A section of Trajan’s column

Trajan's Column: An Unyielding Pillar of Imperial Strength

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

The column as it stands in the Forum of Trajan ( public domain )

Trajan’s Victories

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). Twining around the tower from base to peak is Trajan's two victories over the Dacians: the first achieved in 102AD; the second, a few years later in 106AD. 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.

Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan at Tower Hill, London

Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan at Tower Hill, London ( CC by SA 3.0 )

A Column of Triumph

The narrative band winds around the Column twenty-three times, the width of the band and depth of the carvings increasing gradually as the scenes twined 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, 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.

The intricate carvings depict the battle victories of Emperor Trajan

The intricate carvings depict the battle victories of Emperor Trajan ( Mary Harrsch / flickr )

Roman Propaganda

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.)

A scene from Trajan’s column: Building a fortress

A scene from Trajan’s column: Building a fortress ( CC by SA 3.0 )

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 offering 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 depicts 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 Dacians 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 Column Scenes

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 were 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 two thousand years ago.

The scenes on Trajan’s column focus more on offerings and construction rather than battle

The scenes on Trajan’s column focus more on offerings and construction rather than battle ( public domain )

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 great emperor in his titular Forum would have spoken volumes to his people and their descendants of his military prestige.

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 struggle spanning years of Dacian threats on the 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. 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 98AD, 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: A section of Trajan’s column ( Jake&Brady / flickr )

By Ryan Stone


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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.

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Yet another piece written from the point of view of the benevolence of the Roman empire. Trajan went to Dacia, to ethnically cleanse that area as it was rich in minerals and in particularly gold. He went there with the mind set of conquering the area to bring under Rome's control the resources of another country. Now if you'd written the article from a view point of was Trajan a capitalist I would see the point of the article.

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