Trajan's Column

Trajan's Column
Location Trajan's Forum
Built in 107~113 CE
Built by/for Emperor Trajan
Type of structure Roman triumphal column
Related Forum of Trajan
Trajan's Column

Trajan's Column (Italian: Colonna Traiana, Latin: COLVMNA·TRAIANI) is a Roman triumphal column in Rome, Italy, that commemorates Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars. It was probably constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus at the order of the Roman Senate. It is located in Trajan's Forum, built near the Quirinal Hill, north of the Roman Forum. Completed in AD 113, the freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, which artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacians (101–102 and 105–106). Its design has inspired numerous victory columns, both ancient and modern.

The structure is about 30 metres (98 feet) in height, 35 metres (115 feet) including its large pedestal. The shaft is made from a series of 20 colossal Carrara marble[lower-alpha 1] drums, each weighing about 32 tons,[2] with a diameter of 3.7 metres (12.1 feet). The 190-metre (620-foot) frieze winds around the shaft 23 times. Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 steps provides access to a viewing platform at the top. The capital block of Trajan's Column weighs 53.3 tons, which had to be lifted to a height of c. 34 metres (112 feet).[3]

Ancient coins indicate preliminary plans to top the column with a statue of a bird, probably an eagle,[4] but after construction, a statue of Trajan was put in place; this statue disappeared in the Middle Ages. On December 4, 1587, the top was crowned by Pope Sixtus V with a bronze figure of St. Peter, which remains to this day.[5] Filippo Coarelli, a noted Italian archaeologist, explains that: When it was built, the column stood between two libraries, which perhaps held the soldier-emperor's account of the Roman-Dacian Wars. Working under the supervision of a maestro, Coarelli says, sculptors followed a plan to create a sky-scraping version of Trajan's scroll on 17 drums of the finest Carrara marble.[6]



The continuous helical frieze winds twenty-three times from base to capital, and was in its time an architectural innovation.[7] The design was adopted by later emperors such as Marcus Aurelius. The narrative band expands from about 1 metre (3.3 feet) at the base of the column to 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) at the top.[8] The scenes unfold continuously. Often a variety of different perspectives are used in the same scene, so that more can be revealed (e.g., a different angle is used to show men working behind a wall).

Historical content portrayed


The relief portrays Trajan's two victorious military campaigns against the Dacians; the lower half illustrating the first (101–102), and the top half illustrating the second (105–106). These campaigns were contemporary to the time of the Column's building. Throughout, the frieze repeats standardized scenes of imperial address (adlocutio), sacrifice (lustratio), and the army setting out on campaign (profectio).[9] Scenes of battle are very much a minority on the column, instead it emphasizes images of orderly soldiers carrying out ceremony and construction.

The war against Dacia was one of conquest and expansion. Therefore, with the aim of the Dacian Campaigns being the incorporation and integration of Dacia into the Roman Empire as a Roman province, depictions of violent action towards foreign women and children are nonexistent.[7] Wartime violence in general seems to have been downplayed.[7] Some scholars suggest the lack of battle scenes and large number of building scenes is a propaganda constructed specifically for the urban population of Rome (the primary audience), addressing their fear and distrust of the army by depicting its warfare as one with little collateral damage.[7]

Key specific events portrayed: the first crossing of the Danube by the Roman legion, Trajan's voyage up the Danube, the surrender of the Dacians at the close of the first war, the great sacrifice by the Danube bridge during the second war, the assault on the Dacian capital and the death of the Dacian king Decebalus.[10]

The two sections are separated by a personification of Victory writing on a shield flanked on either side by Trophies.

Figures and sets

Roman carroballista, a cart-mounted field artillery weapon (relief detail)

Great care is taken to distinguish the men and women from both sides of the campaign as well as the ranks within these distinct groups. The scenes are crowded with sailors, soldiers, statesmen and priests, showing about 2,500 figures in all. It also exists as a valuable source of information on Roman and barbaric arms and methods of warfare (such as forts, ships, weapons, etc.) and costume. The relief shows details such as a ballista or catapult. The precise details of the depictions creates a "reality effect" for the viewer in which designer's hope is that these images are taken for objective historical truth.[11]

The emperor Trajan is depicted realistically in the Veristic style, and makes 59 appearances among his troops. The focus on Trajan as the heroic protagonist is central.[12] The portrayal of the Roman army as kinder and gentler may also be because it aids in Trajan's image as a man with the virtues of "justice, clemency, moderation, and restraint".[12]


