King Decebalus in his aerie felt completely safe—above all, safe enough to challenge the Romans with every prospect of success. So much stood in his favor.
First of all there were the mountains, impenetrable to strangers. The heartland of the Dacian kingdom was the Transylvanian basin, inside the great semicircular sweep of the Carpathian Mountains north of the Danube. They vary from about four thousand to more than eight thousand feet in height, and were heavily forested. A rich habitat for brown bears, wolves, and lynxes, even today the range hosts more than a third of all Europe’s plant species.
Second, the Dacians took care to defend themselves. Their craggy kingdom was guarded by half a dozen great fortresses, whose ramparts were constructed from the unique murus Dacicus, literally “Dacian wall.” Heavy masonry facings covered a timber-reinforced rubble core. The wood made these defenses flexible, and they resisted battering rams. The Dacians also erected rectangular projecting towers, on the Greek model, which allowed archers and missile-throwing engines, the technology acquired courtesy of Domitian, to provide flanking fire.
The greatest of the fortresses was Sarmizegetusa, perched on a crag almost four thousand feet high (its extensive remains can be seen in the Orastie Mountains of Romania). It formed a quadrilateral made of huge stone blocks and was constructed on five terraces. Nearby stood two sanctuaries, one circular and the other rectangular, consisting of rows of wooden columns, symbolic groves from which hung offerings to the gods. Civilians lived outside the fortress walls: tens of additional terraces housed dwelling compounds, craftsmen’s workshops, storehouses, warehouses, aqueducts, water tanks, and pipes. Roads were paved and there was a sewage system.
The Dacians had a civilization of which they could be proud. Their lands were rich in minerals, and they acquired great skill in metalworking. They traded with the Greek world, importing pottery, olive oil, and wine, and may have engaged in slave dealing. Compared with their neighbors they enjoyed a high standard of living as well as a rich spiritual life.
Militarily, the Dacians were less advanced. Unlike the Roman legions, they did not field a standing army, although there was a warrior class, the comati, or “long-haired ones.” Instead, they depended on annual levies after the harvest had been gathered in, thus limiting the length of time a military force was able to stay in arms. The chieftains and warriors—Dacia’s nobility—protected themselves with armor and helmets, and the rank and file wore ordinary clothes and were defended only by an oval shield. They marched into battle accompanied by the howl of boar-headed trumpets and following their standard, the draco, or “dragon,” a multicolored windsock. Their principal weapon, the falx, was a fearsome curved machete, used for slashing rather than thrusting. As intended, a Dacian horde made a terrifying audiovisual spectacle.
On March 25, 101, a group of men wearing odd-looking hats gathered together on the Capitol in Rome. They were members of an ancient club, the fratres arvales, or Brothers of the Plowed Field, and their suitably agricultural headgear consisted of a white band holding in place a garland made from ears of corn. Founded by Rome’s legendary second king, Numa Pompilius, they faded into obscurity during the later centuries of the Republic, but were reinvented by that most antiquarian of emperors, Augustus.
There were twelve Arvals, and at this time they were among the most distinguished personalities in Rome; they included former consuls, one of whom was in office when Domitian was assassinated and was probably involved in the conspiracy. All were seasoned players of the political game, exactly the kind of dinner guests favored by the late emperor Nerva.
The task of the Arvals was the worship of Dea Dia, an old rural fertility goddess, whom some thought to be the same as the Etruscan divinity Acca Larentia, Romulus’ adoptive mother. They celebrated her in May at the festival of Ambarvalia.
The society also offered thanksgiving of a more contemporary and comprehensible kind. On this occasion only half a dozen brothers were in attendance. The emperor was an Arval ex officio, and sent his apologies. This was because today he was leaving Rome to lead an expedition against the Dacians, and the brothers wordily wished him the best of fortune.
O Jupiter, Greatest and Best, we publicly beseech and entreat thee to cause in prosperity and felicity the safety, return, and victory of the emperor … and to bring him back and restore him in safety to the city of Rome at the earliest possible time.
It is highly probable that one of the first decisions of Trajan’s reign was to deal with the threat posed by Decebalus. This was why he had visited the Danube provinces before returning to Rome for his inauguration. However, an attack on Dacia was high risk, and it is no wonder that an underlying impression of unease can be detected in the Arvals’ good wishes; after all, previous campaigns had failed, with generals come to grief and legions mauled or (even) wiped out.
The new emperor had two good reasons for proceeding—one specific and the other general. First, Decebalus was an ambitious, able, and expansionist leader who threatened the stability of the imperial frontier; second, Trajan shared Augustus’ perception that an aggressive foreign policy cemented consent for the autocracy at home.
