Column of Trajan

Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest extent, celebrating his victories with this monumental column.

Column of Trajan, Rome, completed 113 C.E., Luna marble, dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus b. 53 , d. 117 C.E.) in honor of his victory over Dacia (now Romania) 101–102 and 105–06 C.E. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


Column of Trajan, Luna marble, completed 113 C.E., Rome, dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus b. 53 , d. 117 C.E.) in honor of his victory over Dacia (now Romania) 101–02 and 105–06 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Column of Trajan, Luna marble, completed 113 C.E., Rome, dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus b. 53 , d. 117 C.E.) in honor of his victory over Dacia (now Romania) 101–02 and 105–06 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Triumph

The Triumph was a riotous military ritual celebrated by the Romans over the course of centuries—whenever their commander had won a spectacular victory. On the appointed day (or days) the city would be overflowing with crowds, pageantry, spoils, prisoners, depictions and souvenirs of foreign lands—but then, just as quickly as it began, the glorious tumult was over. The spectacles and the echoes of glory entrusted to the memory of those who had witnessed the event. Was the parade and its giant city-wide party enough to commemorate the glorious deeds of Rome’s armies? Or should a more permanent form of commemoration be adopted? Being pragmatists, the Romans enlisted both means of commemoration—the ephemeral and the permanent. The Column of Trajan (dedicated in May of 113 C.E.) might be the crowning example of the inborn need to commemorate—in more permanent form—historical deeds that dominates the psyche of Roman art and artists.

Returning from Dacia triumphant—100 days of celebrations

The emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98–117 C.E., fought a series of campaigns known as the Dacian Wars. Dacia (modern Romania), was seen as a troublesome neighbor by the Romans and the Dacians were seen to pose a threat to the province of Moesia, along the Danube frontier. In addition Dacia was rich in natural resources (including gold), that were attractive to the Romans. The first campaign saw Trajan defeat the Dacian leader Decebalus in 101 C.E., after which the Dacians sought terms from the Romans. Renewed Dacian hostilities brought about the second Dacian War that concluded in 106 C.E. Trajan’s victory was a substantial one—he declared over 100 days of official celebrations and the Romans exploited Dacia’s natural wealth, while incorporating Dacia as an imperial province.
Denarius (Roman coin), obverse: Trajan in profile; reverse: Dacian seated right on pile of arms, his hands bound behind him, silver, c. 103–11 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CM.BU.240-R)

Denarius (Roman coin), obverse: Trajan in profile; reverse: Dacian seated right on pile of arms, his hands bound behind him, silver, c. 103–11 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CM.BU.240-R)

After the first Dacian war Trajan earned the honorary epithet “Dacicus Maximus” (greatest Dacian) and a victory monument known as the Tropaeum Traiani (Trophy of Trajan) was built at Civitas Tropaensium (modern Adamclisi, Romania). Coins issued during Trajan’s reign (as in the image above) depicted the defeated Dacia.

Iconography and themes

The iconographic scheme of the column illustrates Trajan’s wars in Dacia. The lower half of the column corresponds to the first Dacian War (c. 101–102 C.E.), while the top half depicts the second Dacian War (c. 105–106 C.E.). The first narrative event shows Roman soldiers marching off to Dacia, while the final sequence of events portrays the suicide of the enemy leader, Decebalus, and the mopping up of Dacian prisoners by the Romans.
The crossing of the Roman Army over the Danube River in the first Dacian War (the large figure is a personification of the Danube) (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The crossing of the Roman Army over the Danube River in the first Dacian War (the large figure is a personification of the Danube) (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The execution of the frieze is meticulous and the level of detail achieved is astonishing. While the column does not carry applied paint now, many scholars believe the frieze was initially painted. The sculptors took great care to provide settings for the scenes, including natural backgrounds, and mixed perspectival views to offer the maximum level of detail. Sometimes multiple perspectives are evident within a single scene. The overall, unifying theme is that of the Roman military campaigns in Dacia, but the details reveal additional, more subtle narrative threads.

