Honors in Rome - Summer 2004
“Pater Patriae” (Father of the Country) was the title given by the people of Rome to their leader Marcus Ulpius Traianus, who ruled as Roman Emperor from AD 98 to 117. Trajan was born around the year AD 53 in Spain, the son of a Consul and thus a member of a noble Roman family. Trajan, who was appointed by his predecessor Nerva to the Roman throne in AD 98, was believed to have been divinely chosen for his task as emperor, and thus shared a similar title to Jupiter: “Father of the Cosmos.”
Just three years after taking the Imperial Throne, Trajan embarked on the first of what were to be two grand and harrowing wars against the Dacians, an amply civilized assembly of Germanic barbarians who lived across the Danube River, in the region of modern Romania. The Dacians were led by Decebalus, who made the war grueling for the Romans with his intelligence and skill in warfare. Even so, Trajan and his army were triumphant, and he returned to Rome to celebrate an exceptional conquest and to receive the award of the title "Dacicus." The Danube did not remain peaceful lastingly, however, and Trajan returned to Dacia in AD 105. At the end of Trajan’s second conquest, Dacia was not just defeated but also integrated into the Roman Empire as a new province. The twice-waged assault on Dacia was lengthily, costly, and difficult over time, and had potential for causing unrest in the Roman people, who might conclude that their Emperor had fought a frivolous and pointless war. Trajan avoided this revulsion with the construction of a new Forum, larger and more grandiose than any forum constructed before it, and built with plunder from the very war in question. This forum would not just serve as a place of meeting, business, sacrifice, lawmaking, debate, study, and trade – as many fora before it – but also as the site of a monument to Trajan himself, in celebration and defense of his conquests in Dacia.Trajanic Coin
In the time before Trajan’s rule, the center of Roman politics, business, and ceremony had been the Forum Romanum. Located at the base of the Palatine hill just south of the capital, the Forum Romanum was the first of many fora erected for the use of Roman Citizens. Caesar, Augustus, and Nerva each built new fora to the north east of the Forum Romanum to accommodate the ever growing empire. The empire was growing so quickly that the undertaking of voting, a very important function of the original Forum, was moved to new facilities constructed on the Campus Martius. The Emperor preceding Nerva, Domitian, is believed to have excavated for a fourth forum, which was left as an empty plot upon his death in AD 96. It was within this previous excavation that Trajan built his Forum, which would dwarf those preceding it in size and in grandeur.
Trajan’s Forum took on the tasks of the traditional Forum, but on a much larger scale. This forum, like many before it, exhibited tributes to great Romans. As one might have thought, the greatest honor went to Trajan himself, who was commemorated by an enormous equestrian statue, cast in bronze, gilded, and placed atop a platform in the centre of the Forum’s piazza. This statue was so large that it was never rivaled by succeeding emperors. The base of the statue has recently been discovered in the center of the Forum’s piazza, the size of which indicated that the statue may have been as much as 40 feet tall.
Beyond the piazza to the east was a multi-level market where articles were bought and sold by merchants and Roman citizens. The brickwork comprising this structure has proven quite enduring, and is the best preserved component of the forum with the exception of the Column. The basilica, measuring 395 by 180 feet, dominated the north end of the piazza. This building, which exhibited marble tiling on its ceiling and floors, was roofed by thickly gilded bronze tiles. The interior space would have accommodated a large amount of business, especially that of important Roman trials. The dual apses at each end of the basilica, unusual for such a building, were most likely added for expansion of space available for important business affairs. To the north of the basilica was a much different atmosphere where a small courtyard exists, flanked to the east and west by two libraries (one for Greek, and one for Latin texts), and most likely bordered by an additional temple commemorating Trajan to the north. In this courtyard stands the column of Trajan, a monument standing 150ft tall and consisting of a marble column set upon a massive rectangular base. The column is topped by a gilded statue of the emperor, and accommodates a viewing platform which can be accessed via a spiraling staircase within the column itself.
Columnar monuments were not new to the Romans, but Trajan’s column, which incorporated an interior spiral staircase to provide access to its top, a funerary tomb and a continuous spiraling frieze depicting the Dacian wars to decorate its exterior, was altogether innovative. The use of mythological figures, larger than the others, to break up scenes depicted throughout the spiraling frieze was quite innovative, and aided in the continuity of the frieze. Trajan’s Forum was never rivaled by emperors succeeding him, and stands today as a marvel even in ruins. Much investigation has gone into how the Forum was originally arranged through numerous excavations on the site.
