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.



The Inconvenient Coin: Dating the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

If you have visited the spellbinding British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum you will have, no doubt, rightly been overawed by the wealth of wonders on display; pristine bronzes, dazzling frescoes, even human remains, all eerily preserved by the ashes spewed from Vesuvius on that fateful day: 24th August 79 CE. A date we have been taught in school, read in textbooks and seen in film & television; truly “a date that will live in infamy”.

Or not. Even after visiting the exhibition, many may not realise the long accepted date of the eruption is even in doubt (I saw the topic briefly mentioned a couple of times in item descriptions) let alone that there exists a key piece of evidence that puts the date to bed definitively. Evidence that was sadly (for me, anyway) absent from the exhibition.

Firstly, you may ask from where the traditional eruption date of 24th August originates? In a letter [6.16] to Tacitus (written 25 years after the event), our old friend Pliny the Younger describes the eruption that took place on “Nonum Kal September” or “the ninth day before the Kalends of September” i.e. August 24th. Yet these modern interpretations stem from questionable 16th Century translations, from authors who would have struggled to understand the dating conventions used in the original manuscripts. Manuscripts which in turn, may have been corrupted themselves. Even though ancient historian Cassius Dio directly states that the disaster took place “towards the end of the harvesting season” (the harvest began in October), a 1508 translation of Pliny’s letters settled on an August date for the disaster and the rest is history.

Despite this, scepticism for this summer eruption date has actually been widespread since the first large scale excavations in the 18th Century. Circumstantial evidence pointing to late-Autumn date abounds:

  • The fresh fruit and vegetables for sale on the day of disaster are unseasonal for August.
  • The expected summer fruits had been dried for preservation.
  • The October grape harvest and wine making season was completed with wine already sealed in jars.
  • Citizens were dressed in unseasonal warm clothing (though possibly due to conditions during the eruption).
  • Many homes were using wood burning heaters at the time of eruption.
  • Long term studies of wind directions around the Bay of Naples have deemed the manner in which ash was distributed consistent with a post-September eruption date.

This accumulated evidence is convincing and easily understood by a lay audience, yet the most conclusive piece of evidence has received little fanfare and actually lay in a museum vault for over 30 years before anyone noticed its significance.

On 7th June 1974, during excavations of Pompeii’s “House of the Gold Bracelet”, a selection of 180 silver and 40 gold coins were discovered with the bodies of a group of victims. The coins were found in a stratified archaeological context that attested to them being buried in the initial stages of eruption (and not subsequently dropped by looters or treasure hunters). Though an impressive find, the discovery of coins on such a bountiful site was not earth shattering news and the un-catalogued coins were sent for safe keeping in the vaults of Naples Archaeological Museum. 

They lay in this archaeological limbo until 2006 when an expert (Grete Stefani, Boscoreale Antiquarium) finally got round to cataloguing them and made an amazing discovery. Amongst the standard coin types was a single denarius from the reign of Titus, emperor at the time of eruption and remembered fondly for the relief efforts he organised in its wake. No surprise in itself; coins of the ruling Flavian dynasty were flowing into Pompeii at the time of the eruption and have been found everywhere. The problem: this issue of coin should not have been.

Titus Denarius of the same type as coin in question. Rome, AD 79. IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate bust right / TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII P P, capricorn left, globe below. RIC 37. 2.99g, 17mm

Titus Denarius of the same type as coin in question. Rome, AD 79. IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate bust right / TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII P P, Capricorn left, globe below. RIC 37. 2.99g, 17mm, Courtesy of Coin Archives.

In a testament to the wonderfully precise dating evidence that coins provide (often exact to a window of weeks, let alone months or years) the denarius proclaims the latest collected titles of the victorious Emperor Titus (79-81), the dates of which can be corroborated from inscriptions around the empire to a high level of accuracy.

It declares: TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII PP (“with the tribunician power for the ninth time, acclaimed emperor for the fifteenth time, consul for the seventh time, Father of the Nation”). We know from separate contemporary sources and letters that Titus did not receive his 15th Imperial acclamatio until September 79 CE (likely for achievements in Britannia), upon which new coins would have been minted and dispersed to mark this unplanned event.

It may not be a great monument or life size bronze but the evidence this coin provides is diminutive and definitive. Frankly odd descriptions of the coin being “barely readable” make no sense as it would have been all but a few weeks old and in pristine condition at the time of eruption. Drawings show a coin in mint state:

Drawing of the coin at Naples Archaeological Museum. Screencapture from Rai TV Documentary.

Drawing of the coin at Naples Archaeological Museum. Screencapture from Rai TV Documentary.

That such dramatic conclusions can be drawn from such a tiny object may be difficult to comprehend but such are the joys of history. It may not be the discovery of an iPod in a Pharaoh’s tomb but there is no reasonable scenario that would explain this coin existing in Pompeii in August 79 CE.

Now you would assume a discovery with such historical significance would have been much celebrated in the last few years? You would assume wrong. As one who appreciates ancient coinage but also just as a lover of history, it surprises me that to date not a single photograph of the coin has been published, only drawings exist. Little to no documentation can be found about it online and the coin itself has not left the Naples Museum. Some have even gone so far as to question whether information about the coin is being intentionally suppressed, rather than having to change all those textbooks!

Back to Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum; I fully appreciate that when planning an exhibition for the public, even the most hardened academic would likely opt for a full-size statue rather than a single silver coin 20mm across. Likewise an item such as a gold ring provides an instant emotive and universal understanding that needs no explanation, whilst a tiny coin and the complex deductions that can be made from its alienating impersonal ancient jargon – not so much. Nevertheless. It would have been splendid to see the ancient object that finally debunked the oft-cited August eruption date of Vesuvius, or at least an enlarged image of it with up-to-date conclusions.   

Granted, this was an exhibition not about the eruption but about people; their lives and their deaths; with that mission statement, the exhibition is a soaring success. But you can be sure if the eruption date was written in graffiti on a brothel wall, it would have been included.