Emperor Trajan celebrated victory over Dacians with a column in Rome and a whole city in Bulgaria
Issue 67, April 2012
by Minka Vazkresenska; photography by Anthony Georgieff
In 106 AD, Emperor Trajan (98-117) was returning from his victorious campaign against the Dacians in what is today Romania. These bellicose tribes had finally been conquered and tamed. Their capital Sarmizegetusa was put under sword and fire, and the defeated King Decebalus (87-106) had killed himself to avoid capture. Trajan had finished what his predecessors ‒ and he himself, in an earlier campaign in 101-102 ‒ had failed to achieve. He had secured the Danube lands and the rich gold and iron mines of the Dacians, a precious input into the troubled state economy, struggling under the cost of expensive military campaigns.
Plans of how to celebrate this victory were running through the emperor's head. He wanted more than just the traditional triumphal entry into Rome with his soldiers, his enslaved enemies and his booty. So Trajan proclaimed festivities to last for 123 days and gladly accepted the gift from the Senate of a 30-metre column with reliefs showing crucial moments from the Dacian Wars of 101-102 and 105-106. This column is still one of the major tourist sights in the city of Rome.
What few people know, however, is that Trajan did something else to commemorate his famous victory. He built a whole city, and his reasons exceeded mere vanity.
Trajan knew that an expanding empire needed not only territory and goods. Encompassing lands whose inhabitants had always lived free of the boundaries of civilisation, the empire needed people in newly-conquered territories who believed in the Roman lifestyle. Their faith in it should be so strong and their profit from it should be so tempting that they would advertise its merits among still uncivilised natives and, if a foreign invasion occurred, would die defending it. There were already several legions stationed by the Danube and Trajan sent two more into the Dacian lands, but you need more than soldiers to keep the peace. You need also citizens, merchants, priests, craftsmen, villagers, and land-owners ‒ a little universe of people who believe that their way of life will disappear should the empire collapse.
There were some military camps surrounded by civil settlements by the Danube, but none seemed suitable to become a hub of imperial Roman propaganda, so Trajan decided to create one from scratch. This is how, on an open plain about 50 km south of the Danube, Nikopolis ad Istrum, or the City of the Victory on the Danube, was founded.
A lot of careful planning went into it. The new city was laid out with the obligatory grid of paved straight streets intersecting at right angles. They run from north to south and from east to west, carefully diverging from the cardinal points by several degrees, so that every 18 September when the sun rose and set, it would pour its beams over the streets of Nikopolis, a celestial celebration of Trajan's birthday.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers