Caput Mundi – Beheading and Barbarism on Trajan’s Column

Silent enim leges inter arma.”  – “In times of war, the law falls silent.”

Cicero, Pro Milone

When we think of the Roman Army at war, the image we have is likely one of order and discipline; tight battle lines of endlessly drilled soldiers, obedient to every command, calculating and composed in their delivery of death.  All in direct contrast to their enemy, of course: a frenzied mass of berserk (and bearded) barbarians – ungodly, unlawful and unrestrained in their brutality.

The outbreak of war is, by definition, a breakdown in humanity and history has shown us that atrocities follow quickly on its heels. This was no truer than in the Ancient World where evidence clearly shows us that the civilised Romans were every bit as capable of barbarism as their hairy enemies.

One such startling piece of evidence can be seen on the scroll of Trajan’s Column, which tells the action-packed story of Trajan’s campaigns and eventual conquering of Dacia (modern Romania). In one early scene, actually the first engagement of the whole war, a soldier can be seen furiously fighting on, whilst holding the freshly severed head of a fallen Dacian in his teeth! War, it seems, is indeed hell.

Is he keeping the head as a souvenir? Is it the head of a Dacian officer to show his superiors? Is he merely in a blood-crazed frenzy?

Is he keeping the head as a souvenir? Is it the head of a Dacian officer to show his superiors? Is he merely in a blood-crazed frenzy?

 Interestingly, the oval shields (clipeus) of his fellow soldiers mark them out as auxiliaries, now fighting on the side of the empire that once conquered their homeland. Is his depiction a comment on the auxiliaries’ famous ferocity, his inner barbarian seeping through despite his training? Were foreign recruits seen as the “devil, on whose nature, nurture could never stick” (Tempest, IV.i.188–189)?

Wider scene: Roman auxiliaries with oval shields battle the Dacians, one holds Dacian head in teeth.

Wider scene: Roman auxiliaries with oval shields battle the Dacians, one holds Dacian head in teeth.

With this grisly scene begins a theme of decollation that runs the length of the column, Dacian heads all too often appearing parted from their shoulders. Later, a selection of Dacian heads are displayed on spikes as the Romans build an encampment – a gory reminder to their countrymen what happens when you cross them.

Dacian heads on pikes as Roman soldiers build a camp.

Dacian heads on pikes as Roman soldiers build a camp.

Later again, severed heads are presented directly to Emperor Trajan for inspection; presumably, the heads of important enemy officers or just some apple-polishing Roman soldiers looking to show off their hard work. Either way, it seems the presentation of decapitated heads to the emperor himself was standard protocol. There are echoes of Pompey’s head being presented to Caesar and Cicero’s head to Antony.

Trajan is presented with the decapitated heads of Dacian officers.

Trajan is presented with the decapitated heads of Dacian officers.

The associations of beheading to the Romans were complex: done correctly with a sword; it was an honourable type of execution, though the torture that usually preceded it detracted from its appeal. Roman citizens, famously, had the right to decapitation, rather than the disgrace of torture and crucifixion. As a manner of death then, decapitation did not hold the inherent disgust it would today; correct burial and treatment of the body after death would be of more concern to the Romans.

Discoveries of mass graves of decapitated Celts, such as this one near Maiden Castle, Dorset, speak of a level of brutality difficult for modern minds to imagine; bound and defeated prisoners, beheaded on masse. Or was this the Roman way of providing honourable deaths to the brave Celts like the code of the Samurai?

Looking at these scenes of Trajan’s Column, some have duly questioned whether a headhunting culture existed within the Roman ranks, akin to similar practices seen in subsequent conflicts such as World War II and Vietnam?

Were they inspired by the headhunting conducted by the barbarians? As Diodorus Siculus vividly describes:

When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses; and turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts they have mastered. 5 The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money.

