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Column of Trajan
by DR. JEFFREY A. BECKER

Column of Trajan, Carrara marble, completed 113 C.E., Rome. Dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius
Nerva Traianus b. 53 , d. 117 C.E.) in honor of his victory over Dacia (now Romania) 101-02 and 105-06 C.E.

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Column of Trajan (as seen through the ruins of the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan), Carrara marble, completed
113 C.E., Rome, dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus b. 53 , d. 117 C.E.) in honor of his victory
over Dacia (now Romania) 101-02 and 105-06 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Triumph

The Triumph was a riotous military ritual celebrated by the Romans over the course of
centurieswhenever their commander had won a spectacular victory. On the appointed
day (or days) the city would be overflowing with crowds, pageantry, spoils, prisoners,
depictions and souvenirs of foreign landsbut then, just as quickly as it began, the
glorious tumult was over. The spectacles and the echoes of glory entrusted to the memory
of those who had witnessed the event. Was the parade and its giant city-wide party
enough to commemorate the glorious deeds of Romes armies? Or should a more
permanent form of commemoration be adopted? Being pragmatists, the Romans enlisted
both means of commemorationthe ephemeral and the permanent. The Column of
Trajan (dedicated in May of 113 C.E.) might be the crowning example of the inborn need to
commemoratein more permanent formhistorical deeds that dominates the psyche of
Roman art and artists.

Returning from Dacia triumphant100 days of celebrations

The emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98 117 C.E., fought a series of campaigns known

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as the Dacian Wars. Dacia (modern Romania), was seen as a troublesome neighbor by the
Romans and the Dacians were seen to pose a threat to the province of Moesia, along the
Danube frontier. In addition Dacia was rich in natural resources (including gold), that were
attractive to the Romans. The first campaign saw Trajan defeat the Dacian leader
Decebalus in 101 C.E., after which the Dacians sought terms from the Romans. Renewed
Dacian hostilities brought about the second Dacian War that concluded in 106 C.E. Trajans
victory was a substantial onehe declared over 100 days of official celebrations and the
Romans exploited Dacias natural wealth, while incorporating Dacia as an imperial
province.

Denarius (Roman coin), obverse: Trajan in profile; reverse: Dacian seated right on pile of arms, his hands bound
behind him, silver, c. 103-11 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CM.BU.240-R)

After the first Dacian war Trajan earned the honorary epithet Dacicus Maximus (greatest
Dacian) and a victory monument known as the Tropaeum Traiani (Trophy of Trajan) was
built at Civitas Tropaensium (modern Adamclisi, Romania). Coins issued during Trajans
reign (as in the image above) depicted the defeated Dacia.

Iconography and themes

The iconographic scheme of the column illustrates Trajans wars in Dacia. The lower half
of the column corresponds to the first Dacian War (c. 101-102 C.E.), while the top half
depicts the second Dacian War (c. 105-106 C.E.). The first narrative event shows Roman
soldiers marching off to Dacia, while the final sequence of events portrays the suicide of
the enemy leader, Decebalus, and the mopping up of Dacian prisoners by the Romans.

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The crossing of the Roman Army over the Danube River in the first Dacian War (the large figure is a personification of
the Danube) (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The execution of the frieze is meticulous and the level of detail achieved is astonishing.
While the column does not carry applied paint now, many scholars believe the frieze was
initially painted. The sculptors took great care to provide settings for the scenes, including
natural backgrounds, and mixed perspectival views to offer the maximum level of detail.
Sometimes multiple perspectives are evident within a single scene. The overall, unifying
theme is that of the Roman military campaigns in Dacia, but the details reveal additional,
more subtle narrative threads.

One of the clear themes is the triumph of civilization (represented by the Romans) over its
antithesis, the barbarian state (represented here by the Dacians). The Romans are orderly
and uniform, the Dacians less so. The Romans are clean shaven, the Dacians are shaggy.
The Romans avoid leggings, the Dacians wear leggings (like all good barbarians didat
least those depicted by the Romans).

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Scene from the second Dacian War, the Dacians plan a new offensive and attack a Roman Fort and engage with
Roman troops. Many Dacians, however, fall in the wake of a strong Roman counteroffensive, (detail), Column of
Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., Rome (source for image and caption: Trajans Column Website, Professor Roger B. Ulrich,
Dartmouth College)

Combat scenes are frequent in the frieze. The detailed rendering provides a nearly
unparalleled visual resource for studying the iconography of the Roman military, as well
as for studying the actual equipment, weapons, and tactics. There is clear ethnic typing as
well, as the Roman soldiers cannot be confused for Dacian soldiers, and vice versa.

