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A War Diary Soars Over Rome

The story of Emperor Trajan’s victory over a mighty barbarian empire isn’t just one for the books. It’s also told in 155 scenes carved in a spiral frieze on a monumental column.

Picture of Trajan’s Column with a statue of St. Peter installed on top

Trajan’s Column, with a statue of St. Peter installed by a Renaissance pope on top, towers over the ruins of Trajan’s Forum, which once included two libraries and a grand civic space paid for by war spoils from Dacia. The massive modern monu­­ment at right commemorates Victor Emman­uel II, the first king of a united Italy.

Story by Andrew Curry
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

In back-to-back wars fought between A.D. 101 and 106, the emperor Trajan mustered tens of thousands of Roman troops, crossed the Danube River on two of the longest bridges the ancient world had ever seen, defeated a mighty barbarian empire on its mountainous home turf twice, then systematically wiped it from the face of Europe.

Trajan’s war on the Dacians, a civilization in what is now Romania, was the defining event of his 19-year rule. The loot he brought back was staggering. One contemporary chronicler boasted that the conquest yielded a half million pounds of gold and a million pounds of silver, not to mention a fertile new province.

The booty changed the landscape of Rome. To commemorate the victory, Trajan commissioned a forum that included a spacious plaza surrounded by colonnades, two libraries, a grand civic space known as the Basilica Ulpia, and possibly even a temple. The forum was “unique under the heavens,” one early historian enthused, “beggaring description and never again to be imitated by mortal men.”

Towering over it was a stone column 126 feet high, crowned with a bronze statue of the conqueror. Spiraling around the column like a modern-day comic strip is a narrative of the Dacian campaigns: Thousands of intricately carved Romans and Dacians march, build, fight, sail, sneak, negotiate, plead, and perish in 155 scenes. Completed in 113, the column has stood for more than 1,900 years.

Picture of a marble statue of Trajan wearing armor typically worn in parades

Trajan, who ruled from A.D. 98 until 117, when he fell ill and died, expanded the Roman Empire to its farthest boundaries. In this marble statue he wears armor typically used in triumphal parades.

Today tourists crane their necks up at it as guides explain its history. The eroded carvings are hard to make out above the first few twists of the story. All around are ruins—empty pedestals, cracked flagstones, broken pillars, and shattered sculptures hint at the magnificence of Trajan’s Forum, now fenced off and closed to the public, a testament to past imperial glory.

The column is one of the most distinctive monumental sculptures to have survived the fall of Rome. For centuries classicists have treated the carvings as a visual history of the wars, with Trajan as the hero and Decebalus, the Dacian king, as his worthy opponent. Archaeologists have scrutinized the scenes to learn about the uniforms, weapons, equipment, and tactics the Roman Army used.

And because Trajan left Dacia in ruins, the column and the remaining sculptures of defeated soldiers that once decorated the forum are treasured today by Romanians as clues to how their Dacian ancestors may have looked and dressed.

The column was deeply influential, the inspiration for later monuments in Rome and across the empire. Over the centuries, as the city’s landmarks crumbled, the column continued to fascinate and awe. A Renaissance pope replaced the statue of Trajan with one of St. Peter, to sanctify the ancient artifact. Artists lowered themselves in baskets from the top to study it in detail. Later it was a favorite attraction for tourists: Goethe, the German poet, climbed the 185 internal steps in 1787 to “enjoy that incomparable view.” Plaster casts of the column were made starting in the 1500s, and they have preserved details that acid rain and pollution have worn away.

Debate still simmers over the column’s construction, meaning, and most of all, historical accuracy. It sometimes seems as if there are as many interpretations as there are carved figures, and there are 2,662 of those.

Travel in time with this stop-motion animation and see how Trajan’s Column was built—according to one theory. How it was made and how accurate it is remain the subjects of spirited debate.

Filippo Coarelli, a courtly Italian archaeologist and art historian in his late 70s, literally wrote the book on the subject. In his sun-flooded living room in Rome, he pulls his illustrated history of the column off a crowded bookshelf. “The column is an amazing work,” he says, leafing through black-and-white photos of the carvings, pausing to admire dramatic scenes. “The Dacian women torturing Roman soldiers? The weeping Dacians poisoning themselves to avoid capture? It’s like a TV series.”

Or, Coarelli says, like Trajan’s memoirs. When it was built, the column stood between the two libraries, which perhaps held the soldier-emperor’s account of the wars. The way Coarelli sees it, the carving resembles a scroll, the likely form of Trajan’s war diary. “The artist—and artists at this time didn’t have the freedom to do what they wanted—must have acted according to Trajan’s will,” he says.

Working under the supervision of a maestro, Coarelli says, sculptors followed a plan to create a skyscraping version of Trajan’s scroll on 17 drums of the finest Carrara marble.

The emperor is the story’s hero. He appears 58 times, depicted as a canny commander, accomplished statesman, and pious ruler. Here he is giving a speech to the troops; there he is thoughtfully conferring with his advisers; over there, presiding over a sacrifice to the gods. “It’s Trajan’s attempt to be not only a man of the army,” Coarelli says, “but also a man of culture.”

Of course Coarelli’s speculating. Whatever form they took, Trajan’s memoirs are long gone. In fact clues gleaned from the column and excavations at Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, suggest that the carvings say more about Roman preoccupations than about history.

Jon Coulston, an expert on Roman iconography, arms, and equipment at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studied the column up close for months from the scaffolding that surrounded it during restoration work in the 1980s and ’90s. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the landmark and has remained obsessed—and pugnaciously contrarian—ever since. “People desperately want to compare it to news media and films,” he says. “They’re overinterpreting and always have. It’s all generic. You can’t believe a word of it.”

Coulston argues that no single mastermind was behind the carvings. Slight differences in style and obvious mistakes, such as windows that disrupt scenes and scenes of inconsistent heights, convinced him that sculptors created the column on the fly, relying on what they’d heard about the wars. “Instead of having what art historians love, which is a great master and creative mind,” he says, “the composition is being done by grunts at the stone face, not on a drawing board in the studio.”

The artwork, in his view, was more “inspired by” than “based on.” Take the column’s priorities. There’s not much fighting in its depiction of the two wars. Less than a quarter of the frieze shows battles or sieges, and Trajan himself is never shown in combat.

Meanwhile legionaries—the highly trained backbone of Rome’s war machine—occupy themselves with building forts and bridges, clearing roads, even harvesting crops. The column portrays them as a force of order and civilization, not destruction and conquest. You’d think they were invincible too, since there’s not a single dead Roman soldier on the column.

Map of the extents of Roman Empire and Dacia

Trajan’s Dacian Wars

From their powerful realm north of the Danube River, the Dacians regularly raided the Roman Empire. In A.D. 101 Trajan fortified the border and invaded with tens of thousands of troops. Two years of war led to a negotiated peace, which the Dacians promptly broke. Trajan returned in 105 and crushed them.

Map of the routes Roman and Dacian armies took during the Dacian Wars Map of the routes Roman and Dacian armies took during the Dacian Wars

The column emphasizes Rome’s vast empire. Trajan’s army includes African cavalrymen with dreadlocks, Iberians slinging stones, Levantine archers wearing pointy helmets, and bare-chested Germans in pants, which would have appeared exotic to toga-clad Romans. They’re all fighting the Dacians, suggesting that anyone, no matter how wild their hair or crazy their fashion sense, could become a Roman. (Trajan was born to Roman parents in what is now Spain.)

Some scenes remain ambiguous and their interpretations controversial. Are the besieged Dacians reaching for a cup to commit suicide by drinking poison rather than face humiliation at the hands of the conquering Romans? Or are they just thirsty? Are the Dacian nobles gathered around Trajan in scene after scene surrendering or negotiating?

And what about the shocking depiction of women torturing shirtless, bound captives with flaming torches? Italians see them as captive Romans suffering at the hands of barbarian women. Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, the head of the National History Museum of Romania, begs to differ: “They’re definitely Dacian prisoners being tortured by the angry widows of slain Roman soldiers.” Like much about the column, what you see tends to depend on what you think of the Romans and the Dacians.

Among Roman politicians, “Dacian” was synonymous with double-dealing. The historian Tacitus called them “a people which never can be trusted.” They were known for squeezing the equivalent of protection money out of the Roman Empire while sending warriors to raid its frontier towns. In 101 Trajan moved to punish the troublesome Dacians. After nearly two years of battle Decebalus, the Dacian king, negotiated a treaty with Trajan, then promptly broke it.

Rome had been betrayed one time too many. During the second invasion Trajan didn’t mess around. Just look at the scenes that show the looting of Sarmizegetusa or villages in flames.

“The campaigns were dreadful and violent,” says Roberto Meneghini, the Italian archaeologist in charge of excavating Trajan’s Forum. “Look at the Romans fighting with cutoff heads in their mouths. War is war. The Roman legions were known to be quite violent and fierce.”

Yet once the Dacians were vanquished, they became a favorite theme for Roman sculptors. Trajan’s Forum had dozens of statues of handsome, bearded Dacian warriors, a proud marble army in the very heart of Rome.

The message seems intended for Romans, not the surviving Dacians, most of whom had been sold as slaves. “No Dacians were able to come and see the column,” Meneghini says. “It was for Roman citizens, to show the power of the imperial machinery, capable of conquering such a noble and fierce people.”

Picture of a scene in the column where two Roman auxiliaries present Trajan with severed enemy heads

In a visual narrative that winds from the column’s base to its top, Trajan and his soldiers triumph over the Dacians. In this scene from a plaster and marble-dust cast made between 1939 and 1943, Trajan (at far left) watches a battle, while two Roman auxiliaries present him with severed enemy heads.

Trajan’s Column may be propaganda, but archaeologists say there’s an element of truth to it. Excavations at Dacian sites, including Sarmizegetusa, continue to reveal traces of a civilization far more sophisticated than implied by “barbarian,” the dismissive term the Romans used.

