Dacian draco

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Dacian draco on from Trajan's Column

The Dacian draco was a military standard used by troops of the ancient Dacian people, which can be seen in the hands of the soldiers of Decebalus in several scenes depicted on Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy. This wind instrument has the form of a dragon with open wolf-like jaws containing several metal tongues.[1][2][3] The hollow dragon's head was mounted on a pole with a fabric tube affixed at the rear. In use, the draco was held up into the wind, or above the head of a horseman, where it filled with air and gave the impression it was alive while making a shrill sound as the wind passed through its strips of material.[4][5][3] The Dacian draco likely influenced the development of the similar Roman draco.

Name and etymology[edit]

Draco (Latin) and Drakon (Greek) mean "serpent", "dragon". The root of these words means "to watch" or "to guard with a sharp eye".[6] It is a derivative of Greek drakōn "gazing".[7]


The origin of the standard is unknown and still a matter of dispute among scholars. A specific and certain origin is still difficult to be determined. Dacian, Thracian, Scythian, Sarmatian[8][9][10] or Parthian origins have been proposed in dedicated historiography.[11] According to Lucreţiu Mihăilescu-Bîrliba by the 2nd century AD, i.e. after the conclusion of the Dacian Wars, the draco symbol was assimilated in the Greco-Roman world with the Dacian ethnos.[12] According to Jon N. C. Coulston the Romans associated this standard with 1st and 2nd century Danubian barbarians.[13] The Roman historian Arrian wrote that the Romans took the draco from the Scythians, most probably a term for the contemporary Sarmatians.[8]

The original purpose was probably to provide wind direction for archery.[14]


Dacian Draco on Trajan's Column

Among the Dacians, the draco was undoubtedly seen by the army as a special protective symbol, while it also played an important role in the religious life of the people.[3]

The draco shows a religious syncretism between the wolf and the dragon as well as the serpent. It was supposed to encourage the Dacians and to scare their enemies.[15]

  • A wolf was depicted at the standard's head, symbolic animal of the Carpathian people since the phase B of Hallstatt Period (10th–8th century BC). The animal is shown in an aggressive posture similar to that of certain Hittite monsters.[16] The religious association of the dragon with the wolf or the lion is first found around the year 1120 BC, on a stela of Nebuchadnezzar I, where an exact representation of the symbol of the Dacian dragon is found in the fourth quarter.[16] This indicates that the Dacian draco stems from the art of Asia Minor where the religious-military symbology of dragon extended both eastward to the Indo-Iranians and westward to the Thraco-Cimmeriano-Getians/Dacians.[17][16]

By the time of the phase D of Hallstatt Period (8th–6th century BC), the decorative pattern of a dragon head or a serpent had become quite common in Dacia. In the La Tène Period (3thBC–1st century AD), it served as a standard for the Dacians. [18] The image of the draco appears on a 4th-century BC ceramic piece discovered at Budureasca commune, Prahova county, Romania. [19][15]

The Dacians bearing the draco on Trajan's Column
  • The body of the standard, depicting a dragon-like balaur or a large snake, was seen by the Dacians as a manifestation of the sky demon or "heavenly dragon".[20][21] This relates to their supreme god Zalmoxis who was possibly a sky god (cf. also Tomaschek[22]).[23] In the Hallstatt Period "proper", the decorative pattern of a dragon head or a serpent became quite common in Dacia. The dragon symbol is also represented on the silver Dacian bracelets of the Classical period.[24] The snake-shaped bracelets and other similar ornaments show not only the spread of the snake as a decorative motif but also its significance in Dacian material civilization.[25][26]

Dacian Draco in warfare[edit]

Dacians marched into the battle accompanied by the howl of wolf-headed trumpets and following their sinister multicolored dragon-head standard. As intended, they made a terrifying audiovisual spectacle.[citation needed]

The draco first appears on Trajan's Column in Rome, a monument that depicts the Dacian wars of 101–102 AD and 105–106 AD. German historian Conrad Cichorius notes that, even though Dacians carry the draco, it was called the Scythian draco in Arrian's Tactica written around 136 AD.[27] According to Ellis Minns, the dragon standards of Arrian were those of the Dacians.[28]

