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Trajan’s Campaign in Dacia

July 30, 2010

Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus), was an unlikely Roman Emperor. He was born in the Roman province of Hispania (modern Spain) in 53 CE, to a father who had a successful military and political career. The Iberian peninsula was far from Italy where the past Roman leaders were raised, and far from the influences of the Imperial city.

The Roman Emperor Trajan

Trajan went on to become one of the greatest leaders in Roman history. Some historians actually consider him the ‘Roman Alexander,’ since he marched his men in the footsteps of Alexander the Great across the Middle East to the Persian Gulf. He did not make it to India, but he died on campaign much like his Macedonian idol.

Trajan had the education of a Roman aristocrat, which included the art of warfare. Trajan joined his father (he had the same name as Trajan) who had been serving in Syria in 75 CE. His father was serving under Titus Flavius Vespasianus (later known as the Roman Emperor Titus), most likely witnessed the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The young Trajan helped his father conquer the restless Parthians, and gained valuable combat experience. War in the eastern provinces was brutal, and very violent. Just read about the campaign in Judea, or the siege of Masada that happened only a few years before he arrived in the area. The Middle East is where Trajan learned that to be victorious also means to show the enemy as much brutality as possible.

Trajan was later transferred to the border with Germania on the Rhine River to secure the northern border of the Empire in Germania Inferior and Superior. Military service must have agreed with Trajan, since he spent 10 years serving in various posts throughout the legions when most young aristocrats only did a few years military service maximum. After his many years of service on the Rhine fighting barbarians, he was elected to an administrative position as a praetor of Rome in 86 CE. He fulfilled his year in Rome as an elected official, and was commissioned by the Emperor Domitian to command Legio VII Gemina that was stationed in Legio, Hispania (Leon, Spain). It is most likely that Trajan suggested this unit, and it may be because he wanted to return home to Spain for a quieter life after his many years on the borders of the empire.

Bust of the Emperor Nerva

Trajan did not get to stay in Spain for long, as he was summoned by the Emperor Domitian to take care of a rebellious commander named Lucius Antoninus Saturninus, who was a legate in Germania. Trajan was loyal to Domitian and marched his troops to Germania in lightning speed to destroy Saturninus and his new German allies. Trajan was successful, and stayed on the Rhine to take care of German tribes that had become friendly with the Roman traitors.

Trajan gained a reputation as a great military commander, and earned more accolades by defeating the Suebic tribes along the Danube, while he was the legate of Germania Superior and Pannonia. Everything was going fine for Trajan, until tragedy struck in Rome.

Domitian was assassinated, and the childless and elderly Nerva became the emperor of Rome. Domitian’s death ended the Flavian Dynasty, and the citizens of Rome embraced for impact. Usually, when an emperor was assassinated (especially at the end of a dynasty), there were years of bloodshed and instability until a new ‘strong man’ was established to rule the Empire. Luckily for Nerva, this did not happen after he was named emperor.

There was one good reason why Domitian’s death did not start a new civil war, and that reason was Trajan. Under threat (probably of death) the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s body guards) told Nerva to make Trajan his heir if ‘something’ were to happen to him. Nerva had no choice but to adopt Trajan as his son, and therefore the rightful heir of the imperial purple robe when Nerva died. Nerva was old, so the citizens knew that it would not be long until Trajan was on the throne. It only took a little more than a year. Trajan was on the border with Germania when he found out he was the new emperor of Rome, and toured his border forts on his way back to Rome to make everything official.

Trajan was a very level-headed commander and emperor, so he knew that fractious political quarrels were not good for the people or the economy. Trajan needed money to fund the improvements he wanted to make on the empire, and he knew how to get it without raising taxes on the citizens. The Dacians had always been a thorn in the side of the Romans since the time of Julius Caesar and had recently broken several treaties by attacking Roman provinces along the Danube. Trajan wanted to start his rule out with a nice victory, topped off by the tons of gold and silver that were in Dacian mines throughout the Carpathian Mountains. A campaign against the Dacians would make him popular and very wealthy!

Dacia is roughly where the modern state of Romania is today, and many may know the area where some of the heaviest fighting was fought as Transylvania, because of the Dracula novels and movies. But, the leader of the Dacian’s was not named Vlad; his name was Decebalus. The Dacian’s were not run of the mill dirty ‘barbarians,’ these people were skilled artisans that built great stone fortresses and were wealthy traders in gold and silver. Many Roman deserters worked for Decebalus as advisers, and even made Roman siege and offensive weapons for his army. Decebalus was a very experienced commander that had defeated the Romans in the past, so the new untested emperor was not such a threat to the confident Dacian leader.

