Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Column of Trajan
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.”
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