THE LAST GREAT CONQUEROR: TRAJAN AND THE DACIAN WARS II

It does seem to have been fairly common by the late first century AD to form the first line of infantry from auxiliary troops, whilst the legions formed the second and subsequent lines. This was certainly logical, for the higher organization of the legions, with ten cohorts coming under the command of a legate and being used to operating together (unlike auxiliary cohorts which were all independent units), made them easier for the army commander to control. For this reason legionaries were more effective as reserve troops to be committed as and when the fighting line needed reinforcement. In some cases, the battle may have been won by the auxiliaries without the need for any reserves. It is impossible to tell whether this was the case at Tapae in AD 101. It is equally possible that the sculptors chose simply to represent the opening phase of the battle begun when auxiliary infantry and cavalry launched an attack on the enemy. Dio tells us that the fighting was extremely fierce and that victory cost the Romans heavy casualties. When the Roman medical aid stations – medics are shown treating soldiers in one of the later scenes on the Column – ran out of bandages, Trajan sent them much of his own store of clothes to cut into strips and make up the shortage. To commemorate the fallen, he also established an altar on the site of the battle.

Following up on their success, the Romans are shown continuing the advance and putting captured settlements to the torch. The parapet of one Dacian fort is shown decorated with a row of heads mounted on poles, whilst in front of the rampart are stakes concealed in pits, resembling the ‘lilies’ made by Caesar’s men at Alesia. Dio tells us that in one such captured fort the Romans found standards and equipment captured from Fuscus’ army. The Romans then cross a river, this time without the benefit of a bridge. One legionary is shown wading through the water with his armour and equipment carried in the rectangular shield raised over his head. After this Trajan addresses another parade, before meeting with a group of Dacian ambassadors, and subsequently a group of native women. Then the action moves to another area as the Column shows Dacian warriors and Sarmatian cataphracts swimming – and in some cases drowning in the attempt – across the Danube to attack some Roman garrisons held by auxiliary troops. One group of enemies employ a battering ram with an iron tip shaped like the animal’s head in an effort to breach a fort’s wall, and this may perhaps be an indication of the knowledge of siege techniques which Decebalus had acquired from deserters and the treaty with Domitian.

In response to this new threat, we see Trajan and a mixture of praetorian guardsmen and auxiliaries embarking on a warship and a barge. They are bareheaded, wearing travelling cloaks (paenulae) and burdened with bundles – perhaps folded tents or simply supplies. The force moves along the Danube, then disembarks. Trajan is always at their head, and rides with a group of auxiliary infantry, cavalry and barbarian irregulars to hunt for the enemy raiding force. Two auxiliary cavalrymen seem to report to the emperor – presumably scouts who have found the Dacians – and this is followed by a massed Roman cavalry attack. Surprise appears complete – the goddess of Night is shown at the top of the scene suggesting an attack under cover of darkness – and the Sarmatians and Dacians are routed and cut down around their four-wheeled wagons. Caesar noted that Gallic armies were always accompanied by carts carrying their families, and it is possible that the Dacians followed a similar practice. However, it may be that these scenes represent not a raiding force, but a migration by some of the local peoples, perhaps tribes allied to Decebalus.

The Adamklissi metopes also show fighting around barbarian wagons and a dramatic Roman cavalry charge led by a senior officer, perhaps Trajan himself. Although cruder in style, these reliefs are less stylized than those on the Column and appear to show three distinct types of barbarian, probably Sarmatians, Bastarnae and Dacians. It is possible that the Adamklissi metopes correspond with these scenes on the Column, but they might equally depict entirely different events.

After this Roman victory Trajan is seen receiving another Dacian embassy, this time consisting of aristocratic ‘cap-wearers’ (pileati) rather than the socially inferior warriors who were sent by Decebalus at the start of the war. Dio mentions several attempts at negotiation, which failed due to Decebalus’ mistrustful nature and, most likely, the uncompromising nature of Roman demands. This is followed by a major battle, in which legionaries are shown fighting alongside auxiliaries. The Roman troops are supported by a scorpion mounted in a cart drawn by a team of two mules and known as a carroballista. Trajan supervizes from behind the fighting line, an auxiliary presenting him with a captive – perhaps one he had captured personally. Behind him is the famous field dressing-station scene, which may mean that Dio’s story about the bandages should be associated with this battle rather than the earlier encounter. As always with the Column, we simply cannot know.

After the defeat of the Dacians – many of whom are shown held captive in a compound – Trajan mounts a tribunal to address his paraded soldiers, and then sits on a folding camp chair to dole out rewards to brave auxiliaries. Yet in the midst of these scenes of Roman celebration is a bleaker scene off to the side, where several bound, naked men are brutally tortured by women. The men are most probably captured Roman soldiers and the women Dacians – in many warrior societies the task of humiliating and killing with torture enemy captives has often been performed by the women of the tribe. The scene may well be intended to show that the war was still not finished, for such a savage enemy needed to be defeated utterly.

At this point the narrative of the Column contains a clear break, perhaps indicating the end of the first year’s campaigning, so that subsequent scenes should be assigned to AD 102. Another river journey is shown, then a column of legionaries marches across a bridge of boats and two Roman armies join together. In these and the following sections we see Trajan formally greeting arriving troops, making speeches to parades, taking part in another suovetaurilia sacrifice to Mars, receiving Dacian embassies, and accepting a prisoner or other trophies brought to him by soldiers. As the army advances through the mountains, making roads, building forts, fighting battles and besieging forts, the emperor is always with them, watching, directing and inspiring. He does not wield a tool or a weapon to join the soldiers in their tasks, for his role is to direct their efforts rather than share in them. Eventually the Romans overcome the difficult terrain and their stubborn and ferocious enemies. The First Dacian War ends with the formal surrender of Decebalus and the Dacians, kneeling or standing as suppliants before the emperor, who sits on a tribunal surrounded by the massed standards of his praetorian guard. Then Trajan stands on this or another tribunal to address his parading soldiers. Trophies and the goddess Victory mark the end of the conflict.

The peace was to prove temporary. Decebalus agreed to the loss of some territory, gave up his siege engines and engineers, handed over Roman deserters and promised not to recruit any more of these. In most respects the war had ended in an entirely satisfactory way for the Romans, with their enemy reduced to the status of a subordinate ally, and Trajan was justified in taking the honorary title Dacicus. Yet in the following years Decebalus broke most of the terms, beginning to rebuild his army and strengthen his power, occupying some of the lands of the Iazyges, a Sarmatian people, without seeking Roman approval for this expansion. The king was clearly not behaving in an appropriate manner for a Roman ally and war, which was threatened in 104, was openly renewed in 105 when the Dacians began to attack some Roman garrisons. The commander of the most important garrison, Cnaeus Pompeius Longinus – a former legatus Augusti who may still have been holding this rank – was treacherously imprisoned during negotiation. However, Decebalus’ attempts to use him as a hostage came to nothing when the Roman managed to obtain poison and committed suicide. At some point the Dacian also enlisted a group of deserters to assassinate the emperor, but this plan also failed.

Trajan was in Italy when the Second Dacian War erupted, and the Column’s narrative begins with his voyage across the Adriatic to be greeted by local dignitaries and the wider population. Two scenes of sacrifice follow. Even greater forces seem to have been mustered for the Second War. Trajan raised two new legions which were named after him, II Traiana Fortis and XXX Ulpia Victrix, both of which probably served in the Second War, although it is unclear whether they took part in the First. In the conventional Roman way the emperor combined force with vigorous diplomatic activity in AD 105, accepting the surrender of individual Dacian chieftains who abandoned their king, and negotiating with ambassadors from all neighbouring peoples. Decebalus appears to have had far fewer allies as a result. Even so the Column shows a heavy attack against some auxiliary outposts, which held out until relieved by a force led by Trajan himself.

The main Roman offensive may not have been launched until 106, and most probably followed a different route to the earlier campaign. It began with another sacrifice on the bank of the Danube, before the army crossed the river at Dobreta. This time they did so not on a temporary bridge of boats, but on a monumental arched bridge, built in stone and timber and supported by twenty piers each 150 feet high, 160 feet in width and 170 feet apart. It was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus – who would later plan Trajan’s Forum complex and presumably had much to do with the construction of the Column – and built by the soldiers. A roadway was cut into the cliffs of the Danube to permit easier approach to the bridge. Dio’s account describes this feat of engineering in loving detail strongly reminiscent of Caesar’s account of his bridge across the Rhine. It was a great and magnificent victory for Roman engineering, in its way as admirable to the Romans as any feat of arms. The Column provides a detailed, if stylized depiction of the bridge as the background to the scene of sacrifice.

