy, each Celtic warrior engaged in a duel with an opponent, these individual clashes – which could last from a few seconds to several minutes – being decided by the physique and swordsmanship of the individual fighters. Generally speaking, Celtic tactics were extremely simple: if the frontal assault described above was repulsed, Celtic warriors had no alternative but to launch another similar one. These frontal charges would continue until the enemy army was broken or until the Celtic fighters became exhausted. Very frequently, after a failed assault, the Celts completely lost their morale and were crushed by an effective counter-attack mounted by their enemies. The chances of victory for a Celtic army were strongly related to the success of the first charge: if that failed, Celtic warriors generally lost their impetus and tended to abandon the battlefield. The infantry, however, was not the only component of Celtic armies. Light troops, both foot and mounted, had little tactical importance and were mostly employed to harass the enemy during the early phases of a combat or during guerrilla operations conducted on broken terrain. Heavy cavalry, on the other hand, played a major role in Celtic warfare. The majority of Celtic cavalrymen, being noble warriors, had heavy personal equipment, including helmet and chainmail; their offensive weapons included javelins (used during the first phase of a combat), spear and long slashing sword (employed during frontal charges).

The Sarmatian tribes had a military organization that was quite similar to that of the Dacians. Each community had its own tribal chief, who was a warlord with great experience and exerted control over the other nobles, who commanded the various contingents of warriors. Small permanent bodies of professional fighters did exist, but these usually acted only as the bodyguards of the aristocrats. The majority of the warriors were called to serve only in the event of war. Differently from what happened in the Dacian Army, they could receive part of their panoply from the noble under whom they were serving. Each man was a potential warrior, as the Sarmatians spent most of their life on horseback and were trained to use the bow since childhood. Sarmatian military forces consisted almost entirely of cavalry, with very small quotas of foot soldiers, who were mostly recruited from the subject peoples that they had defeated. Sarmatian cavalry featured a large number of horse archers armed with the composite bow and a smaller – but still significant – number of heavy cataphracts. These heavy cavalry were armed with a two-handed heavy spear known as the contus, which could be used with devastating effects against any kind of enemy, either mounted or on foot; for this reason, they were considered to be the best of all Sarmatian warriors, and Decebalus always tried to have large numbers of them under his command. The horses of the cataphracts were armoured like their riders, and this made the Sarmatian heavy cavalry practically invulnerable to enemy arrows. Sarmatian cavalry tactics were based on feigned retreats, which were followed by rapid attacks that encircled the enemy and crushed it with a rain of arrows. When the enemy was subsequently concentrated in a single point of the battlefield, a final charge by the cataphracts usually concluded the battle in their favour.