The forum stands in ruins today, but through excavations, archaeologists have deciphered how even the most accessory of statues must have been arranged throughout the structures. The forum was built with several varieties of marble, each with a distinct color and origin. This display of color would have added to the Forum’s ability to showcase the wealth of the Roman people, and more specifically the wealth gained from the Dacian Wars. The marble statues which once stood in the many doorways and arches were sculpted of Dacian soldiers, each with solemn expressions in the recognition of their defeat and servitude to the Roman people. These statues, in addition to the figures sculpted into the many marble faces of the Forum’s structures and column, were once colorfully painted, and would have been appropriate symbols of Roman wealth. The faces of these statues and friezes have been worn with time, and are maybe more emblematic in their current monochromatic tone. The stories illustrated in the marble carvings on the column, and throughout the marble faces of the structures in the Forum can still be deciphered, telling of Roman successes and war travels, as well as incorporating figures of funerary implications. These figures hint at one of the more ambiguous qualities of the Forum, its function as Trajan’s resting place.
It is a matter of much discussion whether Trajan’s Forum was originally constructed with the idea of incorporating Trajan’s sepulcher, but evidence involving the figures incorporated into the design of the structures suggests as such. First, many columns had been constructed before the great column within the Forum for the purpose of honoring great Roman citizens, none of which incorporated a chamber of any sort into the base. The construction of the hollow base would have made engineering the construction of the cumbersome column resting above considerably more difficult. In addition, there is a recognized similarity between the layout of the column’s base, and a widely used type of Roman funerary altar. These altars, as Trajan’s column, incorporate double doors topped by an inscription, and are decorated with icons reflecting the role of the chamber. A frieze of winged Victories, eagles, and weaponry decorate the entrance to the chamber, which celebrate the emperor’s power in warfare and his eventual victory over death in apotheosis. These figures are repeated in decorations throughout the components of the forum, which further indicate that the initial plan for the forum incorporated a funerary element. It is not a surprise, however, that decor of the chamber and of the Forum as a whole, exudes ambiguity. It was not in the least bit customary for the Emperor to choose his resting place, but the senate, who did not begin debating on the issue until after his death. Burial within the pomerium was an extraordinary honor, and for an emperor to assume his burial in such an area was incredibly presumptive. Such an impendence on tradition as an Emperor excavating his own burial site might have rendered the fate of Julius Caesar upon him: assassination for being entirely too presumptive.
The manner in which the column was constructed adds to the controversy over whether the monument was initially intended as a funerary column. There has been much discussion over the size of the monument, and the difficulty viewing the entire frieze carved into the column from the ground. The figures in the scenes carved into the column are approximately 2/3 normal size, but the height of the column makes even these detailed figures difficult to see. Many believe that the difficulty of viewing the column from the ground, and the lack of alternate viewing areas was an engineering mistake. This, however, is not such an arguable claim when one looks at the monument again as functioning as a funerary element. It is rather disorienting for a person experiencing the column to continually circumambulate the column while facing sharply upwards to visualize the frieze. There may have been a point to this disorientation of the viewer, however, in the keeping with Romans’ belief of continuing a person’s memory on earth as opposed to relying on an afterlife to continue their being. The disorientation of the viewer, the Romans believed, served to put the viewer in a place somewhere between the world of the living, and that of the dead. This would bring the viewer closer to the deceased while experiencing the tale of his great victory in war.
It is important to note, however, that Romans of Trajan’s time were distrustful, if not completely uncertain of the existence of an afterlife. Therefore, the utility of the column as a memorial to Trajan was perhaps primary. A practice used by many to ensure the immortality of a person after death was the construction of a living memory, where the person would continue to live through the memory of others. In the example of Trajan’s column, people would be forced to walk around the column to view the frieze, whose circumambulation was suggestive of the continuation of time, and disorientation indicative of the constant wavering of a person viewing the column between the world of the living and that of the dead. Romans believed that a person did not move directly from life to death, but rather through a tripartite change of state, from life, to nearly dead, to dead. By forcing people to circumambulate the column, the survival of Trajan’s memory was assured continuation in one of Rome’s most visited areas, where people from distant areas could experience his monument and perpetuate his memory while accomplishing their daily errands at the market. The frieze, which depicted his glorious victories in the Dacian wars, promoted remembrance of the great emperor, as well as propagandizing the story of his great war against the Dacians and thus the power of the Roman military.
