Trajan’s Column, rising into the sky in the middle of what was once the entry courtyard of Trajan’s majestic Forum, celebrated the Roman Empire’s greatest expansion thanks to this very emperor, and with its 40 meters of height, reminds us just how tall the hill was that had been sliced away to make room for the Forum. It’s a unique monument both because, for the first time ever, the story of a great conquest was recounted from beginning to end sculpted on a column as well as because, like a sort of comic book in stone, it gives us an idea of the ingenious Roman war techniques.
The Column is completely enveloped in an exquisite bas relief that, like a ribbon, spirals around the core, almost a book that, through images alone, recounts Trajan’s victorious achievements in Dacia, today’s Romania. And it’s not by chance that the books of that time were in fact enormous rolls of parchment!
Today, it appears totally white but originally, like most of the Roman monuments, the figures were coloured and the swords and armor were completely covered in gilded bronze, details that must have made the Column resplendent with light and colors that have unfortunately been lost forever. It was a work of art that had never been attempted previously and was also an idea so innovative that it was taken up again in the column of Marcus Aurelius and, many centuries later, even by Napoleon in Paris!
The quality of the reliefs and the intensity of the scenes make Trajan’s Column the greatest work of Roman sculpture of all time. Today, we know for certain that the creation of such an impressive work was through the efforts of a single great artist, called the “Master of Trajan’s Achievements”. In only 5 years he sculpted over 2,500 figures on the column. He also realized that, due to the column’s height, the public wouldn’t have been able to follow the the story from beginning to end so he came up with a brilliant solution: he sculpted the most important scenes several times, on various sides and at different heights so that they could be seen from different viewpoints.
The column had the same purpose as the triumphal arches: to celebrate the accomplishments of the emperor and the army, recounting the bloody battles, the enemies’ surrender and even describing those far-off lands that the public would have no possibility of visiting. It was also a way of showing the Roman citizens how terrifying those powerful enemies must have been.
It was a useful document for showing Trajan’s attentive participation in all phases of the war, leading the army and receiving foreign ambassadors. The column is also a monument to Accord and shows Trajan both as leader and warrior but on a par with all his soldiers and citizens. The sculptures exalt the entire army equally, including the legionnaires, the allies and even the military medical staff. Trajan paid homage to all gods, even those of the enemy and thus is looked upon benevolently by the god Danube and is helped by Jove who launches his thunderbolts against the Dacians. In fact, for the Romans, respect for all religions was fundamental, even those that came from foreign lands and were preserved and brought to Rome.
Finally, the column served as a home for the emperor’s tomb. Its base guarded the golden urn holding his ashes. According to Roman law, it was forbidden to bury the dead inside the city walls but Trajan went beyond the law to send a clear political message: the emperor must remain with the people and must consider himself a servant of the State. Thanks to the grandeur of the forum, the gigantic size of the piazza and the enormous height of the column, it was a sure bet that no Roman would ever forget the fruits of Trajan’s good governance, an example for all who succeeded him.
The column managed to survive to us down through the centuries in its entirety also because, during the Middle Ages, custody of it was given every year to whoever offered the most money for the privilege of having tourists even then pay to climb the internal spiral staircase up to the top to admire the view of the Imperial Fora. It is also a work of inspired engineering: its 18 white marble cylinders were connected together so ingeniously that they were able —unlike Trajan’s Forum- to resist the various earthquakes that shook Rome over the centuries. It stands, even today, in the heart of the city, telling us the story of the greatness of the Roman Empire.