Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
The Column of Trajan continues to stand today as one of Rome’s most well-preserved historical documentation of military history. It stands today next to the Fori Imperiali, adorned by a statue of St. Peter. The four buildings of Trajan’s forum that had once surrounded the Column are now only weather ruins; pillaged for building materials for the Arch of Constantine in the 4th century and churches later on. Who is Trajan and why did he decide to build this large complex for the people of Rome? What message was he trying to send to the Roman people and visitors? These questions will be answered as we discover the true meaning of commemoration as exemplified by Trajan’s Column.
Marcus Cocceius Nerva served as Emperor of Rome from A.D. 96 to A.D. 98. He named Marcus Ulpius Trajanus as his successor in the summer of A.D. 97 to win the support of the Roman army who celebrated Trajan’s previous military victories. Trajan was a Spanish-born Senator and General and is the first-recorded non-Italian to head the state of Rome.
Both northern Thracians and Germans inhabited Dacia, a prosperous neighboring country to the north of Rome. The Dacians were seen as a threat to the Roman Empire. Ambitious, Trajan launched two vengeful campaigns against the Dacians in A.D. 101. He selected two different pontoon-bridge crossings, one across the Tibiscus River and the other across the Danube crossing. Apollodorus of Damascus was chosen to design a permanent bridge crossing, which has been described as a “marvel of engineering.” The Roman army then, led by Trajan, separated into two groups and took two different routes to Sarmizegestusa, the Dacian capital. They then attacked Sarmizegestusa from two separate angles and were able to penetrate past the hillforts protecting the capital. Decebalus then surrendered to Trajan, ending the first of the Dacian wars in A.D. 102. The second of the Dacians wars began anew in A.D. 105 when the Dacians re-assembled an army to attack the Roman “bridgehead.” This second war quickly ended in A.D. 106 when Trajan used tactics similar to the first war to surround Sarmizegestusa. Trajan’s actual account of the Dacian Wars has never been recovered. However, to commemorate Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars, the Trajan forum, market, and column were built. These were commissioned by Trajan and designed by Apollodorus of Damascus. They were finally completed in A.D. 113 and must have been a magnificent sight to behold. Trajan funded the construction of the Trajan forum, market and column with the spoils of war and purposefully created a grandeur, artistic achievement. The forum became a center for Roman daily activity. The column is covered with iconographic scenes, depicting the Roman victory in the Dacian war. These served as forms of military propaganda and justified Trajan’s campaign against their neighbors along the Danubian river. They also served to commemorate Trajan’s militaristic achievements. However, archaeologists now speculate that Trajan’s column was not only a commemorative monument, but possibly a funerary monument. There are several lines of evidence that suggests that Trajan may have intended to use the Column as his final burial site from the outset.
Currently, only the Markets of Trajan and the 140 foot-tall Trajan column are still intact. 140 feet is equal to the height of the mound that was removed to build the Trajan forum. An inscription on the pedestal of the Trajan columns reads, “ad declarandum quantae altitudinis/mons et locus tant(is ope) ribus sit egestus,” which translates to “in order to show how lofty had been the mountain- and the site for such mighty works was nothing less- which had been cleared away.” Although the rest of the forum lay in ruins, 3-D modeling has been used to assess what the forum and column would have looked like in Trajan’s era (Fig 1). To the south of the column would have stood the Basilica Ulpia, to the north the Temple of Divine Trajan, and to the east and west Greek and Latin libraries. This was not an innovative concept by any means; by Trajan’s era, Rome already had several forums. However, the Trajan Market soon became one Rome’s most famous shopping malls and the forum was soon filled with the bustle of daily Roman activity. Interestingly, in Trajan’s era, entrance to the forum was only viable through a single passageway under a triumphal arch. Through the arch lay a large central plaza paved with slabs of neutral white marble. In the middle of the piazza, there stood a 12-meter tall equestrian statue of Trajan made of bronze. Beyond the statue was the grandest of the forum’s buildings, the Basilica Ulpia, a law court named after Trajan’s family. This two-story building boasted of both Corinthian and Ionic columns. Giallo antico, a golden and purple-veined Tunisian marble, lined the steps to the Basilica Ulpia and the other Trajan structures. Beyond the Basilica Ulpa is the Trajan Column, a 140-foot tall structure covered in spiraling friezes. The column is made up of 17 marble drums, all placed atop one another. The iconographs run continuously counterclock-wise on the column, there is only one break that symbolizes the time lapse between the first and second Dacian war. The reliefs depict Trajan’s account of the Dacian wars. The first half of the column illustrates the small battles, while the second half of the column depicts the burning of the Dacian capital and the suicide of King Decebalus and his loyal followers (Figure 4). The scenes etched into the Column read like a script and run continuously in chronological order. The base of the column is a cube made up of square slabs of marble 17 feet in length. One side of the base has a door that leads into an opening; this used to hold the urn of Trajan and his wife Potina until it was stolen in the Middle Ages (Figure 6).
