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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.
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 p68  Mountain passes

At Viminacium the highlands begin on both banks of the Danube. On the Dacian or Hungarian side, the southern spurs of the Carpathians abut upon the river's edge, and a corresponding barrier is formed on the Roman side by the northern spurs of the Balkan. For thirty miles the waters, which are more than a mile wide at Belgrade, are confined to a narrow and rocky channel, and the rocks and rapids, which, both in Trajan's time and in our own, make the navigation dangerous, precluded the possibility of freely using the river as the line of communication between the points at which he meant the river to be crossed. Some miles further on the river expands again, and somewhere near the confluence of a small stream on the Hungarian bank called the Tierna, Trajan caused another bridge of boats to be made, and his army crossed the river at these two places in two main divisions.

So long as the river is clear of the formidable barriers produced by the mountains named, there are facilities for roads along the banks. At Alt Moldava an excellent road now runs along the banks of the river. Moldava lies at the foot of the Carpathians, which thereabouts appear to close the passage completely, and it is only on a near approach that they are found to be cleft through by a channel worn between two rocky walls. The river here loses three-fourths of its width, and the waters become deep, and their velocity formidable in proportion. At various points along the heights, thus abutting like precipices on the river, are still to be seen the remains of forts or towers built by Trajan to protect the road he made. Some of these have been incorporated into, or have formed the foundations of mediaeval towers. The feudal castle of Golumbacz, still a noble object, and planted on the summit of an all but inaccessible crag, is believed by travellers to be built at least on Roman foundations. At Drenkova, according to Paget, half a mile below Golumbacz, are the remains of a square Roman fort called Gradisca, built by Claudius, "and a chain of similar fortifications all the way from this to Trajan's bridge."

It was along the face of this cliff on the Servian or Roman side that Trajan carried a road for that portion of the army he intended to pass the river at a part lower than Viminacium, in his second Dacian war, if not in the first, at which the bridge shown in the sculptures of the column was constructed. Many parts of these rocks still show  p69 signs of this wonderful road. Just below Kozlamare, Paget found the following inscriptions above some of the signs in the rock, giving the names of two of the legions employed:





From this point numerous traces of the road are to be seen extending to a distance of some fifty miles along the face of these cliffs, and the nature of the place, as well as the structure required to meet the difficulties presented by such a passage, are explained by the accompanying woodcut from the column.

An engraving in two parts. On the left a rock face or wall, the upper part of which appears to recede behind the plane of the lower part, with nine small square holes in three rows of three, the first row on the upper section, the other rows on the lower; on the right, a view of the same rock face from the side, showing an upper ledge with a timber deck built out from it, supported by timber brackets fixed into the lower part of the wall. It is an illustration of how a pre-existing narrow ledge along a cliff was widened into a road negotiable by a carriage. The road is one built for the Dacian campaign near Viminacium.

Fig. 27.

Portions of the cliff were cut so as to form a narrow ledge or gallery wherever the face of the rocks rendered it impossible to dig such a pathway with pick and spade. "For the most part," says Mr. Paget, "the traces of the road now remaining," of which evidences are frequently visible on different parts of the rocks between Golumbacz and Orsova, "are reduced to a narrow ledge from two to six feet in width, cut in the solid rock at the height of ten feet above the high-water mark." This narrow ledge might, perhaps, in the time of Trajan, have sufficed for a towing path for mules or horses, such as are still employed on the course, and at the junction of the Theiss and the Temes, to drag barges laden with cornº to Pesth and Vienna. Mr. Paget saw as many as forty-six horses and twenty men dragging a single barge up the stream.  p70 The ledges, however, were enlarged by wooden galleries. Below the ledge at regular distances, and in four distinct elevations, as seen in the accompanying drawing, are holes of about nine inches square, and eighteen deep. Where the rock hangs perpendicularly over the river, the ledge and the holes may be traced very distinctly to a considerable distance without intermission. At other places they are interrupted by a sloping bank, where an artificial road was no longer required; and at others, where a slight chasm in the rocks made it impossible to continue the ledge, a bridge seems to have been thrown across.78 I give at page 69 a sketch of the holes, and of the probable structure of the galleries as furnished to Mr. Paget by M. Vásárhely, an engineer who had explored and measured the holes. Some portions of the road were perhaps covered over with galleries. This structure explains what seems incomprehensible in the incessant short bridges required, some, no doubt, over short torrents, but frequently over gullies, and in the face of a rock of which all the breaks and natural shelves seem to have been grown over with oak timber. In No. XLI the reader will see such a series of different wooden constructions, one of which is an actual piece of roadway, under which logs are laid crosswise with long timbers laid the reverse way over them. On this the workmen of the legionaries are laying down a road of concrete.

An engraving of a detail from Trajan's Column in Rome, showing Roman legionary soldiers hewing down trees and spreading what appear to be rocks on a road from baskets. It probably illustrates the construction of a road in Dacia for the Roman campaigns there.

Fig. 28.

 p71  Trajan must have had this road prepared by the legions already quartered on the river side stations, for we can hardly suppose that works so difficult and extensive could have been executed actually during his march; and the artist, in showing what the legionaries could do and had done, brings these operations into the current of his sculptured narrative, as he does the building of whole towns, with baths, theatres, &c. Some of which obviously could, at most, only have been founded and marked out during the war.