One of the clear themes is the triumph of civilization (represented by the Romans) over its antithesis, the barbarian state (represented here by the Dacians). The Romans are orderly and uniform, the Dacians less so. The Romans are clean shaven, the Dacians are shaggy. The Romans avoid leggings, the Dacians wear leggings (like all good barbarians did—at least those depicted by the Romans).
Battle between Romans and Dacians(detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Battle between Romans and Dacians (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Combat scenes are frequent in the frieze. The detailed rendering provides a nearly unparalleled visual resource for studying the iconography of the Roman military, as well as for studying the actual equipment, weapons, and tactics. There is clear ethnic typing as well, as the Roman soldiers cannot be confused for Dacian soldiers, and vice versa.
The Emperor (fifth from the lower right) oversees construction (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Emperor (fifth from the lower right) oversees construction (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The viewer also sees the Roman army doing other chores while not fighting. One notable activity is building. In numerous scenes the soldiers may be seen building and fortifying camps. All of the Roman edifices depicted are solid, regular, and well designed—in stark contrast to the humble buildings of the Dacian world. Roman propaganda at work.
Trajan addresses troops holding spear (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Trajan addresses troops holding spear (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Base (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Base (detail), Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The emperor Trajan figures prominently in the frieze. Each time he appears, his position is commanding and the iconographic focus on his person is made clear. We see Trajan in various scenarios, including addressing his troops (ad locutio) and performing sacrifices. The fact that the figures in the scenes are focused on the figure of the emperor helps to draw the viewer’s attention to him.

The base of the column eventually served as a tomb for Trajan’s ashes. He died while returning from foreign campaigns in 117 C.E. and was granted this unusual honor, in keeping with the estimation of the Roman people who deemed him optimus princeps or “the best first citizen”.

Specifications of the column and construction

Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., plan, elevation, and section (image: Penn State University Libraries, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Column of Trajan, dedicated 113 C.E., plan, elevation, and section (image: Penn State University Libraries, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The column itself is made from fine-grained Luna marble and stands to a height of 38.4 meters (c. 98 feet) atop a tall pedestal. The shaft of the column is composed of 19 drums of marble measuring c. 3.7 meters (11 feet) in diameter, weighing a total of c. 1,110 tons. The topmost drum weighs some 53 tons. A spiral staircase of 185 steps leads to the viewing platform atop the column. The helical sculptural frieze measures 190 meters in length (c. 625 feet) and wraps around the column 23 times. A total of 2,662 figures appear in the 155 scenes of the frieze, with Trajan himself featured in 58 scenes.

The construction of the Column of Trajan was a complex exercise of architectural design and engineering. As reconstructed by Lynne Lancaster, the execution of the column itself was an immense engineering challenge that required complex lifting devices and, no doubt, careful planning to execute successfully. Materials had to be acquired and transported to Rome, some across long distances. With the appropriate technology in place, the adept Roman architects could carry out the project. The successful completion of the column demonstrates the complex tasks that Roman architects could successfully complete.

Significance and influence

The Column of Trajan may be contextualized in a long line of Roman victory monuments, some of which honored specific military victories and thus may be termed “triumphal monuments” and others that generally honor a public career and are thus “honorific monuments”. Among the earliest examples of such permanent monuments at Rome is the rostrate column (column rostrata) that was erected in honor of a naval victory celebrated by Caius Duilius after the battle of Mylae in 260 B.C.E. (this column does not survive). During the Republican period, a rich tradition of celebratory monuments developed, best known through the fornices (honorific arches) and triumphal arches. This tradition was continued in the imperial period, with both triumphal and honorific arches being erected at Rome and in the the provinces.
Gold aureus showing Trajan's Column, Roman, early 2nd century C.E. (The British Museum)

Gold aureus showing Trajan’s Column, Roman, early 2nd century C.E. (The British Museum)

The idea of the honorific column was carried forward by other victorious leaders—both in the ancient and modern eras. In the Roman world immediate, derivative monuments that draw inspiration from the Column of Trajan include the Column of Marcus Aurelius (c. 193 C.E.) in Rome’s Piazza Colonna, as well as monuments like the now-lost Column of Arcadius (c. 401 C.E.) and the Column of Justinian at Constantinople (c. 543 C.E.). The idea of the narrative frieze applied to the Column of Trajan proved influential in these other instances.
Aegidius Sadeler, view of the column of Trajan, shown with its pedestal dug out from the earth, surrounded by buildings at the base of the Quirinal Hill, Rome, from the series “Ruins of the antiquity of Rome, Tivoli, Pozzuoli, and other places,” 1606, etching and engraving, plate 31 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Aegidius Sadeler, view of the column of Trajan, shown with its pedestal dug out from the earth, surrounded by buildings at the base of the Quirinal Hill, Rome, from the series “Ruins of the antiquity of Rome, Tivoli, Pozzuoli, and other places,” 1606, etching and engraving, plate 31 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Honorific or triumphal columns inspired by that of Trajan were also created in honor of more recent victories. The column honoring Admiral Horatio Nelson in London’s Trafalgar Square (c. 1843) draws on the Roman tradition that included the Column of Trajan along with earlier, Republican monuments like the columna rostrata of Caius Duilius. The column dedicated to Napoleon I erected in the Place Vendôme in Paris (c. 1810) and the Washington Monument of Baltimore, Maryland (1829) both were directly inspired by the Column of Trajan.

Additional resources

Trajan’s Column in Rome, from Prof. R. Ulrich, Dartmouth College

Stoa.org—Column of Trajan

National Geographic Society—Column of Trajan

Wikimedia Commons—Cichorius Plates

M. Beckmann, “The “Columnae Coc(h)lides” of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius,” Phoenix, volume 56, numbers 3/4 (2002), pp. 348–57.

F. Coarelli et al., The Column of Trajan (Rome: German Archaeological Institute, 2000).

A. Curry, “A War Diary Soars Over Rome,” National Geographic (2015).

G. A. T. Davies, “Topography and the Trajan Column,” Journal of Roman Studies, volume 10 (1920), pp. 1–28.

G. A. T. Davies, “Trajan’s First Dacian War,” Journal of Roman Studies, volume 7 (1917), pp. 74–97.

P. Davies, “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration,” American Journal of Archaeology, volume 101, number 1 (1997), pp. 41–65.

M. Henig, editor, Architecture and Architectural Sculpture in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology: Distributed by Oxbow Books, 1990).

T. Hölscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art, translated by A. Snodgrass and Annemarie Künzl-Snodgrass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

N. Kampen, “Looking at Gender: The Column of Trajan and Roman Historical Relief,” in Domna Stanton and Abigail Stewart, eds. Feminisms in the Academy (Ann Arbor 1995), pp. 46–73.

G. M. Koeppel, “Official State Reliefs of the City of Rome in the Imperial Age. A Bibliography,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II,12,1 (1982), pp. 477–506.

G. M. Koeppel, “Die historischen Reliefs der römischen Kaiserzeit VIII, Der Fries der Trajanssäule in Rom, Teil 1: Der Erste Dakische Krieg, Szenen I-LXXVIII,” Bonner Jahrbücher, volume 191 (1991), pp. 135–97.

G. M. Koeppel, “Die historischen Reliefs der römischen Kaiserzeit IX, Der Fries der Trajanssäule in Rom, Teil 2: Der Zweite Dakische Krieg, Szenen LXXXIX-CLV,” Bonner Jahrbücher, volume 192 (1992), pp. 61–121.

G. M. Koeppel, “The Column of Trajan: Narrative Technique and the Image of the Emperor,” in Sage and emperor: Plutarch, Greek intellectuals, and Roman power in the time of Trajan (98–117 A.D.), edited by Philip A. Stadter and Luc Van der Stockt (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002), pp. 245–58.

Lynne Lancaster, “Building Trajan’s Column,” American Journal of Archaeology, volume 103, number3 (1999), pp. 419–39.

E. La Rocca, “Templum Traiani et columna cochlis,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Römische Abteilung, volume 111 (2004), pp. 193–238.

F. Lepper and S. Frere, Trajan’s Column: A New Edition of the Cichorius Plates (Gloucester U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1988).

S. Maffei, “Forum Traiani: Columna,” in Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, volume 2, edited by E.M. Steinby (Rome: Quasar, 1995), pp. 356–59.

C. G. Malacrino, “Immagini e narrazioni. La Colonna Traiana e le sue scene di cantiere,” Storia e narrazione. Retorica, memoria, immagini edited by G. Guidarelli and C.G. Malacrino (Milan: B. Mondadori, 2005), pp. 101–34.

A. Mau, “Die Inschrift der Trajanssäule,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung 22 (1907), pp. 187–97. [accessible via Google Books].

J. E. Packer, “Trajan’s Forum again: the Column and the Temple of Trajan in the master plan attributed at Apollodorus (?),” Journal of Roman Archaeology, volume 7 (1994), pp. 163–82.

I. A. Richmond and M. Hassall, Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column ( London: British School at Rome, 1982).

L. Rossi and J.M.C. Toynbee, Trajan’s Column and the Dacian Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971).

E. Togo Salmon, “Trajan’s Conquest of Dacia,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, volume 67 (1936), pp. 83–105.

S. Settis et al., La Colonna Traiana (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1988).

H. Stuart-Jones, “The Historical Interpretation of the Reliefs of Trajan’s Column,” Papers of the British School at Rome, volume 5 (1910), pp. 433–59.

E. Wolfram Thill, “Civilization under Construction: Depictions of Architecture on the Column of Trajan,” American Journal of Archaeology, volume 114, number 1 (2010), pp. 27–43.

M. Wilson Jones, “One Hundred Feet and a Spiral Stair: Designing Trajan’s Column,” Journal of Roman Archaeology, volume 6 (1993), pp. 23–38.

M. Wilson Jones, “Trajan’s Column,” chapter 8 in Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 161–76.


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:03] Standing in the middle of the imperial fora in Rome, that is, the series of forums of public spaces built by the emperors of Rome. This is distinct from the older Roman Forum.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:18] The place we’re actually standing is in the footprint of what was once the Basilica Ulpia, a major building that occupied a central position in Trajan’s forum. This was the largest of the imperial fora.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] This celebrated Trajan’s great military victories, specifically, his victory over the Dacians.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Now, Dacia corresponds roughly with present day Romania.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] In fact, it’s under Trajan that the Roman empire reaches its greatest extent. He’s a conquering hero in Rome and this forum celebrates that.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] Let’s retrace what it would’ve been like to walk into the Forum of Trajan. You would have walked under a large triumphal arch surmounted by six horses pulling a chariot with the emperor being crowned by Victory.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] In the center was a gilded equestrian sculpture of Trajan.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] All along the forum were large sculptures of captured Dacian soldiers.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] He’s a conquering hero in Rome. This forum celebrates that.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] As you walked into the forum, you would’ve seen just over the Basilica Ulpia an enormous heroic sculpture of the emperor on top of a column.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] Also gilded. This is a richly colored space with different-colored marbles being brought in from all parts of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] We should note that the enormous expense that was required to build this forum came from the conquest of Dacia.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] That was made explicit. When you walked within the forum, you saw the booty that was taken in Dacia.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Sadly, the majority of the forum is gone. It’s been sacked. It’s been pillaged for its stone. What we see now are the ruins of medieval houses, scattered classical fragments. Still standing proudly is the Column of Trajan.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] Today, as we look up at the column, we see it framed by two Baroque churches. The column itself no longer has Trajan on top. Instead, in the 16th century, a sculpture of St. Peter was erected there. In a way, we’re in the middle of pagan Rome surrounded by Christian Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] The column is really made of three parts. You have a base. You have the shaft, which has this wonderful ribbon of carving. At the top, a capitol, which forms the base for the sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] We know that Trajan’s ashes were once inside the base.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] The base is almost completely covered with carvings. You see these wonderful garlands hang from the corners, each with an eagle perched. Below that, Nikes — that is, figures of victory — and most prominently, you see representations of arms and armor.

[2:57] This is booty that had been taken from the Dacians. This is a symbol of Trajan’s victory, and there are two winged Victories framing a large plaque with a deep, beautiful inscription which has actually become very famous. Not so much for what it says, that this is erected in honor of Trajan by the Senate and the people of Rome, but for the quality of the lettering, the model for a typeface known as Trajan.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] Above that, an enormous victory wreath that the column rises from. But the most famous part of the column is the relief sculpture that winds around it, telling us various stories of the two Dacian campaigns.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] The first war against the Dacians begins at the bottom, and what I find interesting is that we are not shown a triumphal victory. Instead, what we see across the entire column are images of the army marching, constructing garrisons, building bridges — the engineering and the day-to-day work that’s required for a successful military adventure.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Roughly 21 percent of the sculpture represents battle scenes. When you’re thinking about a victory monument, you would think about scenes of military victory. But here we have that day-to-day work of the army, and of course the army was, in imperial Rome, along with the Senate one of the great centers of power.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] It’s a reminder that the Romans were unparalleled in terms of their engineering. We should mention Trajan’s famous architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, who is often credited not only with the architecture that made these military campaigns successful, but also with being the architect of the forum itself.

Dr. Harris: [4:36] And the column.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] Now, the area where the forum is located was actually a kind of saddle between the Capitoline Hill and the Quirinal. Apollodorus of Damascus was tasked with removing an enormous amount of earth. The column, one of the inscriptions tells us, is precisely the height of the top of the saddle. That is, we can get a sense of how much earth was removed by looking up to the top.

Dr. Harris: [4:59] This is not a literal document. On the other hand, it does show us various moments of the campaigns. But it’s also filled with stock scenes that we would find in any imperial monument where the emperor is addressing his troops, or the emperor is making sacrifices, [or] the emperor is leading his troops. Using those types of scenes helped to make the column readable.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] Recent analysis has revealed that the column was painted with the primary colors — red, yellow, and blue — but also with black. I have to say that even if this was painted, it would be a difficult story to follow, in large part because it turns around the column. That’s a reminder that this was originally surrounded by viewing platforms.

[5:41] There was a Greek library and a Latin library flanking it. You could stand almost halfway up.

Dr. Harris: [5:48] Some of the scenes are very moving. We see scenes of battle. We see scenes of wounded Roman soldiers who are being attended to.

Dr. Zucker: [5:57] At the very top, very much the climax of the story that’s unfolding, we see Decebalus, the general in charge of the Dacians, who commits suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.

Dr. Harris: [6:08] Let’s have a closer look at one of the scenes toward the bottom of the column of the Roman army crossing the very wide Danube River.

Dr. Zucker: [6:16] We’ve climbed up some stairs. We’re now standing about as close as you can get to the bottom few drums. We can clearly see the large figure of the river god Danube. The Roman soldiers needed to cross the Danube River in order to reach Dacia.

[6:33] What we see is a famous engineering feat. The Romans constructed a temporary pontoon bridge floating over the river. We can see the soldiers crossing.

Dr. Harris: [6:44] You can see the waves in the water of the Danube River. You can see the boats that are used as the base of the bridge. You can see the soldiers crossing it in a very orderly fashion.

Dr. Zucker: [6:54] Each of those soldiers is carrying supplies. You can make out bags and perhaps some pots and pans. That’s replaced as you move to the right with soldiers carrying military standards.

Dr. Harris: [7:04] In some ways, this relief is so naturalistic. The figures move and stand and interact so naturalistically as they build and listen to the emperor.

[7:16] On the other hand, there are these shifts of scale. The architecture is too small for the figures. The emperor Trajan appears larger than his soldiers.

[7:26] All of these things help us to read the narrative on the Column of Trajan.

Dr. Zucker: [7:30] Someday I would like to be able to ascend to the top. There is a door, and inside is where the ashes of the emperor and his wife were located.

[7:38] There’s also a staircase. Each one of the drums that make up this column is hollow, stacked one atop another. It allows you to go all the way up to the viewing platform. Up to the feet of St. Peter.

Dr. Harris: [7:50] We see at the bottom, this war booty. On top of that, these symbols of victory. The hard work of the army to ensure these victories. Originally, at the very top, Trajan himself.

Dr. Zucker: [8:02] It’s worth noting that the Romans who would’ve seen this would not have been for the most part the people who would’ve had access to the military victories against the Dacians. This is bringing that story here back to the capital.

[8:16] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker, "Column of Trajan," in Smarthistory, November 7, 2020, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/column-of-trajan/.