That said, a careful and well-prepared approach would be essential to success. Trajan was an admirer of the ancient world’s greatest conqueror, Alexander the Great. But although the Macedonian was justly famed for his bravery and bravura on the battlefield, Trajan understood the invisible key to his unbroken record of victory. Alexander was a master of logistics; he took great care of his supply lines and well understood the need to protect a victorious army’s rear as it advanced into enemy territory.
The Danube was an essential line of communication for the movement of troops and supplies. However, in places rapids made it impassable; so one or more navigable canals were dug alongside stretches of the river, a characteristically ambitious grand projet, traces of which have been discovered.
Trajan built two great but temporary bridges resting on tethered boats, crossing the Danube at Lederata (near the present-day village of Kostolac, east of Belgrade) and Bononia (today’s Vidin). These bridges gave the legions points of entry into the mountains of Dacia.
However, to ensure maximum security the emperor needed to provide a reliable connection between them. This was more easily said than done, for at the so-called Iron Gates of Orsova the Danube narrows to a gorge bounded by steep cliffs. At their feet on the southern, or Moesian, side the Romans cut a roadway-cum-towpath through sheer stone for a length of twelve miles. It was widened by cantilevered planks overhanging the water that were supported by wooden beams inserted into holes driven into the rock. This triumph of the legionary engineer can still be seen today.
Trajan was also justifiably proud of his achievement, as he made clear in a votive inscription of the year 100.
Imperator Caesar, son of the deified Nerva, Nerva Traianus Augustus Germanicus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power for the fourth time, father of his country, consul for the third time, cut down mountains, erected the projecting arms, and constructed this road.
A year later another inscription boasted that “because of the danger of cataracts, [Trajan] drew off the stream and made the Danube’s navigation safe.”
All these preparations—not to mention the reorganization and strengthening of existing military bases north of the Danube, building accommodation for the invasion force, and increasing the capacity of ports during winter’s inclement weather—took time, perhaps as much as two or three years. As the work drew to a conclusion, a large army was assembled in Moesia—nine of the empire’s total of thirty legions. In addition, there was a roughly equal number of auxiliary troops, which included cavalry (which would face the fearsome Dacian cataphracts, or heavily armored horsemen), ten regiments of archers, and irregular forces such as the semibarbarian symmacharii—essential for warfare in rugged territory where set-piece battles were not feasible.
Soldiers were summoned from many parts of the empire—Spaniards, Britons, and a body of fierce Moorish riders commanded by the fiery Lusius Quietus, son of a tribal chieftain in Mauretania (roughly today’s Morocco), who recruited his bareheaded cavalry from the free Berber tribes of northern Africa: they rode bareback and without reins, hurling light javelins at the enemy. A brilliant commander but a notorious rogue, he had been dismissed from the service for some unnamed conduct unbecoming, but was now forgiven for his prowess. In all, the units deployed in Moesia added up to the largest army a Roman general had ever commanded. On the assumption that many units stayed in the rear to secure the Danubian provinces and protect supply lines, more than fifty thousand men were available for front-line duty. Trajan was a cautious commander, who countered the risk of marching into unknown territory by the application of overwhelming force.
We can be sure that it was not only the Arvals who turned out to mark Trajan’s departure. The Senate will have gathered to see him off, accompanied by his wife, Plotina, with crowds of ordinary citizens lining the streets. The imperial entourage included some of the best military talent of the day and most astute political minds—among them, the scion of an eastern royal house, C. Julius Quadratus Bassus from Pergamum, a splendid city in today’s western Turkey, with its citadel modeled on the Acropolis of Athens; Hadrian’s bugbear and brother-in-law, Servianus, now in his fifties; and the inevitable Licinius Sura.
The youngest comes Augusti, “companion of the Augustus,” or official associate, was a twenty-five-year-old quaestor. Although obviously a competent junior officer who had useful firsthand knowledge of Moesia and the Roman frontier troops, Hadrian owed his elevated position to being a relative of the emperor. He was rising fast, but he knew he could fall faster. He had a good friend in Sura, but Servianus was a hostile critic and Trajan sometimes listened to one and sometimes the other. Hadrian was facing his first experience of war; all eyes were on him and he would have to work hard to win his spurs. What he had gained by birth, he would maintain only on merit.
Little has survived on paper about the course of the campaign, but the full story has been told in stone. It can still be “read” in Rome to this day. A visitor who walks down the wide, dusty viale dei Fori Imperiali from the Colosseum to the Vittore Emmanuele monument (looking more like a homage to Cecil B. DeMille than a true evocation of the classical world) will see on his right the ruins of the Forum, which Trajan commissioned later in his reign. The last, largest, and most magnificent of all the imperial fora, it dwarfed those of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, and Nerva.
The emperor’s architect was Apollodorus of Damascus, a designer and engineer of great virtuosity whose work exploited the revolutionary transition from traditional methods and materials to an architecture based on concrete, opus caementicum, a mixture of lime mortar, sand, water, and stones. Invented in the first century B.C., it was refined and developed and by the end of the following century had became the most popular building material. Thanks to concrete, the vault and the arch entered the Romans’ architectural vocabulary, and buildings could rise as high as four or five stories.
The new forum stretched all the way from those of Caesar and Augustus northward to the Campus Martius. A large segment of the Quirinal Hill was removed to make room. A high arch, topped with a statue of Trajan in a war chariot, bounded the southern end of a vast rectangular piazza. This in turn led to a basilica, or conference and shopping center, and then a great temple, between which a tall freestanding column was erected, flanked by two libraries, one for Latin literature and the other for Greek.
Trajan’s Column, the only component of this collection of massive edifices to remain intact, rises one hundred feet from the ground, as an inscription at its foot proudly claimed, to measure “how high a hill and place have been excavated for these great works.” Inside the pedestal a small room was set aside to receive one day the ashes of emperor and empress in two golden urns (it is now empty); and a circular stairway ascends to the top of the column, where a gilt-bronze statue of Trajan once stood. He was displaced during the Renaissance by Saint Peter, who remains in occupation.
The exterior surface of the column takes the form of a stone ribbon about three feet wide and 670 feet long that winds its way up the column in twenty-three spirals. On this ribbon carved reliefs recount in realistic detail Trajan’s struggle with the Dacians, rather in the manner of a modern cartoon strip. Its narrative is broadly trustworthy, although, just as ancient historians used to make up “appropriate” speeches for their protagonists, so the column’s sculptor or sculptors sometimes inserted scenes that were typical of what could or should have happened rather than of what actually did. Hard to descry from the ground, the column could be readily admired and studied from windows in the libraries’ upper floor or floors.
Winter was too much for classical armies and campaigns usually started in May, when there was enough fresh greenery to feed horses and pack animals, and the ground was firm underfoot. Fighting might be expected to start in June, or July after harvests had been brought in, and tailed out at the end of autumn.
So Trajan did not have to wait long after arriving in Moesia sometime in April 101 before launching the big push. The column picks up the tale. We see the flat riverbank across the wavy waters of the Danube and a series of blockhouses and watchtowers, the Roman limes, one and two stories respectively and surrounded by wooden palisades. In small ports on the Roman bank, stevedores are loading ships with supplies to be ferried across into Dacia. Bareheaded legionaries, their helmets hanging from their right shoulder and carrying their kit on the other, march in formation over the pontoon bridge, probably at Lederata.
On the second bridge a column of Praetorian standard-bearers is preceded by trumpeters and dismounted cavalry. At the head of the guard Trajan sets foot for the first time on Dacian territory. This emperor, it is clear, means to lead his men from the front.
The carvings pay close attention to engineering feats. Legionaries clear woodland and build camps, forts, bridges, and roads. Every advance into unknown territory is carefully secured to avert any danger of being outflanked by the enemy. Trajan is to be found everywhere, surveying terrain, confronting a Dacian prisoner, addressing respectfully attentive troops.
Decebalus avoids a full-scale encounter with the Romans and conducts a strategic withdrawal to his mountainous heartland and the royal citadel of Sarmizegetusa, but at Tapae, where years previously he had wiped out a Roman force, the king is either tempted or outmaneuvered into giving battle. This time he loses, and Trajan’s auxiliaries, whom he placed in the front line, display before him the severed heads of fallen Dacians. However, the Romans suffer heavy casualties and the emperor gives some of his clothing to be torn into bandages. Decebalus cannot be prevented from retiring in good order.
In the absence of anything better to do, much territory is pillaged and many captives are taken. Among them we see a group of Dacian women, one of whom is richly dressed with a child in her arms—almost certainly the king’s sister. The emperor is a gentleman and makes a point of treating them all generously (as Alexander did the womenfolk of the Persian king of kings). Autumn has arrived and the legions hole up in their winter quarters to await next year’s spring. The fighting season draws to a close on a faintly equivocal note; Trajan has scored a victory, but failed to win the war.
In Italy the public was on tenterhooks. Everyone wanted news, and if they had a friend in the forces they wrote for the latest information. In a state of high anxiety, Pliny promised his friend Servianus, who was evidently a dilatory correspondent, that he would pay for a special courier to carry his reply if only he would put pen to paper (or stylus to waxed tablet).
