Dacian Riders

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DACIAN RIDERS . The so-called Dacian Riders were associated with a mystery religion of the Getae and the Dacians, peoples of Thracian stock who lived in ancient Dacia (roughly equivalent to modern-day Romania). The cult of the Dacian, or Danubian, Riders began to spread among Roman soldiers soon after 106 ce, when Dacia was conquered by Trajan and made a province of the Roman Empire. Traces of the cult have been found as far away as the Roman provinces of Gaul and Britain.

Numerous reliefs and gems depicting the Dacian Riders are extant. Of the 232 items catalogued by Dumitru Tudor (19691976), 60 were found in Dacia, 24 in Moesia Superior, 34 in Moesia Inferior, 47 in Pannonia Inferior, and 25 in Pannonia Superior. Most of the Dacian reliefs are made of marble. They were copied on a large scale in lead, a very expensive material whose use can be explained only by the magical purposes for which the images of the Dacian Riders were intended. Of the 90 lead copies extant, 44 were found in Pannonia Inferior.

The most ancient reliefs show only one horseman, whose iconography was influenced by that of the Thracian Rider. Later monuments show two riders at either side of a goddess whose principal symbolic attribute is a fish. Of the 31 pieces belonging to the one-horseman type, 18 were found in Dacia. The two-horseman type belongs to the later period of this cult, which flourished in the third century ce and declined in the fourth.

Besides the two horsemen and the goddess with a fish, the iconography of the monuments includes prostrated characters, attendants, and various symbols, such as the sun, the moon, stars, and numerous animals (including the ram, dog, lion, eagle, peacock, raven, cock, snake, and sometimes even the bull). Scholarly identifications of the goddess are widely divergent. The two horsemen have been identified with the Dioscuri by some scholars and with the Cabiri brothers by others. The Greek iconography of the Dioscuri has had a particular impact on that of the Dacian Riders, but all these scholarly hypotheses are more or less fanciful.

It is likely that certain beliefs and practices, borrowed especially from Mithraism, were added to a local Dacian cult and that these borrowings changed the cult into a mystery religion. Although the myth of the Danubian Riders remains unknown, it is safe to state that it was based on some Dacian beliefs not shared by the Thracians south of the Danube. The two horsemen and the goddess were probably supposed to establish a link between three cosmic layers (heaven, earth, and underworld), as the partition of the reliefs into three registers seems to suggest.

Only three degrees of initiation were present in the mysteries of the Dacian Riders: Aries ("ram"), Miles ("soldier"), and Leo ("lion"). The first two were placed under the influence of the planet Mars, the last one under the influence of the sun. If we interpret the numerous animals depicted in the reliefs of the Danubian Riders as astrological entities, then we may surmise that the symbolism of this mystery religion was fairly complicated. Inscriptions are unusually scarce in number, short (especially those on gems), and indecipherable. Initiates in the mysteries identified their grade by badges and seals; for example, a gem of unknown provenance bears as its inscription the single word leon. In all probability, sacrifice of a ram played an important part in these mysteries.

See Also

Thracian Rider.


On the Dacian Riders, see the excellent work of Dumitru Tudor, Corpus monumentorum religionis equitum Danuvinorum, 2 vols. (Leiden, 19691976). Volume 1, The Monuments, translated by Eve Harris and John R. Harris, is a detailed catalog; volume 2, The Analysis and Interpretation of the Monuments, translated by Christopher Holme, is a thorough survey of scholarly theories concerning the mysteries.

New Sources

Alexandrescu, Petre. "L'oiseau unicorne, Introduction à l'iconologie thrace." Comptes rendues de l'Académie d'Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (1993): 725745. As well as the Dacian Rider, the god with the unicorn bird was an important presence in the Getan pantheon.

"Heros Equitans." In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. 6, 12. Zürich and Munich, 1992, pp. 10191081. Various specialists examine the iconography of the heroic horseman, including full lists of the monuments and the related illustrations. See especially the chapter on "Les Cavaliers Danubiens," pp. 10781081, providing a reappraisal of the relevant religious-historical issues.

Sanie, Silvin. "Kulte und Glauben im römischen Süden der Moldau (Ostrumänien)." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt I, vol. II, 18, 2. Berlin and New York, 1989, pp. 12721316. See especially pp. 12941296, dealing with the Dacian Rider and its mystery cult guaranteeing immortality.

Ioan Petru Culianu and

Cicerone Poghirc (1987)

Revised Bibliography