So effective and well chosen was the line and elevation of the road, with its immediate communication with the river, that it seems a question whether the modern Hungarians could do better than re-establish and enlarge it. "The rock having been cut away wherever it was called for, scarcely more than the restoration of the woodwork could have been necessary. Servia" (it is on the Servian bank) "would easily have supplied the timber; the river would have transported it; every Servian wears a hatchet."79

A coin commemorates the completion of the 'Via Trajana'. Near the end of the defile below which the river again opens out into a broad quiet stream opposite Old Gradisca, Mr. Paget saw the following inscription on a table sculpture on the wall of rock, and called 'Trajan's Tafel:'




The tablet itself is oblong, and is supported by a winged genius on each side, "protected by the overhanging rock, which has been carved into a rich cornice surmounted by a Roman eagle; on either side is a dolphin."80 It has been much defaced both by time and by fires burnt beneath it by the Servian boatmen and fishermen. Here the rapids come to an end, the river becomes wide, and its waters still, and here the second bridge of boats was constructed. Here also end the precipitous sides of the river. The hills, or rocky strata, which form the barriers called the Iron-gate at a lower point, do not abut on the river with lofty sides, such as are seen in the channel of the rapids.81

 p72  Mr. Paget states that he was informed of the cutting of a canal at this critical spot by the Romans, and that remains of it are still to be traced, but he had no opportunity of verifying this report in person.82 The hills below the rapids retire in a northerly direction from the banks of the river in two ranges, and in the narrow valley between runs the river Tierna (Tjerna). Here the second in command, perhaps Lucius Quietus, the Moor, formed a bridge of boats which was kept as a permanent ferry over the river, and the second column of the imperial army here crossed into Dacia.

The valley through which this small river runs is separated by a chain of hills on the left or western side from the alluvial plains, watered by the Tibiscus or Temes, and still further west by the larger stream of the Theiss. The military road by which this portion of the army marched leads for some way to the right of these hills, then ascends them and descends upon and joins the road that runs along the Tibiscus, or Temes (leading to Tibiscus, the modern Temesvar), at a station near Karansebes at the point of junction of the Temes and Bistra.

The army led by Trajan himself has been sometimes supposed to have followed a more westerly course, and to have ascended the valley of the Theiss. But this is doubtful for, if so, it will be seen that he must have turned back or struck eastwards, avoiding the marshy land that lies between the Tibiscus and the Tisia (Theiss). He, perhaps, took measures to keep the river Theiss as a defence on his flank. This river is navigable as far as Tokay. Trajan had, perhaps, a force to guard this river, which only ascended to Singidava, the modern Szeged or Segedin, the point at which it receives the water of the Mariscus, Maros, along the fertile valleys of which river lay the pastures that enriched the Dacian sheep owners.83 No permanent road, however, seems to have been  p73 established along the Theiss as the banks are long and marshy, and are liable to frequent if not yearly inundations, and the popular tradition that Trajan followed the course of that river must be received with caution. On the other hand, a regular road was made and maintained along the course of the Tibiscus as well as the shorter road separated from it by hills, which has been already mentioned. And it is probably along the plain, watered by the Temes or Tibiscus, rather than the banks of the Theiss that Trajan must have marched. A few words only remain of a commentary written on the war by Trajan himself, but these words make it clear from the stations named that this was the road he followed. The words are, — "Inde Berzobim, deinde Aixi, processimus. Bersovia, xii; Ahitis, iii; Caput Bubali, x; Tivisco."84 A third road was made in the course of the second Dacian war, and I will give the stations of these three roads together further on in these pages.

The gorge of the Bistra, which the united army entered, leads direct to the pass properly called that of the iron gate, which opens on the valley of the Maros close to the capital city of Decebalus. This narrow gorge is said to have been actually closed by gates of iron at the time of Trajan's expedition.

The Author's Notes:

77 Travels, p117.º

78 Paget, I.122‑3.

79 Quarterly Rev. in Handbook for S. Germany.

80 Travels, II.121.

81 "The name Iron-gate would lead one to expect a narrow pass closed in by mountains, but the reality does not correspond with the name, for the banks of the river, so far from being contracted and precipitous, are here formed by round-backed slate hills, sloping gradually upwards away from the water's edge. It is merely the translation of the words by which the Turks, in their fondness for metaphor, designate a spot difficult to cross, which shuts in, as it were, the navigation of the river. The rocks on each side and in the bed of the river forming the Iron-gate are a hard micacious slate, very difficult to break or blast, which would present very serious obstacles to the project of cutting a canal along the Servian shore. At the beginning of summer these rocks are nearly covered, and large steamers usually pass down them at that season, favoured by the height of the water." — Handbook of Southern Germany, p542.

82 Travels, II.125.

83 Long barge-like vessels come down the Theiss from Szegedin. These are clean, well-built boats, "covered in with a kind of deck" (much like the boats in the lower part of the column), "and chiefly employed in bringing up corn from the country of the Theiss and the Temes to Pesth and Vienna." — Paget, II.81.

84 Francke, Gesch. Trajans, 106.

Thayer's Note: As far as I know, this is the sole extant passage of an entire work on the Dacian wars, the de Bello Dacico, said to have been written by Trajan himself in imitation of Caesar's various accounts of his own wars. The fragment as it appears here may incorporate a gloss from another source: at any rate the text of the fragment as given elsewhere online is shorter still (and slightly different).

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