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Bill Thayer

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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.

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 p12  Decebalus

Decebalus was the name of the monarch who had united the scattered tribes of this pastoral country. Duras and other princes of the country had been either dethroned or united as allies or dependants, and a number of tribes or races had been moulded in some sense by this monarch into one powerful nation. The most important people, and that found most difficult of subjugation by Decebalus, seem to have been the Jazyges, a race originally inhabiting parts of the Roman province of Moesia, south of the Danube. From thence they had been transplanted or driven out by the Romans, to those portions of Hungary that lie east and west of the Theiss, and they are known as Jazyges Metanastae from this emigration. Decebalus did not succeed in annexing or in forming a very permanent coalition with the Jazyges, but he seems to have tried to do so, and his attempt on their territory at a later period furnished one of the arguments for the second Dacian war.

Decebalus, under Domitian, had proved a formidable enemy to the Romans. From the mountain region already named he seems to have issued forth on many occasions, more especially during winter, when the marshy ground on the Wallachian shore of the Danube was passable for his cavalry, and even the river itself in severe seasons was scarcely an impediment, being frozen or covered with floating ice, while the Roman vessels of war were during such a season no protection. Such an exploit against one of these Roman stations is perhaps represented in No. XXII of the bas-reliefs of the column. He made sudden attacks on these Roman stations, carried off treasure, arms and what was of greater importance, Roman artificers, and then crossing the whole breadth of Wallachia, he put the mountain barriers of Transylvania between himself and the Romans, and the length of the Banat between his capital and the mouth of the Save, on which the arsenals of the empire were built. The Emperor Domitian was too weak to keep in order a border country so wide in extent, or to bring under a king or chieftain so valiant, so well followed and with so many material resources, in arms, machines and treasure. Julianus, the general sent by Domitian to oppose this potentate, seems to have been frequently worsted in open fight, and that the superiority of the Roman arms was seriously lowered in these wars there can be no doubt.

 p13  The Dacians were as well armed in some respects as the legionaries, for we hear of Julianus ordering his soldiers to write their names and those of their several centurions upon their shields, so that his men might be distinguished when covered by them from the enemy.11 Julianus did at last gain a victory of real importance at Tapae, in which the loss of the Dacians is said to have been so severe, that the officer second in command, Vezinas, had to throw himself amongst his own dead to escape notice, and crept out and made his retreat after night fall. Some show of vigorous pursuit was made on this occasion, as the Romans pressed forward to storm the stronghold of Decebalus. That leader prepared his defence by making, amongst other means of protection, dummy soldiers of wood, which he placed behind stockades, to frighten the pursuers.12 Altogether this battle seems to have been but a casual piece of success, and the Roman general can hardly be supposed to have followed up the fugitives with real earnestness of purpose, if such resources were used against him. The slaughter was nevertheless considerable, and Julianus seized the occasion to send a number of heads to Rome, where the ghastly trophies were exposed before the rostra in the forum.13

The emperor Domitian took the opportunity to give himself a triumph at Rome, decorating the procession with spoils not really captured in war, but brought for the purpose out of the imperial armouries in Rome.14 He consented, nevertheless, to a peace with the Dacian king, and to the payment of an annual tribute. To purchase peace at such a sacrifice was not only dishonourable, it was not safe for the empire. Domitian was succeeded by Nerva, who had neither military power nor physical vigour to prosecute a new war, but under Trajan it had become a necessity. The emperor had not only the eagerness of a soldier for war out of the love of enterprise, and the desire of glory; but he was also well aware of the danger to the state, threatened by all the circumstances already detailed, and he knew both himself and his army well enough to have little doubt as to the issue of the war he proposed to undertake himself.

The Author's Notes:

11 Dion Cassius, LXVII.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

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Page updated: 6 Sep 20