Ancient History & Civilisation


The Artist

IN MATTERS RELATING TO THE empire’s defence, it is misleading to see Rome solely as a Mediterranean power. Such a view shows Italy at the centre, double-wrapped by the inner and outer provinces. Macedon and Carthage have long been eliminated and the nearest rival, Parthia (Iran) is far away. If, on the other hand, we look more closely, seeing Rome in a European context, her safety seems less certain and the outside world less distant.

The Celts had been a formidable enemy. Occupation of their lands brought Rome up against the Germans, resulting in an imperial frontier on the Rhine and upper Danube, only 250 miles from Italy. The middle Danube was more dangerous still. Its course is a similar distance from north-eastern Italy, but the Drava and Sava rivers offered corridors straight toward the empire’s centre, while the passes through the Julian Alps, behind Trieste, are the lowest in the Alpine arc. Add to this the extent and backwardness of the Eastern European and Eurasian barbarians, plus their tendency to migrate westwards, and we see why Rome’s critical frontiers were not the remote Euphrates, the Syrian desert or the far Sahara, but the not-so-distant Rhine and Danube.

Fortunately, grave or multiple dangers had been slow to arise along this 1,700-mile European boundary. Following Augustus’ German War a long lull settled on the Rhine, allowing Claudius to turn toward Britain. But before this tiresome entanglement could be resolved, rumblings across the Danube began to remind the Roman leadership that there were good reasons to consider the river’s middle and lower reaches as the most endangered sectors of the entire imperial rim. Accordingly Domitian’s reign saw a decisive shift in deployment from the German to the Balkan front. It was the terrain beyond its far bank which made the Danube a less favourable defensive line than the Rhine. For substantial stretches Rome’s Danubian provinces faced mountain, favouring the attacker and covering his retreat. The late-1st-century disturbances arose from such regions, especially today’s Romania, where the southern Carparthians loom darkly beyond the Danubian Plain.

A wider view shows the Carpathians as part of an almost complete mountain circle, two hundred miles across, with peaks over 7,000 feet. Within lies Transylvania, home of the Dacians, a former steppe people of Sarmatian origin, related to Ovid’s Getans. Their capital, as well as Dacia’s most populous region (today’s Hunedoara) lay in Transylvania’s south-western corner, dangerously close to Belgrade and the Drava-Sava mouths. Southwards Dacia was less than 250 miles from the Aegean and barely a hundred from the Black Sea. Here was a natural fortress of exceptional strength, looming over the Danubian frontier; as well as a strategic hinge, hurtful to Rome in the wrong hands.

In earlier episodes we have glimpsed the barbarian lands by courtesy of Roman authors. Regrettably their light penetrates the Carpathian ring but faintly. The Dacian Wars are described only by Cassius Dio of Nicaea, the 3rd-century Greek whose account of this period survives in the much truncated form of a précis by John Xiphilinus, a Byzantine cleric, made at about the time of the Norman conquest of England. His few pages provide general background but little about Dacia and its people. Lack of information about the frontier lands is, of course, normal. The Roman army was late to arrive on these reaches of the Danube. The river bank and its hinterlands were places of army camps, half-drained bog, part-built roads and barely assimilated natives. We may assume that civilian visitors, especially of the tourist kind, were seldom seen. Beyond lived the wild tribes. Unless strongly escorted on military or diplomatic business, or carrying merchandise destined for barbarian chieftains, crossing the river was an act of last resort. As mentioned in Episode One, an archaic custom had allowed those condemned to death a grace period within which to flee Roman territory; the sanctuary seeming to offer little more than the sentence. This exemplified the Barbaricum’s reputation; and neither it, nor the frontier in the stricter sense, nor even the outer provinces, were conducive to authors whose tastes, like their readers’, tended to flower in more civilized vicinities. Rather than complain at the sparseness of the record, one should perhaps be grateful that Ovid, Dio and Tacitus contributed at all. However, Ovid is long gone and though Tacitus, freed at last from fear, is now writing at full flood, he stands at the stern of his age and his work covers nothing later than Agricola’s death in AD 93. From that date, to the commencement of Hadrian’s reign in 117, written history runs thin. And yet there is, at the heart of Rome, a major source of quite another kind: a Bayeux Tapestry in marble, dedicated to the emperor Trajan and devoted almost entirely to his adventures across the Danube.

Of Trajan it may briefly be said that he was Rome’s first non-Italian emperor. Born in 53 at Italica, near Seville, of good Roman family, his father had commanded the Xth legion when Vespasian’s guns were battering the Judaean cities. He served as a tribune in Syria when his father was its governor. Under Domitian he himself governed Spain; and he was probably present at the two Danubian war theatres, Marcomannia (Czechoslovakia) and Dacia.1 At the time of his adoption by Nerva he was governor of Upper Germany, where he stayed till that emperor’s death. Modernity would probably call him a liberal, though in view of his survival in high office under Domitian the cynic might question his sincerity as a champion of freedom. History is not short of soldiers who plead duty in support of tyranny.

Though neither unduly intelligent, subtle nor learned, Trajan was, it seems, one of those rare men able to wear all hats and please all people. As emperor his answers to the twin ills of unemployment and public boredom anticipate the baby-kissing politics of our own day: ‘In popularity few have been his equal, for he knew that the Roman people’s affections are engaged by two things: the corn dole and the spectacles; and that in successful government jollity looms as large as polity.’2

He was serenely self-confident, with the gift of imperturbability and the ability to shrug off criticism. He was a relaxed and affable man, and perhaps also a modest one, though with a weakness for claiming credit for building work.3 According to one source, ‘his name was on so many buildings that they nicknamed him Ivy.’4 Dio accuses him of being a drinker and a paederast: ‘We know of course of his inclinations toward boys and wine. But despite this his reputation remained high, for though he drank hard he stayed sober and his relationships with boys harmed no one.’5 His popularity with the army was beyond question and this was soon matched by popularity in Rome: with the lower classes for his bread and circuses and with the upper for his decisive rejection of all things Domitianic:

He envied no one. He killed no one. He favoured all good men and feared none. He ignored slanders. He refrained from anger. He was not tempted by others’ money. He had no murders on his conscience. He spent hugely on war and the works of peace. He was approachable and a good mixer. He would share his carriage with others, visit the houses of ordinary citizens and relax there.6

The dismantling of terror, begun by the elderly caretaker emperor Nerva (AD 96–8), was accelerated in all spheres of public life. Informers and denouncers were outlawed. Publication of the Senate Transactions7 (the Roman Hansard) was resumed. The Younger Pliny speaks of heady ideas such as imperial accountability and equality under law: ‘An emperor must deal fairly with his empire, accounting for expenditure and not spending what he might be ashamed to admit … There is a notion in the air which I hear and understand for the first time: not that the First Citizen is above the law but that the law is above the First Citizen.’8 This was the man on whom the Senate would vote the title for which he would be most remembered: optimus princeps (best emperor of all): ‘As the word “august” reminds us of the one on whom it was first bestowed, so the word “best” will not live in mankind’s vocabulary without memory of you.’9

Turning to the future emperor Hadrian, twenty-three years Trajan’s junior and a distant relative from the same provincial town: the boy’s father died when he was ten and Trajan became his guardian. In due course his mother sent him to Rome, where he was laughed at for his provincial accent, lost his head at the sight of so much glamour, overspent his allowance and incurred his guardian’s displeasure. But fortune would smile in his direction when Nerva nominated him to carry the news to Mainz of his guardian’s adoption. Then, on Nerva’s death (after only a sixteen-month reign) he was again despatched to Germany to tell Trajan that the purple toga was his. To bring this, the greatest of all news, was seen as supremely auspicious. In Trajan’s eyes, however, he would remain a messenger boy.

Trajan’s Column, index of a trans-Danubian epic, stands alone in Trajan’s Forum. It is remarkable in all respects but in none more than its preservation: a marble mast, intact amid the forum’s shipwreck. And while St Peter10 has replaced the emperor at the masthead, the shaft on which he stands (though chipped by eighteen centuries and gnawed by the petro-chemistry of our own) has eluded major ravage and spoliation. Even its base largely escaped injury by the Vandals and their more recent namesakes.

