Dacians: Frieze of Trajan’s conquest reused on the so-called Arch of Constantine (likely 107 CE or after)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Dacians: Frieze of Trajan’s conquest reused on the so-called Arch of Constantine (likely 107 CE or after),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 17, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14217.

One of four panels reused on the arch of Constantine depicting victory over the Dacians with the emperor (likely Trajan, but reworked to look like Constantine) returning in battle-gear to be wreathed by personified Victory (to the right) and greeted by another female personification dressed like an Amazon (to the left) as a separate battle scene (with killing of Dacians) unfolds to the right (with etching of same by Bartoli):

Panel depicting an earlier battle scene with Roman soldiers on horseback trampling Dacians. while Roman trumpeters signal the attack in the backdrop:

Panel depicting victory over the Dacians with the emperor on horseback wearing a breastplate with the hooves of the horse trampling a Dacian:

Panel depicting another battle scene with Dacians trampled by Romans on horseback on the right, perhaps a standing Dacian captive in the centre with hands tied behind his back, and other Roman figures in a separate scene looking off to the viewer’s left:

Statue of a Dacian prisoner incorporated within the Arch of Constantine (third on the south side), more clearly showing the common attributes of beard and moustache, toque-like head-band or cap, cloak, belted tunic, and pants characteristic of the frieze as well:

Comments: These four panels of a large frieze (about 3 metres tall) known as the “Great Trajanic Frieze” depict Romans defeating Dacians (in what is now Romania and Moldova). There is some debate as to whether Domitian or Trajan is the main protagonist in two of the original scenes (the emperor has been reworked to resemble Constantine in any case), but the message remains the same. If depicting Trajan, the frieze panels may come from the Forum of Trajan and would have accompanied the representations of defeated Dacians and/or Sarmatians on Trajan’s column in the same vicinity (link). The detailed style of these panels is closer to Trajan’s column than the more rudimentary Trajan’s Trophy set up in Dacia itself (link). The panels were reworked into the collage known as the Arch of Constantine.

The depictions here give another opportunity to witness a Roman imperial perspective on conquered peoples in the north. As Anne-Marie Leander Touati’s study shows, the quite detailed and varied portrayal of Romans in the panels can be contrasted to the somewhat singular portrayal of Dacians as a type with beards, moustache, wavy hair or toque-like hat or hair-band, cloak, belted tunic, and pants. The details of this Roman depiction of a Dacian are more readily noticeable on the statue of a prisoner that was also incorporated within the Arch of Constantine from some Trajanic era monument (final photo above). Also notable in the frieze itself is that most Dacians are pictured either afraid of inevitable defeat, captured as prisoners, or dead or dying. But there are hints of the uncontrolled but nonetheless brave northerner in these images too.

The theme of the emperor, and Trajan specifically, on horseback trampling Dacians (as in one of our panels) is also reflected on coins. A copper sestertius now in the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), for instance, depicts Trajan on horseback holding javelin with a falling Dacian to the right.

Works consulted: J. Elsner, “From the Culture of Spolia to the Cult of Relics: The Arch of Constantine and the Genesis of Late Antique Forms,” Papers of the British School at Rome 68 (2000): 149–184 (link); D.E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), pages 220-223; A. Leander Touati, The Great Trajanic Frieze (Rome: Svenska Institutet i Rom, 1987).

Source of images: Photo of first panel by Luciano Tronati (CC BY-SA 4.0); photo of second panel by Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0); photo of third panel from unstated author, “Roman Art,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.), volume 23 (1911), plate 2 between pp. 476-477, figure 16, public domain; photo of fourth panel by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (CC BY 2.0).  Photo of the statue of the Dacian by MM (CC BY-SA 4.0). All engravings by Pietro Santi Bartoli from Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Veteres arcus augustorum triumphis insignes (Rome: Ad templum Sanctae Mariae de Pace, 1690), pages 42-44, public domain (link).

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