Trajan & Aurelius Columns – A Comparison

The Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius

Roman art tends to reflect a pattern of coherence which can be followed within a visual language for representing Imperial authority.  Certain images were articulated as conventions, portraying the Emperors roles within Roman society, whether it were as military leader, lawgiver, or a reflection of their individual character.  The Roman citizens of the time would then read into these conventions the virtues of a good emperor, such as strength, just, or pious.  The Emperor could then trust that the meanings would be clear to a Roman audience, coupled with him drawing a likeness to the great emperors of the past.

In discussing the two columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (fig. 1 and 2), a brief description is given within their setting of locations and their given function.  Furthermore, an investigation of selected scenes from both the exterior relief panels are given through a visual analysis, thus revealing the differences and change in style and technique.  Both emperors fall within the broader epoch of the so called “Golden Age” of Rome. Emperor Trajan was the ruler between AD 98-117, and Marcus Aurelius, solely from AD 169-192.

Figure 1 Roman
Figure 1
Figure 2 Roman
Figure 2

The column of Trajan was located in the complex of buildings within the Trajan Forum, of which today is the only well preserved piece within the Forum – thanks to the law passed in 1162, forbidding anyone to damage it.  The column was dedicated in AD 113, with a height of 38m, including the base.  The physical formation of the column is made up of a series of hollow marble drums, with an internal spiral staircase leading to the top.  The exterior is carved with continuous scenes in low relief, and narrated without divisions that wind upward in a band as a helical frieze around the drums.  The band commences at a height of 91cm in the first drum and gradually increases to a maximum height of 1.2m near the top.  This assists the ability to read the reliefs with the rise in distance and change in angle.  Initially, the best viewpoint for reading the reliefs on the Trajan column would have been from the two flanking buildings, namely the Latin and Greek libraries, thereby allowing for an isolated attention for the column.  Behind the column and the initial libraries, stood Hadrian’s dedicated Temple to the Divine Trajan, which was based on a high podium.  This careful choice in location reflects Trajan’s contribution and interest in architecture, as will be seen once again in the relief work.

The Trajan column has an interesting range of functions, incorporating the scientific, socio-political symbol, and as a visual documentation.  Firstly, it served as a record in the amount of soil dug away from the hill to the east, at 29.77m, of which the height of the column being 38 meters, including the base.  Secondly, it served as the resting place for Trajan’s ashes.  Thirdly, The Trajan column served as a monument displaying his exploits and virtus, in the straightforward manner of reporting his two victorious campaigns against the Dacians as the central theme.  Furthermore, due to its positioning between the libraries within the forum, it acted as a symbol in holding peace and tranquility within the European provinces to the citizens of Rome.

The story of Trajan’s campaign is built up over stages, portrayed in a day-to-day manner – from the commissioning of the army, to its march and crossing of the Danube, through preparations for the fighting, to the aftermath of the torture of prisoners-of-war.  Trajan had distinguished himself in a military career before becoming consul.  As emperor, he incorporated a combination of civic vision and military wisdom that can be summed up in his nickname Optimus Princeps “the best chief” through the public eye and through the relief work.  With reference to a selection of six relief panels, we note a variety of subject matter: the daily reporting of activities by the military men, both on and off the battlefield, to the setting off on campaigns, or addressing his troops.

Figure 3 Roman

Figure 3

In viewing the first active scene (fig. 3), we are give a detailed accuracy of the setting, which is part of the introductory panel situated at the bottom of the column.  The soldiers are portrayed in their military dress, carrying pots and pans for their journey ahead, whilst crossing the Danube by pontoon bridge.  The most striking figure in this panel is the monumental portrayal of the River god from the back, a personification of the Danube River.  He is portrayed similarly to that of the hellenistic river god, with long hair, and ragged beard, dripping as he rises from the river.  The relief panel thus allegorizes a combination of real and imaginary, followed by the contrast in texture between the smooth musculature of the river god, and the arched rocky outcrop framing him and the decorative portrayal of water.  The soldiers are shown as a group, in placing one figure above the other and creating a sense of depth, along with the upper figures in lower gradation whilst the foreground figures are in slight higher relief.  Most of the figures are shown in profile, with the exception of the two soldiers on the far right.  We note the added shift in shoulders within the group which create the subtle act of movement in their procession.  Another interesting sense of perspective created, is the portrayal of architecture.  To the left, behind the group of soldiers, we note that various angles are shown in depicting the facades of buildings which are remarkably reduced in scale in comparison to the figures ahead.  This sense of depth runs relatively consistent throughout the narration.

Figure 4 Roman

Figure 4

Figure 5 Roman

Figure 5

The following relief panel is a conventional portrayal of Trajan, as the largest figure and carved in higher relief than the bystanders (fig. 4).  He is portrayed between an active scene of the building of a military camp, and the act of Roman soldiers presenting him with Dacian prisoners.  The portrayal of Trajan in profile was a standard procedure in projecting his superiority and strength, which can also best be noted when he addresses his troops (fig. 5), with arm stretched out.  This convention is otherwise known as adlocutio, where Trajan’s troops are facing him at his attention, on a high platform.