This last structure, the Column’s podium, is a seventeen-foot cube of marble blocks, carved with captured armament and housing the sepulchral chamber for Trajan’s ashes and those of his empress Plotina. Above the doorway an inscription tells us that the Senate had the Column erected during Trajan’s sixth consulate (c.AD 113) ‘to show how high a hill required to be excavated to accommodate these great works’. The hill was the Quirinal; the works Trajan’s Forum (last and largest of the imperial fora), the vast Basilica Ulpia which lay along its northern side, as well as libraries, markets, shops, colonnades and other useful or ceremonial features. To accommodate what was by all accounts a breathtaking ensemble of buildings and spaces, it had been necessary to cut away a flank of the hill to a depth of 120 feet. It is clear from the inscription that the original reason for the Column was simply to record this effort, the combined height of podium and shaft being equivalent to the depth of rock removed. In other words, the Column’s far more famous function, as a memorial to the Dacian Wars, was an afterthought; and the shaft, originally intended to be plain, was adapted to this new purpose by carving on it the frieze, upon which its claim to greatness rests.

The Column consists of seventeen marble drums, each over four feet tall. Slanting across its joins and crossing them with extreme precision, the frieze covers the shaft’s entire surface in a spiral of twenty-three bands, approximately three feet wide and 656 long. Its subject is Trajan’s conquest of Transylvania, known as the Dacian Wars. It contains more than 2,500 human figures, those in foreground averaging twenty to twenty-two inches in height. These are in half relief, with background figures in low relief. Though the frieze is continuous, its action is divided into more than 150 episodes, separated by conventional uprights such as a tree, wall or standing man. The reliefs are thought to have been painted and many of the figures held metal swords and spears. Inside the Column is a spiral stairway, lit from four sides by forty-three window slits, which doubled as lewis holes when the drums were hoisted into place. There are also fourteen larger, round holes, brutally banged into the frieze at irregular intervals; probably for the scaffolding required to rob the marble hands of their weapons. It seems likely that the sculptors worked from a full-scale cartoon, consisting perhaps of a textile band on which the content had been drawn in detail. Opinions differ on whether it was carved drum by drum in the workshop; as one, on site; or in the workshop with a few inches, near each join, left for completion when assembled.

The reliefs are not mentioned by any ancient author. However, Trajanic coins show the Column, with diagonal lines to represent the frieze; their dates of issue suggesting that the final concept was in place at latest within eight years of the end of the Dacian Wars and well inside Trajan’s reign. The frieze is remarkable for the number and diversity of its scenes, the quality of its compositions and its narrative skills. Most extraordinary of all is the precision of its detail, though the sculptors were working to only 30 per cent life-size. Equally memorable is the sense of great events, despite the inhibitions of the three-foot band. In terms of technique and artistry it is unsurpassed.

In theory the continuous frieze offered a powerful form of expression. At the symbolic level its upward movement echoes the hard slog, from the Danube up into the Carpathians. At the level of propaganda its continuity allows Trajan’s quiet presence (sixty appearances in 165 scenes) to accumulate, with all the insistence of a drumbeat, culminating in the fanfare of his statue at the column’s summit. But in other respects this is an inadequate medium. The Column is perplexing to the viewer, its narrative continually disappearing round the corner as well as retreating further and further up the shaft. From any position the story is disjointed, since more than half of each loop is out of sight. To follow it an observer would have to walk twenty-three times round the Column, inviting eye strain and a cricked neck. These irritants were originally mitigated by the Forum’s design. Trajan’s libraries – one for Greek, the other for Latin books – flanked the Column on two sides. These must have been provided with balconies from which close inspection could be made, at least to about half the Column’s height. On the third side towered Trajan’s huge temple, the Basilica Ulpia,11 on which we may suppose there were also viewing provisions, this time to full height. We must remember, too, that in their original painted form the reliefs would have been bolder and their story clearer.

Owing therefore to the problems of a Column which begins from a base itself three times human height and ends at an altitude which almost defies the unaided vision, attempts to study it in situ will almost certainly end in frustration. Fortunately plaster casts are to hand in the Museum of Roman Civilization.12 These are from matrices made on the initiative of Napoleon III in the 1860s. A second set went to Paris and a third to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, where the entire frieze is reconstructed in halves, the replicas skilfully mounted round two columnar brick cores. They have stood in the Plaster Casts Hall since 1873 and make a striking sight, but the frieze is scarcely more accessible than the original and the lighting less than perfect. Nevertheless these Napoleonic casts, as well as the photographs of them made in the 1890s by Conrad Cichorius13 of Leipzig University, are definitive sources for a masterpiece whose sharp and brilliant chisel work has since been dulled by sour air and acid rain.

The Column is plagued by problems of interpretation. Captions, so helpful in the Bayeux Tapestry, are entirely absent. We know that Trajan himself wrote a Commentary on the wars, whose original was housed in the adjacent Latin library. It is possible that this lost account and the frieze’s narrative were integrated. Modern commentators have produced a confusing range of theories; while counter-arguments have been devised to refute almost all of them, especially in relation to the Column’s intentions and meaning. The first and most common-sense supposition was that the frieze tells the story of the Dacian Wars. Though this failed to produce instant clarification it was hoped that, with further study, a cogent narrative would emerge, which would dovetail with field work and archaeology in today’s Romania. At the other extreme art historians, following Karl Lehmann-Hartleben,14 began to interpret the Column in aesthetic terms, seeing it as a work of creative imagination in which neither places nor events played a decisive role. Richmond stood somewhere between. Living and working in Rome on the eve of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, he had a close view of glory-seeking; of propaganda and its place in official art; of the need to rouse the nation, vilify the enemy and extol the armed forces, either as a preliminary to war or as justification in its aftermath. Is the carved shaft of Trajan’s Column, therefore, a record of events, a work of art, or an instrument of special pleading? Might it, indeed, be all three?

The Column has been described as a silent movie without captions,15 a foreign film without subtitles, or a ‘talkie’ bereft of its sound track. This is not entirely frivolous. Resemblances to cinematic technique are numerous. The transitions from one episode to the next resemble cuts. There are split-screen effects, with two strands of action developed simultaneously. There are tempo changes: gallops or charges alternating with static episodes, reminiscent of the way music and dialogue sequences alternate on the silver screen. There are even abrupt contrasts which the film editor calls shock-cuts. Such devices do not arise from precognition of the cinematic art but through the choice of a continuous band as the means of expression. It presented new opportunities in the sense of flow, timing and accumulative meaning. It is, however, too much to expect that the whole range of conventions resulting from the motion picture’s invention, like changes of angle16 and distance from camera, should be grasped all at once. Though daringly experimental in its progression from scene to scene, the Column clings to a single, visual standpoint: a side-on view, as it were, in medium-shot.

There is also the restraint of band size coupled with viewing distance. On a three-foot strip it is difficult to portray a crowd more than six deep, for beyond this the figures become too small to register. To suggest thousands of men in battle, hundreds of prisoners, scores of casualties; to show us the mountains of Transylvania, with their mighty hillforts; and finally to take us to the walls of the ultimate barbarian stronghold, Royal Sarmizegetusa; the frieze’s designer was faced with problems more comparable to those of the stage. In famous lines Shakespeare regrets his theatre’s inadequacies and suggests how these might be overcome:

O pardon! Since a crooked figure may

Attest in little space a million …17

Though the frieze includes many individual portraits in its foreground, in general it tends to work in this way: a clump of trees to represent a forest, a group of soldiers an army, three ships a fleet, a few houses a town, a handful of prisoners a victory. How else could a story involving 750,000 Roman soldiers, as well as the entire Dacian people and their allies, be told with a total of only 2,500 carved figures?

On the whole it is remarkably successful. To convey the impression of a mighty epic with a cast of thousands is in no small measure a vindication of the form chosen, for the continuous spiral gives an effect of totality which triumphal arches, with their separate panels, never achieved. Its designer has no need to apologize for underselling the Dacian, as Shakespeare does for the Hundred Years’ War:

Where – O for pity! – we shall much disgrace

With four or five most vile and ragged foils

Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous

The name of Agincourt.18

He has, on the contrary, transcended the limitations of an untried and difficult form to produce the greatest of military art works.

In common both with theatre and cinema, the Column must wrestle with the problem of continuity. This may be defined as the guiding hand of consistency, which governs every aspect of action: time, place, direction of movement, costume and background. To reduce misunderstanding all must remain constant unless there is clear reason for change. The Column grasps the principle firmly. Its story is seen from a northfacing viewpoint, with Dacia (Romania) right and Roman territory (Serbia, Bulgaria) left. The Romans attack from left to right while the Dacians counter from right to left. Where parallel action occurs (such as Roman units advancing via two routes) those in foreground are supposedly to the south of those in background. There is also consistency in dress, manner, insignia and grouping, so that individual regiments, or characters like Trajan and Decebal, the Dacian king, are identifiable from scene to scene.

