Contents:


The purpose of this brief essay is to serve as an introduction both to the column itself and to the slide collection on this website. Links have been provided to selected images, with the intent of both illustrating the text and giving the reader a taste of quality and diversity of the images available.  

The Emperor Trajan And His Forum

(See sketch of the forum.)

Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Roman Emperor AD 98-117 Trajan was born in about the year AD 53 in Spain, the son of a Consul and thus a member of a noble Roman family. He showed such prowess in public and military service that he was chosen by Nerva to be his successor on the Imperial throne. Trajan was formally adopted in AD 98 by Nerva, who then promptly died and left the not-so-young man (he was likely about 45) emperor. Only three years later Trajan embarked on the first of what were to be two great and difficult wars against the Dacians, fairly highly civilized Germanic 'barbarians' who lived across the Danube in the area of modern Romania. The Dacians were led by the intelligent and skilful Decebalus, who made the war hard for the Romans. Nonetheless, Trajan and his army were victorious, and he returned to Rome the next year to celebrate a fine triumph and to receive the award of the title "Dacicus." All was not well on the Danube, however, and Trajan returned to Dacia in 105. Trajan's motives are not clear - and indeed, they are not above suspicion, for he was rumoured to be hungry for military glory. Nonetheless, the result of this new campaign was unambiguous: this time Dacia was not only defeated but also incorporated into the Roman Empire as a new province.

Trajan embarked on further conquests later in his reign, but it was for the Dacian wars and his subsequent grand building projects in the Eternal City that he is most remembered - and rightly so. Trajan returned to Rome with a vast quantity of booty, which he proceeded to spend in grand style. He was praised by the Romans of his time for his building of roads and aqueducts, but the crowning glory of Trajan's Rome was not built of brick or basalt, but out of coloured, polished marble, bronze, and gold. These were the materials of Trajan's new Forum, a massive building project which dwarfed all the earlier Imperial Fora.

From the earliest days of the city, the hub of Roman business, politics, and ceremony had been the Forum Romanum. Located at the base of the Palatine hill just south of the capital, the Forum Romanum was embellished over the years with temples, places of meeting and business, and various honours to famous citizens. Here, politicians debated, citizens met, talked, and voted, priests made sacrifices, and triumphant generals rode through on their way to the Capitol. On special occasions, gladiators even fought to the death while spectators looked on from temporary wooden stands. By the time of Caesar, however, the old forum was no longer large enough to handle all the business which needed to be transacted. Some of these activities were moved elsewhere: for example, new facilities for voting were constructed on the Campus Martius, removing a major political function of the old Forum. The other approach to this problem of space was to construct supplementary venues nearby. Caesar, Augustus, and Nerva each built new fora to the north east of the old Forum, but still linked to it and to each other by doors and passageways. Domitian is said to have started construction on a fourth imperial forum, but work on this ceased at his death. Thus, it was left to Trajan to fill the need for yet more forum space. Trajan did more, however, than simply provide more space for the public business of Rome; he constructed at the same time a monument to himself and to the glory of the Empire.

The two main elements of the new Forum of Trajan were an open piazza and a basilica, and both were astonishingly large. The entire Forum of Nerva would have fit within the basilica, and the piazza, its open area alone measuring more than 80m in width and 120m in length, was large enough to hold almost the entire Forum of Augustus. This piazza, the heart of the Forum, was paved with imported marbles and surrounded by a colonnade. Atop this colonnade were inscriptions stating that the whole complex had been built using the spoils of war taken by the emperor. One of the functions of this massive open space was to provide a setting for public business and ceremony. For example, the successor of Trajan, Hadrian, performed in it a great ceremony of burning debt records. Later, during a time of dire military need, the emperor Marcus Aurelius used it as a venue for a great auction of the imperial possessions. Another function was to provide a display area in which to exhibit honours to great Romans. Naturally, the greatest honour went to Trajan himself, who was immortalised by a great equestrian statue, cast in bronze, gilded, and placed atop a pedestal in the centre of the piazza. The size of this statue was so great that it defied replication by any later rulers. When the emperor Constantius visited the Forum of Trajan in the 4th century, he declared somewhat rashly that he would order a copy of this horse to be made. One of his companions, a Persian prince named Ormisda, replied wittily that first the emperor should build a new stable, if he could, so that the proposed new steed might roam as freely as the one they saw before them. The base of this statue has recently been discovered in the centre of the Forum piazza, and its measurements give us an idea of the size of the horse which Constantius desired to copy: the horse and rider together (not including the base) may have been as much as 12 metres tall. By comparison, the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which now stands on the Capitol, is only about one third as large.