Decebalus, leader of the Dacians

Trajan was not in a hurry, and amassed a huge army on the southern bank of the Danube in preparation for the coming campaign. This did not shake the confidence of Decebalus. The high Carpathian Mountains, deep gorges, and fast flowing rivers were not suitable for military maneuvers. The Dacians were also dispersed amongst a rural population that did not rely on a central city as a focal point or center of gravity. Therefore, a war against the Dacians would have to be one of extermination. So far, no Roman emperor was able to conduct a successful operation in Dacia.

Trajan had 9 out of the available 30 legions in the army on the Dacian border along with numerous auxiliary infantry and cavalry units. Trajan wanted to saturate the area with Roman soldiers, so that being outnumbered was never a problem. Deceblaus may have had his mountain forts, but Trajan had his thousands of soldiers and engineers to combat the Dacians and the terrain.

One of the best primary resources for Trajan’s campaign is Trajan’s Column that is in Rome. Trajan’s column is a bas-relief that describes the campaigns against the Dacians from beginning to end. On the column, Roman soldiers are shown constantly building bridges and forts when they are not fighting the barbarians. He had his legionnaires build paved roads, bridges, and fortified encampments in a slow and deliberate move along the border with Dacia in preparation for invasion. Trajan wanted to avoid a Teutoburg Forest type disaster at all costs.

Trajan viewing his soldiers ghoulish trophies (Trajan's Column)

The first clash in Trajan’s offensive happened at the Dacian town of Tapae, which was the capital of Dacia during the reign of Domitian. Decebalus later moved the capital to Sarmizegethusa, which was further back from the border with the Roman Empire. When Trajan’s army got close to Tapae, he had his army formed in a curious manner. The professional Roman legions were in the rear as reserves and the auxiliary and foreign soldiers were doing a majority of the fighting against the Dacians. There are several reasons why Trajan would have had his army fight in this way. By having the legions in the rear, this would have saved the lives of Roman citizens by having a majority of the casualties be that of the foreign soldiers. The fewer Roman casualties the better, when the reports of the battle got back to the capital. Also, this would have made the battle more bloodthirsty by having the auxiliaries fighting in the front of the battle lines. For example, Roman legionaries in many cases were not allowed to decapitate their foes in battle for rewards because it was seen as ‘uncivilized.’ The auxiliary and foreign soldiers had no such rules and were allowed to be much more brutal in combat than the citizen soldiers. Trajan may have used this fighting technique when he was fighting the Germanic tribes on the northern frontier. Much of the brutality displayed by Trajan’s forces is on Trajan’s column.

Although Trajan was fighting a war of brutality, he still showed some forms of compassion when it came to Dacian noble families. This would show that Trajan could show clemency as was appropriate to the Roman upper classes, and he was not a barbarian like those he was fighting. Dacian noblewomen and children were captured at one point in the campaign, and he had theme safely escorted out of the combat zone like any decent Roman gentleman would have done. This may be an attempt for Trajan to show that even though he was cruel on campaign, he did have the ability to show clemency when he wanted. Trajan was on the right path to make sure he had a successful rule, unlike the past few emperors. Decebalus was eventually tracked down by Roman cavalry and surrounded. Instead of surrendering to the Romans, Decebalus, like many other Dacians, preferred to take his own life so that he would not be paraded through the streets of Rome as a trophy of war.

Trajan was a successful organizational commander that could maximize his forces effectiveness with ease, but his brutality on campaign was the key to his success in Dacia. As mentioned earlier, Trajan placed his auxiliary troops and barbarian allies in the front of formations while fighting the Dacians so he could fight fire with fire. Trajan’s barbarians were much more disciplined than the average Dacian warrior, but still had the brutality of a barbarian horde. They would decapitate their foes for trophies, burn down villages, torment the civilian populace, and make a whole fortified town prefer to commit suicide rather than fight Trajan’s legions. Dacia had been a nuisance to the Roman Empire, since the time of Julius Caesar, but it took over one hundred years to make them kneel to Roman dominance. The last emperor, before Trajan, to confront the Dacians was Domitian, and his campaign ended in a mediocre truce at best. Trajan made the Dacian Empire his priority after he became the emperor, not because he had a royal bloodline, but because he was a successful and loyal military commander. Trajan made a ‘desert’ out of Dacia so he could make into a ‘civilized’ province and recovers the honor of Rome that had been lost during Domitian’s campaign. Trajan spread the borders of Rome to its furthest reaches because of his ability to organize a force, maximize his forces, and most importantly focus his troops’ brutality against the enemy and so successfully conquered one of Rome’s most powerful enemies.


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