Dio’s abridged account of the Dacian Wars, though itself of limited value, corroborates the narrative in useful and interesting ways. There is also assistance from archaeology as well as guidance offered by the topography of Romania. Finally there is the thinking of a century of Column scholars.19 Nevertheless, despite progress in squeezing information from the frieze’s 165 action-packed scenes, there persists a negative tradition, deriving from Theodor Mommsen, the most eminent of 19th-century Romanists, who believed that the plot and therefore the Column’s overall meaning were irredeemably obscure. ‘We are left’, he wrote, ‘with the impression of detail half understood and the disturbing sense of a great and moving historical catastrophe, faded for ever and lost even to memory.’20

Ian Richmond (1902–65) was in general agreement with this verdict, venturing so far as to conclude that ‘there was no intimate connection between the successive scenes’; in other words that their tendency was random and that narrative was not the main purpose.21 This eagle-eyed observer, born in Rochdale, became director of the British School in Rome at twenty-eight. As a lifetime student of the Roman army he was fascinated by the insight into its duties and methods which the Column offers; for it provides a closely observed record of constructing camps, digging ditches, bridging streams, laying roads and many matters related both to temporary and permanent fortification. It is also a unique source for the appearance of finished works: Roman forts, towers and camps, as well as Dacian citadels. Though the ruins of thousands of Roman and Iron Age military works litter the European landscape, this is our only visual record of how they looked in use. ‘The victories’, said Richmond, ‘are portrayed always in company with the toil which made them possible … It tells us something of history, but more of the labour by which history was made.’22

In concentrating upon subject-matter of this type Richmond was mining a rich vein, for 20 per cent of the frieze’s content deals with the army at work, exceeded only by combat scenes at some 25 per cent. In his eyes, however, the support activities seemed the more important. Indeed, among scholars from the former frontier provinces it has become an accepted view that the Column’s purpose was less to portray the Dacian Wars than to exalt the army. Apparently it was normal to emphasize the legions’ engineering skills, seeing them as a hallmark of civilization which even Rome’s auxiliary soldiers lacked. By contrast, to Italian scholars, close to the forum and far from the frontier, the Column is seen as recording Roman achievement in wider terms than military construction. Such a one is Lino Rossi, a Milanese medical practitioner and amateur Columnist, who took on this subject (including an exhaustive photo coverage, plus investigations in Romania) from his own resources.23 Though British scholars have damned Dr Rossi with faint praise, his view is not unbalanced by obsession with a thesis and his diagnosis of the frieze’s storyline is frequently helpful.

On the other hand, Richmond can never be taken lightly. Especially brilliant are his thoughts on how the Column’s information was gathered. Assuming the sculptors to have been professional artists – in fact the best available and probably Greek – it is highly unlikely that they were witnesses to battlefield events. In any case the idea of applying a frieze to the Column was an afterthought. Yet mysteriously, as Richmond observed, it contains ‘observation so detailed as to be almost photographic’. As an example of this detail, let us cite a scene in which we look over the rampart of a camp at the tents within. Not only can we see the leather panels with which the tents are made but also the knots with which the panels are tied and even the configuration of each knot. Did the sculptors have advice on such matters? This is belied by elementary mistakes. On more than one occasion legionaries are shown building turf ramparts. But instead of laying the turves flat they are being erected on edge, as if they were rigid blocks. This and similar errors would not have been made had the sculptors been working to military guidance. To what then were they working?

Richmond had no doubt that the Column drew on eyewitness evidence of a different sort:

The scenes must be the result of working up the contents of an artist’s wartime sketch-book … Each is based clearly upon a careful sketch, which must have been made in the war area from factual details on the spot, because nowhere else can such things have been seen or imagined in accurate combination.24

It is an attractive suggestion that Trajan had a war artist on his staff: the anonymous genius to whom this Episode is dedicated. It is, of course, impossible to prove his presence; or indeed that there was not a team of artists (though the existence of a fully developed Roman press corps may strain credulity). Assuming Richmond’s guess to be correct, he must have had exceptional gifts of reportage and the ability to commit what he saw to paper with the utmost speed. It is a talent comparable to that of the 19th-century draftsman-journalists, who were able to produce hand-drawn records of events like state occasions for their magazines in a remarkably short time; scenes sometimes involving hundreds of people, with scores of foreground faces rendered as recognizable portraits. Though we have no direct evidence for such experts in antiquity, the skills needed to supply the Column with its wealth of observation could not have been born, fully fledged, in this solitary instance. We may therefore suppose a tradition of graphic reporting whose fruits have not survived elsewhere.

That a civilian hand was at work is suggested not only by standards of draftsmanship far beyond anything elsewhere known of the soldier; but also, as we have said, by misinterpretations, particularly regarding constructional activities. Another example is a scene in which sawn lengths of bough or tree trunk, intended to be laid crosswise on a rampart top to make a walkway, become functionless circles; that is to say the rows of round timbers, seen end on, are depicted as a decorative pelmet along the rampart’s parapet. Such misunderstandings almost certainly arose from the original artist, though it is sometimes possible that they occurred in the translation to marble. In any case, these are exceptions. The majority of events are seen with an eye both sharp and true and appear to have passed from sketcher to sculptor, from paper25 to permanence, with uncanny veracity.

Nevertheless, despite Richmond’s faith in the Column’s exactitude, there remain scenes at which the war artist could not have been present, or which could not have happened as he shows them. One is a Dacian surprise attack on a diversionary front; another the army crossing the Danube on two pontoon bridges laid side by side. These bridging points were almost certainly at separate locations. In any case even the ablest of war correspondents cannot witness everything. We must therefore accept a degree of manipulation, albeit by someone close to actual operations; and indeed the experienced Column critic comes to sense it.

Be these matters as they may, it is feasible that the sketches were assembled into a picture book (perhaps supplementing Trajan’s own, written account) and that this would be in the normal form of a continuous scroll, wound from one rolling pin onto another. It is also feasible that such a scroll contained the Second Dacian War on one side, with the First on the reverse, to be read on the wind-back. Such a book may have inspired the frieze, for the latter resembles nothing so much as a scroll wrapped round a shaft. On the Column the narrative of the First War ends exactly half way up, with the Second War occupying the top half: possibly reflecting a division in a book.

Turning to the story told on the Column we will recall, in Episode Three, ominous clashes between Domitian and Decebal during the period AD 85–92. Following Trajan’s succession (in AD 98 and already in his early forties), ‘he could’, as Dio comments, ‘see how Dacian power and pride were continuing to grow’.26 Ambitious as ever, Decebal remained a menace to Roman security in the entire Balkan area. Unfortunately for the king, his was a bid for power which would meet, in the new emperor, a matching quest for glory. Trajan mustered his strength for a pre-emptive attack on the Transylvanian stronghold, launching it in the spring of 101. The narrative depicted on Trajan’s Column now begins. But before joining Trajan’s army on the Danube bank, it is timely to consider the character of the Dacians and their Transylvanian homeland.

In about 500 BC a Sarmatian splinter-group, thwarted perhaps by Thracian cousins already occupying the south-eastern Balkans, branched northwards from the Black Sea and penetrated the Carpathian passes. That they included or were closely related to the Getans is suggested by the name of their future capital, Sarmizegetusa, which may have meant ‘Sarmatian-Getan place’. Whatever their composition they had found paradise: a green bowl with the Carpathians its rim; watered, sheltered, fertile, and rich both in useful and precious metals. Here was a land offering all the steppe lacked; and the new arrivals responded by settling down to farm it, mine it and work its metals.

Some two centuries later Celts began to cross the Carpathians from the opposite or Balkan direction. Luckily for the Dacians, Celtic numbers were small enough to be absorbed yet large enough to make a contribution; leading to significant improvements in ironcraft, husbandry and defensive architecture, with new plough types, the potter’s wheel and techniques of large-scale fortification. It was the beginning of a cultural miracle, continued and augmented by Greek and Roman influences; for Transylvania’s bounty was matched by her position, close to the outposts of the classical world yet protected by a fearsome mountain circuit from their predation.

In about 80 BC a unified kingdom began to emerge under Burabista; and from then until the Roman invasion a distinctively Dacian culture flourished. The soil, the iron deposits, the gold and silver mines, were amply and creatively exploited. Writing was adopted, using Greek and Roman characters. Quality pottery was produced, with painted, geometric designs. Medicinal botany exceeded the average standards of the day. There was a calendar, based on Dacian astronomical measurements. Coinage had been issued for 150 years, though by the 1st century BC extensive trade with the empire led to the adoption of Roman currency. Borrowing from outside practice, the Dacians now excelled in citadel construction, typically of hillfort character, with ditch-fronted walls: some of squared blocks with towers, modelled on the Pontic cities; others of irregular masonry, immensely thick and internally cross-tied with wooden beams in the Celtic manner. The capital was ringed by major fortresses, some enclosing impressive religious sanctuaries. Religion was polytheistic: not far removed from Mediterranean paganism, though resembling the northern religions in the practice of human sacrifice. Ptolemy tells us they boasted forty cities. Sarmizegetusa (Gradishtea) had piped water and was defended by mighty walls of Celtic type, both turreted and galleried. With the accession of Decebal in AD 87, Dacia could be called the most developed nation-state in Europe outside the Mediterranean, perhaps the only one.