Beyond the eastern end of the piazza was a multi-level market, in which spices and other luxuries were sold. The solid brickwork of this structure has proven so enduring that, except for the column, it is today the best preserved element of the forum complex. The north end of the piazza was dominated by the basilica. Its huge interior space (120m by 55m) was covered by a timber and tile roof supported on a forest of massive columns, and was enlarged by the provision of apses at each end. Its decoration was sumptuous. The walls and floor were clad in marble, and the roof was covered with bronze tiles thickly gilded. This sheltered yet extremely imposing space would have provided a suitable setting for public business, especially important trials. The dual apses, unusual for a Roman basilica, may have been added to double the space available for such affairs.

When finally sated with the sights of the grand piazza, exhausted by the bustle of the market, and overwhelmed by the fervent pleading of the advocates in the basilica, a visitor could exit the north side of the basilica and enter a much different environment. Walking out through the last row of imposing columns, our visitor would emerge into a small courtyard on the other side of the basilica. This courtyard was flanked to the west and east by two libraries, one for Latin and one for Greek texts. It is not certain what lay to the north. A temple to the divine Trajan has been suggested, but no remains of such a building have been found in this area. However, a visitora's attention would be immediately drawn to the imposing monument which stood in the centre of the court: the column of Trajan.

Experiencing Trajan's Column

(See sketch of column and immediate context.)

The column of Trajan was a unique monument. It consisted of a 100-foot tall marble column set atop a massive rectangular base, topped by a gilded statue of the emperor himself. Columnar monuments, albeit smaller in scale, were not new to the Romans; there were three things, however, which made this monument particularly novel: the chamber carved in its base to house Trajan's ashes, the spiral staircase which wound upwards within its otherwise solid marble shaft to a viewing platform at its top, and, most of all, the continuous sculpted frieze which decorates the exterior of the column. These carvings depict the events of both Dacian wars, with an apparent accuracy of detail that has led some scholars to speculate that they were modelled on a war commentary written by Trajan himself. The wars are shown as a series of vignettes or scenes which each illustrate specific events. The scenes cover the entire range of Roman military activity, from fighting to collecting food, from marching to building. They also show many details of the land the Romans passed through - and of the enemies they fought. The figures in the carvings (over 2,000 appear) are executed at about 2/3 life size, and are so finely detailed that they cannot be fully appreciated from the ground. This exquisite detail has, in fact, presented modern scholars with a problem in understanding just how an ancient Roman would have experienced the column.

martin1.l.JPGThe first thing a visitor to the Column of Trajan would see would be the base, covered with detailed carvings representing spoils of war captured from the Dacians. The carvings which cover the Column itself, though easily accessible to us today through photographs and casts, would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for an ancient Roman spectator to appreciate in full. From ground level, only the lowest spirals are visible in detail. To make matters more difficult, the small size of the court in which the column was placed would not have allowed people to step very far back from the monument, increasing the difficulty of viewing the upper spirals. It has been proposed that the roofs of the two flanking libraries could have been used as viewing platforms (the height of these may have been about equivalent to the current street level from which visitors now peer at the column). Even if this was the case, however, it would have only allowed the spectator to view a few more spirals and it would have been impossible to follow the circular narrative of the relief.

This of course raises the question of why such great pains were taken to cover the entire surface of the Column with such detailed relief if could not have been appreciated in full. There are some possible explanations, including the argument that any Roman observer would have been familiar with the story which the relief narrates and would not have needed to see all the scenes in detail to understand the monument, but no explanation is wholly satisfying. What is clear, however, is that the Romans were well aware of this problem with visibility: when the Column of Marcus Aurelius was carved about 70 years later, its designers increased the height of the spiral band and cut much deeper into the stone to make the figures easier to see.

However, it must be remembered that the relief is not all that there is to the Column of Trajan. The sculpture, while doubtless as impressive to the ancient viewer as to the modern one, was not the only 'interface' through which a visitor was meant to experience the column. The second crucial aspect of the Column of Trajan, and one which is unfortunately seldom experienced by modern visitors, is the combination of spiral stairway and viewing platform. Even to a modern visitor, accustomed to office towers and glass elevators, the experience of climbing the column's stairs and viewing Rome from 120 feet in the air is quite impressive; for the ancient Roman, living before the age of the skyscraper and also at a time when the Forum of Trajan was intact, the effect would doubtless have been even greater.

