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A (Brief) History of Protocronism

Nationalist pseudo-scholarship cropped up soon after the Romanian “national awakening” of the mid-19th century which culminated in the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia to form the modern Romanian state in 1859. Every nation needs a history, and Romanian scholarship naturally begins with the Dacians, the first well-documented society that can be definitively localized to the territory of modern-day Romania. By the 1880s, Romanian schoolchildren were learning about their glorious Dacian ancestors in the same way that French kids knew the Gauls, Germans the Teutons, English the Britons, etc.

In addition to these common forms of nationalism, the 19th century saw exciting (and not at all dubious) archeologic discoveries. The most improbable remarkable of which were the Sinaia Lead Tablets, containing several pages of Dacian script. These tablets, since conveniently tragically lost, are still often brought up in popular culture as proof the Dacians had a written language (these were NOT illiterate Barbarians!). Although he was not involved with the Sinaia tablets, the most “maverick” of the late 19th century Romanian historians was Nicolae Densusianu. In addition to better-researched works on Transylvanian history, Densusianu wrote a most remarkable account of “prehistoric Dacia” which was posthumously published in 1913.

Densusianu’s tome (over 1000 pages) proposed a vast prehistoric culture with its epicenter in modern-day Transylvania [1] which he termed “Pelasgian”. Pelasgians, of course, ultimately gave rise to ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome and its influence can be seen throughout the Ancient and modern world. These ideas—-Romania as the faithful inheritor of the original Western culture, with numerous "proofs" in the form of dubious archeology, fanciful comparative religion, and folk linguistics, have remained a staple of Romanian national mysticism. Densusianu’s influence should not be exaggerated; other contemporary authors such as Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu Hasdeu held similar but more moderate views. Densusianu, however, was the first stray so far as to openly conflict mainstream historical scholarship. Alexandru Xenopol, the “dean” of late 19th century Romanian history and no enemy to nationalism, harshly criticized Densusianu’s shoddy methods.

Strident patriotic claims about the Dacians were already a staple of popular Romanian history by the 1920s Interestingly, although some intellectuals associated with the para-fascist Legion [2] in the 1930s emphasized the nation’s mystic Dacian origins the Legion largely rejected the Dacians as heroes on the grounds that they were pagan. This was of great importance because the Legion largely presented its fascistic ideas in the language of Eastern Orthodox mysticism [3].

In contrast, the Romanian Communists embraced the Dacians. It was under the dictatorship Golden Age of Nicolae Ceausescu that Protochronism took its canonical form. The term “Protochronism” itself was coined by literary critic Edgar Papu in a 1974 essay in the magazine Secolul 20 (“the 20th Century”). The gist of the original article was that Romanian literature anticipated developments in Western European books rather than being influenced by them. The word came to be applied to any claim that the “Romanians did it first” and more generically to the “amazing Dacian civilization” theme in Communist propaganda. Due to this convoluted origin and the fact that most claims involve the Dacians, the synonyms “Dacomania” or “Dacopathy” are preferred among academics. “Protochronism” is more prevalent in popular culture.

The Dacians in Ceausescu-era Romania provided a model of cultural superiority and a (conveniently) non-Christian exampe of past glory. Of course, they were also a “unorganized state” formed along proto-socialist lines. These facts were duly confirmed by archeologic digs which soon uncovered a vast Daco-Thracian civilization that not only created modern Romania but birthed Western civilization. Publication at regular “dacology” conferences soon followed...

While Protochronism took a major blow with the fall of Communism in 1989, it survived largely through the patronage Iosif Constantin Dragan. After moving from pro-Axis Romania to fascist Italy in 1940, Dragan made a career as a fascist-oriented intellectual before getting his start in the oil industry in 1948. Over the following decades, he built a multi-million dollar business empire [4]. Dragan, who never disavowed his support for WW2 dictator war criminal Leader Ion Antonescu[5], also agreed with the Dacians=Romanians=Original World Civilization thesis. His acceptance of an honorary doctorate in Romania in 1980 cemented his association with the Communist propaganda machine. It is arguable whether this is an example or horseshoe theory or just a manifestation of nationalist Communism.

Dragan financed Protochronism through his “charitable” foundations and sponsoring the journal Noi, tracii ... ("We, the Thracians…"). Most notably, he organized the carving of a Rushmore-esque statue of the Dacian leader Decebalus from a cliff overlooking the Danube (under which is carved Dragan’s name). Dragan’s death in 2008 left Protochronism without a clear leader (and certainly without a rich benefactor). It is now sustained by various primarily internet-based groups whose increasingly bizarre theories are largely detailed in this article.

The most prominent post-Dragan protochronist Dacologist has been Romanian-American physician Napoleon Savescu, who founded the Dacia Revival International Society (http://www.dacia.org/dacianew/). Although he appears to be no longer active, Savescu remains influential in various (largely online) circles. Savescu’s contribution was primarily in "discovering" that Latin was derived from the Dacian language and therefore Romanian is the protype of Romance Thraco-Dacian language family.

TL;DR Protochronism is a popular term for Romanian nationalist pseudo-scholarship with origins in the late 19th century. Official endorsement by the Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s made it an influential current in Romanian culture. Kept alive in the 1990s and 2000s by a controversial Romanian-Italian oil magnate, it has recently transformed an online community of cranks with bizarre theories.
  1. Coincidentally Densusianu’s birthplace and the "power base" of Dacia during Roman times. This was especially relevant to nationalist discourse over Transylvania, which was part of Austria-Hungary at the time and a major object of Romanian irredentism.
  2. Better known in English language sources as the Iron Guard
  3. This is one of the major forces that has limited the influence of Protocronism in mainstream Romanian nationalism. Alternative, more mainstream nationalist theories link Romania with the cultural legacy of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire e.g. Nicolae Iorga's Byzantium after Byzantium
  4. his maximum wealth was estimated at 1.5 billion dollars in 2006
  5. His other pseudohistorical hobby was rehabilitating Antonescu