A pillar of Emperor Trajan’s military victories, the Column of Trajan is as much a benchmark of Rome’s strength as an empire as it is a monument to Trajan’s success as a leader. Situated at the northern end of the Forum of Trajan, the Column is where all eyes are immediately drawn upon entering the complex. Even today surrounded by the ruins of Trajan’s Market, the Ulpia Library and various other crumbling structures, Trajan’s Column stands as resolute as Trajan’s forces in the war against Dacia.
The column as it stands in the Forum of Trajan. ( Public Domain )
Trajan was a special emperor, as loved by his people as he was feared by his enemies (a trait not as common as one would have hoped for in Rome). Therefore, depicted on his Column is Trajan’s most successful military victory: his defeat of Dacia, an “uncivilized” culture on the fringe of the Roman Empire (a region which coincides with modern day Romania and a portion of Serbia).
Trajan’s Column – Rome, Italy . ( demerzel21 /Adobe Stock)
Twining around the tower from base to peak are Trajan’s two victories over the Dacians: the first achieved in 102 AD; the second, a few years later in 106 AD. The Column was begun soon after his successes, under the architect of the Apollodorus of Damascus, and was completed around 113 AD, four years before Trajan’s death.
A Column of Triumph
The narrative band winds around Trajan’s Column 23 times, the width of the band and depth of the carvings increasing gradually as the scenes twine further up the colossal structure of Carrara marble (see an interactive display of the carvings here ). After the defeat of the Dacians, Trajan declared 123 days of celebration, so one must wonder whether there is a correlation between the number of bands and the festivities. As a monument of the emperor’s victory, and the Roman penchant for symbolism, it would not be unreasonable to presume as much.
Though Trajan’s Column is an impressive feat, it was not the first of its kind in the ancient world. Victory columns were erected long before the Romans came along, with variations of the practice seen thousands of years before Rome existed in the ancient Near East. It has been postulated that Roman victory columns were even modelled after the Egyptian obelisks , four-sided pillars erected from a single stone, decorated with hieroglyphics that narrate religious beliefs, and occasionally uprooted from their Egyptian homes and supplanted in the Empire as a sign of conquest. The erection of triumphal columns narrating military successes therefore seems a rather natural transition from usurping monuments (the presence of which indicate conquest) to creating distinctly Roman adaptations.
Trajan Column is a Roman triumphal column in Rome, Italy, that commemorates Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars in Rome, Italy . ( zatletic /Adobe Stock)
Because of the nature of the monument, the story carved into the pillar is singular—that is, it is not broken down into individual scenes, but rather is one continuous narration of Trajan’s military campaigns in Dacia. Yet the coiling imagery emphasizes not Trajan’s slaughter of Dacian forces and enslavement of Dacian women and children, but rather the “good Roman’s” duty to father and fatherland (i.e., religion and country).
The purpose of such a depiction is not to illustrate Trajan’s ruthless military strategies that brought Dacia under Roman control; rather the Column illustrates the ways in which Trajan contributed wealth, land, and able-bodied slaves to his empire. This message is only furthered when Trajan later used some of the loot from his Dacian victory to set into motion an extensive public building program that would benefit those within the city of Rome. And of course spread his reputation as a giving leader.
Detail from Trajan’s Column. ( Silvio /Adobe Stock)
Trajan, the Merciful Conqueror?
While scholars debate the exact purposes of the images chosen for Trajan’s Column, this author postulates that the decision might have been a simple matter of ensuring the public understood Trajan’s goals were for them, rather than for protecting his position of power or filling his pockets with gold. The images on the Column center on Trajan’s armies dutifully presenting offerings to the Roman gods and building bridges and houses in Dacian territory: essentially, Trajan emphasized the same public building strategies on the Column he was using for Rome contemporaneously.
Further, the minimal number of battle scenes on the Column depict Trajan as a merciful conqueror, and reiterating his already defined image as an honorable leader. If Trajan had chosen to solely illustrate the gruesome slaughters of Dacian forces and the enslavement of the Dacian women and children, the message of Trajan’s strength would have been clear, but ruthless. As Trajan is still remembered as one of the best Roman leaders , the images carved were a brilliant propagandistic decision.