The staircase itself is carved and finished so precisely that one could think it a modern addition. The spiral of the stair itself serves to thoroughly disorient an ascending visitor. The windows, one every quarter turn, were the only source of light and are placed at such a height that it is impossible to see anything but sky. The whole experience of climbing the column, then, involves a long, twisting ascent, punctuated by bright rectangles of light and culminating finally in a sudden 'epiphany' as the climber emerges into the bright light of day on the viewing platform. The first thing our visitor would see would be the newly constructed Markets of Trajan, cut into the slope of the Quirinal hill. Turning to the right, our visitor would be able to gaze along the length of Trajan's Forum all the way down to the Colosseum (view from top) This view would have been dominated by the massive roof of the Basilica Ulpia, with its gilded bronze tiles blazing in the sun. Another quarter turn would face the visitor to the Capitol, and a further turn to complete the circuit would provide a view out over the Campus Martius.

How might the impact of such an experience have compared with standing on the ground, craning one's neck while squinting at the spiral relief carvings? (View from bottom) Conceivably, the ascent and resulting view may have been thought of by the column's designers as a more important device for experiencing the column than the carvings themselves.

Carving Trajan's Column

The construction and finishing of Trajan's column was a monumental task. At Luna (near Cararra in northern Italy) workers quarried the components of the column: eight solid marble blocks for the base, twenty massive marble drums measuring three and a half meters in diameter for the column shaft and capital. These were shipped down the coast and up the River Tiber, and then dragged to the construction site near the Capitol. Once the base had been assembled, work on the column drums could begin. Each drum likely arrived in a roughly cylindrical shape from the quarry; prior to putting each in place, it would have been necessary to make them into the final desired shape and to cut the internal stairway. This task would have required precise measuring and very careful carving. As each drum was lifted into place, it was secured to the one below by metal dowels fitted into the upper and lower faces of the drums and secured with lead. The lead was poured in via a channel cut into the upper face of the lower drum; it was these channels which medieval scavengers used to guide them to the metal dowels, leaving large pits hacked into the surface of the Column at various places along the drum joins.

When was the spiral relief itself carved?[footnote 1] This question has been much debated, but evidence from the reliefs themselves seems to indicate that the column drums were carved after they had been put in place, and perhaps carving actually began before all the drums had been raised. The carving appears to have started from the bottom and proceeded left to right up the shaft in a spiral. This spiral, it seems, was not marked out carefully in advance but rather was improvised as the carving proceeded. The top border of the spiral was generally not defined as the frieze was carved, but was left to be formed by the ground line of the spiral as it wrapped around and up the column. Often, objects from the lower spiral can be seen jutting into the groundline of the spiral above, which is often dramatically adjusted to avoid interfering with the scene below.

Sometimes it seems that the carving of the reliefs got ahead of the carving and assembly of the drums. This is indicated by cases where the upper border of a spiral follows along the upper edge of a drum, while the lower border continues to rise. The construction site must have been a scene of hectic activity.

The height of the spiral varies greatly, from about 0.8 m to slightly over 1.5 m. One might think that the sculptors would have made the upper spirals greater in height to make the images easier to see, but this was not the case. In fact, the spiral maintains approximately the same width (1.1-1.2m) between the 1st and the 13th turn, then gets narrower as it proceeds up the column, shrinking to its narrowest at the 19th spiral, and then only on the last two drums widens to its greatest size. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the sculptors were not sure just how much space they were going to have to fit in all their scenes. This makes even more sense if the column was assembled while the sculpture was in progress: only when the final drums were placed on top of the column were the sculptors finally sure of how much space they had. Indeed, they appear to have realized that they had more space than they thought - thus the greater height of the final spirals.

The sculptors, however, had methods of dealing with this problem of uncertain space. Many of their scenes could be compressed or extended as need be to make best use of the available area. A good example is the adlocutio scene, which consists generally of Trajan on a podium flanked by his officers and addressing the troops assembled below. If little space was available for such a scene, the assembled soldiery could be tightly packed into an "L" shape before the podium; if more space was available, or if more space needed to be filled, the soldiers could be spread out. Details such as this, taken into consideration with the varying height of the spiral, suggest that the sculptors did not have the benefit of a detailed mockup or cartoon to guide them in their work.

Tools and Technique

How did the carvers and sculptors actually execute their work? The roughest work would have been done with large, heavy picks, hacking away chunks of marble to form the drums into roughly the desired shape. Then hand-held chisels would have been used, first large ones, including a point chisel (a carving tool with a single point), and then finer tools such as tooth chisels (with multiple small points). In some cases, particularly at edges and angles, a flat chisel (with a sharp straight blade at its end) was used to bring the stone to a fine, accurate finish. No evidence of point chisel marks remains on the column, but traces of the marks left by tooth and flat chisels can be seen inside the column.

