By Pat Lowinger
While I was onsite at this summer at Halmyris, I was fortunate enough to hear several interesting lectures on various aspects of the site and the history of the region. While all of these presentations were extremely well-done, my historical zeal was drawn to one lecture in particular. The topic of his lecture was the Tropaeum Traiani, erected in 109 CE following Trajan’s successful campaign against Dacia. The lecture was given by Johnathan Quiery MA, who is currently working on his PhD at Durham University. The contents of this post are based upon Johnathan’s lecture, subsequent discussion(s) and Brian Turner’s 2013 article in the American Journal of Philology.
What are Tropaea?
Simply put, tropaea (sing. tropaeum) are ancient monuments or memorials erected to commemorate to a military victory. Tropaea were characterized by the display of the captured weapons and armor of the enemy- often with some pieces placed upon wooden supports, not unlike a modern scarecrow. While the practice appears to have originated during the Greek Archaic period, it was later emulated by the Romans. This emulation was personalized to meet the needs of the Roman state and society- it was not the rote copying of the earlier Greek tradition. While many tropaea were temporary, during the second century BCE we see the establishment of the first permanent tropaea (in 121 BCE) by Gaius Domitius Abenobarbus and Domitus Fabius Maximus Allobrogicus after their conquest of the Allobrogenes and their Gallic allies in Transalpine Gaul. In c. 105 BCE, Gaius Marius also directed the building of a permanent tropaea following his defeat of the Cimbri and Teutones. Tropaea were later also constructed by Sulla (c. 86 BCE) and Pompey (c. 71) following their own military victories. The practice continued into the period of the Roman Principate.
What purpose did the erection of permanent tropaea serve? The answer is likely very simple, but very nuanced. These permanent monuments served as testaments to the power and might of Rome, not only to the Romans themselves, but to the defeated peoples who now lived under Roman domination. These monuments are rife with military imagery, including depictions of the army on the march, great battles and the subjugation of the enemy. In addition to these martial images, tropaea also contain references to the divine- the depiction of ritual sacrifices being the most common. These monuments also served as a stark warning to any nation or people who might attempt to challenge or resist the preeminence of the Roman state.
As permanent monuments, the armor and weapons of the vanquished were sometimes attached (hung) upon the stone structure. At other times, the weapon and armor were depicted in stone, as was the case with the Tropaeum Traianai. This commemoration in stone served to further perpetuate the surety of the Romans- as an everlasting empire.
The Tropaeum Traiani
As it stands today, the Tropaeum Traiani is for all intents and purposes a complete reconstruction, which was completed in 1977. Originally built in 109 CE, the monument served to commemorate Trajan’s victory over the Dacians (101-102 CE). Even today, there is some debate among historians as to whether the monument was erected in remembrance of one particular battle- the Battle of Adamclisi or as a testament to Trajan’s campaign (and victory) in Moesia Inferior. The size, scale and overall theme of the monument appear to more supportive of the later assertion, but is not definitive.
Prior to it’s reconstruction, the Tropaeum Traiani was largely composed of collapsed rubble. Many of the inscriptions, sculptures, images and panels (metopes) were damaged. Of the original 54 metopes, only 49 have survived from antiquity. Nearly all of the constituent components are currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Adamclisi. Considering the poor state of the monument (ruins), the entirety of the reconstruction was based on upon detailed archaeological examination(s), comparison to a smaller (and later) copy erected during the early 4th century CE, and more than just a little educated guess-work. As such, there is still a significant amount of academic debate whether or not this reconstruction is wholly accurate.
Regardless, the monument is a wonder to behold. Standing 40 meters in height, the structure is imposing and visually dominates the surrounding countryside. For those who love history, the Tropaeum Traiani and the adjacent ruins of the fortress at Adamclisi offer a fantastic opportunity to see the might, grandeur and legacy of the Roman conquest of Dacia.
I would like to take a moment to express my thanks to Dr. Mihail Zahariade (Former Assistant Director, Vasile Parvan Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest) and Dr. John Karavas (International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES), Athens) for dedication and perseverance in their excavation of Halmyris. I would also like to thank my former graduate adviser, Dr. Micheal Ng (Seattle University/APUS), for his rather forceful suggestion that I participate in this once in a lifetime opportunity.