Revealing The Romance Of The Ancient Roma Gypsy

 You don’t kill a gypsy by cutting him in ten pieces–you will only make ten more gypsies.–Romanian Proverb

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Konstantin Makovsky. Селедочница. 1867, oil painting. Russian.

Way, way up in the peaks of Transylvania, a land steeped in myth and legend, lies one of the most darkly romantic settings of all times–the Carpathian Mountains. As the last truly wild mountain range of Europe, its history remains equally untamed and overflowing with stories of constant conflict, hidden secrets, and haunting wilderness. Recording back thousands of years, it is one of the earth’s most ancient locations and marks the birthplace of the Dacian people, who eventually gave rise to the infamous Romanian gypsies. As a greatly feared and misunderstood minority group–second only to the Jews–the Roma gypsies have endured a stunning amount of war, persecution, and diaspora throughout the ages. Even today, the majority of their cultural evolution remains shrouded in mystery. As a people, they have crossed oceans of time and space in unprecedented ways, which has made them remarkably hard to trace. In keeping with this mysterious reputation, the Roma gypsies maintained a long association with the dramatic landscape of Transylvania’s mountain range and have in many ways embodied the same degree of intensity and enduring life. Despite the endless list of conquerors who longed to possess the wild nature of the Carpathians and their Roma people, no one was every truly successful in capturing the sovereignty of either spirit.

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Konstantin Makovsky. Gypsy. 19th century, oil on panel. Russian.

Anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely remembers the novel’s chilling description of the Carpathian Mountains as dense, dark, and filled with malevolent night creatures. As Johnathan Harker noted during his journey to the castle, the only people brave enough to cluster within Dracula’s forbidding courtyard were the Rudari gypsies–also known as the Usari–who blended seamlessly into the murky landscape because they had lived there longer than even Vlad Tepes himself. We know these people to be the Roma gypsies who resided there for well over a thousand years, long before the legend of the vampire. Within these vast 27,000 square miles of Romanian mountains, which cradle Transylvania like a protective arm, still live the most significant population of carnivores outside of Russia’s Siberian wilderness. Hemmed in by looming mountains and old-growth forest, the region is home to thousands and thousands of Eurasian wolves, brown bears, lynx, wild boars, and golden eagles, all of whom share this virgin forest with the human populace. As such, the region is rife with stories of terrifying wolf attacks and supernatural predators hidden in the woods–tales dating back as far as the 4th century BCE when the land was first conquered by the Roman Empire.

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Frederic Edwin Church. Dreamscape. 19th century, oil. American.

While some people find the word “gypsy” both derogatory and demeaning, this term for the Roma illustrates more than just their ill-conceived reputation as dirty, thieving vagabonds–it offers a sense of their extensive diaspora and deep bohemian roots. But ancient as their history may be, it has been mostly neglected by historians who continue to argue about the details of their exodus. Even though the Roma were not dubbed “gypsies” until the 16th century, they arrived en masse to Europe in the 1st century CE and spread across the continent in every conceivable way. Some people say the name “gypsy” came from the Sanskrit word ḍōmba, meaning “a musical man of low birth,” while others suggest it sprang from the erroneous belief that they originated in Egypt.

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Frederick Walker. The Vagrants. 1868, oil on canvas. The Tate, London.

As an ethnic group, the question of their genetic origins has instigated several DNA studies, most of which agree the Roma first began as “untouchables” in the Punjab region of India. The reason behind their departure is mostly based on a heady combination of speculation and folklore, so there is no real answer. Even though they united their gypsy blood with the local people they found along the way, they were never fully (or even mostly) absorbed by any other ethnic group. Perhaps this assimilation proved challenging because of the intense persecution they faced, or perhaps they were targeted with hostility because they refused to change. Most of their written and oral history is based on “gypsy lore,” which does little to outline the truth of their situation. When tracing their background and movement through the ages, there is no real way to know what was lost and what was gained during their geographical exploits. But what is known for sure is how their ancient homeland, before it was even Romania, gave them an unconquerable sense of the world.

