The story that Emperor Trajan’s success over a mighty barbaric empire isn’t just one for the books. It’s also told in 155 scenes carved in a spiral frieze top top a huge column.

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Picture that Trajan’s obelisk with a statue of St. Peter mounted on top
Trajan’s Column, v a statue that St. Peter mounted by a Renaissance pope top top top, towers end the damages of Trajan’s Forum, which once contained two libraries and a grand civic room paid for by battle spoils native Dacia. The massive modern-day monu­­ment at ideal commemorates Victor Emman­uel II, the an initial king the a joined Italy.

Story by Andrew CurryPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

In back-to-back wars fought in between A.D. 101 and also 106, the emperor Trajan mustered 10s of hundreds of Roman troops, overcome the Danube flow on 2 of the longest bridges the ancient world had ever before seen, beat a mighty barbaric empire top top its mountainous residence turf twice, climate systematically wiped that from the face of Europe.

Trajan’s battle on the Dacians, a people in what is currently Romania, was the specifying event the his 19-year rule. The loot the brought ago was staggering. One contemporary chronicler boasted that the conquest yielded a fifty percent million pounds that gold and a million pounds of silver, not to point out a fertile new province.

The booty changed the see of Rome. To commemorate the victory, Trajan commissioned a forum that included 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 was “unique under the heavens,” one at an early stage historian enthused, “beggaring description and also never again to be imitated through mortal men.”

Towering end it was a rock column 126 feet high, crowned through a copper statue that the conqueror. Spiraling about the column like a modern-day comic strip is a narrative of the Dacian campaigns: countless intricately carved Romans and Dacians march, build, fight, sail, sneak, negotiate, plead, and perish in 155 scenes. Perfect in 113, the column has stood for much more than 1,900 years.


Picture of a marble statue that Trajan put on armor commonly worn in parades

Trajan, who ruled from A.D. 98 until 117, when he fell ill and died, broadened the Roman realm to its the furthest boundaries. In this marble statue he 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 tough to make out over the first few twists of the story. All about are ruins—empty pedestals, cracked flagstones, broken pillars, and shattered sculptures hint in ~ the magnificence the Trajan’s Forum, now fenced off and closed to the public, a testament to past royal glory.

The column is among the most distinctive huge sculptures to have survived the autumn of Rome. Because that centuries classicists have actually treated the carvings as a visual history of the wars, with Trajan together the hero and also Decebalus, the Dacian king, together his worthy opponent. Excavators have scrutinized the scenes to learn around the uniforms, weapons, equipment, and also tactics the Roman army used.

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

The tower was deep influential, the incentive for later monuments in Rome and throughout the empire. End the centuries, together the city’s landmarks crumbled, the column ongoing to fascinate and awe. A Renaissance pope changed the statue the Trajan with one of St. Peter, come sanctify the old artifact. Artists lower themselves in baskets native the height to examine it in detail. Later it to be a favorite attraction for tourists: Goethe, the German poet, climbed the 185 internal steps in 1787 to “enjoy that incomparable view.” Plaster casts of the column were made starting in the 1500s, and also they have actually preserved details that mountain rain and pollution have actually worn away.

Debate tho simmers over the column’s construction, meaning, and most of all, historic accuracy. It sometimes seems as if there are as plenty of interpretations together there are carved figures, and also there space 2,662 that those.


Travel in time with this stop-motion animation and also see how Trajan’s obelisk was built—according to one theory. Exactly how it to be made and how exact it is stay the topics of spirited debate.


Filippo Coarelli, a courtly Italian archaeologist and art historian in his late 70s, literally composed the book on the subject. In his sun-flooded life room in Rome, he traction his illustrated background of the obelisk off a overfilled bookshelf. “The shaft is an amazing work,” he says, leafing with black-and-white photos of the carvings, pausing to admire dramatic scenes. “The Dacian women torturing roman inn soldiers? The weeping Dacians poisoning us to stop capture? It’s prefer a TV series.”

Or, Coarelli says, prefer Trajan’s memoirs. Once it was built, the tower stood between the 2 libraries, i beg your pardon perhaps held the soldier-emperor’s account the the wars. The method Coarelli look at it, the carving each other a scroll, the likely type of Trajan’s battle diary. “The artist—and artists at this time didn’t have the liberty to carry out what they wanted—must have acted follow to Trajan’s will,” he says.

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

The emperor is the story’s hero. He shows up 58 times, portrayed as a canny commander, achieved statesman, and pious ruler. Here he is giving a decided to the troops; over there he is kind conferring with his advisers; over there, presiding end a sacrifice to the gods. “It’s Trajan’s attempt to be not just a man of the army,” Coarelli says, “but likewise a guy of culture.”