Representations of the Dacian Draco[edit]

The so-called Dacian Riders-God bears a draco (c. 2nd century AD, Bucharest Antiquities Museum).[29]

Votive tablets[edit]

A draco banner is carried by one of the Danubian Riders, native Dacian deities, on a Danubian plaque ascribed to the first two decades of the 4th century.[30] Because of the great importance of this symbol in the religious and military life of the Dacians, some writers believe that the draco must have been directly adopted and reproduced on the so-called Danubian plaques dating to the 3rd–4th centuries.[3] According to some researchers such as Dumitru Tudor, the presence of this military ensign on the Danubian plaques is explained simply as due to chance — the result of a fortuitous combination of horseman and sky-god themes through the imagination of native sculptors.[21]

Trajan's Column in Rome[edit]

Draco is borne by Dacian cavalry crossing the Danube (Trajan's Column)

On Trajan's Column (113 AD), Dacian soldiers are represented carrying a draco in 20 scenes. One depicts the draco borne by Dacian cavalry crossing the Danube by swimming with their horses.[3] In another, the draco is planted in the center of a Dacian citadel and surrounded by the skulls of several Roman prisoners.[3] On Trajan's Column the draco is the symbolic image of victory although it is absent from pictures on the column that illustrate Trajan's second war against the Dacians, when the Romans conquered about 18% of Dacia territories in quest for gold to pay their legions .[3]

Roman coins of Dacia[edit]

Dacia with draco on antoninianus of Trajan Decius, AD 250-251

The draco appears on coins of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (r.138–161 AD), indicating that it was still the characteristic emblem in the 2nd century.[31][32] In AD 250 on a coin of Decius the Roman province of Dacia holds a wolf- or hound-dragon standard.[33] The same type also occurs on antoniniani coins of Claudius Gothicus (r.268–270) and Aurelian (r.270–275).[34]

Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki[edit]

The characteristic Dacian dragon emblem is carried by a group of Dacian horsemen depicted on the Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki, Greece.[35]

Funerary sculptured monument of Chester[edit]

Dacian or Sarmatian rider with draco from Deva Victrix. In display at Grosvenor Museum.

A draco (considered in 1955 by R. P. Wright of Dacian or Sarmatian type) is depicted on a large stone found at Deva Victrix (Chester, UK) in the North Wall (West) in 1890.[12] The dragon flag is represented horizontally, as held by the cavalryman but its head is not visible, because the stone is rather deteriorated. Most scholars consider the horseman is a Sarmatian, wearing a Sarmatian helmet and carrying a Sarmatian standard.[9] According to Mihăilescu-Bîrliba (2009) the depiction of the Dacian standard is certain and similar representations can be observed on the most important monuments of the Roman triumph over Dacians.[36] A military diploma (dated to 146 AD) found at Chester mentions among the units of the released soldiers the name of cohors I Aelia Dacorum.[37] Therefore, the horseman depicted on the tombstone at Chester could be a Dacian cavalryman, belonging to a vexillatio of cohors I Aelia Dacorum.[38] P. A. Holder suggest that the cohort was created in 102 or a little earlier, with Dacians settled in the Empire, and it received the name of Aelia later.[37]

However, some authors question the attribution of the stele to a Dacian warrior. The Draco was not the exclusive symbol of the Dacians, but of the Sarmatians too. The Dacians usually wore a soft Phrygian cap, but in the stele, the cavalryman wears a tall and conical Spangenhelm-type helmet of Sarmatian origin. Some metal helmets of Dacian origin have been found, and they are considerably different from the one represented on the stele. The Dacians presumably wore long loose hair and thick beards, but the Chester cavalryman appears beardless and with short hair. The Dacians were characterized by the curved sickle sword as a peculiar element of the armament, but the cavalryman of Chester carries a straight sword. Furthermore, the Cohors I Aelia Dacorum reported as evidence for the presence of the Dacians in Britain was an infantry unit, and the Dacians had no tradition as a cavalry one. There also were no Dacian units in service at the Castrum of Deva Victrix (Chester, England), where the stele was found.[39]