After this Trajan joins the army – the soldiers are shown cheering him enthusiastically, much as Velleius described the legionaries welcoming Tiberius – takes part in another suovetaurilia purification ceremony, with the ritual processions walking round the camp, and then addresses legionaries and praetorians at a parade. At a consilium, Trajan briefs and discusses the campaign with his senior officers. The usual preliminaries over, the army advances, harvesting grain from the fields to supplement their supplies. The Column suggests some fighting, though not perhaps as much as in the First War, and Dio tells the story of an auxiliary cavalryman who, discovering that his wounds were mortal, left the camp to rejoin the battle and died after performing spectacular feats of heroism. The culmination of the campaign was the siege of Sarmizegethusa Regia, the religious and political centre of the Dacian kingdom set high in the Carpathians. After a stiff resistance, and it seems an unsuccessful Roman assault, the defenders despaired and set fire to the town before taking poison. The war was not quite over, but its issue was no longer in doubt as the Romans pursued the remaining Dacians. Decebalus was eventually cornered by a group of Roman cavalry scouts, but slit his own throat rather than be taken alive.

The leader of the Roman patrol was a certain Tiberius Claudius Maximus, who had joined the army as a legionary before becoming a junior officer in the auxilia. On the Column he is depicted reaching out to Decebalus, and by chance his tombstone has survived, carrying an inscription describing his career and giving another version of the scene. Decebalus was beheaded and the head taken back to Trajan, who ordered it to be paraded before the army. The war was over, and victory was completed by the discovery of the king’s treasure, buried in a river bed, after much labour by Roman prisoners.

A new province was created, guarded by two legions supported by auxiliaries and with its main centre at the newly founded colony of Sarmizegethusa Ulpia – a grand city built on fertile land at the foot of the Carpathians, unlike Decebalus’ mountain fastness. Settlers came from many parts of the Empire, but especially the eastern provinces, and Roman Dacia soon prospered. The fate of the Dacians, whether they were completely expelled or simply absorbed in the more normal way, has been the subject of fierce debate in recent centuries, most especially amongst the Romanians – contemporary politics has had a major influence on whether they believe their ancestors to be Romans or Dacians.

EMPERORS ON CAMPAIGN

A massive programme of propaganda, of which the Forum complex was only a part, celebrated the victory in Dacia. Had Trajan simply wanted military glory to confirm his position as emperor, it is unlikely that he would have sought other opportunities for aggressive warfare. His rule was as popular as that of any emperor, and subsequent generations preserved his memory as the Optimus Princeps, the best of emperors, only rivalled in prestige by Augustus himself. His relations with the Senate – always the most critical factor in determining a ruler’s treatment in our literary sources – were generally very good, his rule considered both just and successful. Even Trajan’s vices – he was prone to infatuations with boys and youths – were pardoned, since his behaviour never reached a stage which Romans considered excessive or made him vicious. His decision to launch an invasion of Parthia in AD 114 was, according to Dio, motivated by a desire to win renown.

Trajan had spent more of his life with the army than most Roman aristocrats, and certainly appears to have enjoyed the military life. The pretext for war was, once again, a dispute over the relationship of the Armenian king to Rome, for a new monarch had been presented with his diadem of authority by the Parthian ruler and not by a Roman representative. The peace with Parthia had always been uneasy, since for the Romans their eastern neighbour represented a deeply unsatisfactory thing – the former enemy who had not been reduced to subordinate status and remained fully independent and strong. Trajan appears to have planned to win a permanent victory, for his campaign was from the beginning far more than simply a struggle to show dominance over Armenia. Massive Roman and allied forces – some seventeen of the thirty legions went in their entirety or as a substantial vexillation to the war – were backed by huge quantities of supplies which had been massed in the east for several years in preparation for the conflict. At the back of his mind the emperor was eager to emulate the great conquests of Alexander in the very region through which the Macedonian king had passed centuries before. The culture of the Roman Empire was firmly Greco-Roman and the heroes of the Hellenic world every bit as worthy of emulation as earlier generations of Romans.

Trajan’s eastern war began well, as in successive years he overran Armenia, Mesopotamia and most of Parthia itself. The Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and the major city of Seleucia were both captured, after which Trajan sailed down the Tigris to reach the Persian Gulf. If Trajan had any plans to follow further in the footsteps of Alexander – and it seems unlikely that he did – these were then dashed when major rebellions erupted throughout his newly acquired territories in AD 116. Roman columns had to operate throughout the new provinces, putting down insurrection. Matters were made worse by a major rebellion by the Jewish communities in Egypt and other provinces – though not Judaea itself – which required substantial numbers of troops to defeat. Trajan himself began a siege of the desert city of Hatra in Arabia. During the siege, when his own guard cavalry took part in at least one of the assaults, Trajan himself was almost struck by a missile as he rode past the walls. Dio notes that the emperor was not wearing any symbols of rank, hoping not to stand out amongst the other officers, but his age – he was now 60 – and grey hair made his seniority clear. He was missed, but a cavalryman riding beside him was killed. Hatra withstood the Roman onslaught until Trajan’s men, desperately short of water and other provisions, withdrew. The emperor was planning fresh operations when he suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards.