I have had no letter from you for such a long time … Please end my anxiety—I can’t bear it … I am well myself if “well” is the right word for living in such a state of worry and suspense, expecting and fearing to hear any moment that a dear friend has met with one of the accidents that can befall mankind.
Whether or not Servianus responded in writing is unknown, but Pliny did not have to wait long for an answer in person. While the emperor stayed behind on the front, Servianus and Sura returned to Rome, where their service to the state was rewarded with “ordinary” consulships. They were accompanied by Hadrian, still imperial quaestor until the end of the year; he carried with him Trajan’s dispatches, a blow-by-blow account of the campaign, which he read out to the Senate.
Hadrian had had a good war, although what exactly he did has not come down to us. An inscription has been found in the theater of Dionysus in Athens that sets out his early career and notes that he was twice awarded military decorations. There were specific awards for different classes of officer, but as a comes Augusti, Hadrian held no particular command and, strictly speaking, did not qualify for any of them; so he must have won one or more of a range of decorations that honor particular acts of valor—the corona civica, for saving the life of a Roman citizen in battle; the corona muralis, for assault on a wall; the corona vallaris, for assault on a ditch or bastion; and the corona obsidionalis, for bravery during a siege. The Dacian campaign afforded plenty of opportunities for any of these risky specialties.
Also Hadrian at last managed to get “into a position of fairly close intimacy” with the emperor. He writes in his autobiography that he made sure to “fall in with Trajan’s habits,” in particular by getting drunk with him in the evenings. For this he received “opulent rewards.” Evidently Hadrian had learned that essential aspect of the courtier’s art—always to turn up, always to be on hand. Not only did this breed familiarity, but it reduced the monopolizing access to the presence that a carper such as Servianus needed to turn the emperor’s mind against him.
As a small token of favor, Hadrian was permitted immediately to follow his quaestorship with appointment as tribunus plebis, tribune of the people, without the usual twelve months’ interval between public appointments. In fact, there was an overlap of three weeks, for tribunes assumed office on December 10, while the term of all other “elected” officials ended on December 31.
While military tribunes were, as Hadrian knew only too well, junior officers in a legion, the ten tribunes of the people dated from the early days of the Republic when the patricians were locked in a political struggle with the plebs. They were not allowed to be patricians, for their task was to protect ordinary Romans from high-handed behavior by their betters.
At the height of their power in the first century B.C., they were able to bring the business of the state to a halt by the exercise of their veto over any decision taken by any other public officeholder, including the consuls. After the emperors assumed tribunician authority, the tribunes themselves dwindled in importance, although they continued to have the right to oppose decrees of the Senate and to act on behalf of injured individuals.
Hadrian and the Aelii had not been granted patrician status, as he might have expected if his kinship to the emperor was borne in mind. Trajan must have thought that this would be interpreted as a hint that his ward was well on course to being acknowledged as his heir. This was not his intention at all; he was still in his forties and the question of the succession could wait.
Once again Hadrian claims in his autobiography that he was given a sign that one day he would assume the purple. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta,
he was given an omen that he would receive perpetual tribunician power [in other words, become emperor], in that he lost the heavy cloak, or paenula, which the Tribunes of the Plebs used to wear when it rained, but which emperors never wear.
There is some misunderstanding here, for it appears that everyone wore paenulae in bad weather, including emperors. But tribunes may well have worn some kind of uniform, to which Hadrian referred and which the author of theHistoriaconfused with an ancient version of the raincoat.
On the Danube, Trajan was anxiously awaiting reinforcements. The fact that the governor of Britannia sent a small detachment from his personal bodyguard points to the emperor’s urgent need: Tapae had evidently delivered more than just a bloody nose. The army was vastly expensive and emperors since Augustus had kept its complement to a minimum; the consequence was that they had no mobile reserve to call upon during an emergency. Trajan was diverting to Moesia every last soldier that could be safely spared from other frontiers.
The Romans could expect an even tougher and bloodier campaign in 102 than the year before, for they would be attacking Decebalus’ precipitous heartland; not only were the mountains steeper, but desperation would fuel the Dacian resistance if and when the legions advanced. The plan was for Trajan to lead a frontal onslaught through the Iron Gates while, unobserved, Lusius Quietus and his Moors and a third force would launch pincer attacks from the rear.
It was hard going and much blood was shed, but the tactic worked. According to Dio Cassius, Trajan
seized some fortified mountains and on them found the arms and captured artillery and siege engines as well as the legionary standard that had been captured in the time of Fuscus [Domitian’s amicus, ambitious for military glory, who had lost the first battle of Tapae].