Of food Coarelli’s speculating. Whatever form they took, Trajan’s memoirs are long gone. In fact hints gleaned indigenous the column and also excavations in ~ Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, indicate that the carvings say an ext about roman inn preoccupations than around history.

Jon Coulston, an skilled on roman inn iconography, arms, and equipment in ~ the college of St. Andrew in Scotland, studied the tower up close because that months from the scaffolding that surrounded it during restoration work in the 1980s and ’90s. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the landmark and has stayed obsessed—and pugnaciously contrarian—ever since. “People desperately desire to compare it come news media and films,” that says. “They’re overinterpreting and always have. It’s every generic. You can’t believe a indigenous of it.”

Coulston suggests that no solitary mastermind was behind the carvings. Slight distinctions in style and also obvious mistakes, such as windows that disrupt scenes and also scenes of inconsistent heights, convinced him that sculptors created the obelisk on the fly, relying top top what they’d heard about the wars. “Instead of having actually what art historians love, which is a great master and an innovative mind,” the says, “the ingredient is being done by grunts at the rock face, no on a illustration 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 much fighting in its relenten of the two wars. Less than a quarter of the frieze shows battles or sieges, and also Trajan himself is never displayed in combat.

Meanwhile legionaries—the very trained backbone that Rome’s war machine—occupy themselves with structure forts and bridges, clearing roads, also harvesting crops. The shaft portrays them together a force of order and also civilization, not destruction and conquest. You’d think they were invincible too, since there’s no a solitary dead roman soldier ~ above the column.


Map that the extents of roman Empire and Dacia

Present-day boundaries shown above


Map of the courses Roman and also Dacian militaries took throughout the Dacian Wars Map of the courses Roman and also Dacian militaries took during the Dacian Wars

Present-day city names are in parentheses. 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

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 obelisk emphasizes Rome’s substantial empire. Trajan’s army includes african cavalrymen with dreadlocks, Iberians slinging stones, Levantine archers wearing pointy helmets, and bare-chested Germans in pants, which would certainly have appeared exotic to toga-clad Romans. They’re all fighting the Dacians, saying that anyone, no matter just how wild their hair or crazy your fashion sense, could become a Roman. (Trajan to be born to roman inn parents in what is now Spain.)

Some scenes remain ambiguous and also their interpretations controversial. Are the besieged Dacians reaching for a cup come commit suicide by drink poison rather than confront humiliation in ~ the hands of the conquering Romans? Or are they just thirsty? space the Dacian noble gathered approximately Trajan in step after scene surrendering or negotiating?

And what around the shocking relenten of females torturing shirtless, bound captives through flaming torches? Italians view them together captive Romans suffering at the hand of barbarian women. Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, the head that the National background Museum that Romania, begs come differ: “They’re certainly Dacian detainees being tortured by the angry widows the slain roman soldiers.” like much about the column, what girlfriend see often tends to rely on what girlfriend think that the Romans and also the Dacians.

Among roman politicians, “Dacian” was synonymous with double-dealing. The historian Tacitus referred to as them “a people which never can be trusted.” castle were well-known for squeezing the tantamount of security money out of the Roman empire while sending out warriors to raid that frontier towns. In 101 Trajan relocated to punishment the troublesome Dacians. After practically two year of battle Decebalus, the Dacian king, negotiated a treaty through Trajan, then promptly broke it.

Rome had been betrayed one time too many. During the 2nd invasion Trajan didn’t mess around. Just look at the scene that show the looting the Sarmizegetusa or towns in flames.

“The campaigns were dreadful and violent,” says Roberto Meneghini, the Italian archaeologist in fee of excavating Trajan’s Forum. “Look at the Romans fighting through cutoff top in your mouths. War is war. The roman legions were well-known to be fairly violent and also fierce.”

Yet when the Dacians to be vanquished, they became a favorite theme for roman inn sculptors. Trajan’s Forum had dozens of statues that handsome, mustache Dacian warriors, a proud marble army in the really heart that Rome.

The article seems intended for Romans, not the enduring Dacians, most of whom had actually been marketed as slaves. “No Dacians to be able come come and see the column,” Meneghini says. “It to be for roman inn citizens, to present the power of the imperial machinery, capable of conquering such a noble and fierce people.”


Picture that a step in the column where 2 Roman auxiliaries existing Trajan through severed adversary heads
In a intuitive narrative the winds from the column’s basic to that is top, Trajan and also his soldiers triumph end the Dacians. In this scene from a plaster and marble-dust actors made in between 1939 and also 1943, Trajan (at far left) city hall a battle, while 2 Roman auxiliaries existing him v severed enemy heads.

