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Women and the Barbarian on Trajans Column

Amanda Foley

AS 301
Professor Chittick
Professor Vincent
20 April, 2016

To be a barbarian within Ancient Roman society meant that your society did not hold the same
cultural and moral values as Rome. This could be as minute as having a different economy to as drastic as
being a warring, tribal state where women held political and social influence. Whatever the differences
were it could almost be guaranteed that the society would be seen as inferior and as an enemy of the
Roman state. If the society was taken over their struggle would be documented in some form of
commemoration that praised the superiority of the Romans over the backwards barbarian. Today what we
know about the barbarians was been written by the Romans, limiting what we can learn about them.
This paper seeks to understand what made the society of Dacia a barbaric enemy through the
study of specific scenes on Trajans Column. More specifically I will be explaining how the portrayal of
women on the column is essential to defining Dacia as a barbaric culture. The paper will be broken down
into three sections; the first section will provide a description of Trajans Column as a historical narrative
and a piece of commemorative sculpture. It will also give a brief overview of the Dacian campaigns
which are portrayed on the column. The second section will be my own descriptions of three scenes
portraying Dacian women, one scene portraying a Roman woman, followed by an outside artwork. Each
scene will have a small description of my analysis. This section will also contain a comparison of the
images along with my own broader analysis. The third section and conclusion will compare my own
analysis with modern day scholarship and will explain the significance of women on the column itself.
******
Dedicated in 113 A.D.; Trajans Column still stands at an astounding 100 feet among the ruins of
Trajans Forum in Rome (Fig.1). The commemorative monument tells the story of the two Dacian
campaigns led by Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the second century. The designer of this masterpiece
is thought to be Apollodorus of Damascus, a favorite architect of Emperor Trajan. 1 The columns outer
surface is decorated in twenty-three spirals that start at the base and move all the way up to its peak,
which is now decorated by a statue of Saint Peter. These spirals are made up of 400 slabs which are
covered with over 2,500 figures. These figures include, but are not limited to, Roman soldiers, Dacian
soldiers, weaponry, architecture, women, and children (Fig.2). 2 It is important to the observer of this
ancient marvel to understand that these reliefs were meant to be understood as a whole historical
1 Encycolpaedia Britannica Online, s.v. Apollodorus of Damascus, accessed April
19, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Apollodorus-of-Damascus.
2 Lino Rossi, Trajans Column and the Dacian Wars, trans. J.M.C. Toynbee (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1971), 13.

narrative. Trajans Column was created to tell the whole story of the Dacian Campaigns where inspiration
and details were given by those who were actually there.
Dacia was located in modern day Romania and was physically divided from the Roman Empire by the
Danube River. Its culture was a combination of Germanic tribal ideologies along with Greek and Persian
influences, all due to its geographic location. Dr. Lino Rossi 3 argues in his work Trajans Column and the
Dacian Wars that the term barbarian is not a suitable term when describing the society of Dacia:
For while great national (or tribal) pride and individual gallantry in war were far from uncommon
among the barbarian opponents of Rome, in the case of the Dacians these native virtues were
combined with a comparatively efficient organization and an eagerness to assimilate more
advanced techniques and customs. 4
The people of Dacia had a thriving and versatile economy that included agriculture, stock-breeding, and
mining. Their religious practices included orgiastic rituals and human sacrifice, along with a belief that
those who died in battle would go directly to heaven. This made them a formidable and relentless
opponent against the Roman army. As a result of a peace treaty that occurred between Dacia and Rome in
88 A.D. the Dacians were given a number of military technicians and engineers that helped to build up
their army to a Roman standard which would prove detrimental in the years to come. 5
The Roman war with Dacia is divided into two separate campaigns; one which occurred from 101 A.D. to
102 A.D. and one that lasted from 105 A.D. to 106 A.D. It was the Roman Emperor Trajan who led both
campaigns with the largest forces that the army had ever created before that time. The first campaign did
not end in a complete victory for the Romans but it was a victory nevertheless. The surrender of the
Dacian forces required the destruction of mountain fortresses, the return of Roman soldiers and
technicians, and the promise to halt aggressions against Roman territories. However the aggressions
resumed shortly after and the second campaign was launched three years later. The result of the second
campaign was a complete victory over the Dacians, the ability to colonize the area, and enough riches to
support the construction of Trajans Column. What we now know about the society of Dacia is what the
3 Dr. Rossi is one of the leading scholars on Trajans Column with a focus on the
depictions of the Roman military on the column.
4 Lino Rossi, Trajans Column and the Dacian Wars, trans. J.M.C. Toynbee (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1971), 20- 21.
5 Ibid., 21-22.

