Trajan's Column

Trajan's Column

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Trajan's Column is a Roman triumphal column in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

, Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

, which commemorates Roman emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

Trajan , was Roman Emperor from 98 to 117 AD. Born into a non-patrician family in the province of Hispania Baetica, in Spain Trajan rose to prominence during the reign of emperor Domitian. Serving as a legatus legionis in Hispania Tarraconensis, in Spain, in 89 Trajan supported the emperor against...

's victory in the Dacian Wars. It was probably constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus
Apollodorus of Damascus
Apollodorus of Damascus was a Greek engineer, architect, designer and sculptor who flourished during the 2nd century AD, from Damascus, Roman Syria. He was a favourite of Trajan, for whom he constructed Trajan's Bridge over the Danube for the 105-106 campaign in Dacia. He also designed the Forum...

 at the order of the Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

. It is located in Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum is an ancient structure in Rome, Italy, chronologically the last of the Imperial fora. The forum was constructed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus.-History:...

, built near the Quirinal Hill
Quirinal Hill
The Quirinal Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome, at the north-east of the city center. It is the location of the official residence of the Italian Head of State, who resides in the Quirinal Palace; by metonymy "the Quirinal" has come to stand for the Italian President.- History :It was...

, north of the Roman Forum
Roman Forum
The Roman Forum is a rectangular forum surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum...

. Completed in 113
Year 113 was a common year starting on Saturday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Celsus and Crispinus...

Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

, the freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, that artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacia
In ancient geography, especially in Roman sources, Dacia was the land inhabited by the Dacians or Getae as they were known by the Greeks—the branch of the Thracians north of the Haemus range...

ns (101–102 and 105–106). Its design has inspired numerous victory column
Victory column
A victory column is a monument in the form of a column, erected in memory of a victorious war or battle. The column stands on a base and is crowned with a victory symbol in the form of a statue...

s, both ancient and modern.

The structure is about 30 metres (98 ft) in height, 35 metres (125 ft) including its large pedestal
Pedestal is a term generally applied to the support of a statue or a vase....

. The shaft is made from a series of 20 colossal Carrara marble drums, each weighing about 32 tons, with a diameter of 3.7 metres (11 ft). The 190-metre (625 ft) frieze winds around the shaft 23 times. Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 stairs provides access to a viewing platform at the top. The capital block of Trajan's Column weighs 53.3 tons, which had to be lifted to a height of c. 34 m.

Ancient coins indicate preliminary plans to top the column with a statue of a bird, probably an eagle, but after construction a statue of Trajan was put in place; this statue disappeared in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

. On December 4, 1587, the top was crowned by Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V , born Felice Peretti di Montalto, was Pope from 1585 to 1590.-Early life:The chronicler Andrija Zmajević states that Felice's family originated from modern-day Montenegro...

 with a bronze figure of St. Peter, which remains to this day.


A continuous frieze winds up around the tower from base to capital. The relief portrays Trajan's two victorious military campaigns against the Dacia
In ancient geography, especially in Roman sources, Dacia was the land inhabited by the Dacians or Getae as they were known by the Greeks—the branch of the Thracians north of the Haemus range...

ns; the lower half illustrating the first (101-102), and the top half illustrating the second (105-106).

The two sections are separated by a personification of Victory
Victoria (mythology)
In ancient Roman religion, Victoria was the personified goddess of victory. She is the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Nike, and was associated with Bellona. She was adapted from the Sabine agricultural goddess Vacuna and had a temple on the Palatine Hill...

 writing on a shield flanked on either side by Trophies. Otherwise, the scenes on the frieze unfold continuously and in tipped-up perspective
Perspective (graphical)
Perspective in the graphic arts, such as drawing, is an approximate representation, on a flat surface , of an image as it is seen by the eye...

. The imagery is not realistic as the sculptor pays little attention to perspective. Often a variety of different perspectives are used in the same scene, so that more can be revealed (e.g., a different angle is used to show men working behind a wall).

