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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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Section 2

Scenes of the spiral band running up the shaft

 p105  I. The first scene represented is the low marsh land of the banks of the Save, a tributary to the Danube. The banks of the river are protected by sentries placed at intervals along the edge of the stream. Four soldiers are represented performing this duty. Two of these are Romans, and two others, according to Bartoli, who gives them beards and bare heads, auxiliaries. But there is nothing in the rest of the military dress to bear out this supposition; probably the second and third heads have worn helmets as well as the first. The heads are now destroyed. The soldiers wear a cuirass, or thick frock of leather or thick linen, with sleeves to cover the shoulders only, showing the anatomy of the body, and notched in round vandykes over the loins. Under this is a tunic with sleeves halfway to the elbow, and tight drawers reaching halfway down the calf of the leg. They all wear the sagum, a cloak or scarf of the shape of the Scotch plaids. This is fastened round the neck by a fibula, and falls to the middle of the calf of the leg behind, leaving the right arm, sometimes both, free. This was of wool, and dyed red. On the left arm of each warrior hangs an oval shield about half the length of their bodies, and ornamented with crowns and stars. On their right sides hang swords or daggers. The first two soldiers hold in their right hands, pila, but these are only indicated by the action of the hand, as if this weapon was intended for subsequent insertion in metal. As the spears are sometimes represented and at others omitted, and only this action of the right hand is given, this difference represents with more probability the different methods of two artists, amongst the many who have been employed on these bas-reliefs.

The second and third soldiers are occupied in helping the disembarkation of stores from boats, and spears are not given to them. Focalia or neckcloths round the necks of all these sentries are distinguishable; they pass once round  p106 the neck, are tied in a loose slipknot, and the ends hang down in front.

Froehner24 considers these men to have belonged to a cohort raised in Narbonnese Gaul.

Each pair of these four men are guards of watch towers or small guard houses, built on piles, such as are now in use on the Austrian frontier. They are represented, however, as structures of stone, are of two stories, the lower lighted only by the door, which can be closed for defence, and the upper by a small square window opening on a wooden gallery with latticed railing to it, on the edge of which leans a large torch of pine wood flaming, as it is night. These small observatories seem to serve as guard houses, having an outer enclosure of stout palisading closely set and the tops of the palisades cut to a point, and also as lighthouses for the navigation of the river at night, and the landing of supplies at all hours.

The guard houses are continued along the shore till lost in the vanishing end of the spiral, diminishing in proportion, but the proportions of the human figure are not altered in this part of the bas-reliefs, so that sentries only occur as soon as the spiral band becomes wide enough to contain these figures.

Between the guard houses are seen stacks of forage brought to a sharp point, and thatched with reeds or rushes of some length, the length lapping carefully over each other down to the ground.25 Besides cornº and hay,a firewood is piled up in logs, carefully cut and laid in opposite courses. These logs appear occasionally to have served as beams of timber for various purposes of warlike engineering during the campaign. The two soldiers employed in landing stores receive them from three small boats or barges, each of the same build. They are scaphae onerariae or barges belonging to the boat force kept on the Danube by the Romans under the name of classis Pannonica26 for these purposes. They are apparently manned by two men each, two men in the first boat are occupied in landing barrels of wine, oil, or vinegar, and perhaps have the other boats also in charge. Each is rowed by two broad paddles swinging on a thole pin on the quarters of the boat, and a small raised seat is provided in the stern, the planks nailed on by bronze or  p107 copper nails,27 as being less liable to rust away. This raised seat appears to contain a locker under it.

Two of the boats are laden with casks, and the third with sacks of grain carefully packed and kept in place by bars of timber. A number of the casks are landed, and are lying on an elevated piece of ground.

The artist having thus far represented the military preparations of the emperor changes the scene at once to the rocky banks above the iron gates, from which the campaign is about to open.

The second and third boats are moored abreast of a town, part of which is built on the rocky banks of the river and part on lower ground. This, if a suburb, is carefully fortified by a barricade of palisades pointed at the top and about ten feet high. The houses have all one upper storey; the door of one is some height above the ground, and could be reached only by a ladder; another has the door at the end protected by a small adjoining roof or porch, and a third has a long shed on its flank resting on wooden posts; the roofs of all the buildings are covered with thatch, kept secure by bars of wood, crossed over the entire roof, this arrangement is followed in the more important buildings of the upper town.

This portion is better built. One house has a projecting wing through the basement of which runs a road under an arch. Another building rests on a colonnade of Roman Doric arches, and the upper storey is lighted by square openings or windows. A portion only is seen, and it is a small theatre or forum. Poplar and other trees are seen in an enclosed garden beyond. The town is surrounded by walls built of coursed stones, rusticated, and the tops battlemented for defence. Three arched gates are distinguishable and above them arched openings, something like what has been preserved over the gate of Augustus at Perugia. From these the warders of the gate could observe the enemy and raise or lower the cataracta,28 clathra, or portcullis. The principal gateway is arched and has rude pillars each side, and will remind travellers of the Roman arched gateway of Volterra. This arch opens on the quay or landing place of the river, from which a steep road leads to the city: paths or rude stairs in rock lead to the other gates.

 p108  The town represents the strong fortification of Viminacium, the headquarters of the Claudian legion. It was situated a little to the east of the confluence of the river Morava; it is the modern Ostrava opposite to a narrow island of the same name.b From this point the campaign against Decebalus swept to the east and north-east, securing the left bank of the river, and the whole country of Wallachia and Moldavia which lay before Trajan in this direction.

The Author's Notes:

24 Description des bas reliefs, Col. Trajane, p2.

25 Columella II.18. "Quicquid siccatum erit, in metas extrui conveniet easque in angustissimos vertices exacui."

26 Marquardt, Handb. Röm. Alterthum. Quoted by Froehner, III.2, 407.

27 Vegetius, IV.34. "Utilius aereis clavibus quam ferreis."

28 So called because it fell in grooves like a cataract.

Thayer's Note: That's one opinion; another is that the portcullis derived its name directly from the noise it made, which is the origin of the word as applied to cataracts in rivers.

For further information about the Roman portcullis, see the article Cataracta in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, which includes a plan of one in Pompeii.

Thayer's Notes:

a Those interested in this vegetable in the context of Trajan's Column should see Hay in Art, Nov 2003.

b In fact, Ostrava just means. . . "Island".

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Page updated: 27 Jan 18