Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Trajan’s Column: A Monument of Victory

Nicolas Connolly
Honors in Rome - Summer 2008

Trajan’s forum stands as a testament to the accomplishments of the emperor who many considered in antiquity to be one of the greatest leaders the empire ever had. Often in ceremonial court processions of late antiquity, emperors were greeted with the cry: “Felicior Augusto, melior no”, ‘Be happier than Augustus, better than Trajan,’ (Hannestad 146). The forum symbolized the power of the emperor with frequent use of expensive colored marble as a building material, and the immense column of Trajan epically detailing his triumph over the Dacians. The forum served not only as a worldly profession of Trajan’s accomplishments, both militarily and as an administrator, but also as the final resting place of himself and his wife. This further symbolized his ever lasting presence within the city, and the connection between himself and the complex surrounding his final resting place. Consequently, Trajan’s forum represented more than just a place to proclaim a military triumph. It came to represent a cultural center of Rome. It embodied the laws, learning, and spiritual nature of the people as represented by the Basilica Ulpia, a library complex, and Trajan’s column and temple. All of these ideals were masterfully represented in the craftsmanship of the forum. Thanks largely to the spoils of the Dacian war, no expense was spared in creating a place that represented the power and majesty of Trajan’s principate.

The forum constituted the best of Roman craftsmanship with high quality work performed consistently on all of the monuments and buildings. The forum itself was constructed in 107-125 AD. The emperor Hadrian finished construction of the forum itself in 125 AD when he consecrated Trajan’s temple, but the centerpiece of the forum, Trajan’s column, was blessed by Trajan in 113 AD. The engineer of the column was Apollodorus of Damascus, who also aided Trajan during his Dacian campaign by building an impressive bridge over the Danube. The forum was arranged as an unfolding story. A triumphal arch at the entrance lead into a colonnaded courtyard with hemicycles and a rectangular recess flanked by two columns featuring a massive statue of Trajan on horseback, a symbol of his generalship (Packer 34, 35). In the middle of the forum, lay the Basilica Ulpia named after Trajan’s family name. After a visitor exited the Basilica Ulpia, they would then enter a courtyard featuring Trajan’s column, with his temple at the end of the courtyard, and a library complex forming a hemisphere around the temple and column to provide citizens with a better view of the friezes on the column (Packer 35).

The emperor Domitian originally set aside the land the forum was built on, and the complex was set into the Quirinal Hill. The column’s height hearkens back to the excavations of the Quirinal Hill with the height of the column corresponding to the pre-excavation height of the hill. The style of the buildings alludes to the neo-Augustan classicism that denoted constitutionality and autocracy. Simple yet powerful exemplified the style with colonnades lining courtyards and massive columns supporting massive ceilings that covered the large open spaces of the classic basilica. This style associated Trajan with the deified Augustus and drew a direct comparison between his principate and Trajan’s own (Packer 39). The structures and statues utilized intentionally caused the viewer to be overwhelmed by the power of the buildings and monuments. The viewer would gradually walk through the forum, surrounded by Corinthian and Ionic columns with light reflecting off of the Turkish and Tunisian marble. As they walked through the forum, it would slowly reveal itself piece by piece providing constant, humbling awe.

Today, Trajan’s column lies amongst the ruins of the arcades of the Basilica Ulpia in central Rome close to the sites of the Colisseum and Roman Forum. The column itself towers one-hundred feet above the forum,

composed of seventeen superimposed Parian marble drums within its winding, engraved body (Rossi 13). Each drum weighs approximately 32 tons and the base and capital were formed from monolithic blocks weighing both 75 and 56 tons respectively (Colombo 26). Before final assembly of the drums, stairs were carved into each drum totaling 185 stairs along with forty-three embrasured windows that provide light for its interior (Colombo 26). The diameter of the column’s base measures 3.70 meters and narrows to 3.20 meters at the top. The statue at the top was originally of Trajan and was approximately 5.50 meters high, but in the year 1588 was replaced with a statue of St. Peter. During the time of its construction, the column presided over Trajan’s newly constructed forum, and was flanked by two libraries for Greek and Latin literature (Rossi 13). The column was dedicated to the emperor in 113 AD, and at its cubic base lays a chamber that contained the remains of Trajan and his wife Plotina (Rossi 13). The frieze itself winds around the column counter-clockwise and features 155 scenes which coil continuously broken up with the insertion of natural elements like trees, stones, and other natural scenery (Colombo 27). While the column provides current visitors with the only still intact monument or building in the forum, architects and classicists have drawn upon historical documents and previous excavations to garner an idea of how the forum appeared in its prime.

