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The Dacian Draco [draˈko] was the standard ensign of troops of the ancient Eastern European 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, which was probably constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus at the order of the Roman Senate. It has the form of a dragon with open wolf-like jaws containing several metal tongues. 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.
Draco (Latin) and Drakon (Greek) mean "serpent", "dragon". The root of these words means “to watch” or “to guard with a sharp eye”. Apparently, it is a derivative of Greek drakōn "gazing" .
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 or Parthian origins have been proposed in dedicated historiography. 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. According to Jon N. C. Coulston the Romans associated this standard with 1st and 2nd century Danubian barbarians. The Roman historian Arrian wrote that the Romans took the draco from the Scythians, most probably a term for the contemporary Sarmatians.
The original purpose was probably to provide wind direction for archery.
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.
The draco shows a religious syncretism between the wolf and the dragon as well as the serpent. It was supposed to encourage the Getae and to scare their enemies.
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. 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. 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.
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. The image of the draco appears on a 4th-century BC ceramic piece discovered at Budureasca commune, Prahova county, Romania.
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". This relates to their supreme god Zalmoxis who was a sky god (cf. also Tomaschek). 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. 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.
Dacian Draco in warfare
Dacians marched into the battle accompanied by the howl of boar-headed trumpets and following their sinister multicolored dragon-head standard. As intended, they made a terrifying audiovisual spectacle.
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. According to Ellis Minns, the dragon standards of the Arrian were those of the Dacians.
Representations of the Dacian Draco
Trajan's Column in Rome
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. In another, the draco is planted in the center of a Dacian citadel and surrounded by the skulls of several Roman prisoners. 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 Dacia.
Roman coins of Dacia
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. In AD 250 on a coin of Decius the Roman province of Dacia holds a wolf- or hound-dragon standard. The same type also occurs on antoniniani coins of Claudius Gothicus (r.268–270) and Aurelian (r.270–275).
Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki
The characteristic Dacian dragon emblem is carried by a group of Dacian horsemen depicted on the Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki, Greece.
A Funerary Sculptured Monument of Chester
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. 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. 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. 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. Therefore, the horseman depicted on the tombstone at Chester could be a Dacian cavalryman, belonging to a vexillatio of cohors I Aelia Dacorum. 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.