Women for the most part occupy and define the borders and edges of the scenes. However, mortal females in Roman state art are so infrequent it is worth marking that they were included at all in this war monument. In the male discourse of warfare, women are a visual trope that develops further the idea of subjugation by feminizing the foreign conquered.[11] However, on the Column is "one of the most unusual, disturbing, and violent depictions of women in Roman art, the torture scene.".[11] In this unusual scene, five Dacian women are depicted torturing three naked men. It has been interpreted as grotesque visual where gender was used to increase the humiliation of the Roman enemy.


See also: Trajan's Forum

Today, the Column of Trajan is the most prominent architectural feature of Trajan’s Forum, left nearly intact but now isolated from its original setting. The Column was placed toward the northernmost point of the forum, acting as the focal point of the entire forum complex. It was surrounded on three sides by two flanking libraries and the Basilica Ulpia. The two libraries to the northeast and southwest of the Column were for the study of scrolls written in both Latin and Greek.[13] These libraries were built in tandem with the Column [14] They apparently included upper level viewing platforms for two sides of the column. By having an elevated vantage point, the figures of the scenes, carved in shallow relief and detailed with paint and metal fittings, could be seen more closely (nevertheless it remained impossible for the ancient viewer to follow sequentially the continuous spiral of the reliefs). The problem with visibility of the upper areas is further apparent when we compare Trajan’s Column to the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The figures in the later Column of Marcus Aurelius are more deeply cut and even simplified over the height of the shaft because there were no surrounding buildings to serve as viewing platforms. The different carving style seems to have been adopted to enhance visibility.

The two libraries flanking the Column helped to further the emperor's program of propaganda. In addition to serving as viewing platforms for the Column, they housed valuable works of literature for the people of Rome. Surely one important text kept here was Trajan's own account of the Dacian Wars, now lost. The reliefs on the Column documenting the Dacian campaigns would have provided a vivid complement to Trajan's account of the wars. The people of Rome were reminded of his victories every time they enjoyed the open space and amenities of the forum.[15] The combination of the Column and the magnificent buildings that surrounded it created an awe inspiring spectacle.


Battle scene between the Roman and Dacian armies

It is unclear whether the Column was meant to serve a commemorative function or as a propaganda piece. Traditional scholarship held that the Column was a glorifying monument, upholding Trajan as Rome's great emperor. However, recent reconstructions of Trajan's Forum have determined that any wide view of the Column would have been mostly obstructed by two libraries in the Forum which tightly bookended it. Also, because it would have been difficult to follow the spiral frieze from end to end (walking in circles with head inclined), the Column's narrative power would have been fairly limited.

On the other hand, as French archaeologist Paul Veyne notes, the relief could be read "vertically" from below, with the figure of the emperor recognizable across the bands of images—just as, on the Colonne Vendôme, Napoleon's figure can be picked up, scene after scene. Additionally, the two libraries surrounding it provided platforms from which to observe the Column if the viewer stood on the top floors, making the complete view of frieze much more visible.

While there is certainly evidence that the Column was not put in an ideal spot for visibility, it is impossible to reject the Column as some form of a glorification structure. There is the significant point that the Column was extremely challenging to construct, and so it is unlikely that it would have been placed in the Forum with the intentions of being hidden or out of plain sight.[16]

There is also the important idea of the Column as a symbol for Trajan. Trajan’s ashes were buried in a chamber at the base of the Column. At the top of the Column is a statue of Trajan. The ground level of the Forum, which is a center of life for Romans, is where the earthly remains of Trajan are buried. The Column from the base goes up, taking us through Trajan’s triumph in the Dacian wars, and finishes with a statue of Trajan above the forum. If we consider the practice of deification of emperors, which was expected during this time period, especially of glorious Trajan, it is hard to ignore the symbolism here. Trajan’s earthly remains stay in the Forum with the Roman people, while his conquests ascend him up into the heavens. It would be hard to prove this set up as a coincidence, thus the Column should be regarded in some sense as a symbol of glorification.[16]

The Column acting as a funerary monument has also been considered. After Trajan's death in 117, the Roman Senate voted to have Trajan's ashes buried in the Column's square base, which is decorated with captured Dacian arms and armor. His ashes and those of his wife, Plotina, were set inside the base in golden urns (which later disappeared from the monument). One reading of this is that Trajan may have intended the Column to be his final resting place from the project's inception, and that the similarities in design to other funerary structures made it a natural choice for the Roman Senate.[17] In particular, the circumambulation demanded of onlookers of the Column's frieze is evocative of Roman funerary practice, drawing attention toward the center – and consequently, the finial of Trajan.