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Richard Hermann Eschke. Little Red Riding Hood. 19th century, oil on canvas. Private collection.

To better understand the Roma, we must travel back to the Transylvanian mountains and the southern region of the Danube river, which fortified many civilizations and served as a conduit for countless invading armies. No race–not even the ubiquitous Jew– was more scattered throughout time than the Roma gypsy. And despite their presence throughout the world, most people are still baffled by the basic question of who they are. Few people can explain where they came from or how they arrived at all corners of the earth. But it would be impossible to understand the Roma without first understanding their strange history, as they are undeniably intertwined. When they left India–some 1,500 years ago–they migrated through Gháza, passed through Persia, Armenia, Byzantium, the Turkish Sultanate of Rum, Greece, and the kingdom of Serbia, finally landing in what is now Romania and central Europe. Some centuries later, the Roma reached Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and Russia. Of course, some arrived earlier and some arrived later, but their general progression is well known.

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Trevor Cole. An old man of Romania. 21st century, photograph. American.

In what is now Romania, the Kingdom of Dacia once clustered itself around the Danube and held in its center the crowning jewel of the Carpathian Mountains. Long before these mysterious peaks of Transylvania became the resting place of dear Vlad Dracul, they were home to many tribes in the 1st century BCE, all of whom were united under the Thracian king, Burebista. The Dacians were a warring lot who clashed often with neighboring clans and found refuge and protection in the isolated woods of the Carpathians. After gleaning pottery and metal working skills from the La Tène Celts, who has lived in the region since the Iron Age, the Dacians dispelled the group a thousand years before Burebista was even king–and later with his help, expanded their lands through the annihilation of certain tribes and the conquest of Greek cities on the west coast of the Black Sea. Of course, this aggressive behavior incensed the Roman Empire and Caesar, who believed they were the only ones entitled to such conquests. But before they could attack the Dacians, both Caesar and king Burebista were killed by assassins, causing the empire to fragment into smaller kingdoms until the great Roman warrior, Trajan, finally conquered Dacia in 98 CE and turned it into Romania. This conquest marked the pivotal distinction between the Roma gypsy of ancient Dacian blood and the new breed of Romanian imported by the invaders. Even though the Roma and the Romanian lived together from that moment forward, this ethnic distinction was the source of their cultural and social divide. And ironically, it has also fueled the belief in many Roma gypsies, that they are, in fact, the pure people of this ancient land.

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Évariste Vital Luminais. Captives. 1845, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Oddly enough, the Dacians made a quick and seamless transition into being “Roma” and adapted quickly to their new environment. As Trajan continued to colonize the area with settlers from the Roman Empire, the local populace was won over by the societies, language, and culture of their conquerors, intermarrying and propagating easily. Even though the Romans only ruled over Dacia for 165 years, this time marked a noticeable change in the Dacian (now Roma) people who no longer viewed themselves as refugees but as part of a legitimate race of metalsmiths, animal traders, musicians, basket makers, and the like. Camps of “tribes” soon morphed into small cities of traders, artisans, entertainers, and animal dealers who lived together with a common goal of survival and prosperity. Oddly enough, this assimilation did not reach the wilds of Transylvania or the inner arch of the Carpathian mountains, where the Roma gypsies continued to live outside Trajan’s great proxy. In this way, Roma gypsies remained separate from their Romanian counterparts. But overall, the Romans successfully tamed the Dacians and went on to secure the rich gold mines of the region; send one hundred thousand male slaves home to Rome; officially end the Dacian Wars; and mark their impending prosperity with 123 days of celebrations. Gladiatorial festivals in the great Colosseum of Rome drew in five million spectators to commemorate the Dacian conquest, while chariot races and beastly displays reputedly left 11,000 slaves and criminals dead.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme. Pollice Verso. 1872, oil on canvas. Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona.