Use in the Roman army[edit]

The first sculptural representation of a draco borne by a Roman soldier dates from the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161 to 180 AD).[40]

Scholars believe that the draco was adopted by the Roman army following their conquest of the Dacians.[5][41][42] Some scholars such as Osborne (1985) and Ashmore (1961) consider that the draco was adopted by the Romans from the Dacians.[43][44] It became the standard of the cohort in the same way that the aquila or Imperial eagle was the standard of the Roman legion.[41] The adopted standard in the Roman cavalry was borne by a draconarius. Later, the draco became an imperial ensign.[43] The only copy left is a dragon-like gilded head of the late Roman standard found at the Niederbieber, Germany.[45]

The draco was specific not only to Roman occupied Dacia but also to the Sarmatian and Parthian regions. As a result, some alternative origins for the Roman army's draco have been proposed.[40] According to Franz Altheim,[46] the appearance of such ensigns in the Roman army coincided with the recruitment of nomad troops from Central and Southern Asia, and it was from this region that the image passed into Iran and subsequently to Europe. Thus, based on Altheim's theory, the Dacians and Germans would then have inherited it from the Sarmatian people.[40]

Compared to those of the Dacians and Romans, the Sarmatian Draco was more Oriental in appearance with prominent ears, dog-like teeth and even fins.[45] It did not usually have scales or the distinctive crest of the dragon-like gilded head of a late Roman standard found at Niederbieber, Germany.[45] Its head may have been represented by the legendary Iranian simurgh — half-wolf, half-bird.[45] Based on the clan's totem, could have been a fish head as well. On the Trajan's Column, Sarmatian Roxalani horsemen, don't carry a Draco at all.

The heads of the Dacian draco-standards represented on Trajan's column are also canine. But, they are of an entirely different type, having short, round-nosed muzzles, protruding eyes, upright ears, gaping, circular jaws and no-gill fins.[47]

Mihăilescu-Bîrliba (2009) suggests that at the end of the 1st century A. D., the Romans associated the draco with Dacians.[48] Draco was an icon symbolizing the Dacians (as was the Dacian falx).[49]

The draco was generally introduced in the 4th century as a Roman standard.[50]


Carolingian cavalrymen from the 9th century with a draco standard
A Dacian Draco on a 1993 Romanian 5,000 lei bill

When Constantine placed the Christian symbol on military ensigns instead of the draco, the name outlived the change, and the standard-bearer remained the draconarius. Sometimes the ancient symbol is found joined to the new, the dragon being placed beneath the cross.[51] The cavalrymen of the Carolingian dynasty continued raising the draco previously adopted by the Roman Empire over their forces in the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries.[52]

Draco probably continued in use in Sub-Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain; the Bayeux tapestry has Harold's standard bearer holding one. [53] The legendary King Arthur and his knights may have their origins in the Saramatian heavy cavalryman stationed in Britain, the surname "Pendragon" borne by Arthur and his father Uther may refer to draco standard.[54]

The Red Dragon on the modern Welsh national flag may derive from the draco carried by Roman, and presumably Romano British cavalry units stationed in Britain, i.e. the Sarmatians stationed in Ribchester.

Art and literature[edit]

Michel-François Dandré-Bardon included the Dacian Draco in his Costume des anciens peuples, à l'usage des artistes[55] The Romanian artist Adam Nicolae created the sculpture Steagul Dacic 'The Dacian Flag' that can be seen in Orăștie, Romania.[56]

According to Saxon ethnographer Teutsch, Transylvanian Romanians may have inherited something of the "snake-cult" of the ancient Dacians, who are known to have had a dragon (or snake) as a "victory banner". He mentions that some doorknockers are shaped like snake heads (protective ones in this case). Furthermore, in Romanian villages in the Brașov's region surveyed by Teutsch, the vaults of certain gates bear snakes carved in the shape of garlands with their ends representing the "sun-wheel".[57]


