A 100-foot column in Rome records the 2nd Century military exploits of Trajan and his legions.
Nineteen centuries after its construction, Trajan’s Column remains one of antiquity’s great works of architecture, a magnificent work of art and a virtual history book preserved in Luna marble.
The 100-foot-tall column in Rome commemorates Emperor Trajan’s (r. 98–117) military victories against Dacia (centered on modern-day Romania). Built between 106 and 113 under the supervision of the ruler’s chief architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, it comprises 29 marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter and averaging about 32 tons. The column rises from a cubical pedestal 17 feet to a side. Forty-three window slits illuminate the hollow interior of the column, and a 185-step spiral staircase leads to the top. Although a marvel of Roman architecture and engineering, the column may initially have served only to mark the height of Rome’s Quirinal Hill, which workers had to cut back to make room for Trajan’s new forum.
Shortly after the column’s completion, Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) rededicated it “to the memory of the bravest of men who died for the republic,” referring to the troops who fought with him in the Dacian Wars of 101–102 and 105–106. The emperor had the outside of the column fashioned into a continuous scroll (volumen), a carved marble ribbon some 3 feet wide and more than 600 feet long, winding around the column in 23 spirals. The spirals depict more than 2,500 individual figures and relate, in ascending order, scores of scenes— 10 of which are detailed on the following pages. The reliefs were originally gilded and painted in realistic colors, with weapons rendered in metal, and the column was capped with the statue of an eagle.
Upon Trajan’s death, the Roman Senate had his ashes and those of his wife, Pompeia Plotina, sealed inside the pedestal in golden urns. It also replaced the eagle atop the column with a 20-foot bronze of the emperor, cast as a heroic nude with a spear in his right hand. In 1587 Pope Sixtus V replaced Trajan’s statue with one of Saint Peter, which remains atop the column.
The scenes and details on the column’s panels are renditions of detailed sketches made by military artists who accompanied the Roman army on campaign and recorded details of the events they witnessed. Each scene on the column is an amalgam of several artists’ sketches.
It was probably Apollodorus himself who assembled the master script from the war correspondents’ reports and sketches and, perhaps, even from Trajan’s own battle diary. The monument thus provides a historically accurate, though not strictly chronological, account of the Dacian Wars. It is also a treasury of information about the Imperial Roman army—equipment, weapons, fortifications, battle tactics and engineering—as well as our only source of information about the Dacian enemy it fought. The column enables modern historians to evaluate the literary accounts of the period, which were often inaccurate or written much later by military amateurs, and to uncover details not recorded in those accounts.
Upon becoming emperor in 98, Trajan faced a major security problem in Dacia. The Roman eastern frontier ran along the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea. Only Dacia remained unconquered, blocking land and sea traffic in both directions. In 86–88 Emperor Domitian’s two military expeditions against Dacia ended in disaster, and the Dacians continued to attack Roman settlements along the river. In 101–102, Trajan fought three campaigns in the First Dacian War, followed in 105–106 by two more campaigns in the Second Dacian War. The latter ended with the capture of Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, the suicide of the nation’s king and the displacement of its population. Latin-speaking colonists repopulated the country, and of the original languages of Slavic derivation in Romania, only the Romanian neo-Latin language survived.
In 98–99, two Roman armies—one moving east from Germany and the other sailing west from the Black Sea— converged on the Iron Gates of Orsova, a narrow, 12-mile-long gorge that controlled the Danube and formed the border of Dacia. Trajan’s army comprised 100,000 legionnaires and auxiliary troops.
On the March
DETAIL 1 The first panel on the column, shows Trajan (at lower center) assembling his armies on the south bank of the Danube and crossing the river on a bridge of boats (lower left) made from hollowed-out log canoes. Trajan ordered two boat bridges constructed across the Danube, one upstream of the Iron Gates and the other downstream, which enabled both armies to cross into Dacia and come at the capital from two directions.
The soldiers on the panel are not wearing breeches because it is summer. They are carrying their kit in satchels attached to poles (upper left). Each kit contained a saw, an ax, a sickle, a chain and a rope. The string-bag on the pole held the soldier’s rations.
Roman engineers carved a 12-milelong roadbed along the cliff walls of the Iron Gates on the south bank of the river. They then drilled holes in the rock and inserted wooden beams that supported cantilevered planks, upon which they laid a wooden roadbed.
DETAIL 2 shows the Roman army entering camp at the end of a day’s march. The legionnaires are wearing steel lorica segmentata body armor and crestless helmets and are carrying gladii (short swords) and tile-shaped scuta (shields). Portrayals of weapons like the pilum and spears, originally rendered on the column in metal, have long since vanished.