Trajan died in 117 CE, and the Goths soon pushed in. Over the next 800 years, greater Romania was dominated by waves of conflict at the hands of the Goths, the Gepidae, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Slavs, the Avars, and the Bulgarians as they passed through the region, claiming whatever they could. There was no shortage of bloodshed and cultural unrest during these centuries, and linguists studying the Romani language, or Rromanës, claim it is a complex amalgamation of Latin, Slavic, Albanian, and Hungarian words. Consequently, the Roma were absorbed into a tapestry of intertwining interlopers and eventually became known as the Vlachs around the 12th century CE. As part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the lowland areas of the Carpathians were subjected to plundering raids by nomads, while the kingdom itself was harangued by the Mongols at the end of the Middle Ages. But strangely enough, Transylvania, most of the Carpathians, and the Dacian-Roman gypsies had no direct contact with the Roman Empire after the 3rd century CE and generally avoided invasion by retreating away from townships and up into the nearby mountains, as was suggested by archeological findings. This fostered an increased sense of purity in some factions of the Roma gypsies who viewed the Carpathians as the inconquerable vein of their lifeblood and a geographical distinguisher between the ancient and the new.

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Alexander von Wagner. Queen Isabelle Saying Goodbye to Transylvania. 1863, oil on canvas. Hungarian.

These centuries of cultural, political, and social occupation endured by the Roma took their toll in countless ways on both their lives and their perspective. While they had transitioned pretty easily from their Dacian identity, the intense chaos of subsequent centuries proved more challenging. Year by year, the spirit and identity of the Roma gypsy was hammered out through endless campaigns of military violence and unrest, allowing some to negotiate settlements while others were shackled as slaves. The “gypsy” experience was far from universal and shifted along with the next series of invaders, creating a notably wide diversity within their one ethnic group. But surprisingly, there was one unifying belief among the Roma that never seemed to fade–no matter how many intermarriages and conquests took place–and that was their feeling of “other.” From the 1st century onwards, the gypsies were forced to find resilience amid chronic change, never finding total security in their homeland or enough time to situate their own sense of identity. And in essence, it was this perpetual state of unrest that formed a common heritage among them, a shared past, of forever being the outsider.

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John Singer Sargent. Untitled.
1856-1925, oil on canvas. American.

This historical journey, which essentially began from the moment the Roma left India, became a thousand-year road and the foundation of their cultural identity. Even as they emerged from different combinations of Dacian, Roman, Punjab, and Etruscan backgrounds, the Roma life, experience, and shared past was based on the act of movement and exodus. And this imagined sense of community and unity was what held them together as Roma–and as gypsies– and allowed them to rally around common ideas and beliefs. In this sense, their identity was not formed as a result of their transient state but in spite of it. As such, the Roma became a people unlike any other–dispersed far and wide–with no central and unifying fictions other than centuries of disruption and persecution. They had no common religion, no singular holy book, no promised land–just the ongoing demand for survival against all odds and the desire to flourish and achieve equality. The Roma were considered “many stars scattered in the sight of God,” with varying degrees of Christian, Catholic, and Muslim beliefs.

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Unknown, photograph.

But no matter where the Roma went or what they did, they were social rejects who lived largely in poverty and exclusion. Medieval Europe saw them as dark-skinned wanderers with strange clothes and an even stranger language. They were feared, shunned, hated, and given few opportunities to culturally assimilate. The gypsies kept to themselves and relied on their learned spirit of resilience to take what they needed, even if it meant using less than honest tactics. Of course, this reality only further solidified their reputation as vagrant grifters, and more dramatically, an inferior race of sinners. The etymological source of the term to gyp (or cheat) someone was connected to the belief that Romanis were tramps and thieves. They wandered the countryside, begging and stealing, often afraid to enter the cities where they were known as witches and fortune-tellers with a dark past. Locals kicked and spat on them, blamed unexplained misfortunes on them, and when they still persevered, enslaved and killed them. Up until the 19th century, even respectable scholars used the term “gypsy language” to describe the Romani tongue.