Perhaps the simplest interpretation is provided by the inscription written above the entrance (translated below): that the mere existence of Column was an engineering marvel due to the immense excavation efforts necessary for its construction.[18]


The inscription plate above the entrance to the interior (upper image)

The inscription at the base of the column in finest lettering reads:



Trajan's Column around 1896

Translated, the inscription reads:

The Senate and people of Rome [give or dedicate this] to the emperor Caesar, son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Traianus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, pontifex maximus, in his 17th year in the office of tribune, having been acclaimed 6 times as imperator, 6 times consul, pater patriae, to demonstrate of what great height the hill [was] and place [that] was removed for such great works.

It was believed that the column was supposed to stand where the saddle between the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills used to be, having been excavated by Trajan, but excavation has revealed that this is not the case. The saddle was where Trajan's Forum and Trajan's Market stood. Hence, the inscription refers to the Trajan's entire building project in the area of the Imperial fora.

This is perhaps the most famous example of Roman square capitals, a script often used for stone monuments and, less often, for manuscript writing. As it was meant to be read from below, the bottom letters are slightly smaller than the top letters, to give proper perspective. Some, but not all, word divisions are marked with a dot, and many of the words, especially the titles, are abbreviated. In the inscription, numerals are marked with a titulus, a bar across the top of the letters. A small piece at the bottom of the inscription has been lost.

The typeface Trajan, designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly, uses letter forms based on this inscription, working from the research of Edward Catich. There have been many other typefaces based on the inscription from such designers as Frederic Goudy and Warren Chappell.

Spiral stair

Section view of the pedestal and the interior stairway (click on image)

The interior of Trajan's Column is hollow: entered by a small doorway at one side of the base, a spiral stair of 185 steps gives access to the platform above, having offered the visitor in antiquity a view over the surrounding Trajan's forum; 43 window slits illuminate the ascent.[19]

The column stands 38.4 m (126.0 ft) high from the ground to the top of the statue base:[20] Located immediately next to the large Basilica Ulpia, it had to be constructed sufficiently tall in order to function as a vantage point and to maintain its own visual impact on the forum.[21] The column proper, that is the shaft without the pedestal, the statue and its base, is 29.76 metres (97.64 feet) high, a number which almost corresponds to 100 Roman feet; beginning slightly above the bottom of the base, the helical staircase inside measures a mere 8 cm (3 in) less.[22]

The column is composed of 29 blocks of Luna marble, weighing in total more than 1100 t.[20] The spiral stair itself was carved out of 19 blocks, with a full turn every 14 steps; this arrangement required a more complex geometry than the more usual alternatives of 12 or 16.[23] The quality of the craftsmanship was such that the staircase is practically even, and the joints between the huge blocks still fit accurately.[24] Despite numerous earthquakes in the past, the column today leans at an angle of less than half a degree.[24]

Trajan's Column, especially its helical stairway design, exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Roman architecture. While spiral stairs were before still a rare sight in Roman buildings, this space-saving form henceforth spread gradually throughout the empire.[25] Apart from the practical advantages it offered, the design also became closely associated with imperial power, being later adopted by Trajan's successors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. In Napoleon's time, a similar column decorated with a spiral of relief sculpture was erected in the Place Vendôme in Paris to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz.


Erection of the Vatican obelisk in 1586 by means of a lifting tower. A similar arrangement was presumably used for the construction of Trajan's Column, but with less available space and thus manpower.