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The Emperor (fourth from the lower right) oversees construction (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo:
Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The viewer also sees the Roman army doing other chores while not fighting. One notable
activity is building. In numerous scenes the soldiers may be seen building and fortifying
camps. All of the Roman edifices depicted are solid, regular, and well designedin stark
contrast to the humble buildings of the Dacian world. Roman propaganda at work.

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Trajan and his fleet depart for Second Dacian WarTrajan can be seen at the far left (detail), Column of Trajan,
dedicated 113 C.E., detail, Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E. (photo: Peter Reed, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The emperor Trajan figures prominently in the frieze. Each time he appears, his position is
commanding and the iconographic focus on his person is made clear. We see Trajan in
various scenarios, including addressing his troops ( ad locutio ) and performing sacrifices.
The fact that the figures in the scenes are focused on the figure of the emperor helps to
draw the viewers attention to him.

The base of the column eventually served as a tomb for Trajans ashes. He died while
returning from foreign campaigns in 117 C.E. and was granted this unusual honor, in
keeping with the estimation of the Roman people who deemed him optimus princeps or
the best first citizen.

Specifications of the Column and construction

The column itself is made from fine-grained Luna marble and stands to a height of 38.4
meters (c. 98 feet) atop a tall pedestal. The shaft of the column is composed of 29 drums
of marble measuring c. 3.7 meters (11 feet) in diameter, weighing a total of c. 1,110 tons.
The topmost drum weighs some 53 tons. A spiral staircase of 185 steps leads to the

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viewing platform atop the column. The helical sculptural


frieze measures 190 meters in length (c. 625 feet) and
wraps around the column 23 times. A total of 2,662
figures appear in the 155 scenes of the frieze, with Trajan
himself featured in 58 scenes.

The construction of the Column of Trajan was a complex


exercise of architectural design and engineering. As
reconstructed by Lynne Lancaster, the execution of the
column itself was an immense engineering challenge that
required complex lifting devices and, no doubt, careful
planning to execute successfully. Materials had to be
acquired and transported to Rome, some across long
distances. With the appropriate technology in place, the
adept Roman architects could carry out the project. The
successful completion of the column demonstrates the
complex tasks that Roman architects could successfully
complete.

Significance and influence

The Column of Trajan may be contextualized in a long line


of Roman victory monuments, some of which honored
specific military victories and thus may be termed
triumphal monuments and others that generally honor a
public career and are thus honorific monuments. Among
the earliest examples of such permanent monuments at
Column of Trajan, dedicated 113
C.E., plan, elevation, and section
Rome is the rostrate column ( column rostrata ) that was
erected in honor of a naval victory celebrated by Caius
Duilius after the battle of Mylae in 260 B.C.E. (this column does not survive). During the
Republican period, a rich tradition of celebratory monuments developed, best known
through the fornices (honorific arches) and triumphal arches. This tradition was continued
in the imperial period, with both triumphal and honorific arches being erected at Rome
and in the the provinces.

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Gold aureus showing Trajans Column, Roman, early 2nd century C.E. (The British Museum)

The idea of the honorific column was carried forward by other victorious leadersboth in
the ancient and modern eras. In the Roman world immediate, derivative monuments that
draw inspiration from the Column of Trajan include the Column of Marcus Aurelius (c. 193
C.E.) in Romes Piazza Colonna, as well as monuments like the now-lost Column of
Arcadius (c. 401 C.E.) and the Column of Justinian at Constantinople (c. 543 C.E.). The idea
of the narrative frieze applied to the Column of Trajan proved influential in these other
instances.

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Aegidius Sadeler, view of the column of Trajan, shown with its pedestal dug out from the earth, surrounded by
buildings at the base of the Quirinal Hill, Rome, from the series Ruins of the antiquity of Rome, Tivoli, Pozzuoli, and
other places, 1606, etching and engraving, plate 31 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Honorific or triumphal columns inspired by that of Trajan were also created in honor of
more recent victories. The column honoring Admiral Horatio Nelson in Londons Trafalgar
Square (c. 1843) draws on the Roman tradition that included the Column of Trajan along
with earlier, Republican monuments like the columna rostrata of Caius Duilius. The
column dedicated to Napoleon I erected in the Place Vendme in Paris (c. 1810) and the
Washington Monument of Baltimore, Maryland (1829) both were directly inspired by the
Column of Trajan.

