The story the Emperor Trajan’s success over a mighty barbarian empire isn’t simply one because that the books. It’s also told in 155 scenes sculpted in a spiral frieze top top a huge column.

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Picture of Trajan’s tower with a statue that St. Peter installed on top
Trajan’s Column, with a statue of St. Peter installed by a Renaissance pope ~ above top, towers end the ruins of Trajan’s Forum, i m sorry once had two libraries and also a grand civic room paid for by battle spoils native Dacia. The massive contemporary monu­­ment at ideal commemorates Victor Emman­uel II, the very first king the a unified Italy.

Story by Andrew CurryPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

In back-to-back battles fought between A.D. 101 and also 106, the emperor Trajan mustered 10s of thousands of Roman troops, overcome the Danube flow on 2 of the longest bridges the old world had ever seen, beat a mighty barbaric empire ~ above its mountainous home turf twice, then systematically wiped the from the challenge of Europe.

Trajan’s war on the Dacians, a people in what is now Romania, to be the defining event the his 19-year rule. The loot the brought earlier was staggering. One modern chronicler boasted that the occupation yielded a half million pounds of gold and a million pounds the silver, no to mention a fertile brand-new province.

The booty changed the see of Rome. To commemorate the victory, Trajan i was delegated a forum that consisted of a spacious plaza surrounding by colonnades, 2 libraries, a grand civic an are known as the Basilica Ulpia, and also possibly also a temple. The forum to be “unique under the heavens,” one early historian enthused, “beggaring description and also never again to it is in imitated through mortal men.”

Towering over it to be a stone column 126 feet high, crowned through a bronze statue the the conqueror. Spiraling approximately the pillar like a contemporary comic piece is a stare of the Dacian campaigns: thousands of intricately sculpted Romans and Dacians march, build, fight, sail, sneak, negotiate, plead, and also perish in 155 scenes. Completed in 113, the column has actually stood for much more than 1,900 years.


Picture that a marble statue that Trajan wearing armor frequently worn in parades

Trajan, who ruled from A.D. 98 till 117, once he fell ill and died, expanded the Roman empire to its farthest boundaries. In this marble statue the wears armor commonly used in triumphal parades.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; photographed in ~ Musei Capitolini, Rome


Today tourist crane your necks up at it as guides explain its history. The eroded piece are difficult to do out above the first few twists that the story. All roughly are ruins—empty pedestals, cracked flagstones, damaged pillars, and shattered sculptures hint in ~ the magnificence that Trajan’s Forum, now fenced off and closed to the public, a testament to past royal glory.

The column is one of the many distinctive monumental sculptures to have actually survived the autumn of Rome. Because that centuries classicists have treated the carvings together a visual history of the wars, v Trajan as the hero and also Decebalus, the Dacian king, as his worthy opponent. Archaeologists have scrutinized the scene to learn around the uniforms, weapons, equipment, and tactics the Roman army used.

And since Trajan left Dacia in ruins, the column and also the staying sculptures of defeated soldiers that once decorated the forum are treasured this day by Romanians as ideas to just how their Dacian ancestors may have actually looked and dressed.

The obelisk was deep influential, the incentive for later monuments in Rome and throughout the empire. Over the centuries, as the city’s landmarks crumbled, the column ongoing to fascinate and awe. A Renaissance pope changed the statue the Trajan with among St. Peter, to sanctify the ancient artifact. Artists lower themselves in baskets from the optimal to study it in detail. Later on it to be a favourite attraction because that tourists: Goethe, the German poet, climbed the 185 internal steps in 1787 to “enjoy that incomparable view.” Plaster casts that the shaft were made beginning in the 1500s, and also they have preserved details that acid rain and also pollution have worn away.

Debate tho simmers end the column’s construction, meaning, and also most the all, historic accuracy. It occasionally seems as if there room as plenty of interpretations together there are sculpted figures, and also there are 2,662 the those.


Travel gradually with this stop-motion animation and also see just how Trajan’s shaft was built—according to one theory. How it to be made and also how exact it is stay the subjects of spirited debate.