The exterior of the column is even more finely finished. There are no traces of either the point or tooth chisel left anywhere on the sculpted frieze, although we know from examples of unfinished Roman carvings that these tools were used to rough out the carved images. Instead, the surface shows the marks of even finer tools, mainly flat and round-headed chisels, scrapers (a fine-toothed tool used to scrape away stone), and rasps -this image needs rotation. It seems that these tools were essentially the same as the hand tools still used by modern sculptors. Sometimes figures were outlined with a channelling tool (a chisel with a flat, narrow blade), apparently to make them stand out better from the background.

No part of the frieze was ever brought to a polished finish, but every preserved portion of the original surface shows some sort of tool mark. The years have taken their toll on the surface of the column's carvings. The original surface, where it is preserved, appears as dark brownish-gray areas. In these areas the detail is sharp and tool marks are preserved. Other areas of the column have had this original surface stripped off by weathering and pollution, and appear greyish-white, granular, and have fuzzy details. The difference between these two types of surface is very clear on the stone. (See View of contrasting surfaces).

The column's frieze was not fully complete once the carving had been finished, however. Provisions were made in many places for metal attachments to be added, mainly tools and weapons held by soldiers, and small holes were drilled into many hands for these miniature implements to be inserted. It seems, however, that this process was rather haphazardly executed. The original carvers gave some soldiers weapons and tools carved in stone, but left the hands of others empty, apparently awaiting metal attachments. In the end, however, not all of these hands were filled and many of the column's figures were left working or fighting with invisible weapons. Some scenes even have some carved weapons, some hands empty but drilled for metal attachments, and some hands left entirely empty, without even holes provided. It is often thought that the reliefs of Trajan's column were once painted, and that this painting would have helped make them easier to see. However, there appears to be no trace of any paint anywhere on the column, and it also may be doubted whether the addition of bright paint to such small, detailed reliefs would have made them any easier to make out.

Some Further Reading on Trajan's Column and its Sculpture

C. Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Trajanssäule, Berlin 1896, 1900.
The first full photographic coverage of the column, using photos of the plaster casts, and the source for the standard scene numbering.

P.J.E. Davies, "The Politics of Perpetuation. Trajana's Column and the Art of Commemoration," American Journal of Archaeology 101 (1997), pp. 41-46. Discusses the important funerary aspects of the column.

F. Lepper and S. Frere, Trajan's Column, Gloucester 1988.
A reprint of Cichorius' photos with an extensive commentary in English.

P.M. Monti, La Colonna Traiana, Rome 1980.
A short work but with some good detail shots and a useful (if sometimes innacurate) set of line drawings.

J.E. Packer, The Forum of Trajan in Rome: A Study of the Monuments, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1997.
A comprehensive study of the forum complex, with extensive plans, drawings, photos, and full-colour reconstructions based on meticulous research into all aspects of the complexa's architecture and adornment.

I. Richmond, Trajan's Army on Trajan's Column, London 1982 (reprint of article published in 1935 in the Papers of the British School at Rome)
A comprehensive study of all aspects of the Roman army as seen on the column, well illustrated. Along with this should be read J.C. Coulston's article "The Value of Trajan's Column as a Source of Military Equipment" in Roman Military Equipment: The Sources of Evidence (British Archaeological Reports International Series 476, 1989), pages 31-44, which raises a number of important caveats for anyone studying the column from a military perspective.

P. Rockwell, "Prelimary Study of the Carving Techniques on the Column of Trajan," pp. 101-111 in Marmi Antichi (Studi Miscellanei 26, 1985). Ibid., The Art of Stoneworking: a Reference Guide, Cambridge 1993.

L. Rossi, Trajan's Column and the Dacian Wars, translated by J.M.C. Toynbee, London 1971.
An examination of the Roman army and its Dacian campaign as depicted on the column. Although he likely reads too much into certain details (see the warnings of Coulston, in the reference given above), Rossi provides a very handy narrative survey of the column's relief, illustrated with small photographic sections of the frieze.

S. Settis, A. La Regina, G. Agosti, and V. Farinella, La Colonna Traiana, Rome 1988.
Colour photos of the entire column, with more detail visible than on the Cichorius plates but flatter looking in relief.

Websites:

http://www.artsednet.getty.edu/ArtsEdNet/Exhibitions/Trajan/index.html An excellent site focussed on the Getty Museum's project to create a computer model of the Forum of Trajan. Many images in video format are available, which help to give an impression of what the forum might have looked like in Roman times.

http://www.traiano.com/inglese/testi_html/home.htm The official Italian excavation site for current work in the forum of Trajan. The June 1999 excavation news contains a report on the discovery of the base of the equestrian statue of Trajan.

FOOTNOTES

{1} For the following I am greatly indebted to Peter Rockwell for many discussions on the various theories and for much clarification on (and some first hand experience of) the practicalities of marble carving

   

Go To Record Number:   

The McMaster Trajan Project, 1999