Trajan’s column formed just one segment of the entire complex. Included were several statues of Trajan, most alluding to his status as commander-in-chief and others to his role as administrator or as a deified person. The Basilica Ulpia housed statues of Dacian prisoners on its Attic and had a two story façade which used Corinthian and Ionic columns. The building’s roofs were of wood covered with hammered sheets of bronze (Packer 37). Violet and black Turkish marble were used within its walls, evidence that no expense was spared in projecting the majesty of the emperor. At the northern end of the plaza behind the Basilica, stood the courtyard housing Trajan’s Temple, two libraries, and the column. The libraries featured a Greek and Latin section that housed 22,000 scrolls combined, with vaulted rooms and arched windows providing a stunning view of the courtyard and the column (Packer 34). The forum conveyed the power that Trajan wielded as a result of his victories on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. He spared no expense, and the architecture reflected his connection with Augustus using a simplistic style that expressed the deific qualities of the man. While not especially innovative in style, the forum’s sheer size and majesty made it a cultural center of Rome. For centuries to follow, the Roman people protected the monument going so far as passing a tourist tax to provide for its conservation during the middle-ages (Hannestad 154).

The message the forum communicated to visitors is best described by the triplicate statues of Trajan that stood at each of the three entrances to the Basilica Ulpia. The statues no longer exist, but the bases have been found and the inscriptions on them strongly suggest that each of the three statues represented Trajan as a general in armor, public servant in toga, and Pontifex Maximus (Hannestad 153). The forum was mean to function as homage to all of Trajan’s functions as emperor; to stand as a reminder of his successes as a general, and as an administrator of the empire. More specifically, the column blatantly featured Trajan’s most prominent characteristic- that of the fearless general and commander-in-chief of the army. Of the 155 total scenes on the column, Trajan appears fifty-nine times, but never in battle (Hannestad 27). Rather Trajan’s image functions to show his control and determination to defeat the Dacians and his presence as a leader to the troops. One scene in particular features Trajan leading the Roman fleet across the Danube, symbolizing both his leadership of the legions and his conquering spirit. Trajan desired to be viewed as a deity after he died, which is emphasized with Hadrian’s consecration of the temple at the north end of the forum to Trajan, as well as his ashes being stored in a column that soared above solitary man and seemed to touch the heavens. The glory of the empire, and consequently Trajan, is featured with the rich adornment of the buildings, and the intricate frieze decorating the column. Through the power and majesty of the buildings, statues, and monuments, Trajan wanted to connect his principate with the power and glory associated with the gods and the deified emperor Augustus. He meant to transcend his own era and build a monument to his reign that would forever connect his name and accomplishments with glory. Even though most of the forum now lies in ruins, visitors still experience one of Trajan’s greatest glories, his victory of Dacia, through the story that unfolds, spiraling upward around the column.


Classicists refer to a commemorative language that the column uses when discussing how best to read and understand the events that unravel around the column (Rossi 16). Similar to how one would view a silent film, the events leading up to, during, and after the war unfold with soldiers and standards representing whole units, seasons hinted at using scenery, and all personages set in proper context against a background of appropriate buildings such as tents and other militaristic equipment and geography consistent with that seen in Dacia including mountains, forests, and rivers (Rossi 16). Battles depicting Roman legionaries fighting off the noble, barbaric Dacians represent only a small portion of the scenes depicted. Space is given to the more mundane activities and preparations for war, as well as frequent scenes of Trajan addressing troops and performing other commander-in-chief duties. Thus, the visitor experiences Trajan’s victory first hand through the story telling of the column.< While limited due to the ascending spiraling of the frieze, the visitor nonetheless is able to get an idea of Trajan’s accomplishments and generalship. The sheer size and height of the column further demonstrates Trajan’s wealth and wisdom to the visitor and leaves him or her humbled by his monument, and as a result humbled by his accomplishments.

