The Draco

Posted: April 13, 2014 in History, Roman History
Tags: , ,

The ‘Draco’ was part of a Roman military standard. It was initially used by the cavalry as they charged into battle, but over the course of time came to be used by other units in the Roman army. From written and pictorial sources we know that it consisted of dragons head which was mounted upon a pole and from the head a ‘body’ made of some form of fabric was attached. From these sources we also know that as it was carried into battle on horseback this body would stream out behind the head. However, perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Draco are the references to the noise that it made as the air passed through the head.
Some examples of the Draco have been found in excavation, most notably the one found at Niederbieber in Germany, but all that survives is the copper head and many questions remain to be answered. In c 2003-4, a group of British archaeologists and craftsman set about to see if they could recreate a Draco and perhaps more importantly, to see if they could work out how it made the eerie sound recorded in ancient writings.

A replica of the Niederbieber Draco head

The Draco comprises of three elements: the head: the tail or body and the noise-making device. The head was perhaps the least difficult since the craftsman had the example of the Niederbieber Draco on which to base their re-creation. The head consists of two copper parts, upper and lower, which are riveted together to create an open mouth and in addition the eye-holes are unfilled (to promote air passage?). The tail was more problematic as no tail has survived or been discovered in excavations. The tail for the experimental Draco was based on the one shown on Trajan’s column and was made of silk because of its weight and density. From the illustration on the column, it appeared that the tail was attached to the head by means of a drawstring, which meant it could be removed from the head easily – presumably for the purpose of cleaning. It was estimated that the tail was approximately 9 foot long.

The Draco from Trajans coloumn

When it came to the noisemaker, the archaeologists were firmly in the dark. There are no clear references in the written or pictorial evidence as to what made the sound. In examining the excavated examples, it did not appear that the Draco head had any fittings apart from those which attached it to its pole. This suggested that the noisemaker s were not fitted to the head and so the logical conclusion that follow from this work that they were fitted to the pole. After experimenting of a number of different types of whistles the team settled on Chinese kite whistles, which themselves date from ancient times. It is known that examples of these whistles traveled into Western Europe in ancient times and so these seemed a plausible method to choose. During the experiments, these were initially fitted on the pole inside the head, but due to the reduced airflow they made no sound whatsoever. An alternative was sought and they were re-positioned on the pole just below the head. This proved a great success as even if the horse was walking, a good sound could be heard if the wind was in the right direction. At a gallop into the wind it was found that the sound can be heard above horse’s hooves at a distance of at least 200 m.
I was fortunate to see and hear the experimental Draco in action at a Roman re-enactment display in Shrewsbury in 2007. The sound, which comes from it can definitely be described as eiery.I wondered what the effect of this strange noise would be on the waiting enemies as the Roman cavalry charged towards the. This was one Draco – but imagine the combined sound of 50 or hundreds of these charging into battle.



For more information on Draco’s

The making of the Draco was recorded as part of

  1. Did you ever watch the Time Team effort at making one of these – most interesting.

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