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Art Through Time: A Global View

History and Memory Art: Column of Trajan

» Roman artist(s)

Column of Trajan

Column of Trajan
Artist / Origin: Roman artist(s)
Region: Europe
Date: 113
Period: 1 CE – 500 CE
Material: Marble
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 125 ft. (38.1 m.) (with base)
Location: Trajan’s Forum, Rome, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library

The Column of Trajan represents an appropriation of Greek art—the column was a Greek form and the figures adorning the monument are firmly rooted in the older classical tradition.

The combination of column form and narrative relief sculpture, however, is decidedly Roman, as is the quest for immortality through the commemoration of individual achievement in monumental sculpture and architecture.

Completed in 113, Trajan’s column was built to commemorate the emperor’s successful military campaigns against the Dacians in central-east Europe. The column, which stands over a hundred feet high, is decorated with a winding strip of relief sculpture that would measure 600 feet in length if it could be unfurled. In its original form, the sculptural scenes on the column were adorned with paint and gilding and a gold-covered statue of Trajan (later replaced by Saint Peter) sat atop its capital.

The reliefs decorating the column document the stages of each of the emperor’s military campaigns in Dacia chronologically, from the army’s preparations to their engagement on the battlefield to their ultimate victory. The scenes themselves are packed with figures and full of action. Trajan himself appears in each, usually in a central position and taller than surrounding figures. Uninterrupted by breaks or transitions, the episodes on the column run into one another, creating a continuous narrative flow that lends a sense of historical inevitability to Trajan’s accomplishments as well as to the dominance of the Roman Empire. Although the scale of the sculptural forms increases towards the top of the column, the higher scenes are barely legible from the ground, suggesting that work’s ultimate significance lay in its commemorative totality, not in its recording of individual events.

Expert Perspective: David Bernstein, Professor of European and English History, Sarah Lawrence

“In the second century, the Emperor Trajan waged an epic campaign on the Danube frontier. And these deeds were commemorated in one of the most astonishing works of art from antiquity. It is a hundred-foot-high column that has a narrow strip of relief sculpture depicting the events, highlighting the role of the emperor. Almost certainly people in England and Normandy knew the Column of Trajan. It was much remarked upon by the many pilgrims who had gone to Rome. Perhaps its narrow strip narrative inspired the design and format of the Bayeux Tapestry.”

Additional Resources

Beard, Mary and John Henderson. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

D’Ambra Eve. Roman Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Davies, Penelope E.J. “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” American Journal of Archaeology, 101.1 (January 1997): 41–65.

Elsner, Jas. Art and Text in Roman Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Flower, Harriet I. The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008.

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