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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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 p83  Second Dacian war

The emperor prepared for war with the whole power at his command. This seems to have spread consternation among the chiefs of the tribes whom Decebalus had leagued together in his defence, and many of them made their submission to Trajan. The Dacian chieftain tried to obtain terms for himself but seems to have been unwilling to make a complete submission and lay down his arms. According to Dion,101 he sent spies or envoys into Moesia to meet the emperor on his advance, and put an end to the war by assassinating him, he being accessible to all applicants; but this plot was discovered by one of the men employed who was put to the torture and confessed. The two heads of these spies are supposed to be figured in one of the bas-reliefs relating to this war now on the arch of Constantine in Rome, but taken from the triumphal arch of the Forum of Trajan. Two Dacian heads are also seen on spears planted in the ground in No. XLI, evidently those of spies, for Trajan would not suffer prisoners or country people to be put to death, but the scene in which these two ghastly trophies figured belongs to the first Dacian war. Decebalus then entrapped Longinus, a Roman general whom he invited to a parley, and treacherously placed him in confinement, offering him freedom as the price of the disclosure of the plans of Trajan. Longinus refused and Decebalus then detained him as a hostage, offering to release him if the Romans would grant him terms, of which the possession of the whole country to the Danube, together with repayment of the costs of the war were leading conditions. Dion Cassius seems to leave us in uncertainty as to Trajan's answer, but Longinus found means to send a freedman under pretext of a missive to the emperor favourable to the adoption of the proposed terms, but urging him to continue the war with vigour, and having done this he took poison and so relieved Trajan of anxiety on his account. Decebalus offered to exchange the body of Longinus for the person of the messenger, but the emperor refused to deliver the man to his vengeance in exchange for the dead general, and determined on the destruction of Decebalus and the complete subjugation of Dacia.

It is probable that Trajan collected all the troops he could gather or could spare from Italy and the various stations on either shore of the Adriatic, and that these  p84 troops were transported in the second campaign as far as they could be taken by sea. Not only does Trajan figure in the sculptures of the second war as going from one colony to another on the riverside stations (as no doubt he did), but, in more than one, large ships are represented with sails, anchors, and other evidence of sea-going equipments. Some of the ports at which he embarks or disembarks have piers and lighthouses. In others, waves are represented breaking against the sea wall of the place. In No. XXIV, one would suppose his triumphal arch on the mole of the harbour of Ancona was represented, as perhaps it is. He is personally present during these operations in the sculptures. He is welcomed on his landing; sacrifices are offered to Neptune on his behalf, e.g., in No. LXIII. At the military stations and colonies the entire population, soldiers and civilians, men, women and children, turn out to welcome a ruler who seems to have been so justly and so universally loved.

The war was prosecuted with vigour. Trajan is seen sacrificing to inaugurate his new bridge. Here the emperor seems to have crossed at the head of the main body of his army. At the lower bridge another force crossed, and perhaps a third had advanced in the direction of Zarmizegethusa, or Ulpia Trajana, over the bridge of boats formerly stationed to join the mount of the Tierna with the southern bank. It is from the bridge itself strangely enough that there is no road traceable on the map, and it is possible that the transit over the river was made there, and that a road was afterwards made up the northern bank for the short distance between the bridge head and the course of the Tierna. The easternmost line of march lay, as I have said already, along the line of the Aluta. The Romans ascended it to its source in the western Carpathians, and crossing over the pass of the Rothenthurm descended with irresistible impetus into the fertile plains watered by the Mariscus.

Trajan seems to have driven Decebalus in this war to the mountain fastnesses of Transylvania. He is seen in the bas-relief occupying and fortifying rocky heights and places difficult to attack. On the other hand the Romans watch the Dacians from temporary or permanent forts, and Trajan developed all his military knowledge and engineering skill in mechanical artillery and the other resources of antique siege operations. It is remarkable that in this second war most of the actions of importance are fought under the walls of strong places. The Dacians seem never to have  p85 been bold enough to venture out of reach of such refuges in cases in which defeat was anticipated from the first. Sometimes the Romans follow them in and desperate hand to hand conflicts are seen carried on within the entrenchments; sometimes these places are carried by storm. Occasionally the Dacians try with desperate valour and the use of their shields as a testudo to carry Roman positions by storm, and as there were in places small garrisons which would have been in considerable danger, and some of them may have been overpowered. Often the Romans are protected only by wooden fortifications made of logs of timber.

At last the Romans reached the great stronghold of Decebalus, which seems to have been built on a height, partly on scarped rocks; to have had walls faced with masonry, held together by layers of timber passing through the thickness of the walls to hold them together and better resist the drag of the Roman falx, or drawhook, with which, when once a stone could be displaced by mining, the masonry round it could be torn out by the assailing force. Against this fortress attempts at storming are seen to be ineffectual, though great valour must have been shown by the Romans, as represented in the sculptures. A number of siege engines were also employed in vain, and are seen abandoned. At last a breach at one angle of the fort and a desperate action, either with the garrison who issue out or with a relieving force, opened a way to the Romans. The Dacian nobles in despair fired the houses of their other towns and drank poison. Decebalus seems to have made one or two more desperate efforts, and at last is seen to stab himself. His head was taken to the emperor's quarters, and most of the chiefs then made their final submission. The few scattered fortresses, and bands still under arms, were captured and dispersed by the Roman cavalry.102

The treasures of Decebalus (seen in mule loads of precious cups and vessels) were found in a cavern under the river: according to Dion, the Sargetia or Strehl, in which statement, however, there is a confusion between Zarmizegethusa, the first Dacian capital, and the place to which he finally retreated, which may have been much further north.