Filippo Coarelli, a courtly Italian archaeologist and also art historian in his late 70s, literally created the publication on the subject. In his sun-flooded life room in Rome, he traction his illustrated history of the obelisk off a overfilled bookshelf. “The pillar is an amazing work,” that says, leafing v black-and-white image of the carvings, pausing to admire dramatic scenes. “The Dacian females torturing roman inn soldiers? The weeping Dacians poisoning us to avoid capture? It’s like a TV series.”

Or, Coarelli says, choose Trajan’s memoirs. As soon as it was built, the tower stood in between the two libraries, which perhaps hosted the soldier-emperor’s account that the wars. The way Coarelli watch it, the carving resembles a scroll, the likely form of Trajan’s war diary. “The artist—and artists currently didn’t have actually the flexibility to execute what lock wanted—must have actually acted follow to Trajan’s will,” that says.

Working under the supervision of a maestro, Coarelli says, sculptors followed a arrangement to develop a skyscraping variation of Trajan’s scroll on 17 drums of the finest Carrara marble.

The emperor is the story’s hero. He appears 58 times, portrayed as a canny commander, accomplished statesman, and also pious ruler. Below he is giving a speech to the troops; over there he is kind conferring with his advisers; over there, presiding end a sacrifice come the gods. “It’s Trajan’s attempt to be not just a man of the army,” Coarelli says, “but also a male of culture.”

Of food Coarelli’s speculating. Whatever form they took, Trajan’s memoirs are lengthy gone. In fact ideas gleaned indigenous the column and excavations at Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, indicate that the carvings say much more about roman inn preoccupations than about history.

Jon Coulston, an skilled on roman inn iconography, arms, and also equipment at the university of St. Andrew in Scotland, studied the column up close for months indigenous the scaffolding that surrounded it during restoration occupational in the 1980s and ’90s. He wrote his doctoral dissertation top top the landmark and has stayed obsessed—and pugnaciously contrarian—ever since. “People desperately want to compare it come news media and films,” the says. “They’re overinterpreting and always have. It’s all generic. Friend can’t believe a indigenous of it.”

Coulston says that no single mastermind to be behind the carvings. Slight differences in style and obvious mistakes, together as home windows that disrupt scenes and scenes the inconsistent heights, encouraged him that sculptors produced the column on the fly, relying on what they’d heard about the wars. “Instead of having actually what art chroniclers love, i beg your pardon is a an excellent master and an innovative mind,” that says, “the composition is being done by grunts at the stone face, not on a drawing board in the studio.”

The artwork, in his view, was much more “inspired by” than “based on.” take the column’s priorities. There’s not lot fighting in its relenten of the 2 wars. Less than a quarter of the frieze shows battles or sieges, and also Trajan self is never displayed in combat.

Meanwhile legionaries—the highly trained backbone of Rome’s war machine—occupy us with structure forts and bridges, clearing roads, even harvesting crops. The pillar portrays them together a pressure of order and also civilization, not destruction and conquest. You’d think they were invincible too, since there’s no a single dead roman inn soldier ~ above the column.


Map of the extents of roman Empire and also Dacia

Present-day borders shown above


Map that the routes Roman and Dacian militaries took during the Dacian Wars Map of the paths Roman and Dacian armies took during the Dacian Wars

Present-day city names are in parentheses. Map: Jerome N. Cookson, Alexander Stegmaier, and also Matthew Twombly, NGM Staff. Sources: Ioana A. Oltean, college of Exeter; Jon Coulston, university of St. Andrews, Scotland

Map: Jerome N. Cookson, Alexander Stegmaier, and Matthew Twombly, NGM Staff. Sources: Ioana A. Oltean, university of Exeter; Jon Coulston, university of St. Andrews, Scotland

The shaft emphasizes Rome’s huge empire. Trajan’s military includes afri cavalrymen through dreadlocks, Iberians slinging stones, Levantine archers put on pointy helmets, and also bare-chested Germans in pants, which would have appeared exotic to toga-clad Romans. They’re every fighting the Dacians, saying that anyone, no matter exactly how wild their hair or crazy your fashion sense, could become a Roman. (Trajan to be born to roman parents in what is now Spain.)

