Trajan’s Column: The Ancient Roman Movie Carved In Marble

Soaring over Rome, Trajan’s Column is a striking symbol of the Roman imperial might. Its famed frieze, an ancient movie, tells us a tale of war, victory, and propaganda.

Jul 24, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
trajans column ancient roman movie carved marble
Trajan’s column, via Istock; with scenes from Trajan’s column, via Veni Vidi Zoom


Carved from marble and wrapped in an intricate spiral frieze, a tall pillar rises 38 meters above Rome. One of the most famous examples of Roman art, Trajan Column is a triumphal monument that recounts one of ancient Rome’s greatest achievements. The 190-meter relief frieze presents a remarkable narrative of the Dacian Wars like an ancient movie. More than 2,500 figures of Roman and Dacian warriors are shown in detail, along with their weapons, armor, and equipment. In the center of this epic story stands emperor Trajan – the main star, the man who subdued Dacia, and brought the imperial territory to its highest extent. Trajan’s Column is more than fine artwork. It is an exquisite piece of imperial propaganda, a testament to Roman supremacy, and a witness of Trajan’s greatness. After the emperor’s death, the monument served as a tomb for Trajan and his wife. For centuries this movie in stone was adored by artists and emulated by many leaders. Despite its deterioration, caused by pollution and traffic, Trajan’s Column remains one of the finest ancient monuments even today.


Building Trajan’s Column

Trajan’s Column rising above the ruins of the Forum, with the Altare della Patria in the background, via National Geographic


Today, Trajan’s Column rises above the busy cityscape, dominated by the gargantuan Altare della Patria, built in the end of the 19th century. But when the monument was erected in the 2nd century CE, the 38-meter column was an integral part of the Forum of Trajan, a piece of art that celebrated Trajan’s splendid victory over the Dacians. The construction of the Forum began almost immediately after the end of the war. The endeavor was financed by the huge war booty seized from the vanquished Dacians. Most of the work was completed within five years. Trajan’s Column was put in place in 113 CE, with the special commemorative coin depicting the Column issued for the occasion.


The architectural project of the Forum and Trajan’s Column was entrusted to one of the few ancient architects whose name survived till today – Apollodorus of Damascus. A close associate of Trajan, Apollodorus, built a gigantic, more than a kilometer in length, bridge over the Danube, used by the legions to cross into Dacia. In addition, he wrote a series of essays on mechanics and poliorcetics (the art of siege). Apollodorus shone under Trajan, but during the reign of his successor Hadrian, the famed architect and engineer was first exiled, and then executed on trumped-up charges.


Golden coin of Trajan, showing the emperor’s bust on the left, and the stylized Column on the right, ca. 112-117 CE, The British Museum, London


Apollodorus did not conceive the monument as a single piece. Instead, Trajan’s Column was made of 19 drums from the finest Carrara marble, lifted into place using a complex system of pulleys and scaffoldings (check this fascinating stop-motion video). Ancient Romans excelled at engineering and architecture, accomplishing grand-scale projects that capture imagination till today. Despite all the architect and his workers’ engineering prowess, lifting the 53-ton capital to the height of 35 meters was an impressive achievement.  The stone blocks were hollowed from inside, allowing access to the platform at the top via a spiral staircase. From the platform, a magnificent view of Trajan’s Forum opened. At the very top, a 3-meter tall statue of the emperor Trajan himself overlooked the city, shining brightly in the sun; symbolizing the might and glory of the Roman Empire at its peak.

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An Ancient War Movie

The scenes showing the fort construction and the battle, with emperor Trajan shown on the right, via Veni Vidi Zoom


The splendor of Trajan’s Forum is long gone. And so is the gilded bronze statue of the emperor. But the column remains, retelling the story of the emperor’s achievements almost two millennia after Trajan’s death. The richly decorated spiraling frieze that winds towards the top of the column is more than a work of art. It is a testament to the Roman imperial glory, a war movie carved in stone that narrates the two Dacian Wars. Trajan’s campaign was a monumental achievement, and it is depicted as such. In two subsequent conflicts fought between 101 and 106 CE, emperor Trajan mustered tens of thousands of Roman troops, crossed the Danube after building two of the longest bridges the ancient world had ever seen, defeated the mighty barbarian kingdom twice, wiped it from the map, and added the resource-rich province of Dacia to his empire.


Bas relief of Trajan’s column, via Istock


The ancient movie on the Trajan’s Column shows that campaign in detail through 115 scenes, each containing more than 2,500 thousand intricately carved figures. The cast of Romans and Dacians march, fight, build, negotiate, plead and perish as the story unfolds in front of our eyes. The tale would be incomplete without the main star. Emperor Trajan is present in 58 of the scenes, depicted as a clever commander, accomplished statesman, and a pious ruler. Here he is ordering his troops to cross the Danube; there, he is holding a council of war with his officers; over here, he is making a sacrifice to the gods. Like any other good movie, the plot has its main antagonist, too, in the form of the Dacian king Decebalus.


Detail of the freeze showing the Roman soldiers crossing the Danube, personified as a river god, via Trajan’s Column in Rome


The story is presented in two parts and in chronological order – from bottom to top. The lower half of the frieze illustrates the First Dacian War (101-102) and the upper half the Second War (105-106). The story begins with the first foray in Dacia. The Roman army crosses the Danube and Trajan addresses his troops. The Roman military might is portrayed through scenes of soldiers cutting trees, paving roads, and building fortifications deep in the enemy territory. Peaceful scenes are interrupted by action, showing brutal battle scenes where the legions fight the Dacians and their allies. The first war ends with a Roman triumph, only for a plot twist to follow.