The scenes depict mostly the Roman army in military activities such as setting out to battle and engaging the Dacians, as well as constructing fortifications and listening to the emperor's address and the success he accomplished. The carvings are crowded with sailors, soldiers, statesmen and priests, showing about 2,500 figures in all and providing a valuable source of information for modern historians on Roman and barbaric arms and methods of warfare (such as forts, ships, weapons etc.). The relief shows such details as a ballista
The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

 or catapult for example. The emperor Trajan, depicted realistically in the Veristic style, makes 59 appearances among his troops.

Spiral stair

The interior of Trajan's column is hollow: entered by a small doorway at one side of the base, a spiral stair of 185 steps gives access to the platform above, having offered the visitor in antiquity a view over the surrounding Trajan's forum; 43 window slits illuminate the ascent.

The column stands 38.4 m high from the ground to the top of the statue base: Located immediately next to the large Basilica Ulpia
Basilica ulpia
The Basilica Ulpia was an ancient Roman civic building located in the Forum of Trajan. The Basilica Ulpia separates the temple from the main courtyard in the Forum of Trajan with the Trajan's Column to the northwest...

, it had to be constructed sufficiently tall in order to function as a vantage point, and to maintain its own visual impact on the forum. The column proper, that is the shaft without the pedestal, the statue and its base, is 29.76 m high, a number which almost corresponds to 100 Roman feet
Ancient Roman units of measurement
The ancient Roman units of measurement were built on the Hellenic system with Egyptian, Hebrew, and Mesopotamian influences. The Roman units were comparatively consistent and well documented.-Length:Notes...

; beginning slightly above the bottom of the base, the helical staircase inside measures a mere 8 cm less.

The column is composed of 29 blocks of Luna marble, weighting in total more than 1100 t. The spiral stair itself was carved out of 19 blocks, with a full turn every 14 steps; this arrangement required a more complex geometry than the more usual alternatives of 12 or 16. The quality of the craftsmanship was such that the staircase is practically even, and the joints between the huge blocks still fit accurately. Despite numerous earthquakes in the past, the column today leans at an angle of less than half a degree.

Trajan's column, and especially its helical stairway design, exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Roman architecture
Roman architecture
Ancient Roman architecture adopted certain aspects of Ancient Greek architecture, creating a new architectural style. The Romans were indebted to their Etruscan neighbors and forefathers who supplied them with a wealth of knowledge essential for future architectural solutions, such as hydraulics...

. While spiral stairs were before still a rare sight in Roman buildings, this space-saving form henceforth spread gradually throughout the empire. Apart from the practical advantages it offered, the design also became closely associated with imperial power, being later adopted by Trajan's successors Antoninus Pius
Antoninus Pius
Antoninus Pius , also known as Antoninus, was Roman Emperor from 138 to 161. He was a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty and the Aurelii. He did not possess the sobriquet "Pius" until after his accession to the throne...

 and Marcus Aurelius. In Napoleon's time, a similar column decorated with a spiral of relief sculpture was erected in the Place Vendôme
Place Vendôme
Place Vendôme is a square in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France, located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Église de la Madeleine. It is the starting point of the Rue de la Paix. Its regular architecture by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and pedimented screens canted across the...

 in Paris to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz
Battle of Austerlitz
The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of Napoleon's greatest victories, where the French Empire effectively crushed the Third Coalition...



The inscription at the base of the column in finest lettering reads:
Translated, the inscription reads:
It was believed that the column was supposed to stand where the saddle between the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills used to be, having been excavated by Trajan, but excavation has revealed that this is not the case. The saddle was where Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum is an ancient structure in Rome, Italy, chronologically the last of the Imperial fora. The forum was constructed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus.-History:...

 and Trajan's Market
Trajan's Market
Trajan's Market is a large complex of ruins in the city of Rome, Italy, located on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, at the opposite end to the Colosseum...

 stood. Hence, the inscription refers to the Trajan's entire building project in the area of the Imperial fora.