According to the same author captives or slaves had been employed to construct the cavern or vault in the bed of the river, having temporarily turned the stream aside, and were destroyed by Decebalus as soon as it was done, in order that  p86 his secret might be kept secure. But it was betrayed to Trajan.103

This long resistance exhausted and went far to depopulate the country. Trajan planted Roman colonies in their place, and invited settlers from other parts of the empire. Four principal colonies were founded. Ulpia Trajana commemorated in coins and inscriptions, is now to be traced by arched roofs, vaulted chambers, and remains of a temple and theatre104 at a place called Varhely. Apulum,105 Colonia Apulensis, on the site of which is Karlsburg, is in the upper valley of the Maros. It was the mining capital and the seat of a Collegium Aurariorum. Napuca, the most northern, is on the site of the modern Maros Vasarhely106 and Cerna or Dierna, on the small river Tjerna, near Mehadia, the site of the mineral baths of Hercules. Other towns were founded on the river Danube and, thus defined, the new province stretched from the Danube and the Theiss on the south and west, to the Carpathians on the north. How far east it is difficult to say, perhaps to the Pruth. Francke, and others think possibly as far as the Don.

The Dacians thus mixed became loyal subjects and firm friends of the emperor. Hadrian, in the following reign, broke down the bridge from jealousy, or more probably, in accordance with a less warlike, certainly a less far-sighted policy. Nevertheless, the Dacians remained true in their towns and stations, even while hordes of northern barbarians were pouring past them into Rome. What they became under Trajan they still seem to remain.

In 1782 Mr. Chishull describes the Wallachs as "ordinarily calling themselves Romans, and their province, Tzerra Romanesca, being persuaded that they are descended of that original. And in favour of this opinion they may allege their language, which is a broken mixture of Latin and Italian, into which have been accidentally adopted some few Turkish and Sclavonic words. — Even the vulgar sort," he says in another place, "usually speak Latin."

"They write entirely the Cyrillian Sclavonic character, which seems to be a detortion from the Greek; and these properties of their language, as well as the characters, they have in common with Moldavia, which two provinces,  p87 together with Transylvania, constituted the ancient Dacia. The two former, Ripensis, and the last, Mediterranea."107

The Dacian character of features in the Wallachs seems to have struck Chishull. Mr. Paget, too, says: "It is impossible not to be struck with the resemblance of the Wallach peasants to the Dacians of the Trajan Column. The dress, the features, and the whole appearance of the Wallachs were so Dacian that a man fresh from Rome could scarcely fail to recognise it. They have the same arched nose, deeply sunken eye, and long hair, the same sheepskin cap, the same shirt bound round the waist and descending to the knees, and the same long loose trousers, which the Roman chain is so often seen encircling at the ankles. It only required to change the German or Hungarian overlooker in his smart hussar uniform for the soldier of the Roman legion in his brilliant armour" (this is a considerable change), "and we might have supposed ourselves," &c.108

The women, according to Mr. Chishull, seem to have draped themselves still more nearly in the manner of the Dacians seen in the sculptures representing the second war. "The inferior sort of women are usually dressed when abroad in a long and loose mantle, reaching from their shoulders down to the ground, and all round gathered into deep and numberless folds, not unlike the gowns worn by the islanders in the archipelago."109

As for the country, the plains are among the richest pasture land in Europe. The account we are about to quote is confirmed by those of Paget and modern books of travels and guide books. What our author says, however, of the absorption of gold dust in the grapes and vine tendrils of Tokay, might be better understood perhaps as a figure of speech of the incomparable vines of that district on the banks of the Theiss.

"Besides all kinds of grain which grow on the surface of the earth in Transylvania, it abounds with veins of metals, minerals, and fossils of all sorts, particularly gold. Among other fossils the native cinnabar is most rare, and the quicksilver which is here found to perfection. Salt is dug in several places" — in square stones or blocks — "by which a large revenue accrues to the emperor. The reports (as to gold) related by some, who were eye-witnesses both here (in Transylvania) and at Toquay are very remarkable, of which  p88 I only mention the following: A piece of gold is said to have grown to a vine, instead of the green tendril, by which it takes hold of the adjoining trees, or other substance that supports it. Pure gold was found in a grape, instead of its ordinary natural stone. Small gold drops were observed to adhere to the skin of a grape, and even an entire grape had been seen to consist of a perfect coat of gold."110

Trajan is supposed to have had Hadrian, his successor, with him in the second war; and it is said that in the bas-reliefs in which Trajan is represented after having crossed his new bridge, Hadrian is represented. He was constantly with the emperor, though his adoption as son did not take place till immediately before Trajan's death, if, indeed, it ever took place at all.

The Author's Notes:

101 LXVIII.11.

102 See ante, page 17.

103 Dion. LXVIII.14.

104 Paget, Hungary, &c.

105 Many inscriptions from Ulpia Trajana are preserved. Several were seen by Mr. Chishull in the market place of Hermanstadt, identifying it with Ulpia Trajana.

106 Francke, Gesch. Trajans, 173.

107 Chishull's Travels, Journey from Adrianople to Holland, &c., p85.

108 Travels, II.125.º

109 Chishull's Travels, 106.

110 Chishull's Travels, 103.

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