Italy – Asseria And Trajan’s Route To Dacia

Perhaps the most jealously guarded of the recent excavations by the Austrian Government Commission is that of the ancient city of Asseria, at Podgradje, near Bencovac, in the central part of the interior of Dalmatia. The city was founded long before the Roman conquest by some Greek colonists, who preferred to settle inland rather than, like the great majority of their countrymen, on the islands and the coast, where they founded the mother colony of Issa, its offshoots Epetion and Tragurion, Apollonia and Dyrrhachium in the south, Epitaurum, and several others. More exposed to attack by the native Illyrian tribes, Asseria was probably fortified from the beginning, perhaps in the third century B.C., and its walls are now among the most extensive remaining traces of the Greek race in Dalmatia. The city was one of the main inland centers of civilization, and also appears in the annals of Roman conquest and occupation as an early storm center.

Some years ago reports of casual discoveries on the site led the Central Archaeological Commission at Vienna to decide on excavations. The leading archaeologist and the architect in charge (Wilberg) were sent from Vienna; a young native archaeologist from Zara was attached to the party as assistant, partly because of his local knowledge, partly because the objects found would naturally go to the museum of Zara, the nearest Dalmatian city. Another Dalmatian archaeologist, now attached to the museum of Trieste, also took part. The photographs and drawings are hoarded in Vienna. The results appear to have been disappointing. I was told that the work was somewhat bungled. No official report—no report of any sort—had been published until last year, when a brief synopsis appeared in the official Austrian quarterly, some time after I had called attention in the New York Nation to this long silence of over ten years.

We know that at some period under the Empire Asseria passed from the condition of a municipality to that of a colony. Perhaps this gate commemorated the change, as was so often the case.

The architectural fragments unearthed were nearly all left on the ground, and have been destroyed by the neighboring villagers or used as building material. One discovery of extreme interest was certainly made. It is that of a memorial gate to the Emperor Trajan, erected to him in 113 by his praetorian prefect, or military commander of the province, P. Atilius Aebutianus, and dedicated, with a banquet, by Laelius Proculus, for the city.

It is evident at first sight that the gateway is much later than the walls, which are constructed of immense blocks of stone, somewhat bossed and rusticated. The wall was broken in order to insert the gate, which was made to project some-what on the left, and to recede on the right side, in rather awkward fashion. In its form, this gateway, with its single arcade, has more the appearance of a memorial arch than of a city gate, and should be considered in this light. The restoration of it which is given in the Austrian report is not altogether satisfactory, nor is any reference made to the importance of the use of free-standing columns on its façade.

The gate was still standing to a height of between fourteen and fifteen feet, and all the elements of the upper structure were found lying at the base. The principal or outer face, looking toward the country, had a double attic with a double inscription: one that of the dedicator, the other that of Trajan. Both inscriptions are now at Zara. Below the attics the projecting cornice and frieze were supported by four free-standing columns forming the “order,” while two smaller engaged shafts framed the opening and supported its archivolts. To the free columns resting on a high common base corresponded wall-pilasters on each of the two piers which they framed. On the other side of the arch, facing the city, the columns are not free but engaged. Of sculpture there is no trace beyond the usual decorative work and two remarkable colossal heads in very high relief, usually attributed to the two keystones—one a bull-protoma and the other a head of a youthful deity with rams’ horns and a nascent beard; emblems of the city which find their counterpart in many other Roman city gates, as I have shown in connection with Trieste. The restoration places them, erroneously, I believe, at the springs of the arch.

But what is of unique interest, architecturally, is the use of free-standing columns on the main façade. There has been quite a discussion as to when they were introduced to replace the en-gaged shafts, producing greater effects of light and shade and new relations of form, through the overhanging attics which they supported. The so-called Arch of Drusus in Rome had them, but they are an addition of Caracalla; the most popular use of them for the general student is, of course, in the arches of Septimus Severus and Constantine in Rome. But hitherto no example has been found earlier than Hadrian, Trajan’s successor; and even his arch at Athens, which has them, may not have been built until after his death. For a while it was thought that Trajan introduced them, on the strength of his arch at Timgad in North Africa, but it is now known that this arch was not built in Trajan’s time, but in that of Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. At Beneventum the arch of Trajan still has en-gaged shafts, and it was built in 114. But a year earlier, in 113, here at Asseria, the imperial architect—he cannot have been a native, but one of the military or government official architects attached perhaps to a legion, and a pupil of Apollodorus,—introduced this innovation. At Ieast, until further discoveries cast this arch down from its pinnacle it is the banner-arch of the free-standing columns, the earliest remaining model of this new type which was to become the most popular of all classes of memorial arches. As Apollodorus built the famous bridge over the Danube and was associated with Trojan’s Dacian campaigns, he may have designed the Asseria arch. At the same time I believe I have discovered the source of the Asseria design, the destroyed original triumphal arch built in Rome in honor of Trajan a few years before, in about 107 A.D., as a memorial of the Conquest of Dacia, just before the building of the Forum of Trajan. The coins which portray this Dacian arch show very plainly that it has free-standing columns supporting a broken architrave. Its designer and the inventor of this type is likely to have been, therefore, Apollodorus of Damascus, the famous architect and engineer of Trajan. Still, as this use of coin pictures may be considered a slightly uncertain form of proof, the Asseria gate may be regarded as the earliest monumental embodiment of the new design. How important the innovation was, all designers will understand. By giving greater play of light and shade, more overhang to the main entablature and heavy breaks in its continuity, it introduced an element of picturesqueness that was valuable and could be extended to other designs. It is only one of several debts that Rome owes to Syrian architecture.

