Dacians and Sarmatians: Reliefs on Trajan’s Column celebrating subjugation (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Dacians and Sarmatians: Reliefs on Trajan’s Column celebrating subjugation (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 20, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7515.

Scene 32: Bearded Dacians attack a Roman fort, with an additional detail of the Dacians (with drawing of same by Bartoli 1672, 22):

Photo by Steven ZuckerPhoto by Steven Zucker

Scene 145: Dacian leader (perhaps king Decebalus) kills himself with a knife to the throat at the last moment as Roman soldiers attack (with drawing of same by Bartoli 1672, 108):

Photo by Steven Zucker

Scene 151 (near top): Battle scene between Roman soldiers on the left and bearded Dacians on the right (with drawing of same by Bartoli 1672, 111);

Photo by Steven Zucker

Overview of the column:

Photo by Harland

Etching of entire column by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1774-79) (click to enlarge):

Comments: These are scenes from emperor Trajan’s column in Rome (built ca. 106–113 CE) dealing with the subjugation of the Dacian kingdom (in what is now Transylvania, Romania). Trajan engaged in the first Dacian war from ca. 101-102 CE and the second from ca. 105-106 CE. Previously emperor Domitian had responded to Dacian incursions into the Roman province of Moesia (ca. 86-88 CE). The Roman province of Dacia was formed in 106 CE. Later, Marcus Aurelius’ column depicting the defeat of Sarmatians and Germanic peoples would draw heavily  on this model (link).

As a monument celebrating Trajan’s Roman military superiority and expansionism at the expense of the “barbarian”, the reliefs on this monument detail the various ways in which Roman triumph and Dacian (or other “barbarian”) defeat were – in imperial propaganda – considered inevitable (despite formidable, “spirited” opponents). The Dacians had been a very significant power to the north (in the area of the Istros / Danube, just west of the Black Sea) whose subjugation had been on the top of the list at least since Domitian’s reign in the 90s CE. So Trajan’s parading of supposed success is not unexpected. Dacians and other barbarians are stereotyped consistently as a contrast to the clearly recognizable Roman soldiers with their helmets and oval shields. Primarily this consists in portraying Dacians as fierce, wild-haired and bearded figures usually dressed in long tunics (and using bows and arrows) whose military disorganization contrasts to the supposedly organized imperial regime. The ethnographic assumption of northerners’ high “spirit” and courage (due to their cold environment) is further underlined by the portrayal of the Dacian king Decebalus (by the tree) courageously committing suicide rather than accepting Roman domination.

In 1927, Karl Lehmann’s careful study of the scenes made it clear that there are six stock scenes that repeat themselves with variations throughout: (1) the Roman army journeys, (2) the Roman soldiers build things, (3) the emperor prepares for battle through sacrifice, (4) the emperor addresses the army, (5) the Roman soldiers battle Dacians, and (6) the Dacians get special attention, including as captives.  So it is misguided to attempt to reconstruct specific battle details from these images.

For further information and detailed photos scene-by-scene (the Cichorius plates), go to the excellent website of Professor Roger B. Ulrich at this link.

Works consulted: C. Cichorius, Die reliefs der Traianssäule (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1896), volume 1, images (link) and volume 2, text (link); J.R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 BC-AD 315 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 31-41 (link); Karl Lehmann-Hartleben, Die Trajanssäule: Ein römisches Kunstwerk zu Beginn der Spätantike (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1926) (link).

Source of images: Photos by Prof. Steven Zucker (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; cropped for closeups by Harland), except the final photo of the overall column by Harland. Bartoli drawings from Pietro Santo Bartoli, Colonna Traiana eretta dal Senato, e popolo romano all’imperatore Traiano Augusto nel suo foro in Roma (Rome: Giacomo de Rossi, 1672) (link). Etching of entire column from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna coclide di marmo composta di grossi macigni ove si veggono scopite le due guerre daciche fatte da Traiano (Rome: Publisher not stated, 1774-79) (link).

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *