Dacian Wars: Cassius Dio

TRAJAN AND THE DACIANS – The Account of the Dacian Wars according to Cassius Dio (the Epitome of Dio’s Roman History, Book 68).

Last revised: Feb. 14, 2017


Only a single sentence from Trajan’s own commentarii survives; to this orphaned fragment we can add the remnants of Cassius Dio’s accounts, first written some 70 or 80 years after Trajan’s death. The passages in question are preserved in summaries (the “epitomes”) written by Johnnes Xiphilinus, an eleventh century monk from Constantinople, and in excerpts of diplomatic exchanges that date to the Byzantine period.

From the literary evidence, coins, representations of the war on the Column itself and inscriptions, we know that Trajan’s wars against the Dacians and their king, Decebalus, encompassed two military campaign seasons, the first beginning in 101 and lasting until 102 and the second between 105 and 106.

The Dacians had long been a thorn in the side of the Romans. Literary evidence suggests that both wars were undertaken in response to the treachery of Decebalus, first in the wake of a treaty made with the last Flavian emperor Domitian (d. 96 CE), and the second in the wake of transgressions after the conclusion of the first war in 102 CE. We can only speculate as to other temptations for the waging of war, including appropriation of local mineral riches, especially gold, from Carpathian mines.

The first epitome of Cassius Dio begins with the causus belli of the first campaign. The passage contains an unflattering picture of Domitian’s weaker leadership compared to that of his successor Trajan, who Romans of the later second and third centuries remembered as one of the greatest emperors of all time:

Cassius Dio Epitome of Book 68; translations within quotations below from Earnest Cary’s English translation based on the Greek version of Herbert Baldwin Foster as originally published in the Loeb Classical Library. Comments within brackets are mine; some spellings have been changed to US English:

6.1 “After spending some time in Rome he made a campaign against the Dacians; for he took into account their past deeds and was grieved at the amount of money they were receiving annually, and he also observed that their power and their pride were increasing.  Decebalus, learning of his advance, became frightened, since he well knew that on the former occasion it was not the Romans that he had conquered, but Domitian, whereas now he would be fighting against both Romans and Trajan, the emperor.” [Domitian fought against the Dacians in 86-88 CE].

8.1 “For these reasons [Trajan’s formidable character], then, Decebalus had good cause to fear him. When Trajan in his campaign against the Dacians had drawn near Tapae, where the barbarians were encamped, a large mushroom was brought to him on which was written in Latin characters a message to the effect that the Buri and other allies advised Trajan to turn back and keep the peace. 2. Nevertheless he engaged the foe, and saw many wounded on his own side and killed many of the enemy. And when the bandages gave out, he is said not to have spared even his own clothing, but to have cut it up into strips. In honor of the [Roman] soldiers who had died in the battle he ordered an altar to be erected and funeral rites to be performed annually.”

9.1 “Decebalus had sent envoys even before his defeat, not the long-haired men [comati] this time, as before, but the noblest among the cap-wearers [pileati]. 2. These threw down their arms, and casting themselves upon the ground, begged Trajan that, if possible, Decebalus himself should be permitted to meet and confer with him, promising that he would do everything that was commanded; or, if not, that someone at least should be sent to agree upon terms with him. Those sent were Sura and Claudius Livianus, the prefect; 3. but nothing was accomplished, since Decebalus did not dare to meet them either, but sent envoys also on this occasion. Trajan seized some fortified mountains and on them found the arms and the captured engines, as well as the standard which had been taken in the time of [Cornelius] Fuscus [lost during the campaigns of Domitian]. 4. Decebalus, because of this, coupled with the fact that Maximus had at this same time captured his sister and also a strong position, was ready to agree without exception to every demand that had been made — not that he intended to abide by his agreement, but in order that he might secure a respite from his temporary reverses. 5. So he reluctantly engaged to surrender his arms, engines and engine-makers, to give back the deserters, to demolish the forts, to withdraw from captured territory, and furthermore to consider the same persons enemies and friends as the Romans did, 6. and neither to give shelter to any of the deserters nor to employ any soldier from their empire; for he had been acquiring the largest and best part of his force by persuading men to come to him from Roman territory. This was after he had come to Trajan, fallen upon the ground and done obeisance and thrown away his arms. 7. He also sent envoys in the matter to the senate, in order that he might secure the ratification of the peace by that body. After concluding this compact the emperor left the camp at Zermizegethusa [or Sarmizegetusa], and having stationed garrisons here and there throughout the remainder of the territory, returned to Italy.”

[So ended the first Dacian War in 102CE]

[From the Fasti Ostiensi we know that having returned to Rome Trajan celebrated a triumph in late December of 102. He had also just been awarded the title of Dacicus]

10.1 “The envoys from Decebalus, upon being brought into the senate, laid down their arms, clasped their hands in the attitude of captives, and spoke some words of supplication; thus they obtained peace and received back their arms. 2. Trajan celebrated a triumph and was given the title of Dacicus; in the theater he held contests of gladiators, in whom he delighted, and he brought the dancers of pantomimes back into the theater, being enamored of Pylades, one of their number. He did not, however, as might have been expected of a warlike man, pay any less attention to the civil administration nor did he dispense justice any the less; on the contrary, he conducted trials, now in the Forum of Augustus [as the Forum of Trajan had not yet been built], now in the Portico of Livia, as it was called, and often elsewhere on a tribunal.”

[It was not long before Decebalus violated the peace treaty with Rome; this abrogation led to the Senate’s declaration of Decebalus as an enemy of the state (hostis) and a renewed military campaign]

10.3 “Inasmuch as Decebalus was reported to him to be acting contrary to the treaty in many ways, was collecting arms, receiving those who deserted, repairing the forts, sending envoys to his neighbors and injuring those who had previously differed with him, even going so far as to annex a portion of the territory of the Iazyges (which Trajan later would not give back to them when they asked for it), 4. therefore the senate again declared him an enemy [104 CE?], and Trajan once more conducted the war against him in person instead of entrusting it of the others.”

11.1 “As numerous Dacians kept transferring their allegiance to Trajan, and also for certain other reasons, Decebalus again sued for peace. But since he could not be persuaded to surrender both his arms and himself, he proceeded openly to collect troops and summon the surrounding nations to his aid, 2. declaring that if they deserted him they themselves would be imperiled, and that it was safer and easier for them, by fighting on his side before suffering any harm, to preserve their freedom, than if they should allow his people to be destroyed and then later be subjugated themselves when bereft of allies.”

[Decebalus and his inner circle tried to defeat Trajan by treachery – an assassination attempt which failed – and by hostage-taking. The epitomist preserved the passage concerning the taking of a senior officer, Longinus, who died before repatriation; the year is 104 CE]:

11.3 “Though Decebalus was faring badly in open conflict, nevertheless by craft and deceit he almost compassed Trajan’s death. He sent into Moesia some deserters to see if they could make away with him, inasmuch as the emperor was generally accessible and now, on account of the exigencies of warfare, admitted to a conference absolutely everyone who desired it. But they were not able to carry out this plan, since one of them was arrested on suspicion and under torture revealed the entire plot.”

12.1 “Decebalus then sent an invitation to Longinus, a leader of the Roman army who had made himself a terror to the king in the wars, and persuaded him to meet him, on the pretext that he would do whatever should be demanded. He then arrested him and questioned him publicly about Trajan’s plans, and when Longinus refused to admit anything, he took him about with him under guard, though not in bonds. 2. And sending an envoy to Trajan, he asked that he might receive back his territory as far as the Ister and be indemnified for all the money he had spent on the war, in return for restoring Longinus to him. 3. An ambiguous answer was returned, of such a nature as not to cause Decebalus to believe that Trajan regarded Longinus as either of great importance or yet of slight importance, the object being to prevent his being destroyed, on the one hand, or being preserved to them on excessive terms, on the other. So Decebalus delayed, still considering what he should do. In the meantime Longinus, having secured poison with the aid of the freedman, promised Decebalus to win Trajan over, hoping the king would thus have no suspicion of what he was going to do and so would not keep a very strict watch over him; also, in order to enable the freedman to gain safety, he wrote a letter containing a petition in his behalf and gave it to him to carry to Trajan. 4. Then, when the other had gone, he drank the poison at night and died. Thereupon Decebalus demanded the freedman from Trajan, promising to give him in return the body of Longinus and ten captives. He at once sent the centurion who had been captured with Longinus, in order that he might arrange the matter; 5. and it was from the centurion that the whole story of Longinus was learned. However, Trajan neither sent him back nor surrendered the freedman, deeming his safety more important for the dignity of the empire than the burial of Longinus.”