Ancient Viewing of Trajan’s Column
According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Column was once flanked by the Biblioteca Ulpia, —or the Ulpian Library—a library housing Greek and Latin literature in separate collections (and the greatest ancient library following the fall of the Library of Alexandria ). The library rose with the Column, and was intentionally designed to include various viewing platforms to allow those who moved through the collections to view the highest parts of the Column.
Unlike the later Column of Marcus Aurelius (in which the upper bands of the column are deeply carved to allow viewing from the ground), the images of Trajan’s Column only minutely increased in depth because of the aid the libraries provided 2000 years ago.
Detail from Trajan’s column in Rome, which was built by the emperor Trajan to commemorate his victory over the Dacians . ( Michael Evans /Adobe Stock)
It’s evident that Trajan’s Column is an example of complex engineering and revolutionary architecture, which is part of why so many people have wondered at the impressive monument and created copies of it. Chris Morgan explains that one of the interesting features of Trajan’s Column is the usage of the curvilinear perspective. This occurs when “columns curve outward towards their midpoint or zenith and are narrower or concave near ground level.”
Not Just an Art Piece But Also a Tomb for the Emperor
The base of the Column was used to further exemplify Trajan’s victories against the Dacians, a helpful addition should the Column ever suffer the same fate as that of Antoninus Pius, in which only the base survives. Within the base once laid the remains of Emperor Trajan and his wife, a decision the Roman Senate voted for following his death in 117 AD and subsequent deification.
The golden urns of Trajan and his wife Plotina have since been stolen, but the inclusion of the emperor in his titular Forum would have spoken volumes to his people and their descendants of his military prestige.
It’s interesting to note that the door on the base of a famous replica of Trajan’s Column has recently been opened. While the copy of the Column at V&A Museum never contained any human remains, people were curious about what may lay behind the locked door. Now you can get a new perspective on how the plaster cast replica of Trajan’s Column was made by entering the monument and looking up.
A Lasting Legacy
Trajan’s Column stands not only as a monument to Trajan’s success against the Dacian forces, but also as a symbol of his success in ending the struggle spanning years of Dacian threats on Roman borders. Julius Caesar had attempted to squash the “barbarians” around 44 BC; Augustus’ armies fought them again when the Dacians attempted to support Mark Antony during the political upheaval toward the end of the reign of the Second Triumvirate.
Evening view of the ancient Trajan’s Column in the Imperial Forum in Rome . ( crisfotolux /Adobe Stock)
A hundred years later, Emperor Domitian began a war against the Dacians in 87 AD, believed to be over aggression and gold; ironically, one of the reasons it is believed Domitian was unsuccessful was because the Dacians were phenomenal metal workers (because of the abundance of precious metals in the area) capable of quickly supplementing their weaponry with every loss.
By the time Trajan took power in 98 AD, it was evident that the Dacians had to be squelched once and for all. Thus, the Column stands not only for Trajan’s triumph over the ‘ barbarians’, but also as a symbol that his military prowess far-surpassed his predecessors.
Top Image: Trajan’s Column and The Church of the Most Holy Name of Mary at the Trajan Forum, Rome, Italy. Source: kovalenkovpetr /Adobe Stock
“Bibliotheca Ulpia.” University of Chicago . Accessed August 4, 2017. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/imperialfora/trajan/bibliotheca.html
Davies, PJE. 1997. “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” American Journal of Archaeology.
Dillion, Sheila and Katherine E. Welch. 2009. Representations of War in Ancient Rome . Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Dio, Cassius. Roman History, Volume VIII, Books 61-70 . (trans. Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster, 1924.) Loeb Classical Library: Harvard.
Jones, Mark Wilson. 1993. “One hundred feet and a spiral stair: the problem of designing Trajan’s Column.” Journal of Roman Archaeology . 6.1. pp. 23-38.
Katz, William A. 1995. Dahl’s History of the Book . Scarecrow Press.
Lancaster, Lynne. 1999. “Building Trajan’s Column.” American Journal of Archaeology . 103.3. pp. 419-439.
Packer, James E. 2001. The Forum of Trajan in Rome: A Study of the Monuments in Brief . University of California Press.