What Is the Story Behind Trajan’s Column?

Trajan’s Column is one of the most celebrated, and best-preserved monuments of the Roman Empire. We track a brief summary.

Feb 17, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History


Trajan’s Column is one of the most famous Roman monuments. It is also the best-preserved triumphal column still standing in Rome, the other being that of Marcus Aurelius. The imposing 38-meter-tall pillar was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus between 106 and 113 CE to commemorate emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian wars. However, Trajan’s Column is more than just a monument. It is a striking symbol of the Roman Empire’s might. Its famed frieze is akin to an ancient movie, telling the tale of war, victory and propaganda. Lastly, the renowned column is considered one of the most outstanding surviving examples of Roman monumental sculpture, inspiring countless artists and architects up to the present day.


Trajan’s Column Is a Monument from Rome’s Golden Age

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View of Trajan’s Column in Rome, erected in 106-13 CE, via National Geographic


Trajan’s Column was erected in the early second century CE, also known as Rome’s “Golden Age”. This was the period in which the Roman Empire reached its apex. During the reign of Emperor Trajan, one of the “Five Good Emperors,” the Roman legions defeated Parthia, reaching the Persian Gulf. In addition, following the two bloody wars with the Dacians, Trajan erased this powerful kingdom from the map, creating a new province of Dacia (modern-day Romania) and extending Roman control far across the Danubian limes. Under Emperor Trajan, the Roman Empire encompassed a vast territory, from Britain and Spain in the West to Egypt and Mesopotamia in the East. It was truly one of the greatest powers of the ancient world. And Trajan’s Column was the most striking symbol of imperial glory and might.


Trajan’s Column Commemorates Emperor’s Triumph

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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


While the splendor of the Trajan’s Forum is long gone (and the statue of Trajan that once topped it is now lost), the column remains – the witness to the emperor’s glorious victory. Trajan’s Dacian campaign was a monumental achievement and is depicted as such. In two subsequent conflicts fought between 101 and 106 CE, Emperor Trajan mustered tens of thousands of soldiers, in nine Roman legions. After building two of the longest bridges the ancient world had ever seen, Trajan crossed the Danube, defeated the mighty Dacian kingdom twice, wiping it from the map, and added the resource-rich province of Dacia to the Roman Empire. Besides constructing the magnificent monument, the emperor commemorated the triumph with a special coin depicting Trajan’s Column.


Trajan’s Column Frieze Is a Movie Carved in Stone

trajan's column bas relief
Fragment from the column depicting battle scenes between the Romans and Dacians in bas-relief


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Winding its way up the Trajan’s Column, the 190-meter-long spiral frieze depicts the emperor’s Dacian campaign in 115 elaborately made scenes, filled with more than 2500 characters. The Dacian campaign is presented in two parts and in the chronological order – from bottom to top. The lower half of the frieze illustrates the First Dacian War (101-102), and the upper half covers the Second War (105-106). The scenes vary from the Roman army’s crossing of the Danube, camp construction, the emperor’s speeches to his troops, and the battle scenes to the capture and the execution of king Decebalus. The main star of this ancient movie carved in stone – emperor Trajan – appears in no less than 58 scenes.


The Magnificent Monument Is a “Propaganda Movie”

trajan column reconstruction
Potential reconstruction of Trajan’s Column in color


No matter how attractive, the tale told in the friezes of Trajan’s Column is not a real story but an idealized representation of one. The Dacian wars happened, and the Romans were victorious. Emperor Trajan personally led his troops, and after the war, he annexed the province rich in gold. However, this was the tale told by the Romans to the Romans. The Dacian part of the story remains untold. After all, the primary role of the Column was to glorify the achievements of Trajan and the Roman Empire.


The Column Had a Symbolic Role

carole raddato benevento arch trajan dacia drawing
Emperor Trajan and the province of Dacia, personified, kneeling before him, confirming the supremacy of the Roman Empire and its emperor


Following Trajan’s death in 117 CE, the ashes of the emperor and his wife were deposited in a small chamber within the pedestal of Trajan’s Column. Like other Roman emperors, Trajan was deified after his death. Thus, the sanctuary within the Column and the larger-than-life representation of the emperor on the column’s frieze is the ultimate confirmation of Trajan’s godlike status and the emperor’s triumph.


Trajan’s Column Was Vividly Painted

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


Trajan’s Column was a striking symbol of imperial might – an ancient propaganda movie. It was an interactive experience designed to engage the viewer and remind him of the person who commissioned the Column – Emperor Trajan – and the emperor’s deeds. It was also a vivid experience. It is easy to forget that in Roman times, the column’s frieze was painted in gaudy colors, while the cast of carved figures held weapons made of metal. Thus, the ancient observer would relive a powerful story – the conquest of the Dacian Kingdom. Lastly, Trajan’s Column did not stand alone. The tall marble pillar was flanked by two libraries, 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, showcasing the Roman Empire’s immense power.

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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.