Romans left behind as their culture and ethnicity was destroyed by the resulting colonization of their
home. This is why the depictions of the Dacians on Trajans Column are so important to understanding
this barbaric society.6
******
The first scene for analysis is scene thirty (Fig. 3) titled Trajan at embarkation of Dacian
women.7 This analysis will focus on the right side of the image and not the left, which is a depiction of
battle. At first glance the viewers attention will immediately fall on Emperor Trajan who is located at the
top center of the scene. He is stands apart from the other figures within the scene and he is in imperial
Roman dress. What is most striking about his depictions is his outstretched hand towards the Dacian
woman who stands in front of him. The Dacian woman appears to be facing the viewer and not Trajan but
upon further examination she is actually facing away from the viewer as if she is presenting the whole of
her body to the Emperor. Along with her presentation it appears that her gaze is focused on the Trajan but
she does not look him in the eye as if an act of submission. Her clothing is heavy and form fitting at the
waist but most of her body is covered by a piece of fabric that is draped over her shoulder. Her hair is tied
up at the nape of her neck and appears to be covered by a scarf that is wrapped around her hair.
Below the woman and Trajan there is a group of Dacian women waiting with a Roman soldier. The group
of five women8 is dressed in the same way as the woman who stands apart from them. Their facial
compositions are all very similar and serene. They are depicted with a sloping, pointed nose and a low
brow. Their mouths are small and severe but the faces of the women as a whole do not show a range of
emotional expressions. Two of the women are holding children; one on their shoulders and the other
outstretched towards the Roman soldiers that surround them. The woman on the far right towards the
front of the group seems to be reaching out towards the Roman soldier that is directly next to her.
It is in this scene that we see a close interaction between the Romans and the Dacian women.
Within this scene there are also Dacian men, however they are not directly interacting with the soldiers in
6 Lino Rossi, Trajans Column and the Dacian Wars, trans. J.M.C. Toynbee (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1971), 28.
7 The numerical assignment of each scene is taken from the title which was given
by ARTStor.
8 Due to the blurred nature of the image this number is based strictly on my own
count and estimation.

the same manner as the women. The relationship between the woman who stands alone and Emperor
Trajan is very interesting. His outstretched hand appears to represent some level of respect towards the
woman while her stance represents a form of sexuality between the two. It is my own opinion that she
represents a sense of sexual freedom and prowess that is not depicted in the Roman woman. Her sexuality
shows her power within her own society while the group of women below her shows the support that she
has. The way in which the group of women interacts with the Roman soldier appears to represent the
power that the women have themselves. The soldier appears to be overwhelmed while trying to hold back
the crowd. The relationship between the women and their children is one that is not seen in art depicting
the Roman style family. The mother is very rarely represented in images about the Roman family unit;
instead these works highlight the important of a father-child relationship within the patrilineal society.
One of the most controversial scenes on Trajans Column is scene forty-five, also known as the
torture scene (Fig. 4). Here we see five Dacian women engaging in the torture of three, nude, Roman
soldiers. At the highest point of the scene we see four of the women surrounding two of the prisoners. The
mens hands are bound behind their backs and their expressions show agony and suffering. It is also
important to note the amount of detail put into making the men appear extremely muscular and physically
fit. Each woman appears very calm in expression and demeanor, her hair is bound at the nape of her neck
and appears to be covered by a close fitting head scarf. Her clothing is heavy and draped but it close
fitting due to what appears to be a knot at her waist. We see no gross contortion of the face but rather a
universal facial structure that is present on all four of the women.
Each woman in the top portion of the scene is touching one of the prisoners in some way. The
woman in the top left corner appears to be holding a torch to the back of the top prisoner as he is pulled
away by the hair towards the woman in the top right corner. The woman in the bottom right corner is hold
a sword or dagger and is preparing to strike the second prisoner while holding him in place with her other
hand. The woman in the bottom left corner holds the soldiers other shoulder while preparing to strike
him with her other free hand. In this quartet of women each one is somehow harming her prisoner and
causing him very clear anguish. At the bottom of this same scene we see the final Dacian woman and her
own Roman prisoner. This man is lying on the ground on his back, with his hands bound, and he appears
to be moving away from the woman. She stands over him and appears ready to strike with a large object
that she is holding in both of her hands. Her demeanor and expression is virtually identical to her
accomplices in the top half of this scene.
As mentioned above this is one of the most controversial scenes on Trajans Column for the main
reason that it depicts the Roman army in a rather embarrassing and compromising position at the hands of

women. Why would the designer of the column choose to create this scene at all? In Ancient Rome during
this time period it would be common knowledge that a defining characteristic of a barbaric society would
represented in how much power the women had within their society. The Roman historian Tactius, along
with many other scholars, wrote about the relationship between a barbaric woman and power. Where
Tacitus portrays barbarian women exercising power in their own right, he depicts Roman women as
expropriating authority to which they have no claim whatsoever.9 Knowing the relationship between
women and power it is my opinion that this scene was included to further promote the barbaric nature of
the Dacian society through the expression of women having so much power over the Roman army.
The final scene involving Dacian women is scene seventy-six (Fig. 5). Located towards the end
of the story of the first campaign, this scene shows the fleeing of women, children, and the elderly. At the
bottom, center of the image we see three Dacian women fleeing with three children. One of these women
appears to be elderly due to the differences in her facial structure from those we have observed in the
previous scenes. Her eyes and mouth appear, for lack of a better word, looser than her companions.
Despite a difference in facial structure, her style of dress is similar to the women that have been depicted
throughout the column. The woman closest to the left of the image seems to be responsible for three of
the four children depicted in this scene. She carries an infant in her arms and the other two children are
very close to her body.
The children within this scene are all Dacian. This can be assumed from context and also from the style of
clothing in which they are depicted. There are two boys, whose baggy clothing and longer hair can be
easily compared to the men present in the scene, and one girl, whose covered hair style is evidence
enough of her gender. It appears that the children are divided as one of the boys is further back in the
group and it seems that he is being dragged by the male figure holding onto his arm. The other two
children seem to be leaving their homes willingly and without complaint.
This scene shows the vulnerability of the Dacian society. In stark contrast to the first two scenes,
here we do not see the women as holding the power. They are fleeing from their homes with children in
tow while the men stay behind. It is also important, once again, to reference the role of children within
this scene. As mentioned in the description of figure three we see the relationship between women and
children as a weakness and a marker of a barbaric society. One scholar has even made the claim that a
woman holding a baby in her arms is a symbol of defeat; 10 this imagery is clearly visible in this scene.
The children in this scene represent a blank slate. While three of the children go willingly away from their
9 Francesca Santoro LHoir, Tactius and Womens Usurpation of Power, The
Classical World 88, no.1 (1994): 7, doi: 10.2307/4351613.