Around the beginning of Domitian’s reign Decebal was already drilling a national army of paid professionals modelled on that of Rome. As we have seen, he would not hesitate to use it. It may be overstretching parallels to call this king a 1st-century Saddam Hussein; yet both were cool gamblers who defied the superpower of their day. The stakes were high: for Saddam a fifth of world oil; for Decebal a chance to slip his mountain leash and take control of the lower Danube, the Black Sea ports and even the Aegean. Both believed bluff and distance would protect them. Both placed trust in secret weapons: in Decebal’s case abundant gold with which to attract the foreign specialists needed to match Rome’s war machine. Trajan too was a gambler. To muster an overwhelming force he would be obliged to draw down his other frontier garrisons to danger level. The cost, as it transpired, would be loss of Scotland; the prize, Dacia’s mines, last great booty within Rome’s reach.

Let us return to the heroic helix, and particularly its content. Because the sculpted band slants upwards from a horizontal base, it must taper in, requiring half a turn to reach full width and curiously resembling the ‘fade-in’ at the beginning of a motion picture. Its opening scene offers the only known portrait of a Roman frontier: the Danube bank, with its watchtowers and guards, seen from the river, as it may have appeared from the barbarian side. There are stone watchtowers, surrounded by circular palisades of pointed stakes, with wooden balconies. From each balcony door a long firebrand slants skywards. All are alight, suggesting the hours of darkness: probably just before dawn on a morning in April, 101.

Still on the first spiral, we see a Roman fortress. From its front gate, in one of the most striking images in military art, stream legionaries and guardsmen, marching across the Danube on two boat-bridges, side by side. Why two bridges? Why double a laborious piece of engineering for a few hours gained in crossing time? And why is Trajan leading the further task force and relegated to the background? The reason is surely that this is a convention for simultaneous invasion on two fronts, with Trajan in charge of the upstream crossing. In fact we are fairly sure his departure point was Viminiacum (below Belgrade). The other army, under Lucius Quietus, crossed 125 miles downstream, at Drobetae (Turnu Severin) in today’s Romania. The two locations are separated by the Iron Gates gorges and the mountains through which the Danube has cut its dramatic path. The strategy is clearly a pincer movement against the Dacian capital, Royal Sarmizegetusa, situated some seventeen miles south-east of present-day Hunedoara. Trajan’s group, from the west, faced the easier mountain crossing but the tougher fighting; the second group, from the south, the stiffer climb through the Transylvanian Alps, but a back-door approach to the capital.


In spiral two, on Dacian soil, Trajan holds a war council, followed by a religious service. A barbarian emissary arrives on a mule and a circular object hanging from his saddle is thought to be the large mushroom upon which, according to Dio,27 was written a message from the Dacian king telling Trajan to turn back. In a moment of humour (rarest of commodities in monumental art) the courier slips while dismounting and is shown, in slapstick manner, sprawling on the ground. This is the first of several small concurrences between Dio and the Column, suggesting a common source, probably Trajan’s lost Commentary. The emperor now addresses the army. Scenes of camp-building and other construction work follow.

Spiral three shows Trajan advancing through foothills. Torrents are bridged and soldiers, cutting avenues through dark thicket, remind us of the later name ‘Transylvania’ (land beyond the forest). The enemy retreats and Trajan diverts to inspect an abandoned hillfort, small but with ominously impressive walls and arched gateways. Captured by the vanguard and held by the hair, the first prisoner of war is thrust into the emperor’s presence. A deserted city, believed to be Tibiscum (Caransebesh) now comes into view. Rooftops peep over the tall, silent, multi-angular ramparts. Swirling round them from two directions the Roman armies, which have advanced by different routes, now recombine. Their meeting tells us the mountains have been crossed.

In the Bistra Valley (spiral four) the Dacians turn and give battle at Tapae. They fight desperately: tousled, bearded warriors in flapping cloaks and baggy breeches, with round shields and, probably, wielding sickles (later prized from their marble grip by metal robbers). Rome prevails and the way to the capital seems open.

Nevertheless Sarmizegetusa is ringed by powerful citadels and, in spiral five, further advance is barred by one of them. Trajan, accompanied by a staff officer, views it from across the valley. The intervening ground is sewn with mantraps. On the battlements are displayed a captured standard and a row of Roman heads. Within is a large larder, on stilts, and a huge, wooden watertank: signifying the siege-resistant properties of these strongholds. Above all flutters the sinuous dragon flag of Dacia. The Romans do not attack, but burn the surrounding villages. By a stroke of luck the king’s sister falls into Roman hands.28 Trajan ushers her aboard a boat whose bow points westwards. On this note the story of the first campaigning season ends; and in the absence of an obvious victory we assume its objectives were not achieved. Having failed to break the defensive ring Trajan dares not wait for winter to close the passes behind him and makes a timely retirement to the Danube. Wintering beyond the Carpathians, with Dacian strength still intact (an outcome toward which Decebal was obviously working) would have meant almost certain Roman destruction.

Spiral five opens with cinematic suddenness. Dacian warriors, their mounts and a wagon are floundering in the freezing Danube. Some drown, but many survive to attack a Roman fort whose defenders fight desperately from the walls. The wily Decebal has launched a winter counter-offensive. But where? At such a juncture the lack of captions is especially irksome. However, had this been a silent movie, it is likely that a card would now read: ‘Winter, further down the Danube.’ For evidence of this we have Adamclisi to thank.

Hard by the Romanian village of Adamclisi, forty miles inland from Ovid’s Tomis, is the most important group of ancient remains in the lower Danube region. Here is the so-called Altar: a war memorial, attributed to Domitian, where it is supposed that the emperor was mauled by this same Dacian king in one of his earlier breakouts from the mountain ring. Now, more than a decade later, is it possible that Decebal was drawn back to the scene of his early success, like Hitler to the Ardennes, striking southwards toward the lightly defended Black Sea ports? For the Altar is not the only monument in this curious corner of the Pontic steppe. There is a second, known as the Mausoleum, attributed to Trajan: a mound which, when dug,29 revealed a circular structure whose design resembles Roman tombs of the 1st century. Inside were found only ox bones, suggesting a ceremonial purpose; and there was also the base of a stone upright, indicating that this too was some kind of cenotaph. There is, however, more. Two hundred yards away, on this same, windy hill, stands a third ruin, far more famous: the Tropaeum Traiani (Trajan’s Trophy). This is a victory monument, whose purpose appears to have been to commemorate the diversionary campaign of the winter of 101–2, depicted on spirals six and seven of the Column.

The Tropaeum took the form of a circular drum, stone-faced on a concrete core 100 feet in diameter and 130 high. At its summit was a hexagonal shaft which carried the trophy: a Dacian captive at the feet of a faceless, three times life-size Roman warrior, clutching an ensemble of captured weapons. The dedication, dated AD 108, is to Mars the Avenger, indicating that Trajan’s victory was seen as a retrieval of Domitian’s defeat of a generation earlier. Possibly the Mausoleum had been provisional, the more ambitiousTropaeum replacing it after the war’s end. Richest by far of its gifts are two rows of sculpted stone panels, recovered from rubble around the base. Out of an original fifty-four tablets in the lower row, forty-eight have survived, of which only four are badly damaged. These were hung round the drum’s middle and consist of war scenes. The upper row had a further twenty-six tablets, thought to have stood around its parapet like crenellations, each containing a full-figure portrait of a prisoner of war. There were, in addition, two decorative bands: one with foliage and wolves’ heads, the other with interlaced palmettes.30 The entire monument is now to be seen in the form of a lavish, full-scale in situ reconstruction, completed in 1977; encasing the much eroded core. For a modest tip, the custodian may be persuaded to open a door in the modern shell, revealing something of the original masonry within. Carvings and decorative stonework are displayed in a specially designed museum.