According to historian Vasile Pârvan, the Dacian war flag, representing a wolf with a serpent's body, depicted the balaur. The balaur is not identical to the other creature of Romanian myth.,[58] the zmeu. The biggest difference is that the zmeu, even if it has some lizard features, nevertheless is a human-like figure, while the balaur is the true form of the dragon. Usually, in all Romanian myths, legends and fairy tales, the balaur always has three, five, seven, nine or twelve heads. The balaur sometimes is a malefic figure, but most of the times is a neutral figure, guarding various places, objects or knowledge. Also, in various myths and lore, there will be a series of dragons that have to be defeated in order to obtain the precious objects or entrance to the guarded places, usually three dragons, with scales of iron, silver and respectively gold, or silver, gold and respectively diamond, each stronger than the previous one, the number of their heads increasing with the difficulty. Some motifs developed in the folk tradition that defines the snake as protective of the household correspond, to some extent, to the interpretation of a protective Dacian "Dragon" symbol.[59]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Bury, Cook & Adcock 1954, p. 546.
  2. ^ Pârvan 1928, pp. 124–125.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Tudor 1976, p. 115.
  4. ^ Janicke 2006, p. 379.
  5. ^ a b Toynbee 1934, p. 149.
  6. ^ Lioi 2007, p. 21.
  7. ^ Palmer 1882, p. 472.
  8. ^ a b Coulston 1991, p. 106.
  9. ^ a b Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, pp. 146–147.
  10. ^ Brzezinski 2002, pp. 38–39.
  11. ^ Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, p. 147.
  12. ^ a b Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, p. 149.
  13. ^ Coulston 1991, pp. 105–106.
  14. ^ Brzezinski 2002, pp. 38.
  15. ^ a b Sîrbu 1997, p. 89.
  16. ^ a b c Pârvan 1928, p. 125.
  17. ^ Pârvan 1926, p. 521.
  18. ^ Pârvan 1928, p. 124.
  19. ^ Crisan 1986, p. 413.
  20. ^ Pârvan 1926, p. 520.
  21. ^ a b Tudor 1976, p. 114.
  22. ^ Tomaschek 1883, p. 410.
  23. ^ Pârvan 1926, p. 161.
  24. ^ Florescu & Miclea 1979, p. 87.
  25. ^ Ispas 1980, p. 279.
  26. ^ Pârvan 1928, p. 141.
  27. ^ Milner 1997, p. 20.
  28. ^ Minns 2011, p. 78.
  29. ^ Pârvan 1926, p. 337.
  30. ^ Tudor 1976, p. 82 and 141.
  31. ^ Toynbee 1934, pp. 148–149.
  32. ^ Damian 2002, p. 1.
  33. ^ Speidel 2004, pp. 191.
  34. ^ Toynbee 1934, pp. 80.
  35. ^ Makaronas 1970, p. 41.
  36. ^ Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, p. 151.
  37. ^ a b Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, p. 155.
  38. ^ Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, p. 156.
  39. ^ Nicolini 2021, pp. 1–9.
  40. ^ a b c Tudor 1976, p. 116.
  41. ^ a b Yust 1953, p. 570.
  42. ^ Scott-Giles 1957, p. 16.
  43. ^ a b Osborne 1985, p. 301.
  44. ^ Ashmore 1961, p. 570.
  45. ^ a b c d Brzezinski 2002, p. 39.
  46. ^ Altheim Franz (1938) Die Soldatenkaiser, Frankfurt
  47. ^ Haynes 1995, p. 147.
  48. ^ Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 2009, pp. 147–148.
  49. ^ Hunter 2009, p. 798.
  50. ^ Den Boeft & Den Hengst 1987, p. 97.
  51. ^ McClintock 1889, p. 299.
  52. ^ Dupuy 1993, p. 948.
  53. ^ Nicolle 1984, p. 35.
  54. ^ Nicolle 1984, p. 3541.
  55. ^ Dandré-Bardon 1774, pl. X.
  56. ^ Scorobete 2008, p. 42.
  57. ^ Poruciuc 2000, p. 75.
  58. ^ Pârvan 1926, p. 522.
  59. ^ Ispas 1980, pp. 277–279.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]