But this gate is interesting for historical and military, as well as architectural, reasons. It bears on the question whether, in his second and principal Dacian war, Trajan reached the Danube by way of Dalmatia. This theory has been so scorned by several of those who have made a long and careful study of Trajan’s Dacian wars, by authorities such as Cichorius and Furtwangler, that I hesitated to support it. But while I cannot here discuss the theories as to sea and land routes, I can indicate some of the reasons for supposing that Trajan actually carried his army to the Danube through central Dalmatia and its hinterland.

We know that Trajan’s first war in 101 and 102 A.D. was not one of conquest, but aimed at making of Dacia and the land across the Danube, a client state under the general suzerainty of Rome, a sort of Transvaal, instead of a center of hostile raids across the river. But when Trajan, some time after Dacia had submitted, had convinced himself in 103 and 104 that Decebalus and Dacia were not honest in their professions of peace and were secretly preparing for hostility, he determined on a war of conquest, and on carrying the Roman border across the river. He completed, meanwhile, the permanent bridge across the Danube, which even previously had been in temporary use, perfected the network of military roads in the Danubian provinces and founded certain military colonies. A larger army was needed than for the first war.

The help as to his route which one gets from the reliefs on the column is only partial. Trajan started from Rome. The first rendezvous was at the main port on the upper Adriatic, Ancona, where a beautiful memorial arch still testifies to Tra j an’s enlargement of its harbor, probably in view of this very need, though the work was not completed till a decade later. As only a part of the army needed to be carried from Italy—the bulk being formed of the legions stationed further north and west—the problem of taking them across the Adriatic was not arduous. In the sculptured historic scenes of the war on the column we see the scene of embarkation at the port, near the arch which, as at present, adjoins the quay: the whole topography of the scene in the relief fits into that of Ancona, including the temple on the heights. But where are the troops bound? One wild theory takes them on vessels as far as the Bosphorus. I agree with Professor Bulic and with Petersen in thinking that Trajan carried the troops almost straight across to Salona, which was not only the nearest large port, but the central starting point for the main network of Dalmatian roads connecting both with the garrison camps and the valley of the Middle Danube, which Trajan wished to reach directly. For confirmation of this theory, it would be natural to look for some record of repairs on the Dalmatian military roads by Trajan in view of this march. We know how fore-handed he was in this particular ; how he had the great road along the Danube through the Iron Gates constructed in 100, a year before the first Dacian war, and how he set Apollodorus at work on the great bridge over the Danube in 101. So it is without surprise, that we see in the C. I. L. and in the Dalmatian Bollettino of Bulic, the in-scribed milestones from this region that prove Trajan’s restoration of the roads, one of them near Salona itself at Trau, relating to the Via munita along the coast.

Trajan’s stay in Dalmatia and its connection with the Dacian campaign is shown in various ways : by buildings and engineering works like the aqueduct at Zara, by the monuments of soldiers and veterans scattered over the whole province, including those of men who did not belong to the corps regularly stationed in Dalmatia, but who took part in this campaign. Picking up the Pannonian and Moesian legions on his way to the northeast; and appointing a rendezvous for the Germanic legions and the rest that were to come from the west, Trajan probably spent some time on this side of the Danube before crossing; though the triumphal monument at Adam-Klissi in the Dobrudscha rather indicates the location of some big battle in the days before the Dacian war than any event of this time. Whether in starting from Salona he took the more northern route via Burnum and Asseria or the more south-ern route, by the Drin valley, I would not venture to suggest without further study of the region; but does not the memorial arch-gate at Asseria, though erected several years after, suggest that Trajan may have passed this way? In any case, there is cumulative circumstantial evidence in favor of the theory that Trajan selected some route through Dalmatia as the shortest and safest way of reaching his field of operations and that he had been preparing for this by putting the highways and ports in repair.