Trajan was succeeded by his relation Hadrian, but there was considerable doubt over whether in fact he had formally nominated him before he died. Thus, at the beginning of his reign, Hadrian’s position was somewhat insecure, making him reluctant to spend several years away from Rome fulfilling his predecessor’s eastern ambitions. This, combined perhaps with a feeling that Rome’s military resources were overstretched, led to the abandonment of the territories taken from the Parthians. Another casualty was Trajan’s great bridge across the Danube, which was partially demolished to prevent its ever being taken and used by an enemy. There were to be no wars of conquest during Hadrian’s reign from AD 117 to 138, and in most cases the wars which developed in response to rebellion or attack were fought by the emperor’s legates without his on-the-spot supervision. Lacking Trajan’s aggressive ambitions, Hadrian nevertheless spent much of his reign touring the provinces and in particular visiting and inspecting the army. Dio noted that he ‘subjected the legions to the strictest discipline, so that, though strong, they were neither insubordinate or intolerant’. A cult of Disciplina – one of a number of Roman deities personifying virtues – flourished in the army at this time, especially with the troops in Britain and Africa, and may well have been encouraged by Hadrian himself. Even when the army was not at war, the emperor could still conform to the ideal of the good general by ensuring that the troops were well trained and ready to fight if necessary. According to Dio:

He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves – their lives, their quarters and their habits – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a vigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions … He covered his head neither in hot weather nor in cold, but alike amid German snows and under scorching Egyptian suns he went about with his head bare. In fine, both by his example and his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day [i.e. a century later] the methods introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.

Hadrian watched the troops on exercise, just as a commander did in battle, praising and rewarding skill and criticizing and punishing poor performance. An inscription set up by an auxiliary soldier named Soranus survives, recording – albeit in rather poor Latin verse – an incident when the emperor commended his skill as an archer. Much fuller inscriptions found at Lambaesis in North Africa include selections from a number of speeches delivered at a parade of the provincial army as a culmination to a series of rigorous exercises. Hadrian’s style is very direct, referring to Legio III Augusta as ‘his’ legion and its commander as ‘his’ legate. He shows a detailed knowledge of the legion’s recent history, noting that it was seriously under strength through having detached a cohort for service in a neighbouring province. He also mentions that it had subsequently sent a cohort, strengthened by men drawn from the rest of the unit, to reinforce another legion. Stating that under such conditions it would have been understandable if III Augusta had failed to meet his high standards, he reinforces his praise by declaring that they had no need of any excuse. The centurions, especially the senior grades, are singled out for specific praise. Both in this section of the speech and in those parts delivered to individual auxiliary units, the emperor repeatedly pays tribute to the diligence of the legate Quintus Fabius Catullinus. His address to the cavalry element of a mixed cohort (cohors equitata) gives a good indication of the style of these speeches:

It is difficult for the cavalry of a cohort to put on a pleasing display anyway, and especially difficult not to displease after an exercise performed by an ala; the latter fills a greater expanse of plain, has more riders to throw javelins, makes frequent wheels to the right and performs the Cantabrian ride in close formation, and, in keeping with their higher pay, has superior horses and finer equipment. However, you have overcome these disadvantages by doing everything you have done energetically, in spite of the hot temperature; added to this, you have shot stones from slings and fought with javelins and everywhere mounted quickly. The special care taken by my legate Catullinus is very obvious…

Some criticism is contained in the speeches, for instance when a cavalry unit is reprimanded for pursuing too quickly and falling into disorder which would have made them vulnerable to a counter-attack. Yet overall Hadrian sought to encourage his soldiers and make them feel that they and their units were valued and respected. Apart from the specific details there is little that would seem out of place in a similar address by a modern general or manager.

Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius was not a military man, and spent no time on campaign. It was a mark of the security of the time that he was content to trust his legates to fight the major conflicts of the time. These were all in response to problems on the frontiers. From the late first century AD the military bases on the fringes of the Roman Empire had taken on more and more of an air of permanence, with old timber fortifications and internal buildings being replaced by stone. Hadrian had taken the process further in his visits to the provinces, ordering the construction of new installations and frontier boundaries. In Northern Britain the army laboured to construct the Wall which bears his name and stretched for 80 Roman miles from coast to coast. Such barriers were only ever intended to restrict outsiders, and never to hinder the movements of the Roman army, instead providing them with secure bases from which to launch aggressive operations. Rome sought to dominate its neighbours, not merely to repel any invasion or raid on the provinces, but attempts at permanent occupation of new territory were rare.

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