“It was an utter disaster for Rome and one that seems to have been almost ignored by the historians of the day.”
By David Adkins
For more than 20 years, the powerful tribal kingdom, which lay in the rugged mountains of present day Romania, was a thorn in the side of the empire. Decades of border raids in the region were an ongoing challenge to Rome’s authority. So in 101, the 47-year-old ‘fighting emperor’ launched a series of invasions into the heart of the Dacian homeland, which eventually led to the annihilation and subjugation of its inhabitants. The Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa was taken and the Dacian king Decabulus was hunted down and killed. The campaign was one of Rome’s greatest triumphs of the 2nd Century. Accordingly, the emperor commemorated his illustrious campaign with a 100-foot-tall monument in that would become known as Trajan’s Column. Located just north of the Forum, the towering edifice features a spiralling relief that chronicles the conquest in bloody detail – a famous example of pro-Roman propaganda.
Yet as much as Trajan’s genocidal Dacian Wars were celebrated by Romans; a similar campaign waged decades before was all but forgotten. That’s because the brief conflict, which was fought by the autocratic emperor Domitian, resulted in one of the most humiliating defeats of the period known as Pax Romana. Rome lost two entire legions in the slaughter – a defeat on par with the massacre of the Teutoburg Forest. It all happened in 87 AD at what historians call the Battle of Tapae.
Swept Under the Rug
Ancient sources lack detail with regard to the battle, perhaps deliberately. Roman historians might have wished to downplay details of such a blow to the empire’s prestige. What is known is that in 87 AD, the Dacian king, Decebalus, and his army had crossed the Danube from their homeland in present day Romania and invaded the Roman province of Moesia. The invaders left a trail of destruction in their wake and even succeeded in killing the Roman governor, Oppius Sabinus. Emperor Domitian personally commanded a counter offensive that drove the Dacians back across the frontier. With his borders secure for the time being, the emperor made his way back to Rome and left the army under the command of Cornelius Fuscus. His orders were to invade Dacia and inflict a final defeat on Decebalus.
Little is known of Cornelius Fuscus, though it is believed he was from an aristocratic family and that he served for a time as the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. He was a supporter of the Flavian dynasty and was loyal to Domitian’s father, the Emperor Vespasian. It is likely that Fuscus had proved himself a good leader and general, though what was to happen to his army at Tapae might suggest otherwise.
In 87 AD Cornelius Fuscus crossed the borders Dacia at the head of an army believed to consist of up to five or six legions which, if correct, would have meant that he had as many as 30,000 men at his command. Little did Fuscus realize, Decebalus and thousands of Dacian warriors were waiting for him.
The Iron Gate
So how was the invincible, well-drilled and highly disciplined Roman army defeated by a barbarian army? Decebalus was no mean general himself and he was also a master tactician. But to get a clearer view of what might have happened we have to look at the place where the battle was fought.
Tapae is now believed to be the Iron Gates in present day Transylvania, a gorge on the River Danube between Serbia and Romania and between the Balkan Mountains to the north and the Carpathian Mountains to the south. The gorge has steep slopes and is narrow and well forested. It is therefore the perfect place for an ambush. Unfortunately for Fuscus it was also the way to enter Dacia from Moesia.
Did Cornelius Fuscus underestimate Decebalus? Was he over confident with such a formidable Roman force under his command? Was he unaware of the dangers presented by the gorge? Was he reckless by nature? Was he in a hurry to get the job done? We shall never know but, keen to reach the Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa, he marched his army into the Iron Gates and the Battle of Tapae resulted. It then seems that Fuscus was attacked from all sides and his army overwhelmed. He made an unsuccessful attempt to rally his men but his legions were all but wiped out. The battle standard, the Roman Eagle, was lost and Fuscus was killed in the battle. It was an utter disaster for Rome and one that seems to have been almost ignored by the historians of the day. Of course, the empire would eventually savour a victory over the Dacians with Trajan.
Lessons Learned… and Forgotten
Despite its relative obscurity, the Battle of Tapae deserves to be recognized as one of the great ambushes of history and one of the most startling defeats of the Roman military machine. Decebalus is honoured even to this day in Romania as a great hero and patriot. The Iron Gates is now a very scenic national park and the old Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
David Adkins is the author of three historical novels comprising a trilogy set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian and the first in the trilogy, The Eagle’s Nest and the Wolf’s Lair, offers a description of the Battle of Tapae. They are all available from Amazon.