Just up the road from the Colosseum and next to the modern city’s busiest road are the remains of Trajan’s forum, the largest of the Imperial Forums built by the Emperor Trajan. Trajan has gone down in history near to top of the list of good emperors. After Domitian was murdered in 96, Rome teetered on instability under the elderly Emperor Nerva, who was only around for 2 years before meeting his own cruel end. It was Trajan, a proud, popular, tall and supposedly good-looking general who took over. He was to bring about 20 years of relative peace and prosperity to Rome. Trajan was lucky enough to become Emperor at a time when Rome’s enemies weren’t exactly threatening the peace. Still, he was smart enough to know how to use war as a political tool.

As Emperor, he led Rome into 3 wars during his 20 year reign, 2 against Dacia in the north along the Danube river in modern day Romania. For all the good he brought to Rome, Trajan loved and gloried in war. He pressed for war as a way to keep the army employed and strengthen Rome’s borders while increasing his own popularity as victorious war hero. Dacia was eventually conquered, and vast amounts of plunder made their way back to Rome. This set financial troubles right and payed for an ambitious building campaign, furthering his legacy. Trajan was probably the greatest of the Emperor builders. He rebuilt the Circus Maximus, a huge Forum of his own, and Trajan’s market, the worlds first shopping mall.

Trajan’s Market is in pretty good shape today, built high into the hill behind it. In front of it, Trajan’s Forum has been reduced to rubble, but a very impressive monument to Trajan remains. Trajan’s Column is a 100+ ft high column, hollow on the inside with a spiral staircase to the top. At one point, the column held a statue of Trajan on top, removed a few hundred years ago for one of St. Peter.  The entire structure rests on a huge rectangular base which once held the cremated remains of Trajan. This column is a ceremonial monument and did not support any other structure.

Instead, it stood in the middle of a multi-teared building, allowing viewers to see it at different heights and angles. Imagine the large open rotunda at the mall and you get the idea. Look closely and you can see a staggering amount of detail. Here’s a image of what it would have looked like in the Forum:

The column was built from huge slabs of white marble, which were then carved by sculptors with amazing detail. A spiral begins at the bottom and wraps all the way to the top. Think of it as a huge sculpted comic book that tells the entire story of Trajan’s wars in Dacia. Today, it’s nearly impossible to grasp how detailed it is, let alone see the details at the top from the ground. In all, there are over 2,500 figures carved. Trajan himself is seen 59 times in a realistic portrait, rallying his troops in battle. Also seen is a large god figure, representing the Danube river. Trajan’s engineers had to build impressive bridges over the Danube to advance the army.

There are many fascinating things about the column, but probably none more impressive than all the figures. Trajan’s Column is sheer evidence that the Romans were amazing artists, with a firm grasp on body proportion. The amount of talent it requires to carve such realistic figures with such depth is staggering. This kind of craftsmanship is what went rejected and eventually forgotten in the middle ages, only to be rediscovered in the Renaissance. Today, the column appears white, but was originally painted in bright colors.

Here’s a great short video on the column, which moves around it a little bit to zoom in on some details: