A. Sutherland – Icestech.info – Pillars of victory, also known as memorial columns, were occasionally erected to memorize the triumphs of victorious achievements of an emperor.
They were built to honor an emperor and are generally described as a great victory because the Emperor won in the name of the Roman Empire. They thus acted as propaganda, which would show the Emperor’s power to the citizens and secure his legacy.
Left: Column of Marcus Aurelius. Image credit: Marco Assini – CC BY-SA 2.0: Middle: The Column of Phocas, against the backdrop of the Arch of Septimius Severus. Image credit: Jebulon – CC0: Right: The Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception carrying a wreath of flowers offered annually by the Roman firemen. Sculpture by Giuseppe Obici on top of the Corinthian Column of the Pagan goddess Minerva. Credit: Monopoli91 – CC BY-SA 4.0
Today there are only a few ancient columns in Rome that survived until our time, for example, the Column of the Immaculate Conception, the Column of Phocas added to the Forum Romanum, an impressive Column of Marcus Aurelius – War Monument From Ancient Rome. Still, Trajan’s Column remains the most famous of them.
Even before the imperial era, generals and senators had praised their own more or less heroic deeds by building triumphal arches.
In 113 AD, Emperor Trajan chose something else and instead built, possibly because he wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessors and even recalled by future successors.
The 35 meters (98 feet) in height, massive victory column has always impressed people, and in fact, it still does). A 190-meter-long frieze, ringing 23 laps around the Column, describing Trajan’s two victorious military campaigns in Eastern Europe during the Dacian Wars (101-102 AD and 105-106 AD) contributed to its popularity.
The structure is additionally decorated with a large pedestal, ornamented with sculptured trophies on three sides.
The sculpture is one of the most spectacular works of artisans and builders and includes more than 2,500 human figures, besides animals. The artwork of the ancient Roman artists was intended to illustrate the most significant incidents of Trajan’s war with the Dacia.
The whole frieze is not visible from the ground, but it was surrounded on three sides by two flanking libraries and the Basilica Ulpia. Among several spectacular features of the Column is a bas-relief that spirals 23 times to the top of the Column.
One of the fascinating features of the monument is the bas-reliefs that depict scenes from the Dacian Wars.
The reliefs that adorn the Column constitute a continuous – approximately 200 meters long frieze that spirals twenty-three times around the shaft, beginning at the bottom with scenes depicting preparation and departure that anticipate the first Dacian campaign of Emperor Trajan.
Trajan’s Column, Rome. Image credit: Carole Raddato – CC BY-SA 2.0
No modern equipment was used to build this Column; however, the ancient Romans managed to create many such high structures with the help of using cranes.
The shaft is made from 20 gigantic white or blue-grey marble drums, each weighing approximately 32 tons, with a diameter of 3.7 meters (12.1 feet). Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 steps provides access to a viewing platform at the top of the Column.
The top block of Trajan’s Column weighs 53.3 tons (the heaviest of all), which had to be lifted to a height of approximately 35 meters (115 feet) in the air.
Trajan’s column in Rome. Credit: Alvesgaspar- CC BY-SA 4.0
The Italian master builders successfully lifted this gigantic “piece “of stone, and it still stands today. The construction made a great impression on contemporaries, and later emperors began to build their victory columns. Many of them were destroyed with time, but Trajan’s famous masterwork survived almost intact. Today it is only missing its original painted decoration, the metal attachments that added detail to the carved figures, and the great bronze statue of the Emperor himself that once crowned the top of the Column. Later, in December 1587/1588, Pope Sixtus replaced the statue of Emperor Trajan himself with that of St. Peter, which remains until today.
The chief architect responsible for the spectacular design of the Trajan’s Column was Apollodorus of Damascus. He was the Emperor’s favorite and most appreciated engineer and architect, widely known for his other notable building projects in the Roman Empire, such as the Danube Bridge, the first bridge to be constructed across the Danube and a significant feature during the Dacian Wars, among others.
The Trajan’s Column (a symbol of glorification) would show the Emperor’s greatness and tell a story about successful military encounters.
Most of all, the Column was and is still considered an engineering marvel of the Roman builders due to the immense excavation efforts necessary for its construction.
Updated on June 11, 2022
Written by – A. Sutherland – Icestech.info Senior Staff Writer
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Expand for references
Kalas G. The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity
MacDonald W. L. The Architecture of the Roman Empire
Beckmann M. The Column of Marcus Aurelius