On the column we witness a large-scale engagement in which legionaries supported by artillery, archers, and slingmen drive through enemy ranks and storm a stronghold. An assault force forms a testudo, or tortoise, locking their shields above their heads to protect themselves from missiles hurled down from the ramparts.
Eventually the three divisions joined forces at the hot springs of Aquae (literally “Waters,” today’s Calan), only twenty miles from Decebalus’ citadel at Sarmizegetusa. The game was up, and the king sent a high-ranking deputation ofpileatito seek terms. These were granted, but, although they were punitive, Trajan meant to tame, not destroy, Dacian power. The celebratory coins he issued referred to “Dacia Defeated,” not “Captured” or “Annexed”—victa, not capta oracquisita.
In essence, the peace treaty between Rome and Dacia undid the humiliating settlement of Domitian, but went no further. Decebalus reluctantly
agreed to surrender his weapons, artillery and artillery makers, to return Roman deserters, demolish his fortresses, withdraw from territory he had seized and furthermore to consider the same persons enemies and friends as the Romans did.
Large tracts of land north of the Danube were taken into the province of Moesia. Although he was allowed to stay on his throne, everything this able and aggressive king had achieved in his reign was now undone and Dacia returned to its former status as a minor kingdom, able to threaten nobody. Would he accept the war’s verdict?
In Rome, in the intervals between the arrival of bulletins from the front, an almost certainly underemployed tribune of the people had no alternative but to enjoy the arts of peace. Hadrian would not have repined, for, as the Historia Augustareports disapprovingly, he was “excessively keen on poetry and literature.” He was skilled in painting and enjoyed music, too, both as a singer and as a player on the cithara, a kind of guitar.
Upper-class Romans were expected to practice the arts, write poetry, collect antiques, and generally lead a cultivated existence. Unlike Hadrian, however, a gentleman was not to be too keen, and would write verse as a relaxation rather than as a profession. The cursus honorum, or the “honors race,” determined that the usual career was an alternation between brief periods in office in Rome or the provinces and interludes of unemployment.
Poetry readings were de rigueur in the best circles and Hadrian would have been among the audiences, even perhaps performing his own effusions. The experience could, on occasion, be trying, for amateur authors expected their acquaintances and their clients to put in an appearance. And not to show enthusiasm was bad form.
Some poets, such as Martial and Juvenal, were true professionals, but they were not members of the political elite and were obliged to make a living from their art. To win patrons and money, Martial wrote flattering epigrams and indecent squibs, but for the impoverished satirist Juvenal, whom Hadrian knew and helped, “rage powers my poetry”—-facit indignatio versum.
As a rule, the noble dilettantes avoided deeply felt emotion, and explored or copied existing genres—elegies, pastorals, odes, and so forth. They agreed with the great Republican epic poet Titus Lucretius, who spoke of “the poverty of our native tongue”; to write elegantly in Greek was the highest attainment. Pliny praised the Greek epigrams and “iambic mimes” of the eminently respectable former consul Titus Arrius Antoninus (best known for commiserating with Nerva on his accession to the throne). “When you speak, the honey of Homer’s Nestor seems to flow from your lips, while the bees fill your writings with sweetness culled from flowers … Athens herself, believe me, could not be so Attic.”
Iambic mimes, or mimiambi, raise a ticklish question. They were a genre, invented in Syracuse and developed in Alexandria, that took the form of racy prose dialogues. Pliny explicitly compared Arrius with one of its most famous practitioners, Herondas, who flourished in the third century B.C. and wrote a celebrated dialogue, packed with double and single entendres, between two middle-class women about the virtues of a particular design of dildo.
At first glance it is more than a little odd for a man like Arrius to be mingling in this kind of company. However, there was a long-standing tradition that a writer’s morals should not be inferred from his writings. In some cases this may have been a convenient “cover.” Thus, Hadrian was on good terms with a poet of about the same age as he was, a certain Voconius Victor. On Voconius’ death he wrote a neat, exculpatory epitaph for his friend: lascivus versu, mente pudicus eras, “Your lines were sexy, but your mind was pure.”
Well, maybe. If, as is plausible, this Voconius is the same person as the Voconius Victor whom Martial teases on his impending marriage after an affair with a beautiful boy, it seems that, whatever might be claimed about his mind, hisbodywas just as wanton as his verse.
In Rome, the empire’s first indubitable victory over a foreign enemy since Claudius’ invasion of Britannia half a century previously, as distinct from the blue-on-blue of civil war or the suppression of internal revolt, was received with delight.
Pliny’s letter of congratulation would have been typical of many. He prayed that Trajan would bring about a further renewal of the “glory of the empire.” Rome had returned with satisfaction to its age-old habits of aggression and territorial expansion.