Figure 6 Roman

Figure 6

An interesting speculation can be given to the manner in which the sculptor has communicated a sense of admiration towards the enemy, where an over-life-sized figure is in the act of committing suicide besides a tree (fig. 6).  The low relief, carved picture plane is filled with activity once again, with figures one above the other, dressed in military dress.  In the midst of a battlefield, the background scene reveals the given representation of trees, thus indicating the outdoors.  A group of cavalry men are portrayed on horseback in profile, witnessing a more than life-sized figure, semi-seated.  The latter figure is individualized through his bearded portrait, along with the convention of portraying the enemy with baggy trousers which clearly distinguishes him from the Romans.  This figure is Decebalus who is portrayed with his head slightly turned, mouth ajar, and in the moment of stabbing himself to avoid being captured.  This scene reflects a sign of respect for the chief opponent, in which he is portrayed as the larger.  Yet, he is still overpowered with the sense of pride taken by the defined horses and Roman cavalry.  Note that the ground-level on which the bearded dying soldier and Decebalus is based on, is also utilized as the device for dividing the relief bands from one another that twirl around the column in its gradual upward movement.  A further two reflections of activities portrayed on the Trajan relief is the skilful strategies applied by the Roman military force and their involvement in civic duties.

Figure 7 Roman

Figure 7

In the first instance, (fig. 7), is the side-by-side placement of shields in order to protect themselves from the enemy, which is otherwise known as a maneuver called testudo, meaning “tortoise.”  In the civic duties, such as the building of roads (fig. 8), we can assume the reflection of Trajan’s dual ambitions to see to the needs of the Roman citizens and to comply to the above-mentioned tactics in aid of his victory.

Figure 8 Roman

Figure 8

The column of Marcus Aurelius (fig.2, p.1) originally stood within the area of the temple dedicated to Aurelius.  Today, in modern day Rome, the column stands in the Piazza Colonna.  The column of Marcus Aurelius was completed AD 180-192, and is closely modeled on the Column of Trajan: built up of 28 white Italian marble drums and is similar in height to the Trajan column; it too bears a spiraling staircase in the interior, and an exterior band of relief work.  However, we can notice a change in the economy of scenes and the broader dividing mechanism between the bands.

The column of Aurelius was a dedication from Emperor Septimus in AD 193 and too functions as a visual documentation of scenes of war, with Marcus Aurelius conducting his two war campaigns against the German tribes along the Danube.  Thus, from a historical point of view, both Emperors convey their involvement with the military.  Nevertheless, a different approach is given through the style and technique within the reliefs, as they are no longer only carved, but instead, are also deeply cut and drilled, thus creating more shadow and drama to the scenes.  Moreover, it assists in reducing the amount of scenes.


Figure 9 Roman

Figure 9

Furthermore, the column of Aurelius incorporates an indirect reference to Trajans’ river god, by representing a rain god  as personification (fig. 9), but not just as a signifier of place, albeit as the signified in actively partaking in the story, which through the natural forces of torrential downpour brought the defeat of the barbarian.  This could also reflect a growing mysticism among the Roman people.

We could draw parallels with Aurelius’ character of intellect, and as a believer of stoic philosophy, thereby reflecting a deeper reflection of ‘inner’ character as Emperor through this evident change of style.  A further change is also noted in portraying the Emperor in his adlocutio scene, as he is frontal when addressing his troops (fig. 10).


Figure 10 Roman

Figure 10

Marcus Aurelius is also portrayed larger than the other men, who stand beside him on a ledge.  He stands centered and looks straight ahead, which allows the viewer to enter his gaze with a more direct approach.  This too allows for a higher spiritual level in his outlook and character.  Aurelius too wrote in Greek; and held the character of being thoughtful, which is evident in his written “Meditations.”  Moreover, the writings also reflect a deep sense of caring for people, and thus detested the wars of irrationality.

Figure 11 Roman

Figure 11

We can see a change in the choice of representing the military men in a massacre of barbarians (fig. 11), with scenes directing us into the frontal awareness of the brutality, suffering and violence.  These scenes could lie in the sources of the hellenistic reliefs of Pergamon (fig. 12), with their theatrical, yet generic expressions of abstraction.  The contrast in deep carving and use of drill manages to create a sense of realism to the scenes, yet leaning towards a more dramatizing of style.  In viewing a scene of captive women and children, we once again note the deeply cut and drilled modeling of the reliefs, with its rough-hewn texture as a reflection of a merciless vision of war.  The scene portraying the captive women and children (fig. 13), are portrayed in a gentler mood.  This is best seen in the flowing garments and the noted pose of the female captive figure with her foot gracefully placed on the ledge of the bordering divided band.  They seem to be portrayed in a more ‘classic’ state, juxtaposed with the generic portrayals of the Roman soldiers in expressions and their deeply drilled, textured military dress.  Thus, we have a sense of awareness reflecting the careful choice of portraying a scene of ‘caring’ towards the captive woman and children, who cling onto their mothers in despair.

Figure 12 Roman

Figure 12

Figure 13 Roman

Figure 13

In highlighting the similarities and differences between the Trajan and Marcus Aurelius column, it allows for the viewer to notice the movement of change that progressively become more abstract in time and that through the method of formal analysis in history of art, has indeed managed to reflect the power of art to act as a mechanism in bridging such evidence to the foreground.

By Demetrios Voulgarellis (Roman Art)


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