Vertigo and Vanity: A Study of Trajan’s Column

Heather McDonald

There are numerous examples of architectural monuments in ancient Rome—structures that involved complex building procedures, expensive materials, immeasurable aid, and careful engineering. Trajan’s victory column can be counted as one among these architectural monuments. Although there are characteristics that set it within the parameters of a traditional monument, there are also some that allow for a variation from this model. This exposition will consider the general typology of the triumphal column as well as the particular formal qualities of Trajan’s Column. When considering the implications of the formal qualities, we can ask what and how does this monument communicate to its present audience? In our response, we must consider the contingency of our interpretation from our own historical perspective to avoid anachronisms. I would like to consider Trajan’s column not only as traditional monument, but also as a monument that communicates an aporetic message. Trajan’s Column acknowledges and asserts coherence and continuity and simultaneously allows for disruption of that coherence. In what follows, I would like to consider the status of the monument. It is perhaps useful to consider William H. Gass’s apt remark about monuments: “The monumental wrestles with the dialectic of endurance and denial” [1]. What is it that Trajan’s column denies? What does it claim to endure? And are these reconcilable in any way?

A descriptive introduction to the monument is appropriate at this point, considering a monument’s physicality is primary to its status as a monument. Trajan’s Column was among many of the architectural additions and modifications in Rome that the emperor was responsible for during his reign (98-117 C.E.). Trajan’s Column was a component of a large forum initiated (106-113 C.E.) by Trajan and most likely his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus [2]. The Column can be classified as a victory pillar (triumphal column) and a funerary column. Although Trajan’s Column was completed in 113 C.E.—before he died—the Column was designed to be a funerary column [3]. The victory column was established by Trajan to catalogue and celebrate his victories in the Dacian wars (101-106 C.E.).

The Luna marble bas-reliefs along the exterior of the column are in a spiral formation and illustrate various events during the wars that Trajan conducted in Dacia, such as medics assisting wounded soldiers during battle. At the base of the column is an entrance to a spiral staircase that leads to the top of the column where there is a platform to stand and observe the vista. The base holds the ashes of Trajan, so the funerary aspect of the structure is present in the mind of the individual who then ascends the marble stairs [4]. Initially, a bronze eagle stood at the top of the column, but it was later replaced by a statue of the emperor Trajan after he died in 117 [5]. There currently stands a statue of St. Peter, which replaced that of Trajan in 1588 [6]. The stairway inside the column is carved from blocks of marble placed one on top of the other, making the stairwell structurally integral to the exterior of Trajan’s Column [7]. The height of the column is an impressive 35.23 m (115 ft 7 ins), and it serves neither architecturally to support a pediment, nor is it exclusively decorative (without function [8]). It does not have a structural or peripheral role within a larger building but is an autonomous structure mirroring the autonomous role of the emperor after the fall of the Republic in ancient Rome. The physical characteristics of Trajan’s Column distinguish its monumental status in its grandiosity, totality, and presence.

In addition to the physical characteristics of the Column, one must recognize the importance of the topographical location, architectural context, and orientation of the column. The location of Trajan’s column is north-east of the Capitoline hill and north of the Forum Romanum. It was assumed for a time that the inscription on the pedestal of Trajan’s Column, which spoke of a mountain that was removed in the construction of Trajan’s Forum, referred to a hill that connected the Capitoline and the Quirinel and that Trajan removed this hill in the process of constructing his forum [9]. However, upon recent excavations, it was revealed that this probably did not occur since there is evidence of previous architectural development underneath the foundations of the Column and surrounding area [10]. Nevertheless, its metaphorical implications are all the same: Trajan had the power and means to move mountains for Rome.

Trajan’s reign initiated architectural development that included markets, temples, baths, triumphal arches, and other types of utilitarian and social buildings [11]. Trajan’s Column stands in an open court next to Trajan’s basilica and is sheltered on the east and west sides by the Bibliotheca Ulpia [12]. The Temple of Divine Trajan is situated to the north of the Column and to the south is the Basilica of Trajan [13]. The Column of Trajan is the locus that these principle buildings encircle. It is important to recall that the physical remains of Trajan are located at the base of the Column. This allies the ashes of Trajan with the centre of this orbit of principle buildings and indicates the significance of the autonomy of the Roman emperor through his ashes. The architectural context of the location of Trajan’s Column indicates its symbolic importance.