Trajan returned to Rome in late 102, and was granted the title of Dacicus and held a Triumph. During the Republic this stupendous celebration had been open to any general who had scored a great victory, but it was now reserved to emperors, who were jealous of any military rival (not altogether groundlessly). The ceremony opened in the Campus Martius with speeches and the conferral of decorations for valor (perhaps this was when Hadrian received his awards). The Senate led the way into the city, followed by distinguished prisoners-of-war and floats carrying large pictures of heroic incidents in the campaign. Then came Trajan, who rode in a gilded four-horse chariot. Temporarily he was quasi-divine, with his face painted the same red as the statue of Jupiter Best and Greatest in the great temple on the Capitol; he wore an embroidered toga above a purple tunic interwoven with gold and decorated with designs of palm leaves. Behind him marched his troops in column of route. The men had immemorial license to sing scurrilous songs about their commander, and we may guess that on this occasion there was ribbing about the emperor’s taste for wine and boys. The procession ended on the Capitol, where the god for a day sacrificed white bulls to the god of gods.
The emperor staged lavish gladiatorial combats and authorized the return of pantomime shows: banned by Domitian on the grounds of their obscenity, they had been reintroduced by the easygoing Nerva, and banned again by Trajan on his accession. But now Trajan changed his mind—according to gossip, because he had fallen in love with one of the artistes, Pylades.
In 103 Hadrian held no public office and we hear nothing of his activities. But in the following year, he was elected as praetor for 105, an important post only one tier below the consuls. For the first few weeks of the year he was technically ineligible to serve, for he ought to have been in his thirtieth year—which did not open until his twenty-ninth birthday on January 25.
There were eighteen praetors, and their main duties concerned the administration of justice, in both civil and criminal law. Hadrian seems to have been made urban praetor, not only the chief magistrate of the legal system but also the official responsible for staging the prestigious Ludi Apollinares, the Games of Apollo. These were instituted during the war against Hannibal and were held every July 6 in the Circus Maximus. No expense was spared, and Trajan gave Hadrian a large budget to make sure that the celebrations were as splendid as could be.
Every year the new holder of the office would issue an edict, a body of rules, priorities, and legal interpretations he intended to apply during his year of office. Often he adopted those of his predecessor, perhaps making his own additions to reflect the needs of the time. In some ways this was a convenient means of creating legislation; if a new rule was popular a praetor’s successors would adopt it themselves, if not it would quietly be allowed to drop.
Hadrian was interested in law and would have enjoyed his praetor-ship. It is easy to imagine him presiding at court, attending to every procedural detail and unafraid to express his own self-taught legal views. However, he was not able to do so for long.
Trajan was not sure that Decebalus could be trusted, and he took sensible precautions against a return to war. Legionary fortresses north of the Danube provided an advance warning system, and Trajan’s omniskilled architect Apollodorus built a permanent bridge east of the Iron Gates—twenty piers of hewn stone supported a timber roadway. It was a remarkable engineering feat for its day and made a profound impact on public opinion.
Over the next couple of years, the Dacian king began to make attempts to escape from the box into which the Romans had locked him. He rearmed, and occupied land belonging to the Iazyges, a nomadic tribe that the Romans had settled in the province of Pannonia—without asking for Roman permission. He contacted other tribes to seek alliances, and once more welcomed Roman deserters. He even sought support from the powerful Parthian empire which lay beyond Rome’s eastern frontier; as a personal token of goodwill, Decebalus sent the Parthian king a Greek slave, a certain Callidromus, once the property of one of Trajan’s generals but captured in Moesia. Finally, he launched a preemptive strike and attacked Roman forces in southwestern Dacia, prophylactically occupied since 102.
The crisis, when it came, took Trajan by surprise, as evidenced by the fact that he left abruptly for the frontier in June 105—far too late in the year to initiate a full-scale campaign. New military appointments were posted, including a promotion to legionary commander, or legatus, for Hadrian. This meant he had to abandon his legal work in Rome and miss his costly ludi. In theory it was illegal for the urban praetor to leave the city for more than ten days at a time, but, as so often in Roman history, a rule gave way to an emergency.
Hadrian’s new legion was the I Minervia (founded by Domitian, it was named after his favorite Olympian, Minerva, goddess of warriors and wisdom), a reward for his prowess in the first Dacian conflict and a sign of imperial confidence in his usefulness in the field. It had marched down from Upper Germania as a reinforcement, probably after the bloody conflict at Tapae, and was one of the fourteen legions now readying themselves for the next round of hostilities. Hadrian presumably first came across it when he was in Germania a few years previously.
