Trajan's Column
Ancient Rome: Historical Frieze of Dacian Wars, Relief Sculpture, Roman Art.

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Trajan's Column, Rome.
Showing pedestal, shaft, capital
and statue of St Peter.
Erected 106-113 BCE.

Trajan's Column, Rome (c.106-113 CE)


What is Trajan's Column?
Historical Bas-Relief Frieze
Artistic Influence
Further Resources

For other examples of narrative relief sculpture from the Mediterranean area,
please see the Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE).

Detail from Trajan's Column
Legionnaires on the March.

About Art Evaluation
To analyze the reliefs
of Ancient Rome, see:
How to Appreciate Sculpture.

What is Trajan's Column?

One of the most famous examples of Roman art, Trajan's Column (Colonna Traiana) is a triumphal monument which was erected in Rome to celebrate the military victories of the Roman emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 CE) in the Dacian Wars (fought in Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains). Constructed during the period 106-113, in Trajan's Forum, near the Quirinal Hill, this marble column is engraved with a spiral frieze that winds 23 times around its shaft: a remarkable narrative which constitutes the greatest work of relief sculpture of Ancient Rome, and one of the finest works in the history of sculpture. Other comparable works carved by Roman sculptors include: the processional marble frieze on the Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) in the Campus Martius, the spiral frieze on the Doric Column of Marcus Aurelius (c.180-193 CE) in the Piazza Colonna, and the architectural relief sculpture on the Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE). Historical reliefs make up the greatest single contribution of Rome to the art of sculpture, and compare favourably with similar, though rarer, examples of Greek sculpture. Sadly, while Trajan's Column is known to have been designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, the names of the stone masons and sculptors who created the reliefs for this masterpiece of Hellenistic-Roman art, remain lost to us for ever.

NOTE: Marcus Ulpius Traianus Crinitus (Trajan) was one of the greatest Roman Emperors. His 19-year reign was distinguished by a series of successful wars against the Germans, Parthians and Dacians, which pushed the frontiers of Rome to their widest extent.



Doric Architecture

An example of the Doric order of Roman architecture, Trajan's Column stands 125-feet (35 metres) high, including its 27-foot high pedestal. The interior of the pedestal was entered through bronze doors, leading (on the right) to a landing and stairs, and (on the left) to a chamber that served as the repository for two golden urns containing the ashes of Trajan and his wife Pompeia Plotina. The hollow shaft of the column is constructed from twenty huge drums of Parian marble, each weighing a massive 32 tons, with a diameter of 11-feet. At the top of the shaft sits the capital - the crowning element - which weighs a staggering 53 tons. Inside the shaft is a spiral staircase giving access to a viewing area at the summit. Until the death of Trajan (117 CE), the column was topped with a bronze eagle; thereafter, with a bronze statue of Trajan himself. In 1587, this was replaced with a similar statue of St Peter. Like other triumphal columns engraved with historical reliefs, which are a feature of many cities across the Roman Empire, the clear architectural message of Trajan's Column was: "all glory to the power of Rome". See also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).




The 29 massive blocks of marble (weighing a total of 1,100 tons) were lifted into place by cranes: a process well documented in ancient architectural and engineering writings that make clear Rome's proficiency in raising large weights off the ground. Even so, the raising of the 53-ton capital to a height of 120-feet, remains an impressive achievement, and would have required a special purpose-built towered arrangement of ropes, pulleys and capstans, operated by teams of oxen and slaves. (The standard Roman treadwheel crane would have been inadequate for the job.) Moreover, the task would have been complicated further by the simultaneous construction of the nearby Basilica Ulpia. Despite all the building difficulties, as well as a number of earthquakes in the region, Trajan's Column remains almost exactly upright, leaning at an angle of less than half a degree. For comparable engineering feats from Classical Antiquity, see Egyptian Pyramids.

Historical Bas-Relief Frieze

The Trajan Column frieze is based on 5th century designs for Greek pottery - designs repeated in both the High Classical Greek sculpture of the Parthenon and the Hellenistic Greek sculpture of the Pergamon Altar. It spirals upward around the shaft from base to capital. It was carved only after the column was finished, undoubtedly by the best sculptors in the city. It comprises an engraved band - 625 feet in length, and 4 feet in height - covered in bas-relief sculpture (rarely more than 1 inch deep), which forms a continuous narrative of Trajan's military campaigns in Dacia (now Romania). The upper parts of the frieze were not designed to be viewed from ground-level but from the galleries of the surrounding buildings. Nonetheless, adjustments were made to minimize optical foreshortening: the size of the figures at the base, for instance, measure about 35-inches (90cm), compared with 50-inches at the top. (See also: Architecture Glossary.)

The lower half of the column narrates the first campaign (101-102), and the upper half illustrates the second (105-106). In total, there are 155 scenes, populated by more than 2,500 figures - all sculpted in low-relief - including 60 images of the Emperor himself. Events unfold against a flat relief background; occasionally there is a suggestion of a town with houses, walls and bridges. Interestingly, fewer than 20 scenes show actual fighting between the opposing armies; most depict the day-to-day activities of the Roman legionaires, providing a wealth of visual data on the military equipment, techniques and weaponry of the Roman army. However, the frieze does illustrate certain specific events from the Dacian campaigns, including: 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 Decabalus. In addition, Dacian weapons and armour are illustrated on the pedestal frieze in meticulous detail. On the cornice, bunches of oak leaves tied with ribbons are held by eagles, two of which are extant.

For more about the art of Ancient Rome, see: Early Roman Art (510-27 BCE) and Christian Roman Art (313 CE Onwards).

It is possible that the highly detailed marble sculpture pictorializes Trajan's own Commentary on the Dacian Wars (now lost), which he wrote during the period 106-110 BCE. A full-size cast of Trajan's Column is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.

Artistic Influence

Trajan's column, its architecture and sculpture, had a significant impact on Late Roman art and important buildings. Its helical stairway design, in particular, spread gradually throughout the empire. The awe-inspiring design of the column was later adopted by the Emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, while sixteen centuries later a very similar column carved in bas-relief was erected in the Place Vendome in Paris to commemorate Napoleon's famous victory at Austerlitz.

Further Resources

For more information about ancient art from Classical Antiquity, see the following resources:

- Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Background)
- Archaic Greek Sculpture (600-480 BCE)
- Early Classical Greek Sculpture (480-450 BCE)
- Late Classical Greek Sculpture (400-323 BCE)

• For more about Roman bas-relief sculpture, see: Homepage.

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