[Preparations for the second Dacian War, 105 CE: the construction of the Danube Bridge]:

13.1 “Trajan constructed over the Ister a stone bridge for which I cannot sufficiently admire him. Brilliant, indeed, as are his other achievements, yet this surpasses them. For it has twenty piers of squared stone one hundred and fifty feet in height above the foundations and sixty in width [see Scene XCIX], 2. and these, standing at a distance of one hundred and seventy feet from one another, are connected by arches. How, then, could one fail to be astonished at the expenditure made upon them, or at the way in which each of them was placed in a river so deep, in water so full of eddies, and on a bottom so muddy? For it was impossible, of course, to divert the stream anywhere. 3. I have spoken of the width of the river; but the stream is not uniformly so narrow, since it covers in some places twice, and in others thrice as much ground, but the narrowest point and the one in that region best suited to building a bridge has the width named. 4. Yet the very fact that river in its descent is here contracted from a great flood to such a narrow channel, after which it again expands into a greater flood, makes it all the more violent and deep, and this feature must be considered in estimating the difficulty of constructing the bridge. 5. This, too, then, is one of the achievements that show the magnitude of Trajan’s designs, though the bridge is of no use to us [in the later second century CE]; for merely the piers are standing, affording no means of crossing, as if they had been erected for the sole purpose of demonstrating that there is nothing which human ingenuity cannot accomplish. 6. Trajan built the bridge because he feared that some time when the Ister was frozen over war might be made upon the Romans on the further side, and he wished to facilitate access to them by this means. Hadrian [r. 117-138 CE], on the contrary, was afraid that it might also make it easy for the barbarians, once they had overpowered the guard at the bridge, to cross into Moesia, and so he removed the superstructure.”

[At the beginning of the campaign season in 105 CE, the emperor crossed the new bridge over the Danube (Ister) and invaded Dacia once again. Cassius Dio praises the methodical and professional conduct of Trajan during the second campaign]:

14.1 “Trajan, having crossed the Ister by means of the bridge, conducted the war with safe prudence rather than with haste, and eventually, after a hard struggle, vanquished the Dacians. In the course of the campaign he himself performed many deeds of good generalship and bravery, and his troops ran many risks and displayed great prowess on his behalf. 2. It was here that a certain horseman, after being carried, badly wounded, from the battle in the hope that he could be healed, when he found that he could not recover, rushed from his tent (for his injury had not yet reached his heart) and, taking his place once more in the line, perished after displaying great feats of valor.”

[The Suicide of Decebalus in the early autumn of 106 CE and the recovery of royal booty]:

14.3 “Decebalus, when his capital and all his territory had been occupied and he was himself in danger of being captured, committed suicide; and his head was brought to Rome. In this way Dacia became subject to the Romans, and Trajan founded cities there. 4. The treasures of Decebalus were also discovered, though hidden beneath the river Sargetia, which ran past his palace. With the help of some captives Decebalus had diverted the course of the river, 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, afterwards bringing the river back into his course. 5. 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. But Bicilis, a companion of his who knew what had been done, was seized and gave information about these things.”

[The suicide of Decebalus was memorialized on public and private monuments, and even provincial souvenirs: Scene CXLV on the Column of Trajan (dedicated in 113), the scene of suicide on the Tropaeum at Adamklissi (probably dedicated in 107-8), the funerary stele of Ti. Claudius Maximus, who took credit for the seizure of the Dacian king, and a metal plate from Gaul that includes a cartoonish representation of the fallen Decebalus]

[The Column of Trajan and the Forum]:

16. “He also built libraries. And he set up in the Forum an enormous column to serve at once as a monument to himself and as a memorial of the work in the Forum. For that entire section had been hilly and he had cut it down for a distance equal to the height of the column, thus making the Forum level.”

[On the nature of Trajan as a fellow warrior]:

18. “He always marched on foot with the rank and file of his army, and he attended to the ordering and disposition of the troops throughout the entire campaign, leading them sometimes in one order and sometimes in another; and he forded all the rivers that they did.”

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