The way in which a person accessed the top of the column, through the spiraling staircase within, was equally as disorienting as circling the column’s base. With its confined space, lack of consistent sources of light and seemingly unending spiral, the staircase would sufficiently disorient a person before releasing them back into daylight at the top where the entire forum and the nearby areas of Rome were visible. From the perspective of the column’s top, 150 feet above the ground, one might be reminded of yet another one of the functionalities of the Forum.
Many elements of the Forum contributed to the defense of the Dacian wars, including the overall architectural layout of the buildings. Some say that the arrangement of the buildings depicts the manner in which Roman military camps were constructed, as the military’s organization is an attribute that is said to have contributed a great deal to their success. This is not entirely surprising as Trajan chose his military engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus to oversee the final excavation of the site and the building of its primary structures.
Not only was this Forum laid out differently than those before it, but it was funded and even for the most part born by the very toils of the war it defended. The column was not the only element that contained decoration depicting the Dacian wars. Marble statues of Dacian prisoners were staged throughout the Forum, as well as in other elements of interior decoration present in the Bibliotheca Ulpia, the dual Greek and Latin libraries flanking the column’s courtyard. These elements indicate that perhaps one of the Forum’s more important functionalities was to fend off allegations that the Dacian wars were a negligent waste of resources. It is quite clear that the message intended by the Forum’s architect was that the wars were quite prosperous, and that their Emporer who led them through the battles was to be credited for the great achievement, even in death.
Whether or not the Forum was originally designed for the purpose of housing Trajan’s mausoleum, it was certainly effective in glorifying his life. The Column certainly depicted scenes from his greatest conquest, the Dacian wars, but it is important to note that the scenes depicted in the frieze very closely portray Trajan’s own account of the wars. The Dacian soldiers are depicted as inferior, with their heads hung low in defeat to the Romans. These illustrations may not have been entirely inaccurate, but certainly depict the Romans as the superior with their victory.
The depiction of the lowered morale of the Dacians follows with one of the major purposes of the Forum. It was built for Roman citizens, for them to make and debate laws in the basilica, trade goods in the market, and for them to socialize in the piazza. As the morale of Roman citizens was based around their superiority over others, it was entirely fitting for their new forum to celebrate their domination over yet another civilization. Trajan did not just have the morale of his citizens in mind when making a point of defending his conquests in Dacia through the new Forum. In AD 113, shortly after dedicating the Column, Trajan initiated another campaign, this time against the Parthians. Cassius Dio, a great Roman historian, later suggested that the Parthian Wars were fought for glory, and not out of necessity. Trajan would have needed to have a significant record for fighting wars for the benefit and gain of the Empire to lead his military into yet another costly war with the support of his people. His record would have been already brilliantly displayed in the Forum with its immortalized illustrations of his previous glories.
Trajan would have enjoyed the liberties of having his previous wars approved, not only by the Roman people, but of the Roman Gods, whose approval was very important to the merit of a conquest. It was important in the depiction of the wars to involve the approval of the gods with scenes of sacrifice. Jupiter confirms his consent for the wars in scene XXIV of the Dacian frieze, pitching his thunderbolt in support of the Romans. The illustrations show a stark connection between the campaigns, and the resources gained from them. A bridge constructed over the Danube River is depicted in scenes XCIX-C to stress the gain of the area once occupied by the Dacians, which was considered Roman territory after the wars. While the frieze carved into Trajan’s column depicts scenes of war, it depicts very few actual battle scenes. This could be construed as an attempt to downplay the gruesome realities of war, and to glorify the aspects of war concerning travel, construction, submission, and sacrifice. This would have been essential in separating the glory of war, which would have been the most profitable as propaganda, to the gruesome realities of the conquests.