Figure 1: Here is a photo of the layout of Trajan's Forum. Notice the size of the courtyard in which Trajan's Forum stood. The piazza upon entrance into Trajan's Forum measured 80 meters by 120 meters, this is large enough to hold the entire Forum of Augustus. The piazza was covered in beautiful slabs of a neutral white marble, imagine the richness and opulence of this grandeur public space.
Figure 2. An alternative view of Trajan's Forum.
Figure 3. A drawing of the Trajan's Column. Standing over 140 feet tall, Trajan's Column is one of the most well-preserved historical documentation of military history. The scultural friezes wrapping around the Column are etched in incredible detail.
Figure 4. 3-D modeling has allowed us to envision what the Forum of Trajan must have looked like to ancient Romans. An aerial view would have shown us Trajan's 12-foot bronze equestrian statue centered in the opulent piazza.
Figure 5. This figure shows us an enlargement of the base of Trajan's Column which held a chamber. The chamber features a double door opening adorned by an inscription and friezes of eagles, victories, and weaponry.
Figure 6. A modern day view of the Forum of Trajan. Although Trajan's Column
and the Market of Trajan remain intact, the rest of the Forum lay in ruins. The only reminders of the Basilica Ulpia
are the column in the foreground of the picture. The Forum lay about 15 feet below street level
and are a daily reminder to Romans about the contrast of new and old and their ever evolving identity in the world today.
The intended function of Trajan’s column is still debated today. After Trajan’s death on August 8th of A.D. 117, his body was cremated and his ashes returned to Rome in a golden urn where it was placed in the chamber of Trajan’s Column. Although ancient Roman’s accepted the column as an honorary monument commemorating Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, analysis of the spiraling friezes and the structural design of the base suggests that Trajan’s column itself may be a burial chamber of historic proportions. The column may have been built as Trajan’s sepulcher and as an imperial funerary monument.
Several lines of evidence support this claim. The first is that a chamber was built into the Column’s base. This chamber would have presented several engineering complications considering the sheer size of the Column. Furthermore, Marcus Aurelius’s Column is a commemorative column that does not include a chamber. Secondly, there is a structural similarity between the design of the Column’s base and a funerary altar commonly seen in Trajan’s era. This altar features a double door opening, an inscription, and representation of eagles, victories and weaponry. These symbols suggest the original purpose of the Column, to glorify Trajan’s victory over their Danubian neighbors and his victory over death in apotheosis. Futhermore, columns had previously been used as a type of funerary monument. One such example is the column Numerius Erennius Celso assembled for his wife, Esquilla Polla. This particular funerary column is located near Porta di Nola. As a result, historians have suggested that Trajan superimposed these two different funerary monuments and intentionally designed the Column for use as his final resting place.
Upon inspection, the iconographs located throughout the forum suggest Trajan’s intentions from the outset. Griffins located on the spiraling frieze of the Column and the forum entrance symbolized military power. However, Griffins were also associated with the two gods Apollo and Dionysos, the two gods who ruled over the dead and controlled apotheosis.
Romans were pessimistic about the existence of an afterlife so they believed that the best way to commemorate a person after death was by rituals and maintenance of the tomb. It has been suggested that the spiraling frieze on the Column was purposefully designed to force the onlooker to interact with the Column by encircling it in a counterclockwise fashion. Coincidentally, this is similar to an ancient Roman ritual used to commemorate the dead, known as “active memory perpetuation.” This rite had previously been used by Augustus’s mausoleum. Both the Mausoleum of Augustus and Trajan’s Column force onlookers to circumambulate the tomb. The Romans associated the circle with magical properties and they believe that circumambulating the tomb concentrated power at the middle of the circle. This defined the area of the tomb, protecting it and it had a cathartic effect. If this was the case, then Trajan had perfected the forum to a tee. The market would attract shoppers daily, while the Basilica Ulpia would create the need for court visitors so Trajan’s remains would be actively commemorated daily.
Also, inside the Column is a helical staircase that continuously winds up the length of the Column. Inside, there are 43 small windows and little light but at the top of the Column, onlookers are greeted by the magnificent sight of the forum. The juxtaposition of darkness inside the staircase and the brightness at the end was possibly meant to disorient viewers. Once outside again, onlookers are forced to acknowledge Trajan’s greatness as they stare in awe at the forum.
