A survivor of Rome’s glory days, Trajan’s Column celebrates an emperor’s ego and his army’s engineering know-how.
In AD 113 the Roman senate dedicated a monument commemorating the emperor Trajan’s victories in the Dacian Wars. The carvings that decorated Trajan’s Column celebrated not only the emperor’s deeds but also the day-to-day work of the army that made those victories possible.
The kingdom of Dacia, located in modern Romania, had been a thorn in Rome’s side for decades by the time Marcus Ulpius Traianus became emperor in AD 98. Attacks by armed Dacians from across the Danube were a regular occurrence in the northernmost Roman provinces. Worse, thanks to its secure location in the isolated Transylvanian basin, Dacia was a magnet for deserters from the Roman army and for malcontents from across the empire.
The Romans launched a punitive expedition against the Dacians around AD 87, but that was a disaster. A subsequent victory was not followed by others, and Rome declared a truce with the Dacian king, Decebalus, and gave him “artisans of every trade pertaining to both peace and war.” With the help of those artisans and of Roman deserters, Decebalus built an army organized and equipped on the Roman model.
In AD 101 Trajan went to war with the Dacians. He gathered nine of the 30 Roman legions, along with their auxiliaries and forces from client kingdoms, to create perhaps the largest army that had ever been fielded by the Roman Empire. For about a year and a half the Roman legions fought their way toward the Dacian capital, Sarmizegethusa Regia, through a belt of mountain forts. Trajan stopped short of conquest and instead imposed a peace treaty designed to keep Decebalus from threatening Roman borders in the future by requiring Dacia to surrender its weapons and the engineers who built them, dismantle its mountain forts, and turn over Roman deserters.
By the time Trajan celebrated his triumph in Rome about three months later, Decebalus had already broken the terms of the treaty: He had rearmed his troops, welcomed Roman deserters, and rebuilt his fortifications. Then in 105, he attacked Roman forces stationed along the Danube frontier. Trajan left Rome the first week of June and marched toward the Danube with reinforcements, while Decebalus continued to launch guerrilla attacks on Roman outposts.
The conquest of Dacia began the following spring. Trajan assembled an even larger force than he had used in the First Dacian War, creating two new legions with 5,500 Romans in each. Faced with a superior enemy, the Dacians waged a guerrilla war from their mountain strongholds. When Trajan reached the Dacian capital, the Romans laid siege to the town, and Decebalus eventually fled into the mountains. With Decebalus in hiding, the remaining Dacian nobles surrendered, and the Romans burned the capital to the ground.
Trajan ordered the construction of a Roman fortress over the ruins and the colonization of the province by retired Roman soldiers. Decebalus continued his resistance from afar until auxiliary cavalrymen tracked him down. He chose suicide rather than capture.
Trajan used the spoils from the Dacian Wars to build a new forum in Rome—larger and more magnificent than any built by former emperors. Designed to celebrate his victory over the Dacians, Trajan’s forum was entered through a triumphal arch. Statues in the likeness of Dacian captives supported porticoes surrounding the open spaces. Even the ground plan of the forum had military overtones, based on the layout of an army encampment. Trajan’s Column stood in a colonnaded courtyard at the heart of the forum, in the central place usually occupied by the army’s standard.
Made of 20 drums, each 11 feet in diameter and set on a 20-foot cube, Trajan’s Column is 98 feet of intricately carved marble. A tangled pile of Dacian arms and armor, the spoils of a surrendered army, are carved on the column’s base. The base and column are connected by a laurel wreath, traditional Roman symbol of victory. Inside the base, a funerary chamber originally held the ashes of Trajan and his wife, stolen sometime in the Middle Ages. Above the chamber, a spiral staircase ascends to the top, where a gilt bronze statue of the emperor originally stood. Since 1587, a statue of St. Peter has crowned the column.
Memorial columns were familiar in imperial Rome, but Trajan’s Column brought a new twist to the design: A 650-foot-long bas-relief telling the story of the Dacian Wars spirals counterclockwise around the column. The continuous flow of the frieze creates a sense of motion through time, from the first panel, in which Roman soldiers prepare for war, to the final scenes in which the Dacians are driven into exile. Scenes are separated by vertical framing elements— a tree, a standing man, the corner of a wall—but the unwinding narrative pauses only once, where a winged Victory marks the division between the first and second wars.
Today, Trajan’s Column is one of our primary sources for the daily life of Roman soldiers. Both Romans and Dacians are depicted in astonishing detail. Clothing, armor, weapons, standards, animals, and implements of camp life are set against a changing background of forts, tents, huts, rivers, forests, and mountains. There are relatively few scenes of battle and none of dead or dying Roman soldiers; the only recognition of Roman casualties is a single wounded soldier being treated in a field hospital. The column confirms the adage that the Roman Empire won its wars as much with pickaxes and spades as with swords. Instead of fighting, soldiers march, forage, chop down trees, pitch camp, and dig ditches. Above all, Trajan’s army builds roads, fortifications, bridges, blockhouses, and ultimately the empire itself.
Despite the realistic details, the scenes in which Trajan appears are highly stylized. Distinguished from his soldiers by both his size and a generally hieratic frontality, the emperor marches with his troops, sacrifices to the gods, reviews camp construction, holds war councils, interrogates spies, witnesses executions, and grants clemency. In short, the reliefs show Trajan living up to his title of optimus princeps, the best of princes.
Trajan’s representations on the column give us a clue to one of the most puzzling aspects of the reliefs—that there is no way for a viewer to “read” the narrative. In order to follow the story at all, a viewer must walk around and around the column, looking upward. Even walking around the column doesn’t allow viewers to follow the entire narrative, because only the lowest portions of the relief can be seen from the ground; in the past, the higher friezes may have been visible from upper levels of the forum.
Scholars have suggested many possible explanations as to why Trajan’s artists carved a narrative relief whose sequencing can’t be fully appreciated. The simplest may be that Romans did not need to view all the scenes to understand the overall message, any more than a visitor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., needs to read all the names on it to understand the loss they document. The scenes on Trajan’s Column are meant to be read not as individual facts but as a visual res gestae (literally, “things done”)—the achievements both of the emperor and of his army.
Pamela D. Toler, author of Mankind: The Story of All of Us, frequently contributes to MHQ’s Artists department.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.