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Gypsy Under Arrest. 19th century, photograph.

Much like the Africans, the Roma knew centuries of slavery both at home and abroad. From the moment Dacia succumbed to Rome, people were shackled and sold; however, the Mongol invasion of Romania around 1241 CE marked the beginning of institutionalized slavery for the gypsies, even in Transylvania. The invaders marched women, children, and skilled workers to nearby flesh markets where they were sold throughout Eurasia and even shipped to Slavic Russia. Sometime after Wallachia was founded in the 14th century, the practice of enslaving Roma people became even more widespread and was broken into three main categories. The slaves of the crown washed gold, trained bears, and worked with metal, while the “boyars” did a variety of jobs from playing music to painting to making products. And the slaves of the monasteries were grooms, cooks, and coachmen–sometimes even castrated to befit a house servant who must wait on noblewomen. Gypsy slaves were not allowed to speak their native Romani language and were not allowed to marry without the consent of their master. In Transylvania, the Roma were known to break free from their neck shackles and run hiding into the great Carpathian Mountains, where they could return to the comforts of its free, wild, and dangerous landscape.

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Edwin Long. The Suppliants: Expulsion of the Gypsies from Spain. 1872, oil on canvas. Royal Holloway, University of London.

Certain countries, like Spain, issued edicts against the gypsies in 1490, which only drove them further underground. For the next 300 years, Spain tried to forcibly assimilate them and end their wanderings by controlling their customs, their language, and even what they wore. England and France outright expelled them in the mid 16th century, and when that didn’t work, they put them to death for minor infractions. In the 1600s, most of Europe realized the Roma weren’t going to disappear, and they all started trying forcibly assimilate them. In other areas like Spain and Norway, Roma adults were separated from their children who were put in orphanages and workhouses. These movements were empowered by secular Romani practices like “bride kidnapping,” which was essentially marriage by abduction and allowed a young girl to be forcibly taken from her home and given as a partner to a slightly older male. By outsiders, this was seen as nothing short of a sex crime, while the Roma traditionally viewed it as a way to avoid a bride price and facilitate an easier transition.

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John Bagnold Burgess. A Little Spanish Gipsy. 1850, oil on canvas. Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum, U.K.

Horrific stories of gypsies being strung up, tortured, and executed in the 17th century were common. Hungary put 45 gypsies–men and women–on the breaking wheel before beheading and quartering them alive in 1782 for suspected cannibalism. It was soon discovered no one in town had actually been eaten and there was no crime. Around this same time, some other regions like Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia tried harder to settle the Roma by building them permanent huts and tents, forbidding them to travel, and demanding their children be put up for adoption and taken in by upstanding Europeans. But oddly, this type of hostility towards the Roma existed in close proximity to an idealized adoration of their lifestyle, as “gypsy music” funneled into the theatres of Vienna and Budapest and offered a more romantic and intoxicating image of the Roma as mystical, free-spirited nomads.

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John Singer Sargent. El Jaleo. 1882, oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Some areas of the world did not emancipate their Roma slaves until the 1850s, right around the same time the American Civil War would begin waging its own battle around slavery. The Roma also shared in the mid 20th-century persecution of the Holocaust and were considered racially inferior by the Nazis who were determined to handle the “gypsy question.” Subjected to the same kind of internment, labor, and mass murder as the Jewish people, over a quarter of a million Roma were exterminated in concentration camps. When WWII ended, the communists of Eastern Europe tried to integrate them into the labor forces, shattering the cohesiveness of their traditional communities, and essentially eliminating most of their nomadic ways. These moves led to rampant unemployment and dependence on social programs like welfare. As gypsy ghettos continued to emerge, places like the Czech Republic became increasingly alarmed and were accused on sterilizing female Roma patients without their consent.

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Nicolai Grigescu. Gypsy From Georgia. 1872, oil on canvas. Romanian.