This is perhaps the most famous example of Roman square capitals
Roman square capitals
Roman square capitals, also called capitalis monumentalis, inscriptional capitals, elegant capitals and quadrata, are an ancient Roman form of writing, and the basis for modern capital letters....

, a script often used for stone monuments, and less often for manuscript writing. As it was meant to be read from below, the bottom letters are slightly smaller than the top letters, to give proper perspective. Some, but not all, word divisions are marked with a dot, and many of the words, especially the titles, are abbreviated. In the inscription, numerals are marked with a titulus, a bar across the top of the letters. A small piece at the bottom of the inscription has been lost.

The typeface
In typography, a typeface is the artistic representation or interpretation of characters; it is the way the type looks. Each type is designed and there are thousands of different typefaces in existence, with new ones being developed constantly....

Trajan (typeface)
Trajan is an old style serif typeface designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe. The design is based on the letterforms of capitalis monumentalis or Roman square capitals, as used for the inscription at the base of Trajan's Column from which the typeface takes its name. Since the inscription and...

, designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly
Carol Twombly
Carol Twombly is an American calligrapher and typeface designer who has designed many typefaces, including Trajan, Myriad and Adobe Caslon. She worked as a type designer at Adobe Systems from 1988 through 1999, during which time she designed, or contributed to the design of, many typefaces...

, uses letterforms based on this inscription, working from the research of Edward Catich
Edward Catich
Father Edward M. Catich was an American Roman Catholic priest, teacher, and calligrapher. He is noted for the fullest development of the thesis that the inscribed Imperial Roman capitals of the Augustan age and after owed their form wholly to the use of the flat brush, rather than to the...

. There have been many other typefaces based on the inscription from such designers as Frederic Goudy
Frederic Goudy
Frederic W. Goudy was a prolific American type designer whose typefaces include Copperplate Gothic, Kennerley, and Goudy Old Style. He also designed, in 1938, University of California Oldstyle, for the sole proprietary use of the University of California Press...



It is assumed that the column drums were lifted by crane
Crane (machine)
A crane is a type of machine, generally equipped with a hoist, wire ropes or chains, and sheaves, that can be used both to lift and lower materials and to move them horizontally. It uses one or more simple machines to create mechanical advantage and thus move loads beyond the normal capability of...

s into their place. Ancient sources, as well as a substantial corpus of archaeological evidence, prove that Roman engineers were capable of raising large weights clear off the ground. The typical drum of Trajan's Column weighs c. 32 t, while the capital
Capital (architecture)
In architecture the capital forms the topmost member of a column . It mediates between the column and the load thrusting down upon it, broadening the area of the column's supporting surface...

, the heaviest block above base and pedestal, is even at 53.3 t, which had to be lifted 34 m high. To save weight, the treads had probably been carved out before either at the quarry or in situ.

Even so, for such loads the typical Roman treadwheel
A treadwheel is a form of animal engine typically powered by humans. It may resemble a water wheel in appearance, and can be worked either by a human treading paddles set into its circumference , or by a human or animal standing inside it .Uses of treadwheels included raising water, to power...

 crane, which, moreover, could only reach a maximum height of 15 to 18 m, was clearly inadequate. Instead, a tower-like wooden construction was erected around the building site, in the midst of which the marble blocks were raised by a system of pulley
A pulley, also called a sheave or a drum, is a mechanism composed of a wheel on an axle or shaft that may have a groove between two flanges around its circumference. A rope, cable, belt, or chain usually runs over the wheel and inside the groove, if present...

s, ropes and capstan
Capstan may refer to:*Capstan , a rotating machine used to control or apply force to another element*Capstan , rotating spindles used to move recording tape through the mechanism of a tape recorder...

s; these were powered by a large workforce of men and possibly also draught animals, spread out on the ground. According to modern calculations, eight capstans were needed to hoist the 55 t base block, while the length of rope required for the highest drums measured some 210 m assuming two-block pulleys.