The connection between these tableaux and the Column was first recognized by E. Petersen in 1905.31 Prior to this, spirals six and seven were perhaps the most mystifying, for all they tell us is that Trajan embarked somewhere, disembarked somewhere else, defeated persons unknown and re-embarked. The clue is wagons, common to both versions. Their presence (and, on the Adamclisi portrayal, that of women and children) implies that this was a migratory movement; an invasion of Roman territory induced by the promise of land. In addition the panels reveal the invaders as a mixture of peoples: Dacians, Sarmatians of other tribes, and Germans. The only place where these coincided was Bessarabia (Moldova), since the Basternians, a totally isolated German tribe, had somehow found their way into that region.32

Decebal then, in his hour of peril, had succeeded in rallying his allies and persuading them to support him in opening a second front in the form of Danube crossings, perhaps just above the delta. We need not suppose a battle at Adamclisi itself. This was merely a symbolic location, hallowed by earlier events. Many of the panels show trees: to be exact, an unlikely selection of palms and oaks, suggesting pursuits as varied and far afield as the delta and the Carpathian foothills. Recalling Ovid’s ‘bare and leafless landscape without tree’,33 it is unlikely that the main fighting was in steppe surroundings.

Comparison between Trajan’s Column and the Adamclisi panels is of great interest: seemingly two versions of the same story, seen through different eyes and chiseled by different hands; one by master craftsmen, the other in all probability by common soldiers, perhaps military masons, who combined active service with the function of regimental tombstone carvers. As one might expect, the difference in execution is as striking as that between world-class orchestra and bar-room piano. Crudely carved in pocked and pitted limestone with lumpy, Frankenstein-like figures in stiff poses, the Tropaeum’s panels verge on the grotesque. Surprisingly the ornamental bands above and below the tablets are of accomplished workmanship, perhaps by Greek sculptors from nearby Histria. The panels themselves were seemingly entrusted to someone whose technical ineptitude was compensated by battlefield experience; and this naïve authenticity enhances their value as evidence.

The Adamclisi artist sees things closely. His characters, usually full-figure and numbering from one to three persons per panel, are about 80 per cent life size. They are therefore two-and-a-half times bigger than on the Column (though the Column’s finer chisel work often allows more detail). He was incapable of elementary perspective and more than rudimentary composition. Crowd scenes or complex movements were out of the question. His technique allowed no departure from a rigid viewpoint or a single plane of action. Costumes suggest winter, but, apart from solitary trees,34 there is no sense of surroundings. This is in marked contrast with the Column, which shows or implies forests, streams, mountains, wild animals, villages, towns, time of day and weather with amazing skill and care. On the other hand, the Adamclisi scrutiny, though confined to simple events, is realistic and uncompromising. It sees no glamour in war. Its scenes of hand-to-hand fighting are brutal. The Column is by artists for the Roman public; theTropaeum by soldiers for soldiers.

Such differences tell us much of both: for example, about intention and propaganda role. In this sense the Tropaeum’s sentiments are the more trustworthy, inasmuch as they were farther removed from sponsorship and censorship. What differences did this produce? The emphasis of Adamclisi is on combat and ceremonial. Its panels feature Trajan; but there is only one address, no religious services and no camp-building or other constructional activity. We therefore conclude that the Column’s preoccupation with pious observance and engineering achievement reflects a government view of what ought to be seen; while the Tropaeum’s interest in battlefield prowess and victory parades reflects what the soldiers wanted to see.

Since the tablets were retrieved piecemeal, with some carted off to Bucharest, their order round the drum is uncertain. Nevertheless, the intention was clearly sequential. The panels fall readily into groups and it is not hard to guess their drift. The army advances toward the scene of disturbance. Trajan meets the migrating barbarians, who beg for land. He rejects their appeal. A battle follows, among wagons. Then pursuit, slaughter and shepherdless flocks. Finally a parade with captives, followed by celebratory scenes, with trumpeters and standard bearers.

It is revealing to compare the two sources in their portrayal of the barbarians. The Column is remarkable for its perception of the background, yet Dacians themselves are depicted conventionally. Though seen as more powerful and capable than most enemies, this is an off-the-peg portrait, with the barbarian looking much as in other examples of official art. He is tousled, bearded, heavy featured, with a short hooked nose, high cheekbones, beetle-browed and always scowling and sombre. There are cap wearers – who, according to Dio, were the aristocracy – and the bareheaded commonality. (The Dacian cap, conical and floppy with its point drooping forwards, was not unlike that of Snow White’s seven dwarfs.) But despite differences of rank and age there is little facial variety. It is as if the artist found them – as newly arrived Westerners did the Japanese – seemingly identical. Doubtless, being derived from a small genetic pool, they did to some extent look alike.

The Adamclisi artist was more familiar with and fascinated by the enemy. Relatively speaking, greater space is devoted to his portrayal. Not only do we see more weaponry, costume and other features but, as has been said, people of three racial origins are depicted. The Tropaeum may therefore be considered the richer and more accurate ethnological source. The Dacians and their Sarmatian cousins, some stripped to the waist, wield the double-handed battle scythe35 like some fearsome hockey stick (whereas the Column favours the sickle, preferred by the Transylvanian Dacians and more suited to close combat in wooded terrain). Their breeches are heavy and plaited vertically. They wear boots and tight-fitting leather helmets with neck flap, rather like a dustman’s cap, though with a chinstrap. Some have long, belted tunics, apron-cut and split high up the sides. The Sarmatians wear shin-length riding coats, probably of sheepskin with the fleece turned inwards, split to the navel. Some Dacians have pudding-basin haircuts, as shown also on the Column. Others have wild hair and all wear long beards. The Germans are bearded, too, though neatly trimmed, their hair swept into the distinctive Suebic or south-German knot, on the right-hand side. They are tall and trousered, with a double rope-belt and a v-shaped cape of poncho type covering chest and stomach. The tidy appearance of these Basternian Germans denies Tacitus’ verdict: sordes omnium (they are all filthy).36

Returning to the Column: it is unlikely that the supposed war artist was present at this diversionary campaign. Accordingly its presentation is subtly different, with greater than normal drama and compression. Mistakenly the Pontic Dacians and their allies are dressed exactly like the Transylvanian Dacians. By contrast, on the Roman side, there are precise and seemingly accurate data: a first aid post; a cart-mounted ballista on the move; a prison pen, filled with captives. In short it seems likely that this entire parenthesis had been synthesized from the accounts of others and beefed up with incidents transposed from the main theatre. The campaign ends with Trajan granting citizenship to a group of joyful auxiliary soldiers.

The Column’s designer had now to break the thread and start afresh: to end the winter campaign on the lower Danube, get Trajan back upriver and commence the spring assault on Transylvania. In order to signal this decisive switch he uses a ‘shock-cut’, from the joyful auxiliaries to Roman prisoners being tortured: naked men, bound, face upwards, with hot irons applied to the flesh. The tormentors appear to be high-class Dacian women, perhaps priestesses, with hair in buns, richly dressed in ankle-length costume similar to that worn by the king’s sister. The setting is mountainous, perhaps the capital itself. Finally the action returns to the lower Danube, where the emperor embarks on a warship whose prow points upstream.

Back on the middle Danube (spiral seven) Trajan again leads the army across a bridge of boats. The campaigning season of 102 has begun and a second invasion of Transylvania is underway. So the frieze returns to the main story, re-establishing it with a scene which cleverly echoes the start of the first season. This time, however, the troops, streaming off the pontoon bridge, separate into what appears to be three columns of march, with Trajan in the nearest. For this the Vulcan, Tergova and Turnu Rossu passes all have their advocates; but the presence of supply carts with the upriver group suggests a less mountainous route for the left flank. This could only be the front-door approach via Tapae, the way taken by Trajan in the previous spring. Heavy matériel implies that this column’s role will be siege or blockade, while the less encumbered armies, including Trajan’s, will swing in from the rear.

In spirals eight and nine Trajan’s force crosses the Carpathians by an arduous, flanking route, aiming to approach the almost impregnable environs of the Dacian capital from the less heavily fortified, eastern side. Again the Dacian army retreats, leaving local dignitaries to sue for peace. Trajan’s force breaks into groups, in single file, with roughened marble signifying the uneven ground of mountain passes. Spiral ten sees the army across the divide at last. Another of the central citadels is encountered. A fort is built and gun-pits dug. An infantry attack is accompanied by an artillery duel, in which Dacians man a captured or copied ballista.

In spiral eleven a final assault on the hilltop redoubt begins. German irregulars, half naked and armed with clubs, lead for Rome, backed by oriental or African archers and slingers. While the Dacians are lured out to fight before their palisades a legion attacks from the rear, storming a gateway under locked shields: the celebrated testudo (tortoise) formation. The Romans appear to have won a decisive victory and taken key strongholds commanding the approach to Sarmizegetusa.

Realizing that the game is up and wishing to preserve his capital and some vestiges of influence, the king pleads for an armistice. In spiral twelve, under the part-glimpsed walls of Sarmizegetusa, the Dacians kneel in mass surrender: rank on rank, with arms imploringly outstretched. Behind them on a rock stands Decebal, his palms raised skywards. So ends the First Dacian War.