Truly, the history of the Roma gypsies is so rich with conflict, unrest, transience, persecution, folklore, and tragedy, it’s virtually impossible to sum it all up in less than a few volumes. And many experts and researchers agree, it’s a story that has remained largely untold by anyone. While some of the pieces, like their cultural persecution, have been pretty well documented, the vastness of their diaspora combined with their general distrust has made aspects of their identity particularly hard to delineate. While the “gypsy” experience has surely evolved a zillion different ways, in a zillion different landscapes, somehow the Roma have remained cohesive and connected. In fact, traditional Roma gypsies still follow a strict mahrime code of behavior with uniquely similar systems and worldviews. Despite their myriad of origins and the amount of sheer victimization they have faced, their society and heritage have persevered.

Roma-Gypsy-Romanian-dark-history-Ancient-DacianRoma gypsies did not see the world as black or white–but rather as shades of the two. Things were not just clean or dirty, they could also be defiled or taboo, never to be restored. This fierce attention to cleanliness provided a good portion of their morality and translated to many areas of their social sphere. When a child was born, the mother and father were both seen as impure, a state that was lessened if the offspring were male. Other strict rules around cleanliness involved person hygiene, food, and all aspects of washing. When something like a dish or a towel became mochadi, or polluted, it must be thrown away regardless of its condition. This perspective also translated to a strong belief in honor and shame, along with the need for generosity and success. As far as anyone knows, none of these Romani codes have been written down–they have been kept alive only through oral tradition and practice.

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Roma boy in bear costume, entertaining Christmas crowds in Budapest, Hungary. 2006, photograph.

With such a lack of ancestral records, the majority of the Roma history relied on clan family customs composed of song, storytelling, and tradition. Outsiders, even fellow Romanians, were considered Gadjo and potential sources of pollution to the purity of their caste. They had strict guidelines around things like prostitution, intermarriage, and banishment, to which even less traditional Roma subscribed. To be expelled from Romani society was considered the worst punishment of all. Unbelievably, some say this belief in ethnic purity dates all the way back to the legacy of ancient Dacia and lingered through the 20th century as “Protochronism,” which states pre-Roman Dacia is the cradle of all civilization. Just as the French Gauls and ancient Greeks found self-identity in their ancient pursuits, Dacia has continued to fuel the personal identity and purity of the Roma gypsy.

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A gypsy encampment. 20th century, photograph. Lyons, Illinois.

The condition of the Roma remains tenuous around the world, even today. Eastern Europe is home to a largely overlooked population of 12 million Romani people who speak a unique language and follow a distinctly different culture. While they live primarily in Romanian, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia, the Roma themselves constitute a bigger nation than the Czechs, Hungarians, or the Dutch–and yet have little political or social influence in their societies. That said, the reclusive and opportunistic nature of the Roma has done nothing to dispel their reputation as freeloading outsiders, thereby creating a sad but seemingly unsolvable problem of cultural disconnect. While this tension manifests itself in different ways depending on the region, the truth of the gypsy is most exquisitely seen in places like Ocna Sibiului in the foothills of the Transylvanian’s mountains.

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Nicolae Vermont. The Red Scarf. 1925, oil painting. Romanian.

Some Roma in Transylvania have prospered, but the majority of them continue to face discrimination in ghetto-like areas rife with drugs, overcrowding, and crime. As of 2005, only 20 percent of Roma children were enrolled in primary school–not because they refused to attend but because they had no shoes. Many locals have been buried in landslides right outside the city, but they still refuse assistance from the government who say they have offered them safer plots of land. Instead, some Roma have chosen to live in cave dwellings literally carved out from the side of the Carpathian mountains. Whether this was done out of desperation or resistance likely varies from case to case, but one thing is clear–the Roma have lived according to their own code for thousands of years and that’s not soon going to change.

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Courtesy of BBC News. 2015, photograph. Ocna Sibiului, Romania.

And the rest is history.

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20th century, French postcard.

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