The First Movie Ever Made

Last week the 15th annual TIFF film festival kicked off in my old hometown of Cluj-Napoca. It reminded me of a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time.

If you ask a film buff or historian of motion pictures about the world’s oldest movie, they’ll probably mention names like Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers, Georges Méliès (who shall forever be connected in my brain to the Smashing Pumpkins) and D.W. Griffith.

Technically, those names are the true pioneers of moving pictures, starting in the 1890s and continuing into the first part of the 20th century. But it is my contention that the very first film ever made was about Romania. And it was “recorded” 1,930 years ago.

Room 51

If you should ever find yourself in Rome, the capital of Italy, there is a fabulous museum called the Museo della Civilta Romana or the “Museum of Roman Civilization” right in the heart of the old downtown area. It’s a rather large museum, measuring more than 12,000 square meters with thousands of statues and exhibits documenting nearly all aspects of the once mighty Roman Empire. But there is a particularly interesting wing given the unglamorous title of “Room 51” that contains nothing but large, full-scale reproductions of a very famous monument.

That monument, known in English as Trajan’s Column and in Romanian as Columna lui Traian, still exists, although it has been modified, relocated, and degraded over time. Built to celebrate the final conquest of the Dacian people (who live in what is now western Romania), the column was not the first “triumphal column” ever built by a Roman emperor. But what makes this column so truly unique is what’s on the side of it.

Measuring about 30 meters (100 feet) tall, it’s easy enough to see Trajan’s Column from a distance. But due to the fact that there are nearby modern buildings that block the view and because of physical limitations on how far the human eye can see, much of what makes Traian’s column so amazing is difficult to appreciate unless you visit the museum. Traian’s column has a bas-relief frieze (carvings) that wind around the column. All told, they measure about 190 meters (620 feet) long, divided into 155 scenes.

Thankfully, the Museum of Roman Civilization has gone to the trouble of replicating each and every separate image on this frieze, laying it out sequentially at eye level, one example of which you can see here.

What you can’t see from looking at photos on the web is just how elaborate these carvings are. Originally, the people and scenes depicted weren’t just brilliantly painted but the soldiers also held “real” weapons and other items including “real” metal poles attached to banners, giving everything what a modern viewer would call a “3D” appearance. If each segment were considered a “frame”, then the entire “strip” of 155 friezes plays out an extremely vivid movie of the Roman conquest of the Dacian empire.

The Birth of a Nation

If you could somehow build a time machine and take Steven Spielberg back to the time when Trajan was emperor of Rome, and if you asked him to make a movie about the Dacian Conquest, Trajan’s Column is exactly what you would get.

How else to explain the meticulous frame-by-frame layout of the story, starting with the first foray into Dacia, the crushing of the Roman invasion by forces under Decebalus, and then continuing on to the second war that led to the betrayal of Decebalus and his subsequent capture?

Just like modern animation films, the detail on Trajan’s Column is astounding: more than 2,500 individually drawn (carved) figures. Despite the fact that no human being could possibly have been expected to see all that detail up close, the sculptors of the column neglected no detail, including facial hair, types of clothing, and flags. There’s even a scene where Dacian women are torturing Roman soldiers and the agony on their faces is extremely riveting.

The best way to see the “film” engraved on the side of the column is at the Museum of Roman Civilization in Italy. But if you’re nowhere near Rome, you can get an idea of the story here and here, along with lots of photos of the individual frames.

Here in Chisinau, where Romanian super patriots renamed all the streets in the 1990s, there is a prominent street named Columna and a high school named Columna but no actual replica column. During the beginning of Ceausescu’s regime, the Romanian dictator commissioned a patriotic film named Columna (in 1968). There’s also a replica of the column in the National History Museum in Bucharest (link in Romanian) but it’s not nearly as good as the exhibit in Italy. The Bucharest museum is the same one with one of the weirdest statues ever sculpted of the Roman emperor.

If you speak English, probably the best interactive website to help you understand and view the “film” on the column was created a few years ago by National Geographic.

The only error on there is an item identified as a “wolf standard” (known as the Dacia Draco), making it seem more like a flag than a weapon, when it was actually both. The Dacia Draco is actually a carnyx. Unfortunately, there is not a single living carnyx player in all of Romania or Moldova despite the prevalence of Dacian wolf dragons in art and signage in this part of the world. But if you want to hear what a similar Celtic carnyx sounded like, you can watch this amazing video.


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