March 25, 2016, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 101 the Roman emperor Trajan set out from Rome against the Dacians
Text by Michael Wuk
Since the final days of the Republic, the Dacians had been perceived as a potential threat by Rome, and consequently they had been the focus of a number of military campaigns.According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar planned to subdue the Getae, as the Dacians were also known, and Augustus sent out several punitive expeditions into the Balkans as a result of the support Mark Antony received from them.
Domitian, too, rather famously came into conflict with the Dacians beginning in AD 85, and the ultimate failure of his campaign provided the impetus for Trajan’s later invasion. Despite some initial victories, a Roman army was wiped out by the Dacians in 86.
Retribution was sought in 88 with an invasion of Dacian territory, but Domitian was obliged to turn his attention away from the Balkans to tackle other threats, notably the revolt of Saturninus, and agreed terms with the Dacians.
These terms included the annual payment of eight million sesterces to the Dacians and recognition of their king Decebalus – who was responsible for some considerable Roman defeats – as a client of Rome.
Perhaps worst of all, the Dacians were lent some Roman military engineers. These were used both to improve Dacian fortifications to a level where, technologically, they equalled Rome, and to help the Dacians build siege weapons and artillery. Rather than subjugate them, Domitian had enabled the Dacians to grow into a greater threat than before.
Following the peace treaty, Rome suffered economically; it had already been forced to reduce the gold content in its coinage. Other military campaigns had emptied the imperial coffers, and the money given to the Dacians created further problems.
The land of Dacia was rich in ores, and rumours of Decebalus’ great wealth began to spread, fuelled further by the defiant nature of his tribe. It is against this background that Trajan declared war against the Dacians.
Fearing the potential for enemy incursions, whilst also seeking to correct Domitian’s blunders and seize the Dacian’s wealth, Trajan, an experienced general who had risen to become emperor in 98, prepared for a fresh invasion.
The Senate gave its blessing to the idea of a campaign. Two new legions were created and several other units from elsewhere in the Empire were moved to the province of Upper Moesia (on the Roman side of the Danube, opposite Dacia). By the spring, Trajan had around eleven legions at his disposal.
Not much is known about the course of Trajan’s campaign. However, it is clear that the army marched deep into Dacia, setting settlements alight as it went. The fighting was supposedly fierce, with the Dacians mounting some major attacks against the Romans.
The major battle of the war took place at the same location at which Domitian had managed to defeat the Dacians (with heavy Roman losses) in 88. The (second) Battle of Tapae resulted in a Roman victory.
Trajan then advanced to the Dacian capital and forced Decebalus to capitulate, at which point a treaty was drawn up. Decebalus would remain king, and again military resources were provided to the Dacians as a means to turn Dacia into a buffer zone between Rome and the northern Germanic tribes. The war was over by 102.
Trajan celebrated a triumph for his victory in the war, but after a brief period of co-operation with Rome, Decebalus revolted and broke the terms of the treaty. This prompted the Second Dacian War from 105-106.