To further elucidate the significance of Trajan’s Column, it is helpful to consider some analogous architectural structures. Two types that come to mind are obelisks and large-scale sundials. In particular, for the latter, the Horologium Augusti in the Campus Martius comes to mind. The Romans often appropriated cultural forms and structures in their conquests. The most popular example is of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture; however, this also occurred for other territories, such as Egypt. The strong resemblance between Trajan’s Column and an obelisk is perhaps little surprise considering such appropriative tendencies, but of course, the Romans were selective in their cultural appropriation—appropriation of the Barbarian West was highly uncommon if not completely absent. Why would the Romans appropriate the Egyptian obelisk? The symbolism of the form is significant. The phallic nature of the obelisk in Egyptian mythology is connected with the death of Osiris and the commemoration of his virility initiated by Isis [14]. The connotations of dominion, renewal, and dissemination in the phallic obelisk appealed to Roman ideals. Trajan’s Column stands as a visual disruption in the natural and architectural landscape of Rome.

George Hersey makes an interesting comparison between the helical relief of Trajan’s Column and the helical structure of D.N.A. The helical form of a column is also referred to as a “Solomonic” shaft, which alludes to biblical traditions and the apparent use or possibly invention of the spiral column for a temple by Solomon (or his architect Hiram of Tyre [15]). Hersey draws a progression from the spiral column to the twisted column of the baroque and remarks at their “powerfully biotic” attributes [16]. Trajan’s Column stands as an early example of this helical form which signifies a strong, continuous movement perpetuated. Its ideological connotations are quite clear.

In addition to the resemblance to an obelisk, Trajan’s Column also calls to mind the Horologium Augusti in the Campus Martius. The sundial consists of a gnomon, the vertical pointer that casts a shadow on the face of the clock to reveal annual and daily time. The indexical attributes of the Horologium Augusti apply to Trajan’s Column. The solid form indicates what is directly above: the dome of the heavens, the cosmos. This idea of the indexicality of a triumphal column is referred to briefly in John E. Moore’s essay on the Monument in London, modeled after Trajan’s Column, among other influences [17]. These morphological analogies reveal the context in which we can understand Trajan’s Column as identifying and legitimizing itself by way of reference to architectural predecessors—without overshadowing its innovation.

Trajan’s Column became an architectural predecessor itself. It was a model both for the Column of Antoninus Pius in Rome (161 C.E.) as well as for the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (174 C.E [18]). The latter has a spiral column relief and an interior stairwell that leads to the top of the column where a statue of the Emperor crowns the Column. Similarly, the reliefs on the Column of Marcus Aurelius document the wars that were led by him against German groups situated north of the Danube [19]. Imitations of a structure indicate success and popularity as well as monumental status. Trajan’s Column espouses this characteristic of a traditional monument because of the imitations that were inspired by the structure.

The commemorative purposes of Trajan’s Column are inscribed in the helical reliefs of Trajan’s conquest of Dacia. Commemoration takes the form of a (possibly hyperbolic) reconstruction of the events which established Trajan’s status as a competent and successful emperor. It historicizes and legitimates the new land and wealth that Trajan conquered. It emphasizes the positive, the present, and the established, rather than the absent.

For a different perspective on the monument, we can turn to the twentieth century artist and writer, Robert Smithson, who described a contemporary monument that differed greatly from the traditional sort in its utility and aesthetic. He recognized the impact of the suburb in its industrial and commercial development outside of the city core and how this would affect the perception of the monument. Smithson recognized the irony of the suburban monument: “This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin afterthey are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romanticmise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other ‘out of date’ things” [20]. Smithson’s description of Passaic seems to heroicize space—vacant or vast—rather than the infinitude and dominance of time. Smithson’s focus on the spatial characteristics of the suburb and the monuments that populate the suburb are far less reliant on temporality: “Passaic seems full of ‘holes’ compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory traces of an abandoned set of futures” [21]. Trajan’s Column stands in opposition to this kind of revisioning of the monument and its status; however, it is interesting to consider Smithson’s “discredited idea of time” in relation to the present ruins of Trajan’s Column.

Furthermore, Sorcha Carey provides some interesting ideas regarding the iconic nature of the catalogue of Trajan’s Column. He compares Augustus’ Alpine Trophy to Trajan’s Column and points out that the list of images on Trajan’s Column is similar to the list of words on Augustus’ Trophy, both indicating “the processes of empire which are crucial to the articulation of imperial power” [22]. This tendency towards creating a catalogue or inventory of the people and territory the Romans conquered was incessant. Carey asserts the integral relationship between conquest and cataloguing in the context of Pliny’s account of Roman conquest and history [23]. Carey writes at length of Augustus’ Trophy at La Turbie and brings into the discussion Trajan’s Column.

Carey further acknowledges the particularly interesting point of the impossibility of seeing the entire relief that adorns the column. In order to see even just a portion of the relief, one must physically encircle the column to see each succeeding scene. Even if one does manage to follow some of the reliefs at the base in succession, the column is far too high to be able to see the reliefs in their entirety. This may appear to be a curious predicament because one would expect that those who went to the trouble to create such a monument, one that by all appearances indicates the importance of conveying Roman military accomplishments, would make these documents accessible to the eye of all Romans. Why is it that a helical relief, a form that emphasizes continuity, would imply continuity yet remain unverifiable to the Roman observer? One answer to this is that the autonomy and authority of Trajan and his Column is emphasized over the power and authority of the person who wishes to exercise his/her empirical, ascertaining judgments.