Trajan wanted to visually express the deeds and courage shown in the war against the Dacians while linking those virtues that Augustus hailed in his own forum and link the founder of the emperor with Trajan’s own principate (Packer 39). The rapid expansion of the empire due to Trajan’s victories in Dacia and Parthia brought a massive amount of wealth into the empire’s treasury. Increased wealth brought with it challenges to Rome’s past austerity and rigid morality that Augustus attempted to convey. The architectural devices that Trajan’s architects used hearken back to those virtues and qualities of frugality, patriotism, and honoring of the gods that Augustus stressed. The neo-Augustan style emulates Augustus’ virtues, but the added ornamentation that Trajan used, mainly winged cherubs along the Basilica Ulpia’s façade, denotes the subjugation of the Dacian people as a divine act (Packer 40). This reinforced Trajan’s goal of connecting Augustus’ deification with his own anticipated deification, and passing this along to the Roman people. As James Packer explains it: “The entire forum was a biography in stone, revealing the life of the heroic Trajan from mortality to divinity,” (Packer 41). The forum, through the story telling of Trajan’s column or the neo-Augustan buildings featuring soaring columns and awe invoking ornamentation, addressed Trajan’s goals of convincing the public of his godly characteristics. Statues that were installed after his death showed that he was successful as all featured him in a god-like pose of strength and power over mortality. Visitors would then leave the forum inspired by the heroic deeds of the emperor and with a more complete understanding of the virtues that Trajan and the founder of the empire espoused.

Trajan’s forum, and more specifically his column, inspired the emperors who followed him to build their own monuments to advocate their divinity or showcase their accomplishments. The Arch of Septimius Severus utilized documented pictorial models derived from Trajan’s column (Colombo 12). Another replica of a column used as a final resting place for an emperor is Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. The column fit perfectly into Roman funerary traditions as a place marking the final resting place of the person and simultaneously projecting their image upward alluding to deification (Colombo 16). These monuments imitated Trajan’s attempts to lay the groundwork for deification while alive especially in the form of a column that functioned as both a final resting place and a marker for their principates. The emperors who imitated Trajan’s column often fell short of the style and beauty his evoked. Their own monuments never came to symbolize the glory of Rome’s past in the same manner Trajan’s column did, and as a result visitors today are able to form a stronger connection to that past by visiting the site. The column occupies a special place in Roman history evident by how intact it is after almost two millennia when other monuments from similar eras no longer exist or are damaged beyond repair. The column’s use of imagery resonates with visitors in a way that writing cannot. The simple commemorative pictorials are fairly easy to understand, and, at the very least, a visitor can leave the site knowing of Trajan’s triumph over the Dacians and the glory it brought both
Those who visit leave knowing that they have experienced only a portion of Trajan’s greatness, and need only to look around the site the column is situated on to imagine what the forum looked like when completed. It calls to mind simply, yet powerfully, both the craftsmanship and exploits of the ancient Romans.

Despite the grandeur and sheer size of the forum, people today are able to see very little of the structures that once surrounded Trajan’s column. The column itself is one of the best preserved monuments in all of Rome, with most of the relief still very crisp to the naked eye. The almost unnatural combination of a perfectly preserved monument and a forum with few of the structures remaining presents an interesting accident of history. How is it that one structure survived and others succumbed to the ravages of time? That was what I found most interesting when researching this topic. Over the years Trajan’s column survived intact. Was this a conscious decision by the Roman state or was it a mere accident of circumstance? The history of the column shows that the Romans took special notice of it, enacting a tax in the middle ages to ensure its survival. Thus, it seems as though the column withstood nearly two millennia because of a conscious effort by the Romans to preserve it. This places special significance on what the column meant to Rome over the course of hundreds of years. For the column to have survived, Trajan’s intent to showcase the power and glory of his reign, and that of the Roman Empire during that time was largely successful. That is perhaps the most impressive thing of all about the column. It has been interpreted through the years as Trajan intended it to be, and that is proven by how well it has been preserved.

Trajan’s column and forum today stands as a testament to the Roman emperor’s desire to elevate himself above the status of a mere mortal man. The style of the forum and its buildings connected him to the previously deified Augustus. Through this connection Trajan was able to enhance his image and create a god-like symbolism that would facilitate his transition from emperor to god. The column itself informs the visitor of Trajan’s massive military victory over the Dacians and, keeping in the style of Augustan, creates an image of an able administrator and moral man as well as a competent general. The forum, together with the column, integrates all three facets of Trajan’s imperial personality: him as first citizen of Rome, general, and leader of the public religious ceremonies and worship. Working together, they informed the Roman citizen of these godlike qualities Trajan possessed. When connecting them to both subtle and blatant connections with Augustus, a Roman citizen was left with the conclusion of Trajan as an immortal man who left behind, in marble and bronze, the earthly accomplishments that he performed in a heroic, god-like manner.


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