Diodorus Siculus Book V.29.4-5

Such mutilation is often perceived as a justified vengeance upon the enemy for their own barbarity but always occurs in the wake of successful propaganda, dehumanising the opposition. Subhuman depictions of the enemy are a staple of wartime propaganda:

WWII Propaganda Poster - This is the Enemy

WWII Propaganda Poster – This is the Enemy

To legitimise their role as enlightened conquerors, it was vital for the Romans to position themselves at the other end of the ideological spectrum to the peoples they overcame. The inhuman practices of the barbarian other therefore became a topic contemporary writers were keen to emphasise; the notion of human sacrifice for example, was a recurring point of disgust for Roman commentators. Tacitus famously described the site of the Teutoberg disaster:

“..the human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Tacitus 1.60-62

Caesar also describes human sacrifice observed in Gaul:

“..the druids have figures of vast size, the limbs of which they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the burning of criminals more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the burning of even the innocent.”

Caes. Gal. 6.16

“Gallic funerals are magnificent and costly; and they cast into the fire all things, including living creatures, as well as slaves and dependents, who were ascertained to have been beloved by them, burnt together with the deceased.”

Caes. Gal. 6.19

Roman abhorring of human sacrifice seems to miss the obvious irony that gladiatorial shows evolved from very similar funerary traditions and the death of a criminal or gladiator in the arena clearly held a sacrificial meaning as well as being for entertainment.

Back to our Roman auxiliary with a Dacian head dangling from his teeth – we must remember that Trajan’s Column was meant for public eyes; the story could have been written (and probably was) but Trajan and Apollodorus chose to show it – even the illiterate could follow the triumphant tale. They also, presumably, had complete creative control, so anything that showed Romans behaving in an un-Roman way could have been censored. That being the case we must ask why gory detail like this is included. Is it an honest attempt to portray of the madness of war? Is it a sly statement on the untamed nature of the auxiliaries? Were such details inserted to titillate the citizen viewer?

Fundamentally, it seems that all the imagery on the column is a celebration of one ideal: Roman supremacy. Images that would illicit pity today: despondent Dacians being tortured, beheaded, impaled, their children sold into slavery at the story’s end, are all shown with unashamed detail in the scroll. The designers knew any image that showed a Roman Army’s utter domination over barbarians was sure to be enjoyed.

Romans believed passionately in their rights of war and conquest, that the victor (as long as it was them) was right to plunder and enslave. Even more importantly, they believed the Gods were on their side. After Hannibal’s defeated brother Hasdrubal was beheaded, Appian writes that his wife said to Scipio:

For you, Roman, the gods have no cause of indignation, since you exercise the right of war.

App. Pun. 19.131

They carried into war a sense of their entitlement to commit acts on the enemy that, if roles were reversed, would garner universal condemnation. Cutting off the hands and feet of captured Gauls ensuring a slow death, was not a war crime to the Romans but a necessary show of dominance. From our lofty but precarious 21st Century moral high ground, we may be shocked by the brutality with which the Roman army annihilated its enemies, we might even call it barbaric, but to them it was, in every way, something to be celebrated.



9 thoughts on “Caput Mundi – Beheading and Barbarism on Trajan’s Column

  1. I can’t help feeling there is an important distinction that needs to be drawn here, in that it is the auxilia who are shown doing the head-hunting. The Column’s audience would have known that they were almost exclusively composed of provincials and the frieze sculptors were very careful to take take every opportunity to emphasise the distinction between legionaries and auxiliaries (a theme that is also to be found in the writings of Tacitus). An interesting footnote is provided by the recently discovered tombstone from Lancaster of the cavalryman Insus of the Gallic ala Augusta (another head-taking Celt, it seems):

    • I agree the distinction is an important one, and would have been clear to a contemporary audience. Viewing the scroll in full colour would have also made it easier to identify auxiliaries. As I stated, perhaps a comment on the ferocity of the foreign recruits. Interestingly, these barbaric details are included and not edited out; the Romans were seemingly unafraid of appearing guilty by association.

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  3. Hi there Gareth,

    I’m emailing regarding the image “Trajan is presented with the decapitated heads of Dacian officers”

    I’m helping to produce a TV programme for a major broadcaster in the UK and would like to ask if you own the rights to this image? We would very much like to include it within our documentary.

    Many thanks,


    • Hi Sally,
      Unfortunately, I don’t own the rights to the image but it’s available freely online along with many other great images of Trajan’s Column. Sorry I can’t be of more help. Good luck with the show.

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