The Dacians had no written language, so what we know about their culture is filtered through Roman sources. Ample evidence suggests that they were a regional power for centuries, raiding and exacting tribute from their neighbors. They were skilled metalworkers, mining and smelting iron and panning for gold to create magnificently ornamented jewelry and weaponry.

Sarmizegetusa was their political and spiritual capital. The ruined city lies high in the mountains of central Romania. In Trajan’s day the thousand-mile journey from Rome would have taken a month at least. To get to the site today, visitors have to negotiate a potholed dirt road through the same forbidding valley that Trajan faced. Back then the passes were guarded by elaborate ridgetop fortifications; now only a few peasant huts keep watch.

The towering beech trees that have grown thick over Sarmizegetusa blot out the sun, casting a chill shade even on a warm day. A broad flagstone road leads from the thick, half-buried walls of a fortress down to a wide, flat meadow.

This green expanse—a terrace carved out of the mountainside—was the religious heart of the Dacian world. Traces of buildings remain, a mix of original stones and concrete reproductions, the legacy of an aborted communist-era attempt to reconstruct the site. A triple ring of stone pillars outlines a once impressive temple that distantly echoes the round Dacian buildings on Trajan’s Column. Next to it is a low, circular stone altar carved with a sunburst pattern, the sacred center of the Dacian universe.

Picture of a scene in the column where Roman soldiers are raiding the Dacians

This scene shows Roman soldiers loading plunder onto pack animals after defeating Decebalus, the Dacian king. Casts such as this one preserve details on Trajan’s Column that pollution has eroded.

For the past six years Gelu Florea, an archaeologist from Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, has spent summers excavating the site. The exposed ruins, along with artifacts recovered from looters, reveal a thriving hub of manufacturing and religious ritual. Florea and his team have found evidence of Roman military know-how and Greek architectural and artistic influences. Using aerial imaging, archaeologists have identified more than 260 man-made terraces, which stretch for nearly three miles along the valley. The entire settlement covered more than 700 acres. “It’s amazing to see how cosmopolitan they were up in the mountains,” says Florea. “It’s the biggest, most representative, most complex settlement in Dacia.”

There is no sign that the Dacians grew food up here. There are no cultivated fields. Instead archaeologists have found the remains of dense clusters of workshops and houses, along with furnaces for refining iron ore, tons of iron hunks ready for working, and dozens of anvils. It seems the city was a center of metal production, supplying other Dacians with weapons and tools in exchange for gold and grain.

The site is lush and quiet. Not far from the altar rises a small spring that could have provided water for religious rituals. Flecks of natural mica make the dirt paths sparkle in the sun. The few tourists speak in hushed voices.

It’s hard to imagine the ceremonies that took place here—and the terrible end. As Florea conjures the smoke and screams, looting and slaughter, suicides and panic depicted on Trajan’s Column, there’s a rumble of thunder. The sky is suddenly menacing, the air sticky and humid.

Illustration of Roman and Dacian soldiers battling

In the first major battle Trajan defeated the Dacians (background) at Tapae. A storm indicated to the Romans (foreground) that the god Jupiter, with his thunderbolts, was on their side.

Picture of Dacian jewelry, coins, and art Picture of Dacian jewelry, coins, and art

Dacians fashioned precious metals into jewelry, coins, and art, such as the gold-trimmed silver drinking vessel at left. These gold coins with Roman imagery and bracelets weighing up to two pounds each were looted from the ruins of Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, and recovered in recent years.

The destruction of Dacia’s holiest temples and altars followed Sarmizegetusa’s fall. “Everything was dismantled by the Romans,” Florea says. “There wasn’t a building remaining in the entire fortress. It was a show of power—we have the means, we have the power, we are the bosses.”

The rest of Dacia was devastated too. Near the top of the column is a glimpse of the denouement: a village put to the torch, Dacians fleeing, a province empty of all but cows and goats.

The two wars must have killed tens of thousands. A contemporary claimed that Trajan took 500,000 prisoners, bringing some 10,000 to Rome to fight in the gladiatorial games that were staged for 123 days in celebration.

Dacia’s proud ruler spared himself the humiliation of surrender. His end is carved on his archrival’s column. Kneeling under an oak tree, he raises a long, curved knife to his own neck.

“Decebalus, when his capital and all his territory had been occupied and he was himself in danger of being captured, committed suicide; and his head was brought to Rome,” the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote a century later. “In this way Dacia became subject to the Romans.”

Picture of a partially reconstructed temple in Sarmizegetusa

A partially recon­structed temple stands near a round altar in the sacred precinct of Sarmizegetusa, which was demol­ished after Rome’s victory. Trajan colonized his newest province with Roman war veterans, a legacy reflected in the country’s modern name, Romania.

Andrew Curry wrote about the Roman frontier in the September 2012 issue. Photographer Kenneth Garrett is a frequent contributor to the magazine.