Some scenes remain ambiguous and their interpretations controversial. Are the besieged Dacians reaching for a cup come commit suicide by drinking poison quite than face humiliation in ~ the hands of the dominating Romans? Or room they simply thirsty? are the Dacian nobles gathered roughly Trajan in scene after step surrendering or negotiating?

And what about the shocking depiction of women torturing shirtless, tied captives with flaming torches? Italians view them as captive Romans suffering at the hands of barbaric women. Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, the head of the National background Museum the Romania, begs to differ: “They’re definitely Dacian prisoners being tortured by the angry widows the slain roman soldiers.” favor much about the column, what you see has tendency to depend on what girlfriend think the the Romans and the Dacians.

Among roman inn politicians, “Dacian” was synonymous with double-dealing. The historian Tacitus dubbed them “a world which never have the right to be trusted.” castle were recognized for squeezing the equivalent of security money the end of the Roman empire while sending warriors to raid that frontier towns. In 101 Trajan relocated to punish the troublesome Dacians. After virtually two years of fight Decebalus, the Dacian king, negotiated a treaty with Trajan, then promptly broke it.

Rome had been betrayed one time also many. Throughout the second invasion Trajan didn’t chaos around. Simply look at the scene that show the looting of Sarmizegetusa or towns in flames.

“The campaigns were dreadful and also violent,” claims Roberto Meneghini, the Italian archaeologist in charge of excavating Trajan’s Forum. “Look in ~ the Romans fighting v cutoff heads in their mouths. War is war. The roman legions were known to be quite violent and also fierce.”

Yet once the Dacians to be vanquished, they became a favorite layout for roman sculptors. Trajan’s Forum had actually dozens that statues that handsome, bearded Dacian warriors, a proud marble army in the very heart of Rome.

The message seems intended for Romans, not the enduring Dacians, many of whom had actually been offered as slaves. “No Dacians to be able come come and see the column,” Meneghini says. “It to be for roman inn citizens, to show the strength of the royal machinery, qualified of dominating such a noble and also fierce people.”


Picture the a step in the column where two Roman auxiliaries present Trajan v severed opponent heads
In a visual narrative the winds native the column’s base to that is top, Trajan and also his soldiers triumph over the Dacians. In this step from a plaster and marble-dust cast made between 1939 and 1943, Trajan (at much left) watches a battle, while two Roman auxiliaries existing him v severed opponent heads.

National background Museum that Romania

Trajan’s Column may be propaganda, but excavators say there’s an facet of truth to it. Excavations in ~ Dacian sites, including Sarmizegetusa, continue to expose traces the a people far much more sophisticated than implied by “barbarian,” the dismissive term the Romans used.

The Dacians had actually no written language, so what we know around their society is filtered through Roman sources. Ample evidence argues that they were a regional power because that centuries, raiding and exacting tribute from their neighbors. Castle were skilled metalworkers, mining and smelting iron and panning because that gold to produce magnificently ornamented jewelry and weaponry.

Sarmizegetusa was their political and also spiritual capital. The destroyed city lies high in the hills of main Romania. In Trajan’s job the thousand-mile journey from Rome would have actually taken a month at least. To acquire to the website today, visitors need to negotiate a potholed dirt roadway through the same forbidding valley the Trajan faced. Back then the passes to be guarded by elaborate ridgetop fortifications; now only a couple of peasant huts keep watch.

The towering beech trees that have actually grown thick over Sarmizegetusa blot the end the sun, casting a chill shade even on a heat day. A large flagstone roadway leads native the thick, half-buried walls of a fortress under to a wide, flat meadow.

This eco-friendly expanse—a terrace carved out that the mountainside—was the religious heart of the Dacian world. Traces of structures remain, a mix of original stones and concrete reproductions, the legacy of an aborted communist-era effort to reconstruct the site. A triple ring of stone pillars outlines a once impressive holy place that distantly echoes the round Dacian buildings on Trajan’s Column. Beside it is a low, circular stone altar carved with a sunburst pattern, the sacred facility of the Dacian universe.