It can be assured that the Forum was influential to later generations of Romans, and more recently to tourists visiting the site. The Forum was never rivaled in size, and specifically the great statue of Trajan depicted on horseback in the center of the piazza, was never replicated. It may be important to note that columns similar in construction to the column in Trajan’s Forum were constructed after his death. This is important when considering whether the column was built with disregard for visitors’ inability to properly view the entire monument. If there was some mistake, or miscalculation in the design of the column, then surely it would not have been so closely mirrored in the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The column must have proved to be a very effective monument, even without consideration of its funerary elements. It is possible that in creating a monument that was so large that it could not be viewed in entirety from the ground, that there was an implied allusion by the architect to Trajan’s, and in fact Rome’s unrivaled ascendancy.
It is no surprise that people come from across the world to view this monument, along with others erected in ancient Rome. The success of this ancient civilization is reflected in each of their monuments, and it is entirely moving to stand before an artifact of such size and history. The frieze sculpted into the column’s face allows us to gain insight into one of the more distinctive aspects of Roman society: their military success. The illustrations portrayed in the carvings allows us to visualize just how the army may have been arranged in battle, what kind of armor they wore, how the battles actually took place and how prisoners were treated. The detail contained in these illustrations allow us to investigate the qualities that made the Roman military so successful, even the way that battle camps were set up and depicted in the illustrations gives insight into their success. When one stands before the column today, it cannot be ignored that the column constructed so many years ago stands today after weathering centuries of looting, erosion, and changes in its political surroundings. When walking through the Forum’s piazza, one cannot ignore the millions of people who have walked there before them, the first venturing there almost two thousand years ago.
The column itself continues to be appreciated, both as a tribute, and as a funerary monument to Trajan. The utility of the column as a memorial will continue as long as it stands. In addition, the care taken to continue Trajan’s glory into death will also continue to be preserved within the column, as it’s function as a circumambulatory figure will continue to be powerful for ages to come. It is a wonder to modern people that a civilization, and yet a single person, could be remembered in such a glorious representation for such a long time.
Perhaps the reason the column alone is so provocative is that it evokes accolade for the people who constructed it. Those who hoisted the blocks that top the column are thought of in a different light at present, when large machines would be employed to accomplish such tasks. In modern times we have a propensity to admire those who accomplished such tasks with antiquated methods involving mostly manpower. This is all without mention of the enormous effort it must have been to carve the frieze into the entire surface of the column, depicting detailed scenes of war which are believed to have been carved at their present height on the column. Certainly the movement of these enormous blocks of marble from the numerous quarries around the ancient Roman Empire would have been a great effort. The detail that the Romans gave their monuments evokes a due respect from future generations, who as a result are able to continue the celebration of the successes of the Ancient Empire.
VI. Personal Observations
The nature of the frieze as a funerary tribute is most interesting to me. The incredible effort that was put into perpetuating the memory of Trajan and his Dacain Wars is astonishing, and I find it remarkable that the column stands today, still perpetuating his life after death through the remembrance of those visiting his tomb. In continuing with the theme of the continuation of time, it must be phenomenal to see such an old artifact standing next to more modern buildings while considering how much time has passed since this monument was erected. The juxtaposition of artifacts from an empire that controlled such a large fraction of Europe in ancient times to modern Rome must be magnificent. This cannot really be ignored by those who visit the Forum today, with the blatant differences between the Forum and the more modern buildings erected around it, and yet the agreement of the purposes of each structure: to house and celebrate Romans.
I find it amazing that such a great effort was made by Trajan to defend his conquests in war. Imagine George Bush erecting such a monument in defense of his war in Iraq. How incredible for a leader to take such care that his citizens approved of his actions, however pointless they may have been. Granted, it was necessary for him to take such actions to ensure the perpetuation of his life, but the lengths to which Trajan, and other Emperors went to in the celebration of their successes and the glory of their people is incredible.
The functionality of such an elaborate funerary monument is equally as amazing. A modern gravestone in an average cemetery may enjoy only the occasional visit from a close loved one to the deceased. In comparison, few people who lived in the time of the Romans are being remembered as Trajan is today with the existence of his column. The efforts to preserve Trajan’s memory, with the combination of many memorial strategies of his time, will endure for ages as many people who came after him are forgotten.
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The McMaster Trajan Project, 1999. Ed. Gretchen Umholtz, Michele George. 1999. McMaster U. 10 August 2004 .
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