Given the historical importance of Trajan’s Column, most archaeologists have come across it. As I used to teach courses on prehistoric and ancient art, I became quite familiar with the stunning imagery on the column. But, despite knowing the monument’s dimensions and having seen a partial replica in Paris, I was still blown away when I saw the original in Rome.

The Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano Church behind Trajan's Column in Rome.

The column in front of the Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano Church.

Trajan’s Column was erected in Rome in 113 AD. A victory monument, the column commemorates Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars (102 – 103 and 105 – 106 AD). Originally a bronze statue of Trajan was placed on top, but since 1588 it has been a statue of St Peter, when the Column became the first official archaeological monument of Papal Rome. Today the Column is still admired as a feat of engineering and for the exquisitely detailed low relief frieze carved on the shaft.

The column is made up from 29 blocks of white Italian marble, taking it to a height of 38 metres. Carved out of these blocks is an internal spiral staircase that leads to the viewers platform at the top. Lighting for this staircase is provided by 40 narrow windows. Some scholars believe that the column was erected plain, that the frieze was carved after Trajan’s death in 117 AD when the column became the Emperor’s tomb.

The carvings are not only admired for their artistic quality, the entire frieze is an unique account of the history of Dacia and a valuable record of Roman military tactics and weaponry. This frieze spirals around the shaft in a continuous sequence of 155 scenes with over 2,600 individual figures. The account of the defeat of the Dacians is obviously one-sided, telling the story from Trajan’s perspective. None the less it is still important because there are so few accounts of the Dacian wars; Trajan’s own account of the wars have not survived.

The view of Trajan's Column from Trajan's Forum.

The columns of Basilica Ulpia in front of Trajan’s Column.

Trajan’s Column in Rome

In 113 AD the column was erected in Trajan’s Forum, right next to Basilica Ulpia. Today you will find it near the Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano and Santa Maria di Loreto churches (the right and left domed churches, respectively, in the photograph above), and just over the road (Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali) from that enormous white Vittorio Emanuele Monument on the Piazza Venezia. Walk down the road from the Colosseum in the direction of that great white building on Capitoline hill, often called ‘the wedding cake’ among other things, and you can not miss it.

Casts of the 155 scenes in the Museo della Civiltà Romana.

Casts of all 155 scenes, side by side.
Photograph © Notafly

From the roadside pavement surrounding Trajan’s Forum (the closest you can get to the column), you are able to see the individual carvings. Well, some of them at least. The helical frieze if unrolled would be about 200 metres long, and as the column is nearly 40 metres high it is impossible to see all 155 scenes let alone get a good look at them.

Of course the carvings have been produced in a few books, but to see the entire narrative actual size, the best pace to go when in Rome is the Museum of the Roman Civilization (Museo della Civiltà Romana). Here casts of the whole frieze have been placed side by side enabling visitors to get up close to each of the 155 scenes.

Archaeology Travel Tips for Rome:

• Looking for ideas for what to do in Rome? Start with my list of the top ten attractions.
• Need a good archaeological guidebook: Rome Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge.
• To save money on entrance fees and public travel: get a Roma Pass, and use it strategically.

Can’t get to Rome? Try Paris, London or Bucharest.

Trajan’s Column in Paris

A part of Trajan's Column in the moat of the castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

A partial replica in the moat.

In what was once the moat of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (constructed for King Charles V in 1348) is an intriguing mish mash of archaeological objects, including reconstructed Neolithic and Bronze Age burial cairns from various archaeological sites in France and a partial replica of Trajan’s Column. Perhaps not all that surprising given the castle is the home of the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, and has been since 1862.

This partial replica in the moat is part of what was a complete replica of Trajan’s Column made for Napoleon III. Work to mould the began in the spring of 1862 and the subsequent casts made from these moulds were originally placed on display in the Louvre. Napoleon III was quite the scholar, and had a special interest in archaeology, particularly Roman history; he was in fact the founder of the National Archaeology Museum. One of the Emperor’s favourite subjects is said to have been the Roman military and weapons, and the column at the time was considered to be the principle source of information on Roman weaponry. But also a political motive for wanting the replica in Paris should not be dismissed. After all, the French Emperor wrote a book on the history of Julius Caesar in which he likened himself, and his uncle Napoleon I, to the Roman leader.

Archaeology Travel Tips for Paris:

• Further details and information for visiting the Musée des Antiquités Nationales.
• The Paris Archaeology Guide has details of many other must see sites in Paris.

Trajan’s Column in London

The replica of Trajan's Column in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Split in two to fit.

One of the most fascinating collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK) is the Cast Courts. Here two halls are filled to over-flowing with casts of a number of well known sculptures from around the World; including a life-size replica of Trajan’s Column. Even though the replica of the column had to be split in two to be accommodated in the building, the column understandably dominates the exhibition halls and all but dwarfs the other replicas. The London plaster casts were made sometime around 1864, taken from the same metal moulds that had been created for Napoleon III. These casts were then attached to a brick column, which was constructed in its current position during the building of the gallery – then called the Architectural Hall – that opened to the public in 1873.

Given the original column has suffered from the effects of air pollution, the nineteenth century replica in the Victoria and Albert Museum has many sculptured details that have since disappeared from the original.

Trajan’s Column in Bucharest

National Museum of Romanian History in Bucharest also has a complete replica of Trajan’s Column. Romania was once the Dacian heartland: the Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa is located in modern day Romania; and it is near the rural Romanian town of Adamclisi that one finds the fully reconstructed Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan’s triumphal trophy monument. Emperor Trajan’s wars with and defeat of the Dacians, the best record of which is depicted on his victory monument erected in Rome, is an important aspect of Romania’s past.

A replica of the base of the column in Bucharest.

A victory wreath at the base of the column. Photograph © sailko

These copies of Trajan’s column in cities around Europe (there are portions of the frieze in other museums as well) are a testimony to the original and ongoing historical and political significance of the column. This form of commemorative monument has been used again frequently since 113 AD; by other Roman Emperors (Marcus Aurelius); later Byzantine Emperors (Theodosius and Arcadius); and also much more recent historical figures, including Christopher Columbus (Barcelona), Nelson (London) and Napoleon (Vendôme & Boulogne-sur-Mer).

The genre has even found its way over the Atlantic. The Astoria Column, completed in 1926, is closely modelled on Trajan’s Column. Twelve scenes have been produced on the column in Oregon, in the same helical manner as those on its ancient predecessor, depicting the story of the colonisation of North America by Europeans, obviously seen through the lens of late nineteenth USA. Each of the replicas bears a physical similarity to Trajan’s Column, but they also each have their own triumphal ideology.