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Aemulatio Traiani? Constantine’s Restored Dacia and the Tervingi

Timothy Campbell Hart

University of Michigan

An important element of Constantine’s political presentation, celebrated in histories (Theophanes 51) and panegyric (Julian, Or. 1.9D, Caes. 329B-C; Optatianus Porphyrius 18.5-10), was his claim to have restored Trajan’s lost Dacian provinces beyond the Danube River.  In light of clear, contradictory archaeological evidence, was Constantine’s Dacian rhetoric nothing but hot air?  This paper examines a range of literary and legal texts to reconstruct the emperor’s goals and actions beyond the Danube.  By legitimating the settlement of the Tervingi Goths within the boundaries of old Dacia, Constantine claimed to have restored Roman hegemony over the region.  This new order of 332 CE benefitted all parties in the short-term, but also sowed the seeds of the late fourth century Gothic migrant crisis when emperor Valens tried to change the terms of Constantine’s settlement. 

Constantine’s Dacian restoration has been interpreted as mainly imperial spin, exaggerating modest Transdanubian gains (Wolfram 1988; Heather 1991).  After all, excavations and survey clearly show that while Constantine did expand the Tetrarchic system of forts and watchtowers beyond the river in conjunction with his new bridge at Oescus, Rome never again administered Dacia as it had between Trajan’s conquests (101-106) and Aurelian’s evacuation of 271-275 (Bondoc 2009).  Further complications arise: at the same time as Constantine’s putative reconquest, archaeologists locate the development of the so-called Sântana-de-Mureș/Černjachov Culture in and around the old province, a material culture complex associated with the fourth century Goths (Heather and Matthews 1991; Kulikowski 2007). 

The scattered literary sources provide some illumination: his position as sole emperor secure, Constantine launched a decisive campaign in Transylvania against the Tervingi Goths, leading to a formal treaty in 332 (Kovács 2016).  Beginning with Thompson (1966) and Wolfram (1988), scholars have seen this political settlement as an early example of the foederati treaties known from the fifth and sixth centuries (eg: Procopius, Wars 3.11.3-4).  Such interpretations are anachronistic for 332 and, crucially, fail to account for the most unusual and significant feature of Constantine’s treaty: the establishment of free trade across the Danube (Themistius, Or. 10.136/206), a commerce revealed in an explosion of Roman coinage north of the Danube in the mid fourth century (Preda 1975; Heather and Matthews 1991).

Instead of viewing the post-332 Tervingi as alien foederati, I argue that we need to conceive of them as laeti: defeated barbarians resettled within the boundaries of the Roman Empire (Mathisen 2006).  Such an interpretation allows us to finally make sense of both the free trade clause, and Constantine’s claim to have restored Trajan’s Dacia.  While not quite Roman citizens, laeti were considered inhabitants of the Empire and subject to its laws and customs, including open exchange with other parts of Romania.  Resettlement of barbarians inside the limites, meanwhile, had been a frequent imperial tactic since the early Principate as a means of augmenting underpopulated regions (de St. Croix 1981).  Within this context, the only devious aspects of Constantine’s boast are the logistics of his “resettlement” of Dacia.  Following their defeat, the Tervingi did not go anywhere; they were simply acknowledged as the legitimately-sanctioned inhabitants of the same Transdanubian area where they had been “squatting” for decades.

Constantine’s treaty with the Tervingi allowed for an unprecedented exchange of goods and ideas (including Christianity) between Goths and Romans in the mid fourth century.  I argue, however, that the quasi-Roman status the Tervingi enjoyed under the treaty of 332 established a dangerous precedent when Valens tried to alter the nature of the Romano-Gothic relationship in 369.  Instead of treating the Tervingi like inhabitants of the Empire, Valens returned to a more traditional outlook where people dwelling beyond the Danube could only be considered intractable Scythian barbarians.  This disastrous reversal led directly to the breakdown of Gothic stability beyond the river and, from there, to the crisis and rebellion that ended Valens’ life and pushed the Goths into the limelight of subsequent Roman history.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Political Self-Representation

Session/Paper Number

3.6

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