Tag Archive: Column of Trajan


Rome was governed from the year 96 to 180 by a chain of emperors dubbed the “5 Good Emperors” by Machiavelli. It has been studied and argued for centuries that Rome achieved it’s greatest heights under these emperors, who ruled with absolute power but possessed wisdom and virtue. Each was the adoptive heir of the previous emperor, which seems good evidence that choosing someone other than a full-blooded son to wield unlimited power usually led to a ruler with the people’s concerns in mind. The 5 good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus Pius reigned for 23 years, and brought to Rome a prolonged time of peace. His adoptive son was the nephew of his beloved wife Faustina.  Marcus Aurelius assumed the throne upon his death and immediately made his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, a co-emperor. Lucius Verus died only 8 years later after suffering a stroke, leaving Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus had the heart and sole of a philosopher. He was well studied in the ways of ancient philosophy, and made many writings which have been passed down through time. Known as “the Meditations”, Marcus’ writings paint a picture of his wisdom and his preoccupation with death. Here’s a sample from the Meditations:

“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just- though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”

Marcus may have been wise with a solid understanding of his responsibility  as emperor, but that did not ensure a peaceful reign. After years of peace on Rome’s borders, all hell broke loose in the east and the north, leading to years of war. Marcus himself was on the frontlines for much of it, gone from Rome for a period of at least 8 years without returning. Eventually, the Roman armies secured the borders and won, but at great cost. They brought plague back to the capitol from the east, which raged in Rome for over 10 years. The hardest fought wars were against Germanic tribes to the north. It was here on the that Marcus Aurelius eventually died after years of illness, possibly cancer, in 180 after 19 years in power. More so than any other emperor, and due in large part to his writings which have survived to the present, he has gone down in history as a figure who embodies the best of Rome.

2 important monuments to Marcus Aurelius are found in Rome today. The first is the Column of Marcus Aurelius (also called the Aurelian Column). It stands in a piazza in the heart of modern Rome, not far from the government buildings. It is an impressive structure at 100 feet high. The form mimics that of Trajan’s column, which is found a few blocks away in the forum. Like Trajan’s column, Marcus’ column contains an incredibly detailed sculptural frieze that reads like an enormous spiral comic book. It tells the story of Marcus’ military victories in the north. At one time, it would have had a statue of Marcus Aurelius on the top. That one is long gone, replaced rather strangely with a statue of St. Paul.

The other significant monument to Marcus Aurelius is his bronze equestrian statue, which shows him heroically riding a horse. It’s made of cast bronze. At one point, there were probably many such statues in Rome, and carved bronze pieces also decorated many buildings. Those pieces are all gone forever, scavenged and melted down in the middle ages. “The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius” survives because people in the middle ages believed it to be a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine (more on him later). The statue was unharmed and has stood for centuries and has only recently been placed inside the Capitoline Museum at the Roman Forum. It’s near the top of the greatest works from antiquity to still survive today. It shows with amazing detail just how talented Roman sculptors were.

Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, known as the philosopher king. It’s surprising and ironic then, that he made such a poor choice for his successor. His son was Commodus, and in choosing him Marcus Aurelius became the first emperor in nearly 100 years to favor a son over an adoptive heir. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst tyrant emperors, grouped with the likes of Caligula and Nero. Like those emperors, he was obsessed with power, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was eventually assassinated. The reign of Commodus is seen as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. You could say that it began under Marcus Aurelius with his wars in the north, as eventually it was the northern tribes who wore down deteriorating Rome and sacked the capitol. Perhaps more on Commodus later-

For now, here’s another great SmartHistory clip with a more detailed look at the “Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius”. Enjoy-

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Trajan’s Column

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:

The second century in Ancient Rome saw a period of prosperity. After the disasters of the early Roman Emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, Rome had some sorting out to do. Eventually, a new line of Emperors came to rule. They would be called much later in a term coined my Machivelli, “The Good Emperors”. One of the greatest of all Emperors was Trajan, who ruled from 98 to his death from a stroke in 117. Trajan was a wise ruler and military commander who extended the boundaries of Rome to their furthest regions (into modern-day Iraq and eastern Turkey).

Trajan’s enduring legacy is his construction of much of ancient Rome. He was an ambitious builder who altered much of the city for the better. He worked with his chief architect Apollodorus to design Trajan’s Forum, a huge temple complex made of gleaming marble in the center of Rome. It housed libraries, fountains, an enormous piazza with a marble floor and a 125 ft. tall column commemorating Trajan’s military victories. Many of the Emperors created Forums as part of the greater Roman forum, and Trajan’s was probably the most impressive. Today, the main road crossing the ancient Roman ruins covers half of what was Trajan’s forum, built by Mussolini in the years before WWII. The rest of the forum is in ruin, with the floor long since removed and relocated and only partial columns and sections of foundation remaining.

Directly behind Trajan’s Forum was Trajan’s Market, still in pretty good shape. Built into the hillside, this enormous complex was the world’s first shopping mall. It contains many shops that sold pretty much anything that you wanted to find in ancient Rome. Here’s a picture of the rounded market portico and what’s left of the forum in the foreground:

Trajan’s other big project was a partial renovation of the Circus Maximus, the enormous chariot racing track just south of the Palatine Hill. THe Romans loved chariot racing, and a racetrack had been on the site for hundreds of years. The Circus Maximus for a longtime was made of wood and was the starting point of the great Roman fire under Nero that destroyed most of the city. Later emperors has it rebuilt, and Trajan added lots of extra seats and gave it a facelift in marble. At 3 stories high, it held hundred of thousands of people who came to watch gladiators do battle and chariot races, which often ended in death for the racers. To the Romans, humans battling to the death was a sport. Today, the Circus Maximus is no more, but it’s imprint is still clearly visible. The site is a large park, and the center of the track is still clearly visible and a huge tree stands where an Egyptian obelisk did. The banks of seats were long ago stripped of marble, but the embankment is still there on wither size. It’s an absolutely enormous site. It must have been awe-inspiring with all of Rome in attendance. Here’s a view of what it looked like then and looks like now-

Here’s a great youtube video from a Discovery Chanel show that covers the Circus Maximus and Trajan’s building projects: