Changing Mood: Trajan’s Column

Trajan's Column

This essay will examine Trajan’s Column through the writings of American philosopher John Dewey (1859 – 1952) to discuss the aesthetics of the column and its aim to immortalise the Emperor Trajan, his army, and the Roman Empire. I will also analyse how the viewer’s perception of the column has been altered over the past two millennia due to the various incarnations of the column—from artwork to war memorial, funerary monument to Christian landmark. Finally, I will examine whether or not Trajan’s Column is a successful work of art according to the criteria offered by Italian philosopher St Bonaventure (ca. 1217 – 74).

Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus was born in Spain in 53CE and adopted by Emperor Nerva. Upon Nerva’s death, the tradition of “succession by adoption” was enacted and Trajan became Emperor of Rome in 98CE.

Under the rule of Trajan, The Roman Empire expanded greatly and reached its peak during the year of his death in 117CE.  Trajan was known as optimus princeps—splendid leader (Hanfmann 6). He was one of the “Five Good Emperors” along with Nerva, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (

Trajan led two wars against Dacia (modern-day Romania) in 101 – 102CE, and again in 105 – 106CE; the spoils of which were paraded down the streets of Rome. Roman historian Cassius Dio (163 – 235CE) described the celebrations held by Trajan commemorating his victories that lasted for “one hundred and twenty-three days, in the course of which some eleven thousand animals, both wild and tame, were slain, and ten thousand gladiators fought” (qtd in Gill).

Trajan’s Column was completed in 113CE by Greek architect Apollodorus of Damascus, Trajan’s military engineer, who was “a gifted and innovative designer” (Placzek). During Trajan’s reign, Apollodorus also constructed markets, baths, and Trajan’s Forum which was built from marble. Mary Beard describes Trajan’s Forum as an “extravaganza” and a true testament to his “imperial megalomania” (177). One Roman, Marius Maximus commented how Trajan was “nicknamed ‘wall-weed’ for sticking his name on so many buildings” (qtd in Kulikowski 253). To not have his name inscribed on anything would mean a “truly finite death of Trajan to future generations” (Shivali). If the column was not constructed, our perception of the Emperor and his deeds would certainly be altered.

The column stood in the center of the Trajan’s Forum, a popular place at the time for Romans to congregate. Assembled from marble, it was “an impressive feat of construction that bears witness to the technological and organizational skill of the builders” (Lancaster 419). The architectural achievements of Trajan during his reign are a fine example of the fusion of Antonine aesthetics and Empirical ego.

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar said “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble” (qtd in Thayer). Marble not only brought visual pleasure to the viewers, but also a “more durable form” in which to sculpt and preserve images (Jackson 45). Dewey argues that each work of art has “its own medium and that medium is especially fitted for one kind of communication” (211). The properties of the stone enabled longevity, and with that came the perceived immortality of the subject. The cost of importing marble also added to its exclusivity and desirability thus making it only attainable by those in a higher rank in society.

Standing thirty-five meters tall, the column was made from twenty-nine blocks of Luna marble from Etruria. Each block was “11 feet [3.35 metres] in diameter and averaged about 32 tons [29,029 kg]” (Gabriel 63). The blocks were hollowed out and a spiral, marble stairwell was installed inside. Slits were carved in the marble to acts as windows to illuminate the stairwell. This allowed visitors to physically experience the column by ascending the one hundred and eighty-five stairs to a viewing platform at the top of the column. The view from which, was a three hundred and sixty degree panorama of the surrounding Forum of Trajan and the expanding city in all its glory.

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) describes this experience in his poem “XXVIII: The Pillar of Trajan.” “Still as he turns, the charmed spectator sees/Group winding after group with dream-like ease;/Triumphs in sunbright gratitude displayed” (l15-17). The visitor would ascend the stairs inside the poorly lit column, then, in an act that would seem to resemble their own apotheosis, and come out through the door at the top of the column and be blinded by the light from the sun in the heavens.

Feeling as one with the universe and the sense of clarity it brings, Dewey believes, is the same as the “religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception” such as when you walk into a cathedral and look up to the rafters in awe, of both the architecture, and the sense of oneness with the divine (214).