The column shows the emperor’s arrival in Moesia. Legions cross the Danube again, this time on Apollodorus’ new stone bridge, and the slow and steady process of moving forward, fortification by fortification, is set in motion. The Dacians respond by unpredictable and dangerous guerrilla raids. In one scene Trajan rides at full gallop at the head of some auxiliary cavalry to beat off an attack on a powerful Roman camp. But, although the fighting was tough, the eventual outlook was bleak for Decebalus.
The king took an eccentric measure, suggestive of growing desperation. He had heard that Trajan did little to ensure his personal safety. This was no doubt partly a tactic to maintain his posture as first citizen rather than despot, but it also reflected the emperor’s genuine popularity with the rank and file. He made himself readily accessible and allowed any soldier who wished to attend his councils of war (not meetings of his consilium where confidential plans were discussed, but briefings for officers from all units). Decebalus persuaded some deserters to make their way back to the Roman army to see if there was a way of killing the emperor at such a gathering.
Many generations were to pass before the concept of suicide terrorism was invented, but it would appear that these would-be assassins were willing to strike at the very moment their target was surrounded by hundreds, possibly thousands of loyal armed soldiers. They could not have hoped to survive. In any event, the plot failed. One of the deserters was arrested “on suspicion”—perhaps he had been recognized by former colleagues or he had been caught making some kind of advance preparation. He was put to torture, and sang.
The incident may have had a happy ending, but it starkly exposed a political reality that the presence of a healthy, fairly young princeps usually masked. In the event of his death the emperor had no named successor. There was, of course, one male relative available for the purple, young but with potential; however, Trajan had gone out of the way on numerous occasions to avoid pointing to Hadrian as his heir. He had behaved perfectly appropriately to his former ward and encouraged his career; but one has a sense that he harbored some deep, unspoken distrust of him.
It may have been about this time that a telling exchange took place, if we are to trust the Historia Augusta. Rumor had it that Trajan, as a disciple of the great Alexander, wanted to follow his example and die without an heir. When the Macedonian king, lying in his death fever, was asked to whom he left his conquests, he was said to have replied ambiguously: “To the strongest.” Although it distinctly appealed to Trajan, this was a pernicious precedent, for the consequence was internecine quarreling among Alexander’s generals, and the breakup of his hard-won empire. Other gossip at Rome had it that, when the time came, the emperor intended to write to the Senate, asking them to choose a new princeps from a short list supplied by him.
The column makes it clear that the emperor saw action. Trajan could well fall in battle and was in no position to be vague about what was to happen then, if he wished to retain the army’s confidence. After consulting his amici, he at last decided to reveal something of his intentions.
For whatever reason, he did not nominate his former ward and closest male relative, but seems to have let it be known that in the event of his death Lucius Neratius Priscus, who (it seems) was governor of Pannonia, should take his place. Apparently he told him to his face: “I commend the provinces to you if anything should happen to me.” This was a curious form of words: Trajan may have used the emperor’s direct control of the empire’s most important provinces, where much of the army was based, as a shorthand for acceding to the throne. But perhaps he only meant the Danube provinces, and so was referring to the command of the Dacian war. One way or another, the sentence betrays a continuing reluctance to be absolutely clear.
Neratius Priscus was an interesting choice, for he was essentially a nonpolitical figure. By nominating him, Trajan knew that he was not giving momentum to a serious candidate for the purple. A very capable man, Neratius worked his way through the honors race, ending up as a suffect consul in 97 and then with his governorship. But his real passion was the law, to which he devoted himself for the rest of his life after his return home from the Danube. He became a well-known jurist, a legal adviser who offered opinions on points of law and on specific court cases to private parties as well as to elected officials and the emperor himself. His textbooks, notes, and responses were much cited by later experts.
We do not know whether the legatus of the I Minervia was disappointed that he had been overlooked. His clairvoyant interest in his imperial prospects is well enough attested, but at this stage they were not taken seriously by anyone else. Perhaps he was too busy to care. So far as we can tell he did not scheme against the emperor or seek to assemble a faction to support his claim; he remained loyal and got on with his career more or less as if he were just an ordinary member of the ruling class.
Decebalus, having failed to shortcut the war by an assassination, now tried another trick. He offered to negotiate without preconditions with a Roman commander north of the Danube, the former consul Cnaeus Pompeius Longinus, who had been successfully beating the Dacians back to their rocky heartland. Longinus incautiously made his way to the king’s camp for the talks, where he and an accompanying escort of ten soldiers commanded by a centurion were immediately placed under house arrest and then interrogated in public about Trajan’s plan of campaign. Longinus kept his counsel and said nothing.