It is assumed that the column drums were lifted by cranes into their place.[3][26] Ancient sources, as well as a substantial body of archaeological evidence, show that Roman engineers were capable of raising large weights clear off the ground. The typical drum of Trajan's Column weighs c. 32 t,[2] while the capital, the heaviest block above the base and pedestal, is even at 53.3 t, which had to be lifted 34 m high.[3] To save weight, the treads had probably been carved out before either at the quarry or in situ.[24][27]

Even so, for such loads, the typical Roman treadwheel crane, which could only reach a maximum height of 15 to 18 metres (49–59 feet) in any event, was clearly inadequate.[3] Instead, a tower-like wooden construction was erected around the building site, in the midst of which the marble blocks were raised by a system of pulleys, ropes and capstans; these were powered by a large workforce of men and possibly also draught animals, spread out on the ground.[28] According to modern calculations, eight capstans were needed to hoist the 55 t base block, while the length of rope required for the highest drums measured some 210 metres (690 feet) assuming two-block pulleys.[29]

Such a lifting tower was later also used to great effect by the Renaissance architect Domenico Fontana to relocate obelisks in Rome. From his report, it becomes obvious that the coordination of the lift between the various pulling teams required a considerable amount of concentration and discipline, since, if the force was not applied evenly, the excessive stress on the ropes would make them rupture.[30] In case of Trajan's Column, the difficulties were exacerbated even further by the simultaneous work on the neighbouring Basilica Ulpia, which limited the available space so that the capstan crews had proper access only from one side.[31][32]


The plaster casts laid out at eye level in the Museum of Roman Civilization

Plaster casts of the relief were taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After a century of acid pollution, they are now more legible in some details than the original, and the way they are displayed offers students a closer look at the reliefs than at the original site. Examples can be studied at:

Additionally, individual casts of the frieze are on display in various museums, for example, in the Museum for Ancient Navigation in Mainz. A complete survey in monochrome was published by the German archaeologist Conrad Cichorius between 1896 and 1900 (see Commons),[33][34] still forming the base of modern scholarship.[35] Based on Cichorius's work, and on the photographic archive of the German Archaeological Institute, a research-oriented Web-based viewer for Trajan's Column was created at the German-language image database.[36]




Front side of the Karlskirche in Vienna, flanked by two columns styled after the Roman archetype

See also


  1. In ancient times, Carrara marble bore the name of Luna marble after the port of Luna, Etruria on the harbor of Luni from which it was shipped after being quarried in the mountains of Carrara.[1]


  1. Diana E. E. Kleiner. The Ascent of Augustus and Access to Italian Marble (Multimedia presentation). Yale University.
  2. 1 2 Jones 1993, p. 32
  3. 1 2 3 4 Lancaster 1999, pp. 426–428
  4. Platner 1929
  5. Paoletti & Radke 2005, p. 541
  6. National Geographic, Hubble at 25, April 2015, Story by Andrew Curry, p. 122.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Dillon, Sheila. Representation of War in Ancient Rome. Cambridge University Press. pp. 244–270.
  8. Art History: Fourth Edition by Marilyn Stoksad and Michael W. Cothren
  9. Holscher (2001). Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. 1 2 3 Dillon, Sheila. Representation of War in Ancient Rome. Cambridge University PRess. pp. 244–270.
  12. 1 2 Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. Hungerford Pollen, John. A Description of the Trajan Column. George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode. Queen Victoria, London. 1874.
  14. Lancaster, Lynne. (1999) Building Trajan's Column. American Journal of Archaeology 103. 3. p.419-439.
  15. Packer, James E., (1998) Trajan’s GLORIOUS FORUM. Archaeology. 51. 3. p 32-41
  16. 1 2 Packer, James E. 01/01/1998. Archaeology: Trajan's glorious forum.
  17. Davies 1997, pp. 47–48
  18. Rossi 1971, p. 13
  19. Bennett 1997, p. 158
  20. 1 2 Lancaster 1999, p. 419
  21. Jones 1993, p. 27
  22. Jones 1993, p. 28
  23. Jones 1993, pp. 31–32, Fig. 9
  24. 1 2 3 Jones 1993, p. 31
  25. Beckmann 2002, pp. 353–356
  26. Jones 1993, pp. 34–36
  27. Lancaster 1999, p. 424
  28. Lancaster 1999, pp. 428–437
  29. Lancaster 1999, p. 435
  30. Lancaster 1999, pp. 436–437
  31. Lancaster 1999, pp. 430–431, Fig. 9–10
  32. Jones 1993, p. 35
  33. Cichorius 1896
  34. Cichorius 1900
  35. Lepper & Frere 1988
  36. Förtsch 2007
  37. All data from: Jones 2000, p. 220


Further reading

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Coordinates: 41°53′45″N 12°29′03″E / 41.89583°N 12.48417°E / 41.89583; 12.48417

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