homes one of them is fighting back against the man taking him away. The children have similar facial
structures that do not resemble Dacian adults nor do they resemble the Romans. They represent the
potential for the future and innocence not yet lost to adulthood. 11
The next two images up for analysis are depictions of Roman women in artwork from this time period.
The first is scene seventy-eight (Fig. 6) which marks the end of the first Dacian campaign. Here we see
the figure of the winged Victory inscribing a shield. It is important to note that she is not a normal woman
but a goddess. Her gaze is not focused on the viewer but rather on the task at hand. Her body is turned to
the side so we are exposed to a profile of a facial structure that is very different from the Dacian women.
The lines of her lips and nose are softer and less severe than those of the barbarian women. Her hair is
uncovered and shows a fair amount of detail that was not shown in the Dacian women. The style of her
clothing is more loose and not as form fitting while at the same time showing more feminine side to her.
The final image (Fig. 7) is a sculpture of a Roman matron from the second century, which is the
same time that Trajans Column was dedicated. Here we have a statue of a noble woman from Rome. The
reason I say that she is a noble woman is because that most of the common women during this time did
not have the means or the need to have a statue made of them. 12 She stands alone with a simple head
covering draped over her hair, but not enough to cover her curls. Her face is round with soft lips and what
used to be a small nose; her eyes are wide and round and take up the majority of her face. Her clothing is
designed in a draped fashion that does not try to hide her womanly figure but also represents a sense of
modesty as there is no skin showing. She represents the ideal Roman woman.
The reason for including these two particular images is to provide a means of comparison
between the Dacian women and the Roman women. Victory is the only non-Dacian woman represented
on Trajans Column and she is not even a mortal woman. The reasoning behind this is because women
represented the private sector of daily life in Rome. In almost every piece of commemorative art the
mortal woman is obsolete and is replaced with a deity or a goddess. The statue serves to show how the

10 Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, The Power of Parenthood in Official Roman Art, Hesperia
Supplements 41, (2007): 63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20066783.
11 Sarah Currie, The empire of adults: the representation of children on Trajans
arch at Beneventum, in Art and Text in Roman Culture, ed. Ja Elsner (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), 159.
12 Eve DAmbra, Roman Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 50-53.

ideal Roman woman would be portrayed in art work. Due to her status she would not look like the
common woman but she would represent what women were supposed to look like during this time.
One common theme that I have discovered through my analysis is the relationship between perceived
sexuality and power. This relationship is rarely represented in artworks that have nothing to do with some
form of conquest and it certainly does not involve Roman women. In the first scene the woman presenting
herself to Trajan seems to hold all of the power which is represented through his outstretched hand. The
depiction of children is a direct symbol of female sexuality and the close relationship between a mother
and her child. However it is the torture scene that is rich in sexual innuendos that would have been
immediately recognized by the average Roman viewer. First of all the fact that the Roman soldiers are
nude is reason enough to believe that the scene is sexual in nature. There are more subtle symbols in this
scene such as the pulling of the hair by the Dacian woman in the top right corner. In various examples of
Greco-Roman imagery the male hero will be depicted as pulling the hair of his female enemy as a sign of
his overall domination. Also the binding of the hands behind the back was common in the depiction of
slavery and conquest.13 In my opinion the symbols of sexuality and power only promote the idea that the
Dacians were a barbaric society.
The physical characteristics of the Dacian women also represent the qualities of being a barbarian when
examined against the characteristics of Roman women. To begin with, the facial structure of the barbarian
woman is angular and sharp. In each scene that I have analyzed there is a commonality among the facial
expression, or lack thereof, on all of the Dacian womens faces regardless of what they are depicted
doing. It is my impression that this shows a lack of feeling that would be attributed to the common
woman during this time. That by excluding all emotion from the barbarian women they are somehow
separated from what it means to be a Roman woman. Where barbarian women are seen as sharp and hard,
the Roman woman has a softer and more rounded face to show her femininity.
Excluding the aspect of sexuality that was mentioned earlier, the Dacian woman is very
representative of power and authority. She is the one that is responsible for removing her children from
the dangers of war. It is she who meets with the Emperor while the men are engaging in a bloody battle. It
is she who is capable of inflicting pain and humiliation upon her enemies, not her husband. The Roman
woman did not have the same amount of authority over her life. From birth she was under the control of
her father and when she married she would be under the control of her husband. She was expected to have