A penultimate scene shows families being brought down from the hillforts. Resettlement in valleys was a standard first step in the Roman pacification of mountain country. Meanwhile other Dacians are dismantling walls in obedience to the peace terms. But some remain in hiding on the hill and their whispering implies an intention to subvert the treaty. Dio describes the surrender:

Trajan took some hillforts, where he found the weapons, engines and standards captured from Fuscus.37 Because of these reverses and the fact that his own sister had fallen into Maximus’ hands,38 Decebal now accepted all the Roman conditions, though only as a ruse to buy time. So he consented to the surrender of armaments, engines and engineers, the extradition of deserters, the demolition of forts and the evacuation of captured land. Hencefoward he would align himself with Roman foreign policy, cease to harbour deserters and desist from employing fugitives from within the empire; for the biggest and best part of his army had been made up of those enticed from Roman territory. All this followed from his meeting with Trajan, to whom he prostrated himself, swore submission and surrendered his sword. After concluding this peace the emperor left the camp at Sarmizegetusa. Having placed garrisons throughout the conquered territory he returned to Italy where he celebrated a Triumph and received the titleDacicus.39

So Dacia was reduced to protectorate status. Though there appears no intention to depose Decebal and annex his kingdom, precedent suggests this would follow, either when the Roman grip had tightened or upon his death. Dio reveals a factor which an official source like the Column would never admit: the embarrassingly large scale of Roman desertion to the Dacian side. Soldiers, veterans and engineers had long been improving Decebal’s defences, equipping him with artillery, drilling his men and even fighting alongside them. This appears to belie all we have said about fear of the lands beyond the frontier. Dacia was, however, an exception. Where the less advanced regions of the European Barbaricum offered Roman runaways the likelihood of slavery or death, Decebal promised gold, plus a respected role in a stable state. The deserters’ motive was no doubt gainful employment rather than opposition to Rome. Since the ancient world had not invented political viewpoints in the modern sense, there was little ideological basis for treason. By the same token there was little ideological or moral basis for loyalty, especially among provincials of non-Roman origin. The empire’s subjects were, after all, a miscellany of conquered or overawed races, largely cemented by Roman success.

The final scene, a victory salute, is followed by an angel-like figure of Victory, flanked by trophies. This ensemble, half way up the Column, separates the First and Second Dacian Wars and is equivalent, in terms of modern theatre, to the interval. Some two-and-a-half years now pass unrecorded. Dio takes up the story; and we note that defection works both ways:

Because Decebal was reported to be breaking the treaty in all its clauses the Senate once more declared him an enemy. Rather than delegate the war to others Trajan again took personal command. But this time many Dacians began to desert to the Romans and Decebal soon seemed ready to throw in the sponge. And yet the stumbling block was that he would neither give up his arms nor accept personal captivity. As a result he continued to muster men and call on the adjacent peoples to join his cause.

Though losing in the field, Decebal attempted to hit back by means of terrorism, slipping deserters into Moesia40 with orders to assassinate Trajan. The emperor was an easy target due to his accessibility and his wartime habit of holding open situation-conferences. But the plan miscarried thanks to the arrest on suspicion of one, who revealed the others under torture.41

The Column’s narrative recommences with Trajan’s embarkation by night from an Italian Adriatic port. It is the spring of AD 105. Two spirals are now devoted to the emperor’s journey back to the war theatre. His itinerary may have been via Greece, to the head of the Aegean, then overland. These spirals can be closely inspected at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the replica is divided into two and the beginning of its second half is at floor level. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of historical events, this is the least important part of the frieze and was probably included as makeweight. Because the first war was eventful and hazardous, while the second was relatively quick and easy, their stories are of unequal length. The designer was thus obliged to pad the second half of the narrative with these two bands at the beginning and two more, devoted to mopping-up operations, at the end.

With spiral fifteen the scene switches to Dacia, where hostilities have already begun. Roman forts are under fierce attack. The enemy’s intention is to cut the new Danube bridge. This project, pushed forward during the ‘phoney peace’ of 103–4, is the first known work of the Syrian-Greek engineer and architect, Apollodorus of Damascus. The bridging point was Drobetae (Turnu Severin) between today’s Serbian and Romanian banks and just below the Iron Gates gorges, where routes branched out toward the key passes into Transylvania. At almost a kilometre (1,087 yards, including approaches) it would be the longest permanent bridge in antiquity.

A second project, no less remarkable, was the widening of the cliff road through the Iron Gates of Orsova. This deep, limestone gorge, eighty miles long, formed by the Danube cutting through the southern Carpathians, separates the middle Danube of Hungary and Serbia from the lower of Romania and Bulgaria. Today its whirling waters are stilled and their level raised by the dam of the Djerdap power station. During the Roman period the Iron Gates had frustrated efforts to build a continuous frontier road. Tiberius, Claudius and Domitian all attempted to cut a path into the vertical face on today’s Serbian side; finally creating a throughway only three feet wide, increased to six by planking, supported on timber brackets keyed into the cliff from joist holes below. Presumably this had been stripped away by spring floods and the crashing ice for which the gorge is infamous. It was a link Trajan must mend, for his entry points to Dacia were at either end of it. Accordingly, over a distance of twelve miles in the canyon’s sheerest stretch, the ledge was widened to six feet, producing a permanent rock road, dependent on wooden cantilevering for its safety-rail only. The ledge and beam holes were well preserved before the reservoir engulfed all trace; excepting a commemorative inscription, which was raised above the new high-water mark and may still be read.

Trajan’s projects made unwelcome reading in Sarmizegetusa; especially the bridge, whose destruction was considered a matter of urgency. The Column shows the Romans stubbornly holding the bridgehead fort of Pontes. Behind is the bridge itself, its stone piers and timber spans depicted in meticulous detail, their number scaled down from twenty to five. Even carpenters still working on the superstructure are thrown into the line and fight with their axes. At this desperate moment, in finest Hollywood style, Trajan and his escort gallop to the rescue along the Iron Gates road. As they thunder by, two masons, seemingly unconcerned, are still smoothing the cliff, while a third is cutting the lettering of the inscription.

In spiral fifteen, then, the bridgehead is under attack, Trajan arrives in the nick of time and the day is saved. After dedicating the bridge the emperor gives audience to ambassadors from friendly or frightened tribes. These are of both German and Sarmato-Dacian racial groups, distinguishable by dress and hairstyles. The setting, in the bridge’s shadow, is at once a propaganda exercise and a threat, for not only was the bridge an accomplishment beyond barbarian capability, but also a warning that technology gave Rome the keys to all lands east of the Danube and Rhine. Students of the Column have proposed that Apollodorus appears in this scene, standing behind Trajan (viewer’s right). If true it is his only known portrait.

In spiral sixteen the army spills across the Danube for a third time, now by the bridge. On the Dacian bank the units divide into two strands, separated by the rusticated marble which represents mountain. Once again Trajan leads the further or left arm of a pincer which will meet near the enemy capital. The crossing was in the spring of 106; and in spiral seventeen, after scenes of footslogging on upward paths, a transition to high summer is implied by legionaries with sickles, reaping the alien corn (another cinematic trick, in which tedious time is overstepped and its passage implied by a seasonal symbol). Crossing the mountains and fighting his way toward Sarmizegetusa has cost Trajan three months. But now a change is seen in the enemy’s attitude. On the walls of a stronghold close to the capital the defenders are shouting at one another, with vigorous gestures, arguing whether to resist or surrender.

Sarmizegetusa comes into sight, its awesome ramparts stretching much of the length of spiral eighteen, perhaps four times longer than those of lesser citadels. The Romans fell trees and construct siege towers. The two army groups reunite before the walls. These appear to be of polygonal blocks, some variant of the murus gallicus. In the foreground a heap of rough stones, probably core filling, implies last-minute efforts to strengthen the defences. Upon this are strewn three sets of bizarre equipment, whose function surely mystified the artist who recorded them and has puzzled commentators since. They consist of poles, with discs at each end. The poles are nailed together to form triangles. Across the centre of each lies what seems to be a trident. Other poles are supposedly attached to objects resembling casks or small barrels!

Here the artist may have linked separate items, thrown together on a heap, into one fanciful structure; the ‘poles with barrels’ being large mallets or tamping instruments; the ‘tridents’ being rakes or forks and the ‘poles with discs’ being the bracing members by which the inner and outer wall-faces were tied together.42 Again we see an uncannily photographic eye without the specialized knowledge to support it.

The walls are stormed and breached; and spiral nineteen shows disheartened Dacians already setting fire to their own defences. Further along the rampart distraught defenders raise their hands to heaven. Others are grouped round a pot, ladling out the contents, presumably poison. In spiral twenty the Romans occupy and loot the city. Trajan receives another salutation.