Such a lifting tower was later also used to great effect by the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 architect Domenico Fontana
Domenico Fontana
Domenico Fontana was a Swiss-born Italian architect of the late Renaissance.-Biography:200px|thumb|Fountain of Moses in Rome....

 to relocate obelisk
An obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top, and is said to resemble a petrified ray of the sun-disk. A pair of obelisks usually stood in front of a pylon...

s in Rome. From his report, it becomes obvious that the coordination of the lift between the various pulling teams required a considerable amount of concentration and discipline, since, if the force was not applied evenly, the excessive stress on the ropes would make them rupture. In case of Trajan's column, the difficulties were exacerbated even further by the simultaneous work on the neighbouring Basilica Ulpia, which limited the available space so that the capstan crews had proper access only from one side.


It was traditionally thought that the Column was a propagandistic monument, glorifying the emperor's military exploits. However, the structure would have been generally invisible and surrounded by the two libraries in Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum
Trajan's Forum is an ancient structure in Rome, Italy, chronologically the last of the Imperial fora. The forum was constructed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus.-History:...

, and because of the difficulty involved in following the frieze from end to end, it could be said to have had much less propaganda value.

On the other hand, as Paul Veyne notes, the relief could be read "vertically" from below, with the stereotypical, highly recognizable figure of the emperor recognizable across the bands of images— just as, on the Colonne Vendôme, Napoleon's figure can be picked up, scene after scene. Also, the two libraries surrounding it provide a platform to view the column from if the viewer stood on the top floors, making the frieze much more visible all the way up.

After Trajan's death in 117, the Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 voted to have Trajan's ashes buried in the Column's square base which is decorated with captured Dacia
In ancient geography, especially in Roman sources, Dacia was the land inhabited by the Dacians or Getae as they were known by the Greeks—the branch of the Thracians north of the Haemus range...

n arms and armor. His ashes and those of his wife, Plotina, were set inside the base in gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

en urns. (The ashes no longer lie there.)

Casts and reproductions

Plaster casts of the relief were taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After a century of acid pollution, they are now more legible in some details than the original, and the way they are displayed offers students a closer look at the reliefs than at the original site. Examples can be studied at:
  • Museum of Roman Civilization
    Museum of Roman Civilization
    The Museum of the Roman Civilization is a museum in Rome , devoted to the aspects of the Ancient Roman civilization.-History and General Introduction:...

     in Rome, where each 'frame' of the narrative has been cut into a separate section and the sections are then displayed horizontally in order
  • National Museum of Romanian History
    National Museum of Romanian History
    The National Museum of Romanian History is a museum on Calea Victoriei in Bucharest, Romania, which contains Romanianhistorical artifacts from prehistoric times up to modern times....

    , Bucharest, Romania, which displays the frieze horizontally in segments
  • Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum
    Victoria and Albert Museum
    The Victoria and Albert Museum , set in the Brompton district of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects...

    , London. Displayed in column form and including the base, the column is chopped into two halves.
  • Archaeological Collection of the University of Zürich, University of Zurich
    University of Zurich
    The University of Zurich , located in the city of Zurich, is the largest university in Switzerland, with over 25,000 students. It was founded in 1833 from the existing colleges of theology, law, medicine and a new faculty of philosophy....

Additionally, individual casts of the frieze are at display in various museums, for example in the Museum for Ancient Navigation in Mainz
Mainz under the Holy Roman Empire, and previously was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire...

. A complete survey in monochrome
Monochrome describes paintings, drawings, design, or photographs in one color or shades of one color. A monochromatic object or image has colors in shades of limited colors or hues. Images using only shades of grey are called grayscale or black-and-white...

 was published by the German archaeologist Conrad Cichorius
Conrad Cichorius
Conrad Cichorius was a German historian and classical philologist.- Selected works :* Rom und Mytilene, Teubner, Leipzig 1888* Die Reliefs des Denkmals von Adamklissi, Leipzig 1897...

 between 1896 and 1900 (see Commons), still forming the base of modern scholarship. Based on Cichorius' work, and on the photographic archive of the German Archaeological Institute
German Archaeological Institute
The German Archaeological Institute is an institution of research within the field of archaeology , and a "scientific corporation", with parentage of the federal Foreign Office of Germany-Origin:...

, a research-oriented web-based viewer for Trajan's Column was created at the German-language image database Arachne
Arachne (Archaeological Database)
Arachne is the central object-database of the German Archaeological Institute . In 2004 the DAI and the Cologne Digital Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Cologne joined the effort to support Arachne as a tool for free internet-based research.-Definition:Arachne's database design uses a...



  • Height of base: 1.7 m
  • + Height of shaft: 26.92 m
    • Typical height of drums: 1.521 m
    • Diameter of shaft: 3.695 m
  • + Height of capital: 1.16 m
  • = Height of column proper: 29.78 m
    • Height of helical part of stair: 29.68 m (~ 100 Roman feet)

  • Height of column, excluding plinth
    In architecture, a plinth is the base or platform upon which a column, pedestal, statue, monument or structure rests. Gottfried Semper's The Four Elements of Architecture posited that the plinth, the hearth, the roof, and the wall make up all of architectural theory. The plinth usually rests...

    : 28.91 m
  • + Height of pedestal, including plinth: 6.16 m
  • = Height of top of column above ground: 35.07 m


  • Column of Antoninus Pius
    Column of Antoninus Pius
    The Column of Antoninus Pius is a Roman honorific column in Rome, Italy, devoted in 161 to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, in the Campus Martius, on the edge of the hill now known as Monte Citorio, and set up by his successors, the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.-Construction:The...

  • Column of Marcus Aurelius
    Column of Marcus Aurelius
    The Column of Marcus Aurelius is a Roman victory column in Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy. It is a Doric column featuring a spiral relief: it was built in honour of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and modeled on Trajan's Column.- Construction :...

  • Column of Arcadius
    Column of Arcadius
    The column of Arcadius was a Roman triumphal column begun in 401 in the forum of Arcadius in Constantinople to commemorate Arcadius's triumph over the Goths under Gainas in 400...

  • Column of Theodosius

  • Astoria Column
    Astoria Column
    The Astoria Column is a tower overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River on Coxcomb Hill in the city of Astoria in the U.S. state of Oregon. Built in 1926, the concrete and steel structure is part of a city park...

     in Astoria, Oregon
    Astoria, Oregon
    Astoria is the county seat of Clatsop County, Oregon, United States. Situated near the mouth of the Columbia River, the city was named after the American investor John Jacob Astor. His American Fur Company founded Fort Astoria at the site in 1811...

  • Colonne Vendôme
    Place Vendôme
    Place Vendôme is a square in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France, located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Église de la Madeleine. It is the starting point of the Rue de la Paix. Its regular architecture by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and pedimented screens canted across the...

     in Paris
  • Congress Column
    Congress Column
    The Congress Column is a monument situated on the Place du Congrès / Congresplein in Brussels. It commemorates the formation of the Belgian state and constitution by the National Congress in 1830-1831. It was erected on the initiative of Charles Rogier after a design by Joseph Poelaert between...

     in Brussels
    Brussels , officially the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region , is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union...

  • Karlskirche
    The St. Charles's Church is a church situated on the south side of Karlsplatz, Vienna. It is located on the edge of the 1st district, 200 metres outside the Ringstraße...

     in Vienna
    Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

  • Marian and Holy Trinity columns
    Marian and Holy Trinity columns
    Marian columns are religious monuments built in honour of the Virgin Mary, often in thanksgiving for the ending of a plague or for some other help. The purpose of the Holy Trinity columns was usually simply to celebrate the church and the faith. However, the plague motif could sometimes play its...

    , religious monuments built in honour of the Virgin Mary

External links