IV. Patrons Goals/Concerns
Trajan wanted there to be no question as to his contribution to Rome’s success. It was under his reign that Rome climaxed; its borders extended from the Lower Rhine to the Black Sea. He wanted to be remembered as a great benefactor of Rome and built the forum as a commemorative monument. Trajan justified to the Romans the need for the Dacian War through political propaganda. He built a grandeur public space to illustrate the profitability of the Dacian War. Trajan may have designated the Column from the outset as his final resting place. It is debatable whether the Column is a primary funerary monument but the iconographs on the frieze support this argument. The depiction of priestesses sacrificing bulls hints at Trajan’s victory over death, therefore symbolizing his divinity. Also, the portico around the Column has two griffins; this is depicted many times and it represents “divine vengeance.” Sphinxes are etched inside of the colonnade to protect the dweller from evil and are usually connected with a hero’s burial. Trajan’s use of sphinxes in the Column emulates Augustus, whose favorite symbol was also the sphinx.
Trajan would not have been able to public declare the Column as his funerary monument because the ancient Romans would have considered this too presumptive. The Column is located within the pomerium, or the sacred boundary of the city of Rome and Julius Caesar’s assassination may have been connected to his declaration of a funerary monument inside the pomerium. Therefore, the spiraling frieze causes the onlooker to take an active role in commemorating Trajan by circumambulating the Column counterclockwise. The circumambulation directs power to the center of the circle and protects the tomb. Trajan felt that, by having a funerary monument in such a public space, he would continue to be commemorated for his contribution to Rome long after his death. You never truly die if you continue to live on in other’s memories so having this beautiful column made him immortal in a way. His name and life became immortalized, no longer a man, but a deified hero.
Trajan’s Column is still studied today by visitors from all over the world. Visitors come to gawk at the sheer size of the column and the iconographic representation etched into the Column in spiraling friezes reveal Trajan’s account of the Dacian Wars. Although we do not know to what extent Trajan’s account influenced the portrayal of these etches, this Column reveals to modern Romans and visitors alike the lifestyle of ancient Roman warriors. On the Columns, the Dacians are depicted as submissive, their heads are held low as they admit defeat to the Romans and as they watch their beautiful capital, Sarmizegestusa burn to the ground and their beloved King commit suicide. The Dacians were well-known for their prosperous economy, which included the mining of precious stones. Trajan used this to his advantage and brought beautiful supplies of purple, white and gold-veined marble as well as gold to erect a forum, market, and Column in his honor. The forum would become filled with activity daily, as the market was comparable to a modern-day shopping mall where ancient Romans would purchase household materials, spices, and rich clothing. Even the steps of the Forum were paved with the most beautiful of marble and it has never been rivaled in size. By offering the Forum as a public space to all Romans, Trajan showed his concern for all Roman citizens. Visitors still continue to circumabulate the Column today. The pictures tell us the story of Trajan and his Roman warriors and their militaristic victory. One author described the Column as history in pictures. There is no historical writing documenting Trajan’s Dacian War. From studying the etches in detail, we can presume what kind of armor the Romans wore and even daily activity in preparation for battle. The sculptured frieze contain incredible detail and are placed to suggest abstract ideas. This type of “commemorative language” was commonly used by Romans in ancient times. Trajan’s Column was later emulated by Hadrian, who built a Mausoleum with a square base and two circular drums. Through the vestibule, into a square atrium, visitors move in a counterclockwise rotation throughout the tomb.
Today, visitors continue to awe at the engineering marvel of Trajan’s tomb. Recent papers have proposed possible mechanisms by which ancients Romans could have superimposed 17 blocks of Luna marble, but it was no easy task. Each block weighed between 25 to 77 tons. This monument continues to influence modern Romans to commemorate Trajan’s victory. Now sitting 15 feet below street level, the contrast of old and new sheds light into Rome’s evolving identity.
VI. Surprises/Interesting Facts
An interesting fact that I learned was that fornix in Italian actually refers to an arch-like structure. However, the term “fornication,” which means sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other” is derived from fornix. The term is first recorded in the dictionary in Middle English in 1303. This is because unmarried couples in Rome often went beneath arches for sexual activity.
Rome is now a smog-filled city, struggling to deal with the pollution that has resulted from its high population density. The chemical pollution increases the deterioration of lime and marble, of which Trajan’s column is composed. However, investigation has shown that lichens also contribute to the decomposition of these two stones. Ironically however, lichens no longer grow on Trajan’s column because of Rome’s pollution.
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