Spirals twenty-one to twenty-three are largely devoted to pursuit of the Dacian remnant through forest and mountain, beyond the river Muresh and into north-western Transylvania. Hard fighting still lies ahead; and the drama is heightened by the presence of the king, who has escaped the débâcle and leads his hard-core loyalists in a desperate rearguard action. During twenty-one, however, there is a flashback to a very different scene, also described by Dio:

Decebal’s treasure was found buried beneath the River Sargetia, which runs past his palace. Prisoners of war had been used to divert the river. A pit was then dug in the bottom to take gold and silver in great quantities, plus other valuables impervious to water. The river bed was reinstated and the stream returned to its course. The royal robes and other perishables were hidden in caves and the same prisoners – used for this work also – were then butchered to ensure secrecy. But when Bicilis, a courtier who knew what had happened, was captured, he gave away the secret.43

Dacia was rich in precious metals. The massif north of the royal capital is to this day called the Muntsii Metalici (Metal-Bearing Mountains). The Column shows goblets, plate and other valuables being loaded onto mules. This was estimated as more than half-a-million pounds of gold plus a million of silver; in cash terms 700 million denarii:44 Rome’s last great loot from a foreign war. Meanwhile, in a mountain retreat, Decebal addresses his followers for the last time. Some kill each other in suicide pacts. Spiral twenty-two sees the king and his bodyguard cornered in a wood by Roman cavalry. Under a tree, bareheaded and on one knee, Decebal cuts his own throat with a diagonal sweep of the sword. A Roman officer, arm outstretched, leans from his galloping horse in an attempt to take him alive. He is a second too late. Decebal’s head is displayed on a tray in the Roman camp. It would later be sent to Rome, there to be rolled down the Gemonian Steps, a fate usually reserved for the bodies of executed criminals. The Dacian Wars are over.

In 1965 the tombstone of this same cavalry officer, one T. Claudius Maximus, was discovered in northern Greece.45 It describes the incident and carved upon it is almost the same scene as on the Column: a small but important confirmation of the latter’s historicity.

The last turn of the topmost spiral, twenty-three, shows Roman army veterans, marching into Dacia. Before them a Dacian family is fleeing the country. The men carry large bundles. One drags a reluctant child by the wrist. A man and woman look longingly backwards. Men and boys drive cattle and sheep before them. As the spiral tapers toward ‘final fade-out’, the leading animal wanders from the Dacian homeland, perhaps through one of the north Carpathian passes into the Ukrainian plain and exile. On this poignant note the frieze of Trajan’s Column ends.

Comparing the Column’s first and last scenes we are reminded of the frontier Rome had given up and that which she would now take on. The new boundary would be a huge bulge protruding into Sarmatian territory. Three hundred inbending river miles had been bartered for five hundred outbending mountain miles. The northern Carpathians, which touch 7,000 feet, are not a single ridge but a tangle of peaks up to fifty miles deep. The army had no experience of defending Alpine crests, extremely difficult to supply and almost untenable in winter. Trajan’s answer was to keep his forts within the Transylvanian basin and guard its mountain approaches through watchtower networks. The plan seems to have worked, for the Dacian province would last 165 years, as long as Rome had strength to hold it. Trajan’s victory was followed by sixty years of almost unbroken peace on the Lower Danube.

The other military imperative was to prevent Dacia becoming a vacuum. Hence the implanting of veterans. In fact these were only the van of a migration without precedent in the conquered territories: poor Italians to plough the new province and Dalmatian miners to win its metals. Those Dacians who remained became an underclass, their identity diluted or lost. So pronounced an ethnic and cultural displacement provides antiquity’s closest approximation to the land-runs and gold-rushes of the 19th-century New World; though government control of mineral exploitation and the huge army presence made it less of a free-for-all.

Our evidence is less archaeological than philological: disappearance of the Dacian tongue and the persistence of Romanian, a wholly Romance language, closely resembling Italian in sound and substance. Situated in the Greek-speaking half of the empire, Dacia would stay culturally Western. Some 3,000 Latin inscriptions have been found, compared with only thirty-five Greek. Though later surrounded by Slav, Magyar and Turk, part Orthodox and part Moslem, Romania has survived as an island of Latinity in speech and sentiment, as well as in her very name. Even her Black Sea province of Dobruja, Greek from the Bronze Age, today speaks Romanian; and it is one of history’s small ironies that Ovid’s verses may be better understood in modern Constantsa than in the Tomis of his own day. The survival of Romanian is especially remarkable in view of the eventual loss of Latin from all other Roman frontier provinces.

Romanian does not resemble Italian in all respects. It seems normal to look inwards to the Romance languages, toward an Italy or a France at the heart of the West; drawing on them for the vocabularies of sophistication. With Romanian one looks outwards, beyond the Balkans; and one will not be surprised to find a simpler tongue, as if Italian had survived only in the Apennines or Alps. Trajan’s name is enshrined in the language. The word Trajan signifies anything Roman and by extension almost anything old: a defensive work, an ancient road, a tumulus or barrow; even a snowdrift, in the sense that this may resemble a barrow. Hence the verb introeni = to be snowed under (literally, to be entrajanned!).46

The spring of 107 saw Trajan back in Dacia, organizing the new territory. The Roman capital would be Sarmizegetusa, some twenty-five miles from the mountain stronghold of Royal Sarmizegetusa, now razed and desolate. Three legions remained in the province; and though two would be withdrawn within a decade, an unusually large complement of auxiliaries meant that her garrison would be similar to Britain’s: 30–40,000, or one tenth of the Roman Army. Nearly 100 fort sites are known in Romania, compared with Britain’s exceptional total of 250. Roman Britain was, of course, twice as big and held twice as long.

Visitors to Romania may wish to see Sarmizegetusa Regia, capital of the indomitable Decebal. It lies in the Orashtie Mountains at 4,000 feet; on a steep, high hill, densely clad in majestic beech: centrepiece of a clutch of Dacian citadels, cunningly concealed within the inner Carpathian foothills. They are approached from the north via the town of Orashtie (Hunedoara Province). From there a secondary road runs south to the village of Costeshti. Alas, Sarmizegetusa is some sixteen miles deeper into this upland tangle, via an unsurfaced forestry track of dwindling merit whose second half is negotiable by off-road type vehicle only. Even the nearer citadels, like Blidaru, involve a 2,000-foot climb. The remains are greatly reduced by Roman demolition. This, plus the absence of signposting and the low quality of local advice, makes the casual visit a questionable proposition. Sarmizegetusa, though a milestone in the story of Roman expansion, is still among antiquity’s least accessible and most undeveloped major sites.

The Roman capital, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, is on Route 68 to Caransebesh, some twenty-eight miles south of Hunedoara. A well-preserved amphitheatre, the Forum of Trajan and a palace of the Augustales (priestly college) are on view. Ten miles west, on this same road, is the Poarta de Fier a Transilvaniei (another Iron Gates), the pass commanding the western approach to the royal strongholds, where the battle of Tapae was fought. On the Danube, at Turnu Severin, are the remains of the Drobeta fortress and the surviving abutment of Apollodorus’ bridge. In the Dobruja there is of course Adamclisi, famous for its three monuments. The carved panels, formerly scattered, are now assembled in the village museum. Nearby stand the ruins of a municipality founded by Trajan and called Tropaeum Traiani after his monument of the same name. The ruined circuit of its 4th-century walls, with some two dozen towers, survives. On the coast are the remains of the Pontic cities of Callatis (Mangalia) and Histria (Istria), the latter twenty-five miles north of Constantsa on the coast road. At Constantsa (Tomis) itself are the Archaeological Museum of the Dobruja, a stretch of Trajanic city wall and some fine 4th-century floor mosaics. At Hirshova are the remains of the lower Danubian fort of Carsium and south of it, between the villages of Topalu and Dunarea, those of Capidava.

