November 30, 2003

Haystacks on Trajan’s column.

trajanhd.gifAbout fifty-three years after Jesus Christ lay in the legendary hay manger of Bethlehem, Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born, at the other end of the Roman Empire and the other end of the social spectrum, into the family of a Roman Consul in Spain. At the age of about 45, Trajan succeeded Nerva on the Imperial throne.

Three years later he led Roman legions across the Danube into what is now Romania, to suppress the Dacians. The two Dacian wars were challenging but eventually successful; by 105 AD, Dacia was incorporated as a new province of the Roman Empire. The profits of these campaigns were invested both in infrastructure – roads, bridges, aqueducts and sewers – and in grand urban building projects to glorify the achievements of the conquering Emperor. These included a vast new forum, an enormous basilica, and an equestrian statue perhaps three times as large as the magnificent one which was built later for Marcus Aurelius and still dominates the Capitoline Hill today.

Trajan’s most remarkable monument is a 120-foot tall marble column with a spiral staircase on the inside and a spiral frieze carved on the outside. The carvings are vivid depictions of the Dacian campaigns, a series of stone vignettes showing the way the Romans fought, the food they gathered, and the scenery through which they passed. The column depicts over 2,000 figures, and trees, rivers, boats, walls, and towns, and, most importantly, it depicts haystacks!

Indeed, haystacks appear in the very first spiral, one of the few which would have been visible from the ancient Roman street. The Trajan Project of McMaster University includes intriguing speculation on how much or how little of the frieze would have been visible to Romans of the first century. The Project also supplies excellent outline drawings which make the essential details even more legible than they are in photographs. Our first haystacks, probably the oldest surviving haystacks in world art are shown in Panel B of the first spiral. trajan1b.gif

Unfortunately for our purposes the McMaster project did not select this panel as one of the hundreds which are more thoroughly documented in their black and white slides and commentary. Fortunately, another superb Trajan web-site, Bill Thayer’s Lacus-Curtius pages, as vast as the Empire itself, has a reasonably clear photograph of the first haystack and, equally usefully, has signposts to dozens of other sites which have information which complements the fine McMasterly presentation. Among them is the scholarly Victorian monograph on the column by John Hungerford Pollen, A description of the Trajan Column, London, 1874. Here are some relevant excerpts from Pollen’s text which, thanks to Bill Thayer, is now online in its entirety.

“Though Apollodorus [of Damascus] was the architect and sculptor chosen by the emperor, it is more than probable that much of the outline of these vast undertakings was suggested by Trajan himself.” [Pollen, Introduction]

According to Pollen, the first stacks shown on Spiral 1, are part of the essential supplies needed by the army for their campaigns. From Pollen, I. The Staging of the Expedition:

“Between the guard houses are scene stacks of forage brought to a sharp point, and thatched with reeds or rushes…lapping carefully over each other down to the ground. Besides corn and hay, firewood is piled up in logs…” [Spiral 1B]

These “stacks of forage” had been described in Columella’s De Re Rustica (ii, 18): ‘quicquid siccatum erit, in metas extrui convenient easque in angustissimos vertices exacui.’

Higher up, on the third spiral, other hayricks appear behind defensive palisades, along the banks of the Danube. From Pollen, X . Another Fortified Position:

“Trees are retained within the walls, and tents are distinguishable beyond them. To the left two soldiers carry another heavy beam. Below the main walls an enclosure of palisades set close together with pointed tops to protect meadows and rickyards. Two ricks thatched with rushes are seen over the palisades, and a small pier supported on tripod piles driven into the river is constructed for facilitating the embarcation, and for discharging barge loads of hay and provisions.” [Spiral 3 B]

trajan3b.gif This McMaster drawing illustrates the scene.

The stacks within the town are apparently similar in style to those among the Roman army supplies. Three inferences are possible from this consistency:
(1) there was no regional variation in haystacks between Rome and Dacia;
(2) the town had already been captured and the stacks were constructed by the Roman invaders;
(3) the stacks were generalized carvings done from non-specific instructions. The durability and efficiency of the conical bee-hive-shaped stack design (as in the meules of nineteenth century France) and its widespread geographic incidence support the first inference. But, given the descriptive vitality of so much the frieze, the third inference is less likely than the second one.

Other readers of this note and those more knowledgeable about the frieze itself and its cultural and economic context are encouraged to contribute their own speculations. We should be even more delighted to be given a reference to an earlier image of hay, in western or eastern art, in any medium. For now, the hay on Trajan’s Column must be recognized as the oldest, fully a millennium earlier than the next image on our list.

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Posted by Alan Ritch at November 30, 2003 05:55 PM