13 The knowledge of the sexual symbolism in Greco-Roman culture was discussed


in Ancient Barbarians class on March 9, 2016.

the virtue of housework and to be completely devoted, even psychologically submissive, to the
authoritative men in her life.14
When Trajans Column was dedicated in 113 A.D. the Roman people who would view this
commemorative masterpiece would have a firm grasp on what it meant to be a citizen of Rome. They
would know that the portrayal of the family unit would have exclusively represented the father-child
relationship while leaving out the mother figure. It would have been common knowledge that when
women were included in artwork it was in the form of a goddess or a deity. The role of women and their
sexuality within the public sphere would have been engrained into every good Roman citizen. It is this
basic information that the depictions of Dacian women push against. The role of women within the
Dacian campaigns would have appeared blasphemous and barbaric to the people of Rome. The
combination of the portrayal of Dacian women along with the knowledge of Roman citizenship has
solidified the role of Dacia in the barbaric epics of Rome.
******
In comparison to modern scholarship on Trajans Column my analysis is extremely focused and
strays from the common analysis taken by most historians. The approach of most scholars is to examine
the ways in which war and military strategy are depicted on the column and how it coincides with what
we know about Rome today. There are, however, scholars that do choose to look at the portrayal of
women and children on the column but few relate it back to the promotion of a barbaric society.
One discussion about women and children on Trajans Column can be found in a journal article
by Jeannine Diddle Uzzi. Uzzis main argument is about the how the family unit is portrayed in official
Roman art during the time of Trajan. She stresses the importance of the father-child unit and how
barbarian societies were characterized as having a mother-child unit, the barbarian woman with babe in
her arms signals the defeat suffered by her society. 15 It is this quotation and her examination of the role
of the mother in Roman art that led to my conclusion that the depiction of Dacian women with their
children would only promote the idea that this was a barbaric society.

14 Peter Garnsey et al., The Roman Empire: Economy Society and Culture
(University of California Press, 2014), EBL Reader, 239.
15 Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, The Power of Parenthood in Official Roman Art, Hesperia
Supplements 41, (2007): 63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20066783.

Sarah Currie wrote an analysis on the role of children on Trajans Column. She stressed the fact that of all
of the fifty children depicted on the column that none of them were of Roman descent. Her analysis stated
that the children represented a political malleability and an innocence of being untouched by barbaric
ideologies. She also makes the claim that the children were depicted slightly differently depending on if
they were willing to be Romanised or if they were going to stay in their barbaric state. In short her
argument was that the children on the column could be better understood as a symbol for political change
and potential.16
I believe that my personal analysis fits directly in between these two forms of scholarship mentioned
above. It combines the study of both the woman and child presented on the column as a means of
promoting the idea that Dacia was a barbaric society. Furthermore it includes an in depth analysis of
scenes that are on the column itself which would insert it into the broader discussion of what the column
is actually trying to depict.
In conclusion, it is my firm belief that the depiction of Dacian women on Trajans Column was a
calculated decision made by the artist to further promote the idea that the Dacian society was barbaric. By
utilizing commonly known symbols of power and conquest in the context of women the people of Rome
would have seen this society as very different from their own. The physical characteristics of the Dacian
women only further promoted that they were a group very different from those that the Romans would
have been exposed to. Women are a consistent marker of how a society functions and because of this their
depictions on Trajans Column would have proved more powerful than any other symbol.

16 Sarah Currie, The empire of adults: the representation of children on Trajans


arch at Beneventum, in Art and Text in Roman Culture, ed. Ja Elsner (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Appendix

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

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