Decebalus sent an ambassador to Trajan, asking for the restoration of all his lands north of the Danube and the payment of war reparations. A careful response was prepared, calculated to create the impression that Longinus was neither very highly nor very slightly valued. Trajan wanted to prevent his being put to death, or handed back on excessive terms. He succeeded, for the Dacian king could not make up his mind what to do next and temporized.
It was Longinus who bravely broke the stalemate. He made friends with one of Decebalus’ Dacian freedmen and obtained some poison from him. He then promised the king that he would win Trajan over and in pursuit of this wrote the emperor a letter. He arranged for the freedman to deliver it in person and, in order to ensure the man’s safety, he asked the emperor to treat him well.
Longinus hoped that Decebalus would not guess his true intentions and so not keep a very strict watch over him. That was how matters fell out, and one night after the freedman had left for the Roman headquarters Longinus took the poison and died. This was a fine example of self-sacrifice: for a leading Roman statesman or commander, suicide was recognized to be a courageous, even a noble, act in the event of desperata salus, of no hope of rescue or recovery.
The king refused to admit defeat and dispatched the captured centurion to Trajan, promising to send back Longinus’ body and the escort in return for the freedman. The emperor refused, commenting that the freedman’s safety was “more important for the dignity of the empire than the burial of Longinus.” An honorable position to adopt, one might think, if one overlooks the fact that it left the escort out on a limb. The emperor evidently cared more for a dead general than ten other-rankers. History does not record their fate.
The reduction of Dacia now proceeded with little opposition from the enemy. The legions followed a direct route to Decebalus’ capital via the Vulcan Pass, more than 5,300 feet high. The Dacians lost heart: the column shows members of the Dacian court pleading with their king to come to terms. Decebalus refused and retreated into the mountains with his family and bodyguard, to form a resistance movement. Meanwhile, Sarmizegetusa, for all its impregnable appearance, fell without a fight. It was looted and burned to the ground.
Some of the nobility decided to collaborate, and one of the king’s companions revealed the secret location of Decebalus’ treasure to Trajan. According to Dio Cassius,
with the help of some captives Decebalus had diverted the course of the river [Sargetia], made an excavation in its bed, and into the cavity had thrown a large amount of silver and gold and other objects of great value that could stand a certain amount of moisture; then he had heaped stones over them and piled on earth, afterward bringing the river back into its course. He also had caused the same captives to deposit his robes and other articles of a like nature in caves, and after accomplishing this had made away with them to prevent them from disclosing anything.
Alaric, king of the Visigoths, borrowed the idea three hundred years later and was buried with his spoils beneath a river in southern Italy. But while his resting place has never been discovered, the Dacian treasure was dug up. It turned out to be of almost unbelievable value—about 500,000 pounds of gold and 1 million of silver.
And what of the king? Years afterward a proud cavalryman commissioned a gray marble inscription that recorded a long career of distinguished service in the army. A carved relief depicts the high moment of his life. We see him galloping on his horse and on the ground the prostrate trousered figure of Decebalus, a bearded man in a Dacian cap. The curved sword with which he has just cut his throat falls from his hand. The legend below reads that he captured the king, who killed himself moments before his arrest, and that he delivered his head to Trajan (it was later sent to Rome and was ceremonially thrown down the Scalae Gemoniae, a flight of steps that led up to the Capitol, where the bodies of executed criminals were exposed for a time).
The war was over. The victory was as complete as victory could be. Just as Titus in 70 had expelled the Jewish population from Judaea, so Trajan ethnically cleansed Dacia. Many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Dacians were dispersed, some to appear as gladiators in the emperor’s postwar celebrations and others to be sold into slavery. Colonists were imported to take their place and a new capital city was built in the name of the emperor’s clan, Sarmizegetusa Ulpia. Dacia became Rome’s first new province since Claudius had annexed Britannia in 43.
Once again, Hadrian had distinguished himself. Army life suited him and the I Minervia performed well. As so often, the detail of what he did is missing, but according to the Historia Augusta, “his many remarkable deeds won great renown.”
Trajan began to blow hot again, after cold. He was so pleased with his former ward’s successes that he presented him with a diamond he himself had received from Nerva. The intention seemed obvious, at least to Hadrian, who repolished his hopes of being acknowledged the emperor’s official successor. People were reminded of the famous occasion when a seriously ill Augustus passed his signet ring, bearing the head of Alexander the Great, to his friend Marcus Agrippa to mark the transfer of authority. But the two events were not really comparable; a jewel was no official ring, and a healthy and triumphant Trajan was not transferring anything except a valuable gift. Whatever Hadrian liked to think, the diamond was a token of the emperor’s esteem rather than the talisman of his power.