Picture the a step in the pillar where roman inn soldiers room raiding the Dacians
This scene mirrors Roman soldiers loading plunder ~ above pack pets after beating Decebalus, the Dacian king. Casts such as this one preserve details ~ above Trajan’s shaft that pollution has actually eroded.

National background Museum of Romania


For the past six years Gelu Florea, an archaeologist from Babeș-Bolyai college in Cluj-Napoca, has actually spent summers excavating the site. The exposed ruins, in addition to artifacts recovered from looters, reveal a prospering hub of production and religious ritual. Florea and his team have discovered evidence of Roman army know-how and also Greek architectural and also artistic influences. Making use of aerial imaging, archaeologists have identified much more than 260 artificial terraces, i m sorry stretch for practically three miles follow me the valley. The entire settlement covered more than 700 acres. “It’s impressive to see just how cosmopolitan they were up in the mountains,” claims Florea. “It’s the biggest, most representative, most complex settlement in Dacia.”

There is no sign that the Dacians prospered food increase here. There space no cultivated fields. Instead excavators have discovered the remains of dense clusters the workshops and also houses, in addition to furnaces because that refining iron ore, tons of steel hunks prepared for working, and also dozens that anvils. It seems the city was a facility of steel production, supplying various other Dacians through weapons and tools in exchange for gold and also grain.

The site is lush and also quiet. Not much from the altar rises a tiny spring that could have provided water for spiritual rituals. Flecks of natural mica do the dirt paths sparkle in the sun. The couple of tourists speak in hushed voices.

It’s tough to imagine the ceremonies that took location here—and the destructive end. Together Florea conjures the smoke and also screams, looting and slaughter, suicides and panic portrayed on Trajan’s Column, there’s a rumble the thunder. The skies is suddenly menacing, the air sticky and humid.


In the first major battle Trajan defeated the Dacians (background) at Tapae. A storm indicated to the Romans (foreground) that the god Jupiter, through his thunderbolts, was on your side.

Radu Oltean


Dacians fashioned valuable metals into jewelry, coins, and also art, such as the gold-trimmed silver- drinking vessel at left. These gold coins with Roman imagery and bracelets weighing up to two pounds each were plunder from the damages of Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, and recovered in recent years.

Vessel: 6.7 customs high, fourth century B.C. Coins: 0.7-0.83 in, an initial century B.C. Bracelets: 3.9-4.7 in (diameter), 2nd Century B.C.–first century A.D.

The devastation of Dacia’s holiest temples and altars followed Sarmizegetusa’s fall. “Everything to be dismantled through the Romans,” Florea says. “There wasn’t a building remaining in the entire fortress. It was a present of power—we have actually the means, we have actually the power, we are the bosses.”

The rest of Dacia was devastated too. Close to the height of the pillar is a glimpse of the denouement: a town put come the torch, Dacians fleeing, a province empty the all yet cows and goats.

The 2 wars must have actually killed 10s of thousands. A contemporary claimed that Trajan took 500,000 prisoners, bringing part 10,000 to Rome to fight in the gladiatorial games that to be staged because that 123 days in celebration.

Dacia’s proud leader spared self the humiliation that surrender. His end is sculpted on his archrival’s column. Kneeling under an oak tree, the raises a long, bent knife to his own neck.

“Decebalus, once his capital and also all his territory had actually been occupied and also he was himself in risk of being captured, committed suicide; and also his head was lugged to Rome,” the Roman chronicler Cassius Dio created a century later. “In this method Dacia came to be subject to the Romans.”


A partially recon­structed holy place stands near a round altar in the spiritual precinct of Sarmizegetusa, which was demol­ished ~ Rome’s victory. Trajan conquered his newest province with Roman war veterans, a legacy reflected in the country’s modern name, Romania.

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Andrew Curry wrote around the roman inn frontier in the September 2012 issue. Photographer Kenneth Garrett is a constant contributor to the magazine.