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Draco (The Dacian Dragon)

Some of the more popular coins of Trajan Decius are the antoniniani with the DACIA reverse type, such as this example from the author 's collection:

Trajan Decius, AD 249-251.

Roman AR antoninianus, 3.81 g, 21 mm, 6 h.
Rome, AD 250-251.
Obv: IMP C M Q TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust, right.
Rev: DACIA, Dacia standing left, holding Dacian draco battle standard.
Refs: RIC IV 12b; Cohen V 16; SRCV III 9368; Hunter III 7; ERIC II 59.

For centuries, the object in Dacia 's hand has been misidentified as an ass 's head.

The oldest reference I can find about this coin is Banduri 's catalog, published in 1718.[1]

The reverse description, hastam tenet dextra, in cujus summitate caput asininum, is translated, "holding in the right hand a staff, at the top of which is the head of an ass."

The catalog of Sulzer 's collection,[2] published in 1777, makes the same error.

The reverse description, dextra tubam tenet cum capite asinino, is translated, "holding in the right hand a tube with the head of an ass."

One would think scholarship would have advanced by 1949, when Mattingly, Sydenham, and Sutherland published RIC IV, part 3,[3] but they still propagate the notion that the object depicted is an ass 's head.

The curators of the British Museum -- even to this day -- describe the object as an ass 's head!

I can 't blame Banduri and Sulzer; on my coin, for example, it really DOES look like an ass 's head!

But by the twentieth century, scholarship had advanced enough that Mattingly and his colleagues should have known better, as should the British Museum! The coin depicts the Dacian draco,[4] the existence of which has been well-known for centuries.


The Dacian draco was the standard carried by troops of the Dacian people. It has the form of a dragon with a wolf-like head, and was typically made of a hollow metal tube, often with multiple tongues in its jaws, and was attached to a pole so as to be held up high. The hollow head with its tongues would make a howling noise as the wind passed through it in order to strike fear into the enemy. A long fabric dragon tail was typically attached to the head in order to flutter in the wind behind it.[5] It must have been quite a sight!

Here is a video clip of reenactors using the Dacian draco in a mock battle with Roman troops:

Another clip (which cannot be embedded here for technical reasons) shows the recreated Dacian draco up-close: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-27550747-dacian-draco-standard-ensign-people-who-lived

Several draco standards are depicted depicted on Trajan 's Column in Rome, both as part of the captured booty and in the hands of the soldiers of Decebalus in battle.

The wolf-like head of the draco attached to a pole. A fabric tail adorned with ribbons is attached to the head.

A similar image on Trajan 's column showing the wolf-like head of the draco attached to the pole and with a fabric tail attached behind it.

This scene from Trajan 's column depicts the draco in action, its tail fluttering in the wind behind it.

The draco was known to European scholars in the 18th century, as this book illustration[6] based on the images on Trajan 's column demonstrates.


1. Bandurius, Anselmus. Numismata Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio Ad Palaeologos Augustos. Vol. 1, Montalant, 1718. Available online here: Vol. 1, Vol 2.

2. Sulzer, Johann Caspar, and Jacob Sulzer. Numophylacium Sulzerianum numos antiquos Graecos et Romanos aureos argenteos aereos sis tens olim Iacobi Sulzeri. Ettinger, 1777. Available online here.

3. Mattingly, Harold, et al. The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. IV. Part III: Gordian III - Uranius Antoninus, Spink, 1949.

4. Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values III: The accession of Maximinus to the death of Carinus AD 235 - 285, London, Spink, 2005, p. 197.

5. Ammianus, et al. The Later Roman Empire (A.D. 354-378). Penguin Books, 2004, book 16, 10:7, notes, "Behind the motley cavalcade that preceded him the emperor 's person was surrounded by purple banners woven in the form of dragons and attached to the tops of gilded and jewelled spears; the breeze blew through their gaping jaws so that they seemed to be hissing with rage, and their voluminous tails streamed behind them on the wind."

6. Michel-Franois Dandr-Bardon. Costume des anciens peuples, l 'usage des artistes, Paris, 1774.


Please add updates or make corrections to the NumisWiki text version as appropriate.

Draco, dragon, so called from a Greek word which signifies to see clearly, was distinguished from the serpent (serpens), by its magnitude, crest, and beard; also sometimes by the addition of wings and feet, and was considered a tutelary genius and guardian by the Dacians and some other ancient peoples.

On a consecration coin of Faustina, two dragons draw her cart. On several types of Roman Republic denarii, we see bigae of dragons (a chariot pulled by two dragons), driven by Ceres.

The Dragon served as a Roman ensign under the emperors. They borrowed the custom, most probably from the Dacians and Parthians, who themselves adopted it from the people of India. Dragons became common to all the cohorts, as it is expressly stated by Vegetius:

Primum signum totius legionis est Aquila, quam aquilifer portat; Dracones etiam per singulas cohortes a draconarius feruntur ad praelium.

First of all, carried by the standard-bearers, is the eagle, the sign of the whole of the legion; Dragons are the sign of each of the cohorts, carried by the Draconarius who leads the fight. (Improved translation needed.)

We learn from Ammianus, in describing the solemn entry of Constantius II into Rome, that an officer with the appellation Draconarius, carried a vexillum with the image of a dragon woven on the ensign.

The coinage of Trajan Decius depicts Dacia standing facing or slightly left, her head turned left, wearing a robe reaching her feet, she holds vertical staff topped with the head of Draco.

A mystical dragon lying prostrate, defeated, and under the feet of the Christian emperor is depicted on some coins of Theodosius, Valentinian II, Libius Severus, Heraclius and others.

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