Adjacent panels depict camp walls made of sod and beams, signifying a semipermanent facility. The baggage train consists of pack mules and two-wheeled carts. Behind the camp walls, soldiers are erecting three types of tents: the large praetorium for the commander, the tentoria of the tribunes and centurions and the simple papiliones for the soldiers. Eight-man squads occupied a single tent.
Assaulting the Walls
DETAIL 3 shows the Romans attacking one of the hill forts that defended the Dacian capital. The outer wall (at upper right) is a stout wooden palisade, while inside is a walled citadel. Auxiliary troops—which would have included Syrian bowmen and Germans, the latter naked to the waist, armed with clubs and carrying small round shields—are pressing the main attack, while legionnaires, formed in the protective testudo formation (at center), attack the main gate supported by slingers and a company of archers armed with the Turkish composite bow.
As Rome lacked the manpower to defend its strategic perimeter, it became standard practice to recruit local peoples for frontier campaigns. When on parade, these units often wore masks to conceal their non-Roman identity. Trajan’s column is remarkable for its open portrayal of these ethnic units.
DETAIL 4 is among the most important on the column, as it is the only extant illustration of the Roman military medical service in action. It shows the special squads of capsarii (literally, bandagers), who served as combat medics, caring for the wounded on the battlefield. The capsarii wore the same combat gear as the soldiers, and their job was to get to the wounded quickly and provide acute medical care until response teams could evacuate the soldier to a field hospital for proper treatment.
The great advance of Roman military medicine was its incorporation of a professional medical service into the legion to care for the wounded on the battlefield. The head of the medical service was second in command of the legion and reported directly to the commander. The army established its own medical schools, trained its own doctors, operated its own hospitals and published its own medical textbooks. Many of the medical innovations of the imperial period—the tourniquet, hemostat, arterial clip, surgical amputation through live tissue, disposable scalpels, sterilization of instruments, arrow extractors, camp hospitals and psychiatric wards—were introduced by career military physicians or physicians who had once served as military doctors.
Each legion employed special units of horses, wagons, carriages and stretcher-bearers to quickly evacuate the wounded. Roman military doctors also practiced triage, separating casualties according to severity of wounds and evacuating and treating the least severely wounded first. One of the primary goals of the Roman medical corps was to return to duty as many wounded as possible. On average the Roman medical corps saved 70 percent of the wounded that reached the field hospital alive. Once in the hands of a trained physician, the wounded Roman soldier received medical care not equaled again until at least the beginning of the 19th century.
Artillery on the Move
DETAIL 5 depicts Roman field artillery supporting a ground attack. The weapon at center is a torsion-powered carroballista of the newly introduced Heron type. A pair of mules tows a boxlike cart probably designed to carry the weapon and its ammunition.
Operated by a two-man crew, the carroballista fired a 30-inch-long wooden shaft bolt tipped with a dartlike iron head at the rate of four to five rounds per minute. When used as an indirect fire weapon, its maximum range was 500 yards. Used as a direct fire field gun, its effective range was 250 yards. Its crew often used the weapon to pick off defenders atop city walls. In these cases, the carroballista was dismounted and emplaced in a firing pit, as shown elsewhere on the column. Each legion had approximately 70 of these devices. One panel appears to show the guns firing over the heads of the advancing Roman infantry while still mounted on the carriage. If so, this is the first portrayal we have of Roman mobile artillery in action.
The Danube Bridge
DETAIL 6 shows the permanent Danube bridge (top) Trajan ordered built in 104 to replace the boat bridges. Trajan (at right, with one arm outstretched) is offering a sacrifice for his soldiers’ welfare.
Apollodorus designed this bridge, the first permanent structure over the Danube. It spanned the river at its narrowest point east of the Iron Gates, a distance of nearly 1,000 yards. Trajan acted when it became clear that Decebalus—the Dacian king who after three years of fighting had begged Trajan for mercy and peace—was dragging out negotiations only to allow him time to rebuild his forces. Decebalus realized the strategic importance of the bridge and attacked the bridgehead on the north side of the Danube in an attempt to destroy it. Previous panels on the column show Trajan and a large force riding to the rescue, using the 12-mile road through the Iron Gates to reach the bridge in time to drive off the Dacians.
The bridge remained longest span in the ancient world for the next millennium. Like Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine, Trajan’s bridge was intended as a key link in his supply line. The bridge, which was barely completed when the Dacian attack in 105 sparked the Second Dacian War, stood for 150 years until Emperor Aurelian withdrew Roman forces back behind the Danube and had the bridge destroyed.