An inscription on the base of the column reads as follows:



The inscription suggests that the Emperor had the “power and means to move mountains for Rome” (McDonald).  The height of the column was to DECLARANDVM·QVANTAE·ALTITVDINIS·MONS—‘declare how high the mountain’ was prior to the Forum’s construction. However, after an archaeological dig in the area, historian Samuel Planter argued that the “geological evidence showed that [the hill] never existed” (237). The inscription may well have been pure, Roman hyperbole.

Spiralling up the facade of the column is “the largest sculpture in relief of all antiquity(Velcescu). Apollodorus “adopted an epic-documentary mode of historical representation” in creating the war-time narrative (Brilliant 90).The linear relief is two hundred meters long, and depicts Trajan’s two successful campaigns against the Dacians. Over two thousand six hundred characters have been carved into the marble in various states of conflict including preparation, battle, and triumph. Emperor Trajan appears fifty-nine times in various scenes as the “indefatigable leader of the Roman armed forces” (Hanfmann 6). The “awesome protagonist” is always shown larger than those surrounding him so not to confuse him with lower members of his army (Brilliant 97).

carvings on Trajan's Column
Carvings on Trajan’s Column

The images of the Emperor in the frieze exhibit Ancient Rome’s propensity for realism in their art. This style, called Verism (which comes from the Latin word vērus, meaning true), is “characterized as a form of ultra-physical realism” and embraces the subject’s flaws like “warts, moles, creases, and wrinkles” (Jackson 32). The Romans believed that these facial features were testament to the person’s character, wisdom, and virtue.

The dynamic, helical frieze shows Roman soldiers dressed in their battle armour, armed with swords and shields. The might of the Roman army is represented as a united force, fighting for the good of Rome. Standard-bearers hold aloft symbols of the Empire, and of their Emperor. The narrative of the battle is an example of Roman political propaganda, used to elevate the positions of the Emperor, and the Empire, in the eyes of the viewer.

Despite the complexity of the carvings, the structure itself has become problematic. Because the carvings go all the way up to the top, they are impossible to see from below. This results in a “difficulty in visually maintaining the continuity of the narrative” as the viewer must walk around the column to see the story unravel (Brilliant 94). Mary Beard comments how the images fade “into an indistinguishable blur from ground level” (180). While there may have been viewing platforms in the buildings surrounding the column when it was built, those buildings do not survive today.

Irish poet Aubrey De Vere (1814 – 1902) describes the inability to see the top of the column in his poem “III: The Pillar of Trajan”, “Yon Pillar soars with sculptured forms embost/Whose grace at that ambitious height is lost” (l2-3). It seems this error was noted during the construction of the column of Marcus Aurelius which was erected some decades later. The frieze was carved deeper into the marble to make it easier for the viewer to follow the narrative as it too spirals up towards the heavens.

Much like many Ancient Roman busts sculpted from marble, the column a “veritable epitome of the historical record” was originally painted, again, to achieve verisimilitude with the artwork’s representation of the battles (Brilliant 97). It was also adorned with “metal accessories” including spears and swords, however, those, along with the original paintwork are now missing. (Richards 3).

When Emperor Constantius II visited Trajan’s Forum in the fourth century, historian Ammianus described the Emperor as being, “thunderstruck and was absorbed in the huge structure” made from marble, bronze, and gold (qtd in Storey 139). Even though the column still stands today, most of the surrounding forum is in ruins. Dewey laments that is it “an impossibility” to experience the sight, as Constantius II did, not just because it is not in its original pristine condition, but because we are unable to fully comprehend what the site meant to the people at the time (213). The circumstances that surrounded the construction have been so far removed from our own experiences that the original meaning of the column has been lost over time. Rome no longer has an Emperor, and the Empire fell centuries ago. We experience the column not only as a reminder of the Dacian wars, but also as a reminder of the falling of an Empire.

The column has had many different readings as to its function over the past almost two thousand years and because of these varying functions, the aesthetics of the work is altered, as art is “recreated every time it is […] experienced” (Dewey 213). Dewey defines aesthetics from the viewer’s point of view, not the creator’s, as “to experience as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying” a particular work of art (207).

The inscription, if taken at face value, might lead to the perception that the column was seen as an elaborate surveyor’s marker. Although we now know this is false, this is still an example of how the Empire saw itself, as an egotistical, all-conquering force—be the conquered man, country, or hillside.

Another possible reading of the column suggests that it was to serve as a war memorial for those who fought bravely in the Dacian wars. Soon after its completion, a bronzed eagle sat atop the column. For the Roman Empire, the eagle (aquila), with its outspread wings and sharp talons, was a symbol of strength and immortality and was featured on many standards.