Detail from the Trajan’s Column copy showing the battle, National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest


Deceitful Decebalus breaks the peace treaty and continues his attacks against Romans. The sequel depicts all the might of the Roman empire descending on Dacia, with Trajan crossing the Danube once again, allowing his vengeful soldiers to burn and plunder the Dacian lands. Several more battles follow in which the Dacians are utterly crushed. In the end, Rome is victorious, and Decebalus looks with despair at the death of his capital Sarmizegetusa, enveloped in flames. Afterwards, in despair, he commits suicide. Decebalus’ head and right hand are delivered to Trajan. The country is now the Roman dominion, with the surviving Dacians forced into slavery or scattered. Happy end… at least for the Romans.


A Propaganda Movie

Detail of the frieze showing the battle between Roman soldiers and Dacian warriors, with added colors and metal weapons, via National Geographic


The story meticulously told in the friezes of Trajan’s Column bears yet another similarity to a movie. It is not a real story but an idealized representation of one. The notorious Dacian wars happened, and the Romans were victorious. Trajan led the campaign and annexed the province. But the Roman audience that admired their compatriots’ virtuosity and the insidiousness of the Dacians never got to hear the other part of the tale. Apart from a few rare cases, harsh realities of warfare are not depicted in the column. Omnipresent Trajan is at all times distanced from the battlefield, overseeing the military action, but never partaking in it. Most importantly, the Dacians are completely dehumanized and portrayed through the Roman lens as a hostile and fierce people, defeated and subdued by the Roman civilization.


We should not forget that Trajan’s Column is a triumphal monument. Its primary role was to glorify the achievements of Trajan and his dynasty. A scene separates each of the wars presented on the frieze with a shield and victory trophies symbolizing Rome’s triumph against all odds. It goes further than that. The pedestal of the column lavishly decorated with reliefs showing captured Dacian weapons and armor reveals another secret. Following the emperor’s death in 117 CE, the ashes of Trajan and his wife were deposited in a small chamber within the pedestal. Like other Roman emperors, Trajan was deified after his death. The sanctuary within Trajan’s Column and the larger-than-life representation of the emperor on the column’s frieze is the ultimate confirmation of Trajan’s godlike status.


Potential reconstruction of Trajan’s Column, in color, via History in 3D


Trajan’s Column was a monumental symbol of imperial might – an ancient propaganda movie. For the Romans, the monument was more than a mere object. It was an interactive experience aimed to engage the viewer and remind him of the person who commissioned it – Trajan – and his achievements immortalized at the column. It was also a vivid experience. It should not be forgotten that the column’s frieze was painted in gaudy colors (traces survived up to the 18th century), while the cast of carved figures held weapons made of metal. All this spectacle made the monument even more striking and attractive to the observer.


Decebalus’ head presented to Trajan, from Trajan’s Column, via iStock


Even the “theatre” was an important part of the experience. At the time of its construction, the tall pillar was flanked by two libraries (Greek and Latin), the Ulpian Basilica, and the Temple of Trajan. Together the buildings formed Trajan’s forum’s grand complex – a visible reminder of Trajan’s greatness for the generations to come. Although the surrounding building provided platforms for a better view, not the entire movie could be observed due to the column’s immense height. That was intentional. An average Roman would already be familiar with the plot or some of its aspects. Surely, he would know the end. The Column’s height only increased the monument’s significance and further confirmed Trajan’s supremacy as emperor and god.


After Credits: The Legacy Of Trajan’s Column

Etching of Trajan’s Column, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The column and its frieze were deeply influential, becoming an inspiration for later monuments in Rome and across the empire. The best example is the rather well-preserved Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. At the same time, all that remains from the nearby column of Antoninus Pius, or the columns of emperors Arcadius and Justinian erected in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), are but large vacant pedestals. The trend returned in the 18th century, the most prominent monument being the Colonne Vendôme in Paris, erected to honor Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.


Trajan’s Column survived the decline and the disappearance of the Forum and most of Rome’s ancient monuments. Throughout centuries, its famed frieze lost all the paint, assuming its regal white appearance. The statue of emperor Trajan is long gone, replaced in 1587 by St Peter. The modern metropolis’ intense traffic and air pollution took a toll on the monument, causing the frieze’s gradual deterioration. The ancient movie, however, is not lost. Back in 1861, 125 plaster casts of the relief frieze were made and can now be found in the Museum of the Roman Civilization in Rome. Another complete copy of the reliefs, made in 1874, is on display in Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From 1943, there exists a third copy, at the National Museum of Romanian History in Bucharest.


Portraits of Trajan from Trajan’s column, via Trajan’s Column in Rome


Since the revival of interest in classical art in the 15th century, Trajan’s Column and its story became a favorite attraction for countless visitors to Rome. Artists lowered themselves in baskets from the top to study the frieze in detail, and numerous sketches were made and published. The detailed representations of soldiers and the military equipment, tents, camp fortifications, ships, are still used by historians as a valuable source of information. Trajan’s Column Project remains an important source of accessible images. Year after year, rivers of tourists flock to Rome to admire the monument that stands the test of time. Trajan’s lasting achievement, his immortality – a movie carved in marble.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.