This evaluation and experience of Trajan’s Column is important to consider. Richard Brilliant suggests that these types of monuments served as markers during a triumph that would remind the Roman people of their historical victories [24]. During a triumph, these architectural monuments would be focal points, as would the triumphator. In addition to experiencing the Column visually, it could be encountered physically, as one could enter and ascend to the top.

The stairwell inside the column would have been illuminated by the small openings that functioned like windows, but the person climbing the stairwell would have been in relative darkness while climbing over 100 feet and would then enter the landing at the top of the column to witness the sensational vista. This ascending movement in climbing the stairs mimics the ascension of Trajan—politically and spiritually—into the heavens. From the base of Trajan’s Column, where the ashes of the Emperor reside, one would reenact the journey to the heights of greatness, resembling an apotheosis.

The form of Trajan’s Column resists immediate physical interpretation in several ways. There is first the inability of the individual to optically ascertain the reliefs in their entirety; second are the temporal and spatial limitations in experiencing the monument, which reassert the authority and imposition of the monument upon the individual. The individual must first confront and acknowledge the remains of Trajan to then proceed along the stairwell that leads to the top platform. The vista can only be reached through the allocated route.

This passageway carved in the interior of the Column is significant when one considers the dual classification as a triumphal column as well as a funerary column. It is symbolically analogous to an apotheosis. As one enters the base of Trajan’s Column, one enters into darkness and is in close range to the ashes of the emperor. This symbolically implies transformation, as one is confronted with amemento mori. Upon entering Trajan’s Column, we are reminded of the immanence of death. Then, in ascending the spiral stairwell, dimly lit by small openings in the Column, one would climb over 100 feet to the platform at the top of the stairwell. The repetitive act of climbing the staircase symbolically implies perseverance and methodical practice. The final act of the process is the reemergence at the platform of Trajan’s Column. The vertigo and blinding sun would disorient the individual, but after an optical adjustment, a glorious Roman vista would be revealed. The individual who moves through the passageway leading to the platform on Trajan’s Column experiences an analogous symbolic reenactment of the emperor’s power, authority, and quasi-apotheosis.

Given their similarities, this could be compared to the description of Plato’s Forms. In Plato’s Republic, the Forms are described via the famous cave analogy of the hierarchized stages of knowledge and truth. Shadows that move on the back of a cave wall are the illusions of truth and knowledge, which can be overcome by removing oneself from the cave. The transition from inside the cave to outside causes momentary blindness by the sun before truth and knowledge can be apprehended.

In conclusion, I would like to return to Gass’s remark regarding monuments, “The monumental wrestles with the dialectic of endurance and denial” [25]. It appears that Trajan’s Column has drawn upon architectural, philosophical, and iconic modes of determining its character of endurance. Reliance on antecedents has a tendency to legitimize. What is it that Trajan’s Column denies? Well, it denies its own finitude. While asserting its stability, its presence and authority, it brings into relief its denial of vacancy.

1. William H. Gass. “Monumentality/Mentality,” Oppositions, 25 (Fall 1982), p. 144.
2. Lynne Lancaster, “Building Trajan’s Column,” American Journal of Archaeology, 103, no.3 (July 1999), p. 419.
3. Sir Bannister Fletcher, History of Architecture, 18thed. (New York: Scribner, 1975), p. 325.
4. Ibid., pp. 325-7.
5. Ibid., p. 325.
6. Ibid.
7. Lancaster, p. 424.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., p. 421.
10.  Ibid.
11. William L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire, 1, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 75.
12. Lancaster, p. 419.
13. Ibid., p. 420.
14. George Hersey, The Monumental Impulse: Architecture’s Biological Roots, (Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 1999), p. 124.
15. Ibid., p. 8.
16. Ibid., p. 9.
17. John E. Moore, “The Monument, or, Christopher Wren’s Roman Accent,” in Art Bulletin, LXXX no. 3, (Sept 1998), p. 499.
18. Fletcher, p. 327.
19. Ibid.
20. Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Collected Writings, Ed. Jack Flam. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), p. 72.
21. Ibid., p. 72.
22. Sorcha Carey, “Representing Empire: Monuments and the Creation of Roman Space,” Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture, (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2003), p. 56.
23. Ibid., p. 45.
24. Richard Brilliant, “‘Let the Trumpets Roar!’ The Roman Triumph,” The Art of Ancient Spectacle, Eds. B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon, (Washington: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 222.
25. Gass, p. 144.