Additional Resources:

Trajans Column in Rome, from Prof. R. Ulrich, Dartmouth College


Trajans Column
Stoa.org Column of Trajan
National Geographic Society Column of Trajan
Wikimedia Commons Cichorius Plates
M. Beckmann, The Columnae Coc(h)lides of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, Phoenix 56.3/4
(Autumn Winter, 2002) pp. 348-357.
F. Coarelli et al., The Column of Trajan (Rome: German Archaeological Institute, 2000).
A. Curry, A War Diary Soars Over Rome, National Geographic (2015)
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G. A. T. Davies, Topography and the Trajan Column. Journal of Roman Studies 10 (1920),
pp. 1-28.
G. A. T. Davies, Trajans First Dacian War, Journal of Roman Studies 7 (1917), pp. 74-97.
P. Davies, The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajans Column and the Art of Commemoration,
American Journal of Archaeology 101.1 (1997), pp. 41-65.
M. Henig, ed., Architecture and Architectural Sculpture in the Roman Empire (Oxford:
Oxford University Committee for Archaeology : Distributed by Oxbow Books, 1990).
T. Hlscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art, translated by A. Snodgrass and
Annemarie Knzl-Snodgrass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
N. Kampen, Looking at Gender: The Column of Trajan and Roman Historical Relief, in
Domna Stanton and Abigail Stewart, eds. Feminisms in the Academy (Ann Arbor 1995), pp.
46-73.
G. M. Koeppel, Official State Reliefs of the City of Rome in the Imperial Age. A
Bibliography, Aufstieg und Niedergang der rmischen Welt II,12,1 (1982), pp. 477-506.
G. M. Koeppel, Die historischen Reliefs der rmischen Kaiserzeit VIII, Der Fries der
Trajanssule in Rom, Teil 1: Der Erste Dakische Krieg, Szenen I-LXXVIII, Bonner Jahrbcher
(1991) 191, pp. 135-197.
G. M. Koeppel, Die historischen Reliefs der rmischen Kaiserzeit IX, Der Fries der
Trajanssule in Rom, Teil 2: Der Zweite Dakische Krieg, Szenen LXXXIX-CLV, Bonner
Jahrbcher 192 (1992), pp. 61-121.
G. M. Koeppel, The Column of Trajan: Narrative Technique and the Image of the
Emperor, in Sage and emperor: Plutarch, Greek intellectuals, and Roman power in the
time of Trajan (98-117 A.D.), edited by Philip A. Stadter and Luc Van der Stockt (Leuven:
Leuven University Press, 2002), pp. 245-258.
Lynne Lancaster, Building Trajans Column, American Journal of Archaeology , 103.3 (Jul.,
1999) pp. 419-439.
E. La Rocca, Templum Traiani et columna cochlis, Mitteilungen des Deutschen
Archologischen Instituts Rmische Abteilung 111 (2004), pp. 193-238.
F. Lepper and S. Frere, Trajans Column: A New Edition of the Cichorius Plates (Gloucester
U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1988).
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edited by E.M. Steinby (Rome: Quasar, 1995), pp. 356-9.
C. G. Malacrino, Immagini e narrazioni. La Colonna Traiana e le sue scene di cantiere, in
Storia e narrazione. Retorica, memoria, immagini edited by G. Guidarelli and C.G.
Malacrino (Milan: B. Mondadori, 2005), pp. 101-34.
A. Mau, Die Inschrift der Trajanssule, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archologischen
Instituts, Rmische Abteilung 22 (1907), pp. 187-97. [accessible via Google Books].
J. E. Packer, Trajans Forum again: the Column and the Temple of Trajan in the master
plan attributed at Apollodorus (?), Journal of Roman Archaeology 7 (1994), pp. 163-82.
I. A. Richmond and M. Hassall, Trajans Army on Trajans Column ( London : British School
at Rome, 1982).

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L. Rossi and J.M.C. Toynbee, Trajans Column and the Dacian Wars (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1971).
E. Togo Salmon, Trajans Conquest of Dacia, Transactions and Proceedings of the
American Philological Association 67 (1936), pp. 83-105.
S. Settis et al., La Colonna Traiana (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1988).
H. Stuart-Jones, The Historical Interpretation of the Reliefs of Trajans Column, Papers of
the British School at Rome 5 (1910), pp. 433-59.
E. Wolfram Thill, Civilization under Construction: Depictions of Architecture on the
Column of Trajan, American Journal of Archaeology 114.1 (Jan., 2010), pp. 27-43.
M. Wilson Jones, One Hundred Feet and a Spiral Stair: Designing Trajans Column, Journal
of Roman Archaeology 6 (1993) 23-38.
M. Wilson Jones, Trajans Column, chapter 8 in Principles of Roman Architecture (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) pp. 161-176.

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