The Enemy Depicted
DETAIL 7 reveals the peoples of the Danube area related to or allied with the Dacians—including Sarmatians, Scythians, Roxolani and Bastarniani—in their native costumes.
Weapons of War
DETAIL 8 depicts Dacian weapons, including the infamous falx, a 4-footlong sickle-like sword (center) brandished with both hands, which struck fear in the hearts of Roman infantrymen armed with the much shorter gladius. Also shown is the distinctive Dacian military standard, a snakelike dragon (at right) with a canine head and gaping fangs, sewn into a sleeve-like shape and fastened atop a pike to catch the wind.
Dacian infantry fought without helmets or armor, but their nobles wore cuirasses and a pilleatus, or Phrygian cap, as a mark of rank. Dacian archers used the double-bent bow, and infantry fought with clubs and battleaxes. In the heavy Sarmatian cavalry, peculiar to the Dacian army, both horse and rider were heavily clad in mail or scale armor. The cavalry so impressed the Romans that within a few years of the Dacian Wars, similar units joined the Roman army.
DETAIL 9 shows the Roman siege of the Dacian capital. The Romans have erected a wall of circumvallation around the city, and the Roman siege camp occupies the left side of the panel. Leading the attack are javelin- and spear-hurling legionnaires behind a wall of shields. Accompanying them is a unit of slingers tasked with keeping defenders atop the walls from firing on the attackers. One Roman soldier (center, top) has already reached the top of the wall via an assault ladder and cut off a defender’s head; he holds it aloft as a trophy.
The ground outside the wall would have bristled with sharpened stakes intended to impale the attackers, and the city approaches would have been covered with metal caltrops interspersed with stake pits. The caltrops— sharpened metal devices shaped like childrens’ jacks and intended to stop cavalry attacks—were the same as those used by Caesar at Alesia, and the Dacians may have learned their use from the Romans. The siege of the Dacian capital was successful, as the Dacians burned the royal citadel to keep it from falling into Roman hands. The Romans later burned the remainder of the captured city to the ground.
The Price of Defeat
DETAIL 10 is among the most dramatic scenes on the column. While some Dacian defenders flee and others surrender, several nobles (identified by their Phrygian caps) prefer death to defeat. Surrounded by commoners who acclaim him, a Dacian chief drinks from a pot of poison before passing it to others in an act of collective suicide. King Decebalus and his nobles are not among them, however.
In a later panel, the Dacian king gathers his few followers around him and addresses them one last time. Once more some followers chose suicide, but Decebalus again took flight on horseback. A cohort of Roman cavalry pursued and surrounded him in a forest. Rather than fall into enemy hands, Decebalus cut his own throat. The Romans hacked off his head and presented it to Trajan, who forwarded it to Rome as proof of his victory.
The Dacian Wars were a triumph for Trajan and Rome. The region’s large gold mines helped finance future campaigns and the expansion of Roman towns across Europe. According to the text sources, Trajan’s forces sent 100,000 male slaves back to Rome. Rome permanently stationed two legions in the southern half of the country, which it annexed as a province. The Romans expelled much of the Dacian population in a sort of ethnic cleansing, replacing them with Latin-speaking colonists and retired legionnaires awarded land grants in the new province. Trajan came to be remembered as one of Rome’s greatest emperors. Apollodorus, alas, met a harsher fate. Legend has it he fell into an argument with Hadrian, Trajan’s successor, and criticized the emperor’s lack of architectural talent. Hadrian, who saw himself as a great builder, had Apollodorus executed.
For the modern historian, Trajan’s column is an important reminder of the value of archaeological artifacts in reconstructing events and details of the ancient past. Historians have long been forced to rely almost entirely upon the surviving texts of the period, although they well understood the texts were untrustworthy and sometimes written centuries after the events they purported to describe, often by authors with no military experience. In the past two decades, however, historians have re-evaluated these texts through a number of empirical experiments, testing the effectiveness of ancient weapons and the physical endurance of animals and humans under actual field conditions. And the republication of ancient maps and introduction of such Web tools as Google Earth have enabled detailed battlefield analysis.
As helpful as all this has been, historians have largely ignored military archaeological collections and monument inscriptions. Access to such resources remains problematic, given their wide dispersion among different collections and countries, though electronic images of artifacts and collections are slowly making their way on to the Internet, granting more historians ready access. Still, Trajan’s Column remains one of the most encyclopedic and valued “documents” of Rome’s military history.
For further reading, Richard A. Gabriel recommends Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column, by Sir Ian Richmond, and Trajan’s Column and the Dacian Wars, by Lino Rossi.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.