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Domitian's Dacian War

Domitian's Dacian War
Part of the Dacian Wars
LocationMoesia, Dacia
Result Indecisive; Romano-Dacian peace treaty
Dacia Roman Empire
Commanders and leaders
Decebalus Oppius Sabinus 
Cornelius Fuscus 
Tettius Julianus
Casualties and losses
unknown 2 legions

Domitian's Dacian War was a conflict between the Roman Empire and the Dacian Kingdom, which had invaded the province of Moesia. The war occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, in the years 86–88 AD.

The Dacian attack in 86 and the defeat of Oppius Sabinus

At the end of 85 or the beginning of 86 AD,[1] the Dacian king Duras ordered his troops to attack the Roman province of Moesia on the southern course of the Danube river. The Dacian army was led by Diurpaneus, often cited as one and the same with the later king titled [Decebalus], although these assumptions remain obscurely founded and problematic.[2] It seems that Romans were caught by surprise, since the governor Oppius Sabinus and a legion, probably the V Alaudae, were annihilated.[1]

Following this attack, the Roman emperor Domitian, accompanied by Cornelius Fuscus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, personally arrived in Moesia, reorganized the province into Moesia Inferior and Moesia Superior, and planned a future attack into Dacia. To replace the lost legion and greatly strengthen the Roman army at this section, the IIII Flavia from Dalmatia and two more legions, the I and II Adiutrix, from western provinces were moved to Moesia. The region of Sirmium was attached to Moesia Superior, in order to have a single command over the endangered Dacian frontier.[1]

Historians are divided as to what happened next. A. Mócsy suggests that after handing over the command to Fuscus, Domitian returned to Rome in the same year, while Fuscus cleared the Dacian invaders from the province.[3] According to E. T. Salmon and M. Bunson, however, Domitian personally led the successful operations then he returned to Rome to celebrate a double triumph.[4][5]

The defeat of Cornelius Fuscus

In the same year (86), after the initial success against Dacians, Cornelius Fuscus crossed the Danube. However, his army was ambushed and destroyed while Fuscus himself died in the battle.[3] According to E.T. Salmon and other historians, this was the battle where Legio V Alaudae was annihilated.[6] At any case, this legion subsequently disappeared from the Roman army list.[4]

After this victory, Diurpaneus received the name of Decebalus, meaning as strong as ten wild men.[7]

The First Battle of Tapae

Not to be confused with the later Second Battle of Tapae during Trajan's Dacian wars.

The Roman offensive continued the following year, with general Tettius Iulianus now in command. The Roman army entered Dacia, advancing from Viminacium towards the Iron Gate Pass.[4] In 85 or 86 A.D. the Dacians raided the Roman province of Moesia, and killed its governor Oppius Sabinus. Emperor Domitian sent Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus and the 5th Legion, Legio V Alaudae to Dacia. The 5th consisted of 5,000 men. As the Romans approached Tapae, the Dacians, led by their king Decebalus, attacked. The Dacians closed in from all sides. The Romans fought hard and bravely, but were overwhelmed. Fuscus attempted to rally his men, but was unsuccessful. In the battle, Fuscus was killed. The 5th Legion was annihilated. The legion's eagle standard,(aquila) was taken during the battle. The battle was a crushing Roman defeat. The 5th Legion was never reformed.


After the battle, the course of events is unclear and a satisfactory chronological reconstruction is not possible. Suetonius mentions that there were "several battles of varying success" (against the Dacians).[8] Lucius Antonius Saturninus, commander of the Roman army in Germania Superior, revolted.[5] In addition, Iazyges, Marcomanni and Quadi refused to provide troops to Domitian for his Dacian war. Domitian killed their peace emissaries and attacked them, then he left for Rhine. He was forced to return to Pannonia after the Romans had suffered a defeat there. All these problems halted the Roman offensive and Decebalus, now the Dacian king, sued for peace, sending his brother, Diegis, as his plenary representative.[9] Under the terms of the treaty, Decebalus returned the Roman prisoners of war but he was also lent a number of Roman engineers who helped him in building defensive fortifications. The Romans would pay an annual subsidy of 8 million sesterces[10] and Decebalus was recognized as a client king of Rome.[11]


For the remainder of Domitian's reign Dacia remained a relatively peaceful client kingdom, but Decebalus used the Roman money to fortify his defences.[12] Domitian probably wanted a new war against Dacians, and reinforced Upper Moesia with two more cavalry units brought from Syria and with at least five cohorts brought from Pannonia. Trajan continued Domitian's policy and added two more units to the auxiliary forces of Upper Moesia, and then he used the buildup of troops for his Dacian wars.[13][14]


  1. ^ a b c Mócsy (1974), p82.
  2. ^ Bury (1893), p407.
  3. ^ a b Mócsy (1974), p83.
  4. ^ a b c Salmon (1944), p248.
  5. ^ a b Bunson (1994), p181.
  6. ^ Jones (1992), p141.
  7. ^ Grumeza (2009), pp 163-164
  8. ^ Suetonius. "The Twelve Caesars". Retrieved 19 March 2012. 
  9. ^ Mócsy (1994), p84.
  10. ^ Jones (1992), p150.
  11. ^ Salmon (1944), p249.
  12. ^ Salmon, Edward Togo (1936). "Trajan's Conquest of Dacia". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (Johns Hopkins University Press) 67: 83–105. JSTOR 283229. doi:10.2307/283229. 
  13. ^ Knight, D. J. (1991). "The Movements of the Auxilia from Augustus to Hadrian". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 85: 189–208. 
  14. ^ Matei-Popescu, Florian (2006–2007). "The Auxiliary Units from Moesia Superior in Domitian's Time and the Problem of CIL XVI 41". Ephemeris Napocensis. 16-17: 31–48. 



  • Griffin, Miriam (2000). "The Flavians". The Cambridge Ancient History XI (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–83. 
  • Jones, Brian W. (1992). The Emperor Domitian. Routledge. 
  • MacKendrick, Paul Lachlan (1975). The Dacian Stones Speak. The University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Mattern, Susan P. (1999). Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. University of California Press. 

See also