National background Museum the Romania

Trajan’s Column might be propaganda, but archaeologists say there’s an facet of fact to it. Excavations at Dacian sites, consisting of Sarmizegetusa, continue to reveal traces that a civilization far an ext sophisticated than implied by “barbarian,” the dismissive hatchet the Romans used.

The Dacians had no written language, so what us know about their society is filtered v Roman sources. Ample evidence says that they were a regional power for centuries, raiding and exacting tribute from your neighbors. They were professional metalworkers, mining and smelting iron and panning for gold to produce magnificently ornamented jewelry and weaponry.

Sarmizegetusa was your political and spiritual capital. The ruined city lies high in the hills of central Romania. In Trajan’s work the thousand-mile journey from Rome would have taken a month in ~ least. To get to the site today, visitors need to negotiate a potholed dirt road through the very same forbidding valley the Trajan faced. Ago then the passes were guarded by elaborate ridgetop fortifications; currently only a few peasant huts keep watch.

The towering beech trees that have grown thick over Sarmizegetusa blot out the sun, spreading a cool shade even on a warmth day. A large flagstone road leads from the thick, half-buried walls of a fortress under to a wide, level meadow.

This green expanse—a terrace carved out of the mountainside—was the religious heart that the Dacian world. Traces of structures remain, a mix of original stones and concrete reproductions, the heritage of one aborted communist-era attempt to rebuild the site. A triple ring of stone pillars outlines a as soon as impressive temple that distantly echoes the ring Dacian buildings on Trajan’s Column. Beside it is a low, circular rock altar carved with a sunburst pattern, the sacred center of the Dacian universe.


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

National history Museum that Romania


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

There is no authorize that the Dacians flourished food up here. There room no grew fields. Instead excavators have discovered the remains of dense clusters the workshops and also houses, along with furnaces because that refining steel ore, loads of stole hunks prepared for working, and dozens the anvils. It seems the city was a facility of metal production, supplying various other Dacians with weapons and also tools in exchange because that gold and grain.

The website is lush and quiet. Not much from the altar rises a tiny spring that can have noted water for religious rituals. Flecks of herbal mica do the dirt courses sparkle in the sun. The few tourists speak in hushed voices.

It’s hard to imagine the ceremonies the took place here—and the disastrous end. As Florea conjures the smoke and also screams, looting and slaughter, suicides and panic depicted on Trajan’s Column, there’s a rumble the thunder. The skies is suddenly menacing, the wait sticky and humid.


In the an initial major battle Trajan beat the Dacians (background) at Tapae. A storm indicated to the Romans (foreground) the the god Jupiter, with his thunderbolts, was on their side.

Radu Oltean


Dacians fashioned valuable metals right into jewelry, coins, and art, such as the gold-trimmed silver- drinking vessel at left. These yellow coins with Roman imagery and also bracelets weighing up to 2 pounds every were looted from the damages of Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, and also recovered in recent years.

Vessel: 6.7 customs high, 4th century B.C. Coins: 0.7-0.83 in, very first century B.C. Bracelets: 3.9-4.7 in (diameter), second Century B.C.–first century A.D.

The destruction of Dacia’s holiest temples and also altars adhered to Sarmizegetusa’s fall. “Everything was dismantled through the Romans,” Florea says. “There wasn’t a structure remaining in the entire fortress. It to be a show of power—we have the means, we have actually the power, we room the bosses.”

The rest of Dacia was ravaged too. Close to the top of the pillar is a glimpse that the denouement: a town put come the torch, Dacians fleeing, a district empty the all but cows and goats.

The 2 wars must have actually killed tens of thousands. A modern claimed that Trajan take it 500,000 prisoners, bringing part 10,000 to Rome to fight in the gladiatorial gamings that to be staged for 123 days in celebration.

Dacia’s proud leader spared himself the humiliation of surrender. His finish is sculpted on his archrival’s column. Kneeling under an oak tree, that raises a long, curved knife come his own neck.

“Decebalus, when his capital and all his territory had been occupied and also he was self in hazard of gift captured, committed suicide; and also his head was lugged to Rome,” the Roman chronicler Cassius Dio composed a century later. “In this means Dacia became subject come the Romans.”


A partially recon­structed holy place stands close to a round altar in the sacred precinct the Sarmizegetusa, which to be demol­ished ~ Rome’s victory. Trajan conquered his newest province with Roman war veterans, a tradition reflected in the country’s modern name, Romania.

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