The frieze not only preserves the valiant deeds of the Roman army and its Emperor, it also preserves, for all time, the defeat of Decebalus, leader of the Dacians, and enemy of Rome.

After Trajan died, the eagle was replaced with “a gilded bronze statue of the Emperor” (Brilliant 90). This was done in order to “elevate” the Emperor “above all other mortals” as many Roman Emperors were apotheosised after death (Brilliant 96). With the new statue, the meaning of the column again changed. It was now a “funerary monument” and Trajan’s ashes were placed in the base of the column (Davies 60). Scholars believe it may have been intended to serve as a memorial for the Emperor all along, even though there was a law that forbade citizens to be buried inside the city.

Davies believes that the helical design of the column manipulates “the viewer into a re-enactment of [an] ancient funerary ritual” as they have to keep circling the column in order to follow the narrative (41). She describes many Pagan ritual that involve its participants to walk around in a circle, from visiting ancestral tombs, to funeral pyres (56). Reasons for this action include protecting the dead, and assisting the soul of the deceased to pass on to a higher place (57).

In his essay “On Reduction of the Arts to Theology” Italian philosopher St Bonaventure discusses the aim of the artist when creating a work. The work must possess three qualities in order to be successful; it must be “beautiful, useful, and enduring” (qtd in Cahn 75). I would argue that Trajan’s Column possesses these three qualities and is therefore a successful work of art. The beauty lies in the craftsmanship of the frieze, and in the verism of the images; as noted above, the column has many different uses; and finally, the work is enduring, as it has lasted two millennia.

On the topic of its endurance, the column only lasts today due to a law enacted by the church at the time to preserve it in 1162. This was done despite its Pagan origins. The law stated that the column “should never be mutilated of destroyed, but should remain as it stands to the honor [sic] of the Roman people, as long as the world endures” (qtd in Haskins 124-124). The question is, if the column had been destroyed, much like its surroundings, would St Bonaventure still think it a successful piece? I argue that he would; while the physicality of the column may not have survived, records of its greatness still perpetuate due to the writings of Ammianus, Cassius Dio, and other historians.

This acceptance of the column by the Catholic Church may have been due to Pope Gregory the Great having prayed to God for Trajan’s salvation in the sixth century (Trumbower 141). Pope Gregory was concerned that Trajan, being deceased, could not repent for being a Pagan so Gregory would do it for him. God granted this posthumous baptism but requested for Gregory to “not again put forward prayers addressed to me on behalf of Pagans” (qtd in Trumbower 145).

Unfortunately, the bronzed statue of Trajan was lost sometime during the Dark Ages and later replaced by a statue of St Peter in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V (Davies 43). It is interesting to note that in the sixteenth century, the Vatican also placed a statue of St Paul on top the column of Marcus Aurelius (Aldrete 183).

The once Pagan Emperor of Rome had now been baptised and assimilated by the Church with the placement of a statue of the founder of Christianity (St Peter) atop his column. Trajan was now seen as being virtuous in the eyes of the Lord and so, it could be argued, that the column then took on a new function and was now perceived as an example of Catholic achievement. The Emperor and his army appear to be fighting for the glory of the Christian god, not the apotheosised Pagan one. However, Brewer calls the replacement of the statue of Trajan a “perversion” and also comments on the erecting of St Paul’s statue atop Marcus Aurelius’ column as being “wholly out of character with the statue which surmounts it” (Brewer).

Dewey notes “[w]hen artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance” (204). Time is not the only thing that has separated the intention of the work from its current perception. The culture of the people of Rome has changed, so too has their religion. The ritualistic circumnavigation of the column continues with each viewer, but is no longer seen as a Pagan rite. Even the physical environment surrounding Trajan’s Column has altered since its creation with the collapse of it surrounding markets and fora.

It is apparent from this essay that the intended perception behind the construction of Trajan’s Column has altered over the past two millennia. No longer are the streets of Rome filled with victory celebrations; and the current economic climate in Italy is far from the once-prosperous state. The Empire that Trajan helped reach its peak in the year of his death has fallen and is no longer relevant in the world today. Although the column itself has remained unchanged over the years, the differing statues on top have signified the change how the work is now perceived by viewers. While the medium of communication has not changed, its message surely has.


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