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Bill Thayer

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Scene 1
This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.
Any color photographs are © William P. Thayer 1997-


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Scene 3

Scenes of the spiral band running up the shaft

(p108) II. The passage of the Danube by the Emperor and his Army

The troops march across a bridge laid on boats and carefully engineered. To the left of the bridge under a cave in the rocky shore is a head in relief of heroic size, representing the numen of the Danube, a demi figure nude to the elbows, about which a scarf in close folds forms a frame. His back is turned to the spectator, and the head looks to the right in profile. It is a noble face, and is raised as if in anxious concern for the welfare of the emperor. Rivers in antiquity, such as the Tiber and the Nile, are thus personified. The latter deity is finely represented in a marble group in the Vatican. They were supposed to be concerned in all that passed on their streams. Of bridges and dykes they were believed to be jealous, as of bonds or restraints on their own liberty. Trajan, whose religious exactness is fully represented in the course of these bas-reliefs, is careful to show the consent of the Danube god to the erection of his bridge; his right hand is accordingly upholding one of the boats; the thumb of the divinity is shown through the water under the stern of the second boat.

The bridge is constructed in two lengths, taking the island of Ostrava in its course. The boats are seen moored stem on to the stream; broad joists or thick planks set on edge close together appear to be laid across each boat, the ends of which show just before the raised seat or poop in the stern. Across these are laid joists or short timbers, and on these timbers a floor of planks. The sides are protected by strong latticed rails, which also serve as girders to connect the different boats, and give additional strength to the platform sufficient to bear infantry, cavalry, stores, and such artillery as Trajan had in use. At the shore end of the bridge, on the Wallachian or left bank where the ground is low, piles have been driven into the bed of the stream, and  p109 a steady landing platform or pier constructed, on which the framework of the bridge is made to abut.29

The men pass over in double file, the width of the gateway and platforms not admitting of any wider formation. They are headed by their standard bearers and officers, and the emperor is in advance of the entire body.

The soldiers wear a short linen tunic, but only the standard bearers and officers appear to wear drawers in this portion of the bas-relief. They wear light breast and back plates of iron, lobster-scaled shoulder pieces, and similar bands or wide scales or plates of armour round the ribs down to the groin. These plates are tied by leather thongs, and are of bronze, and very light. The only heavy armour is the helmet, a close head-piece with hinged cheek pieces, and a projecting horizontal plate over the forehead, with a socket on the crown for a plume. These helmets are all slung over the shoulders on the march. Besides this, the shield, square at the ends, half cylindrical, is carried on the left arm. A crown and stars decorate the shields of these soldiers. The sword is a straight two-edged cross-handled weapon, with a heavy round pommel on the hilt. Each soldier carries his kit and provisions on a forked staff over the left shoulder, and grasps the pilum or short spear in his right.

[image ALT: A somewhat muddy engraving of a cluster of small bag-shaped objects attached to a forked stick. The image is explained in the text.]

Fig. 41

Each man has a small pack or bag crossed diagonally by double straps; a small goatskin full of wine or vinegar; a net to hold fruit, meat, or fresh bread; a ladle for dipping into water and for a drinking vessel; and a pot or stewpan with an upright handle.30 They are shod with sandals.

In front of the column march the standard bearers, vexilliferi. The standards are of several descriptions. Two  p110 of these are ensigns of manipuli. These standards bear a hand, one is open, the other closed. Round the hands are wreaths. The hands are on cross bars, ending in trefoil ornaments, with short streamers hanging from them. Six paterae or plates, with bosses in their centres, are fastened to the staff; below these they bear a crescent and wreath, in honour of victory.

The standards of the cohorts are the dracones, small banners of cloth fastened to a horizontal bar, the centre of which hangs on the staff of the ensign. Other standards have metal forks, paterae, places for inscriptions, busts of the emperors from whom they had their names. At the base of these various ornaments is a half circle or globe with a wreath of leaves in relief around it. On the top of the standards is a figure, one of victory, with palm and crown, or of another divinity. One appears to be Mars as he holds a naked sword.

The bearers, signiferi, imaginiferi, draconarii, wear the skins of bears over their shoulders; the skin of the animal's face serving as a protection to the wearer's head, in place of a helmet.

Two aquiliferi are seen crossing the Danube. The staves or poles of the standard are topped by a square bracket or stand ornamented with a cornice on its under side. The wings of one eagle are coupled or united at their extremities by a mural crown in the honour of former achievements of the legion. The other standard is without the eagle, and probably represents that lost by Cornelius Fuscus under Domitian, and which was recovered by Trajan.

There are two superior officers, tribunes, marching at the head of the men. They wear armour to the waist, and kilts or skirts of thongs of leather, which are girt round the waist, the points hanging in two rows around the loins; similar pieces fall over the shoulders; the arms are bare; the legs are clothed in tight hose that covers the legs to the middle of the calf, and the feet in sandals bound with straps round the ancles; their heads are bare; they carry a short sword only in a metal scabbard belted round the waist, and hanging at the left side; they carry in the right hand a roll of paper or a short baton, and a cloak clasped over the right shoulder.

Two trumpeters, cornicines, are sounding the signal for the march. Their instruments are large semicircular horns of brass connected by a straight bar, on the ends of which is a semicircular plate like the blade of an axe. They are here giving the signal for the advance over the bridge. At  p111 the head of the entire advance guard marches the emperor Trajan himself. He is dressed like his lieutenants, wears a cloak clasped over his shoulder, and gives the signal of the advance with his left hand.

The leaves on the trees indicate that the summer has begun. The emperor has his horse led before him. The horse is without saddle, but is covered by a saddle cloth fastened round him with a surcingle, and kept in place by a breastplate strap and a similar strap over the loins, from which hang trefoil ornaments of gilt bronze; the cloth is vandyked on the edge, perhaps with gold embroidery. There are no indications of stirrups. There is an upper cloth, the lower of the two is fringed with gold. The head is without ornament. The headstall consists of a cheek strap, throat lash, forehead strap, and a nose band, and the sharp bit has long bars. It is ornamented with rosettes or bosses of bronze gilt, and so are all the junctions of straps in the harness.

Trajan never rode on a march, but had his horse led before him.

A band of eleven young men and five horses are close to the emperor's person, and are officers selected to fill the place of aides-de‑camp, and carry orders to and fro. The horses have oval shields hung on the sides of the saddles.

The Author's Notes:

129 Vegetius notes this, a principle always adopted in military bridges across rapid rivers. Lib. I.37.

130 See its use, No. LXXXIII.

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Page updated: 27 Jan 18