It is time to resume centre stage and, in returning to the Eternal City, to ask who was the author of Trajan’s Column. Surely so copious a masterpiece must have been the work of many: whoever brought back the visual material from Transcarpathia, whoever edited it and whoever fixed it in stone. Possibly the sculptors were summoned from a studio in Asia Minor, where centres like Aphrodisias47 supplied statuary to the Roman world. There must also have been a co-ordinator to select the scenes, set the style and supervise the work; and who more suitable than Apollodorus, architect to the imperial court and author of Trajan’s Forum? There is, however, a clue to the contrary. The Column’s depiction of his Danube bridge is flawed. Crucial struts, intended to counter the downthrust of the arches, are shown as if positioned the wrong way round. If this typifies our artist’s blindness to technicalities, it also makes a fool of the bridge’s designer and few would believe that had Apollodorus been in charge of the sculptural project he would have let the error pass. Doubtless his hands were full elsewhere in Trajan’s Forum: a commission so abundant that even the Column was a minor addition. Failing Apollodorus, commentators have invented a master-sculptor, even calling him ‘themaestro’: perhaps the specialist charged with the Forum’s decoration, while Apollodorus looked after its buildings. Some have gone further and argued that the supposed maestro must have been answerable to a ‘column committee’, appointed by the Senate; for the dedicatory inscription tells us that the Column was sponsored by that body. The existence of a committee, with conflicts between itself and the maestro, could explain the Column’s contradictions: great artistry negated by excessive content and incomparable execution wasted through prohibitive viewing problems. Surely so brilliant a professional would have chosen a more accessible medium (such as a continuous, horizontal frieze, housed in an arcade) or at least a wider band and a simplified narrative. But we know that the senators had already commissioned a column for another reason (to mark the depth of rock excavated) and doubtless clung to their original choice. It is also conceivable that a senate committee, fawning on the emperor, would insist that no detail of his war be omitted: an approach regretted by art critics but applauded by historians and students of warfare.

Hadrian had followed Trajan perhaps three times across the Danube and over the Carpathians. Even then his standing seems not to have been high, for a suitable bearded officer in his late twenties has not been identified among the Column’s scenes. Doubtless this helped heap coals of fire on Hadrian’s head. Later events make clear the growing hatred of ward for guardian; the secret envy of his easy popularity, the concealed contempt for his facile intellect and showy adventurism. Now, at the war’s end, with crowning irony, we find Hadrian assigned the task of glorifying a campaign which he detested; having been elected praetor, with special responsibility for the victory festivities. These included Triumphs, games and other events lasting more than a year, four triumphal arches and seven commemorative coin issues!

Trajan, Apollodorus and Hadrian: the victorious commander-in-chief and ‘best emperor of all’; the busy architect at the zenith of his brilliant career; and the jealous, touchy, under-recognized young Spaniard, treated by Trajan as an errand boy. Dio offers a tantalizing vignette of the three together. He describes Trajan deep in conversation with Apollodorus; poring no doubt over some architectural drawing. Hadrian, the country cousin, chanced upon them and offered a suggestion. This irritated Apollodorus, who sent him off with a flea in his ear. It was a trivial matter, but it would one day cost Apollodorus his bridge, his career and his life; for we subsequently learn that:

Hadrian banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect who had masterminded Trajan’s projects in Rome. It was given out that he had done some wrong; but the truth is that once, when Trajan and Apollodorus were in deep discussion about some architectural point, Hadrian had chipped in with a comment which caused Apollodorus to snap, ‘You know nothing about these matters. Away and draw your gourds!’ When Hadrian became emperor he remembered this taunt.48

‘Your gourds’ referred to one of Hadrian’s youthful attempts at architectural drawing. He had apparently been fascinated by a feature known as the pumpkin dome, examples of which would later be included among the outworks of his famous Villa, near Tivoli, where they may still be seen.

The Dacian Wars were followed by a seven-year peace. Accepting Dio’s view that Trajan was motivated by glory, this would be a time of anti-climax and chafing ambition, sufficient to tempt him toward the ultimate challenge to Roman arms: conquest of Parthia. This campaign was launched in 113, initially with dazzling results: four new provinces, carved out of Armenia and what is now Iraq; confining the enemy to what is now Iran and bringing the Roman army to the Persian Gulf. Needless to say it opened a long and mountainous left flank, east of the Tigris, which extended as the Romans advanced; and from it the Parthians continued so effectively to promote resistance that, as Trajan reached objectives in the south, his northern gains began to crumble behind him. The setback was a signal for Jewish revolts in the Roman east, threatening even Syria, a province crucial to Trajan’s rear. He hurried back, reaching Antioch in the winter of 117. There he suffered a severe stroke. It was decided to repatriate him by sea, but not far along the coast of Asia Minor he died. His ashes were taken on to Rome and deposited in the podium of his Column.

Though Trajan had neglected to nominate a successor, Hadrian held the high cards. He was presently governor of Syria, which not only meant he was close to events but also that he inherited command of the large army assembled for the Parthian conflict. His progress to the purple was unopposed.

Hadrian’s reign brought changes in foreign policy which would astonish all Romans and dismay those who held her martial traditions dear. It had been a century since the Varian Disaster shattered the assumption of endless empire. During that period, emperors had shifted uncertainly between consolidation and acquisition, with acquisitors motived by popularity at least as much as by territory. Now here was a highly unorthodox emperor, willing to risk unpopularity by forgoing glory and putting Rome on a pacifist path: renouncing offensive war, rescinding Trajan’s eastern conquests and seeking prosperity behind firm frontiers.

An alternative way of seeing Hadrian’s policies is as reactions to his predecessor’s. Indeed Hadrian’s measures were sometimes so emotional that one can seldom be sure whether he believed in the rightness of a course, or whether it attracted him because it was contrary to Trajan’s. Besides playing down all aspects of his guardian’s achievement and repudiating his foreign policy, Hadrian phased out his festivals and games, closed his theatre, dismissed his officials and executed his more prominent generals. Perhaps they had voiced opposition to appeasement and expressed outrage at the return of territories won with their soldiers’ blood. Even Dacia, packed though it was with Roman immigrants, was now in question; and it was with difficulty that Hadrian’s advisers dissuaded him from its abandonment.

Apollodorus was doubly doomed. The new emperor believed himself a creative genius and glowered at all who excelled in the artistic or intellectual fields. According to Dio, he even ‘abolished’ Homer!49 Malevolence focused first upon the Danube bridge, which Hadrian ordered to be dismantled lest the barbarians use it against Rome; though all other crossings of the Danube and Rhine were left intact. Accordingly its timber arches were removed, leaving only the stone piers: so soundly placed, despite the strong current, that parts remained visible until the 19th century and one of the abutments still stands. Its designer was murdered or forced into suicide by imperial agents. While Hadrian’s reign cannot be compared in terms of terror to those of Nero or Domitian, he would not lag far behind them in pettiness and spite.

On the other hand, there was nothing trivial about taking the Roman empire onto the defensive. Augustus had shied from so controversial a course, preferring to hand on the task to Tiberius in the form of posthumous advice. Even now, twelve reigns later, it required courage to translate the first emperor’s last wish into practice. This was only made possible by the recent failure in Parthia and the ignominy it brought to the war party. A counter-current, favourable to change, had been created. But how long would it flow and how soon would Rome’s fighting spirit reassert itself?

Hadrian’s armistice succeeded; for the reign of his successor, Antoninus, marks the apogee of the empire’s prosperity. It should also have begun a new era of détente with the outside peoples. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, as the saying goes; and Hadrian’s efforts to strengthen the frontiers did not preclude improved relations, doubtless cemented by economic aid which was intended to reduce dangerous differences and promote the adoption of Roman ways. Alas, progress in these directions was impeded by ingrained attitudes on both sides. The thawing of the immense Barbaricum, most of which was far beyond Rome’s reach, would prove to be a process requiring more centuries than the empire had left to live.

Dacia had been the most capable and promising of Rome’s European neighbours. With earlier goodwill or gentler handling the natural stronghold might have been converted to a friendly bulwark against yet more dangerous enemies beyond. By contrast, Trajan’s way resembled that of Cortez and Pizarro, of whom it is said that they beheaded civilizations as casually as a walker lops a wildflower with a swing of his stick. The scent of gold had reached the Roman conquistador also.

Trajan’s Forum, on which the wealth of Dacia was squandered, is today a sad space at the heart of Rome, haunt of flickering lizards and stray cats fed by elderly ladies. Of Apollodorus’ architectural masterpiece only the market with its semicircle of shops remains remotely intact; and only the Column, splendid in isolation, profits from the ruin of its surroundings. Resisting 1,900 winters, it has fared less well in the hydrocarbon haze and corrosive rain of the last three dozen, especially where its topmost spiral takes the drip from the capital above. Since 1987 the entire shaft has been surrounded by scaffolding and encased in plastic sheeting. Surely a prudent and enlightened course would be protection within a cylindrical building, incorporating a rising walkway for continuous viewing, with suitable lighting and multilingual commentary.

Such is the inspired if oversupplied spiral, with its brede of marble men overwrought, sepulchre for an emperor, cenotaph for a king and simultaneous memorial to a victorious army, a forgotten nation, a team of anonymous sculptors, a confused committee, a perplexed designer and an unknown master of reportage; as well as being a monument of world stature and our richest record of events beyond the Roman rim.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!