The language of the Getae and the Dacians before the Roman conquest presents a particular importance for the history of the countries from the lower Danube.
We find most of the notes regarding the characteristics of the barbarian language spoken at the lower Danube in the poems of Ovid, written in his exile at Tomis.
In his “Epistulae ex Ponto” and “Tristia”, Ovid mentions often the mode of speaking of the Getae and the Sarmatians, a language which he had learned so well in 6 years that he often attributes himself even the title of a Dacian and Sarmatian poet.
“And neither you should wonder”, says he towards his friend Carus, “if you found errors in the poems which I compose, and which are almost the work of a Getic poet. And oh!, I am ashamed, but I wrote a poem in the Getic language, and I constructed in our meters the barbarian words; but you must congratulate me, they liked the poem and I began to make for myself the name of a poet, among these inhuman Getae. You shall maybe ask me, what subject have I treated. I sang praises to the emperor Augustus and good God has helped me again in this new venture. I have shown in these verses that the body of our emperor and father Augustus was been mortal, but that his divine essence has gone to the celestial abodes, and that his son (Tiberius), who has taken into his hands the running of the empire, although he has refused it a number of times, is like his father in virtues… After I read to the Getae this poem, written not in the language of my country, and I reached the last page, all of them moved their heads, their quivers full of arrows echoed, and a long sigh issued from their mouths; and one of them told me: “You, because you write these things about the emperor, you have to return to his empire” (Ex Ponto, I. IV. 13. v. 16-22).
In another elegy Ovid writes: “It seems to me that I myself have forgotten the Latin language and I have learned to speak like the Getae and the Sarmatians” (Trist. V. 12. v. 57 seqq).
And in another place: “Why should I take so much care to polish my verse? Should I fear maybe that it would not please the Getae? It is possible that I want too much, but I congratulate myself that in this land at the Istru, there is no bigger genius than me. In this land, where I shall spend my days, it is enough if I were considered a poet among the inhuman Getae” (Pont. I. 5. 62 seqq). “I myself, Roman poet, am forced to speak often in the Sarmatic mode. And I am ashamed to admit that through a long disuse the Latin words but barely come into my mind. I do not doubt that also in this letter not a few barbarian words have sneaked in. The guilt is not of the man, but of the place. But, so that I won’t lose entirely my use of the Latin language, and in order that my voice could utter the sounds of my mother language, I speak with myself and repeat the words which I had forgotten (Trist. V. 7. 55; III. 14. 47seqq).
The Getae, as Ovid tells us, had a great power of assimilation. The Greek element of Tomis had been almost completely absorbed in the great mass of the Getic people (Trist. V. 7. 51-52).
“If somebody”, writes Ovid in a letter, “had forced Homer to live in this country, I assure you that he would have also become a Get” (Pont. IV. 2. 21 – 22).
As we see, there was a great similarity between the language of the Getae and the Latin language. The essence of both languages was common.
The language of the Getae was, according to Ovid, a barbarian language, but a Latin barbarian language. We saw above how he himself tells us that many barbarian words, Getic and Sarmatic, had sneaked in his Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto; that his Latin poems, written near the mouths of the Danube, were almost the work of a Getic poet; that in 6 years he had become so accustomed with this language that now Latin words came with difficulty in his mind; and finally, that he had even composed a longer poem (libellus) in the language of the Getae, with which he had made a name for himself among them.
The language of the Dacians had a Latin character also according to Horace, Ovid’s contemporary. In one of his odes, dedicated to Mecenas, he says the following:
“I, who am a child born of poor parents, and whom you Mecenas, honor with your love, I shall not die … In a short time, and even faster than Icarus, the son of Dedalus, I shall see the bellowing shores of the Bosporus, and like a fine singing bird I shall fly over the sandy desert of the Getulii and over the plains of the Hyperboreans. I shall be recognized by the inhabitants of Colchis and by the Dacians, who pretend that they do not fear our weapons, as well as the Gelonii from the extremities of Europe; I shall be taught by the clever Iberians, who drink water from the Rhodan” (Od. II. 20. v. 13 seqq).
We have here a list of the barbarian peoples who still spoke a rustic Latin language in the times of Augustus: the dwellers of the Cimmerian Bosporus, the Getullii, Hyerboreans, Colchii, Dacii, Galii from near the Rhodan and the Iberii from the western peninsula!
The plains of the Hyperboreans, mentioned by Horace in this ode, were the vast plains of the lower Danube. The poet Martial also places the Hyperboreans in Dacia. The Colchii, against who the Argonauts had come with war, dwelt, according to Ovid, in the northern parts of the lower Danube, near the foothills of the Carpathians. Beyond the Colchii, in today Transilvania, Horace mentions the Dacii(ans). The Dacians were considered therefore, in the times of Augustus, as a people speaking a Latin barbarian language.
A particular importance for the matter treated here, regarding the language of the Getae, is presented by two bas-reliefs from the Column of Trajan.
One of this presents a deputation of Dacian peasants (Comati), who, threatened by the legions of the powerful Roman empire, present themselves before the emperor, suing for peace. With the agitated gestures of their hands, and in the attitude of people who argue their innocence, they address directly to the emperor, without interpreters, and Trajan answers them also without interpreters (Froehner, La colonne Trajane, pl. 52-53).
A second relief shows the most important moment of the first war. Three kings of the Dacians, followed by a huge deputation (pilophores and comates) present themselves before the emperor in order to solemnly declare their submission. All of them lay down their weapons. Some kneel, stretching their hands towards the emperor, pleading for peace, others stand with their hands hold together in front of them, or at their back, in the mode in which prisoners of war are represented on antique monuments. This time, the column of Trajan presents again the Dacians addressing the emperor directly, without any interpreter (Ibid, I. pl. 102-104).
This latter scene is illustrated even clearer by the following passage from the history of Dio Cassius. After the ending of the first war, writes he, Trajan had sent a number of representatives of the Dacians to the Senate, to confirm the peace. “The ambassadors of Decebal were introduced to the Senate, where after they laid down their weapons, they hold together their hands in the way of the captives, spoke some pleading words, after which they accepted the peace and took their weapons from the ground” (lib. LXVIII. c. 8, 9).
The Dacian deputation has spoken therefore in front of the Roman Senate in the national language of the country, which certainly many of the senators understood, especially those who had occupied high positions in the peripheral provinces, and were used with the popular language. In fact, it cannot be admitted in any way, from the point of view of the public law, that the Roman Senate could have considered binding some promises of submission spoken in a language which they did not understand.
The language of the Getae had extended in the more ancient times over the entire eastern part of the Balkan peninsula, down to the Aegean Sea.
In Mesia, the fundamental stratum of the population was formed by the Getae, and their language dominated the entire lower Mesia (Ovid, Tris. III. 9. 3-4; Dio Cassius, lib. 41. 27).
Ovid called the whole western shore of the Black Sea, Geticum litus (Pont.lV. 4. 8; IV. 3. 61).
According to Herodotus, the Thracians were of the same nationality as the Getae (lib. IV); and according to Strabo, the language of the Thracians was identical with that of the Getae (Geogr. Lib. VII. 3. 10). As Capitolinus writes, Maximinus the old, born in a village close to Thrace and a shepherd in his childhood, wanting to take part in the military games, had addressed to the emperor Severus regarding this, speaking to him in a language more Thracian, than Latin (Miximini duo, c. 1).