Week 14: Trajan’s Column

Due Tuesday, April 19, by 9 am

Trajan’s column is one of the most compelling monuments of imperial Rome, but one that presents several questions and problems of interpretation.  Having read Brilliant’s overview of the column and Dillon’s focused exigesis on the meaning and interpretation of the relief, write a response keeping in the mind the following questions:  Is the column to be regarded primarily as architecture, or primarily as a vehicle for propagandistic art?  How could the average viewer appreciate the narrative thread and sculptural detail of the frieze?  What is the meaning of the scenes and their particular arrangement and the message behind them?  Brilliant argues that “the designer of the helical reliefs must be seen as a historian in stone”?  Do you agree? or do you prefer Dillon’s approach?  Why or why not?

If you would like to take a closer look at the column itself, this website is an excellent resource:


however, it currently is down – how long is not clear.


4 responses to “Week 14: Trajan’s Column

  • Danny Rivera

    For me, probably the most effective demonstration of the difficulties of viewing Trajan’s column was the cartoon that showed a tour guide standing next to the column while the column was on its side, allowing the tour guide to rotate the column, allowing passersby to view the entire relief. Though it is a cartoon it is quite the statement about the difficulty presented by Trajan’s column. Though an impressive work of architecture and craft, it is impossible for an everyday observer (say, a tourist) to view it. In order to answer some of the more difficult questions about the column we must first, because of our limited knowledge about it, make an assumption on how to approach it.
    Do we assume that because the relief is so detailed all the way around that there must have been some form of technology allowing viewers to view the entire column? Or do we assume that no such technology could have existed, so the relief must not have been done for viewing purposes? The implications of each are pretty profound in what they affirm and what they deny.
    The first demonstrates that a piece of sculpture this impressive was definitely accessible to all members of society. Whatever this structure may have been in it was designed in such a way that anyone can walk around the Column and get the full narrative. If this is the case, the relief and its content could have most definitely functioned as a propagandistic vehicle, and an impressive one at that. Propaganda is only as effective as its means of distribution so if this method of viewing existed, the content could be effective as propaganda. Brilliant goes on, however, to describe the difficulty in following the narrative–the twists and turns, the changes in level, the ability to allow your eye to track the path of the relief, and of your brain to process the images and their progression–it’s nearly impossible. If a device existed that made that viewing experience accessible to the masses, it must have been sophisticated. If so, why is there no evidence of it? Though I reached this conclusion logically, it is merely circumstantial. Without evidence, the theory doesn’t hold water.
    I believe Brilliant is definitely on to something with his theory that the designer should be seen as a historian in stone. Because there is no evidence of a device allowing uninterrupted, cohesive understanding of the column, we can assume that there was not one. This does not answer the question, however, of why the relief is so detailed, while being impressive in size, and not lining the walls of some smaller monument or temple where it could be easily viewed. Carving something this large and this detailed required a great deal of effort. Considering its content, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that this monument killed two birds with one stone: it acts as an impressive testament to Trajan, but also preserves the narrative for the future. It is not, I do no think, too farfetched to believe the designer thought, “This narrative can remain here until someone can read it.”
    Given the choice between architecture and propagandistic art, it is more effective as the latter than the former. A viewer could take as much content as he or she could, understood that the column was a testament to Trajan, and be effected by propaganda, but that could have been achieved through a monument a fraction of the size.
    It is more an impressive piece of architecture, and that lends itself to Trajan’s memory in an active way, whereas the content of the relief could, potentially, really only be studied by the first people to come along with the means with which to examine it.

  • Danielle Lee

    The way I understand Trajan’s column is best explained in the words of Umberto Eco who, when describing art, explained, “Thus art seems to be a way of interconnecting messages in order to produce a text in which: (a) many messages on different levels and planes of the discourse are ambiguously organized…” (Brilliant 96). As seen in the scholarship pertaining to the column, it can hardly be argued or even mentioned that Trajan’s column would have one overall purpose of design. While I lean towards Brilliant’s view of the artist as a stone-cutting historian, there is no doubt that there are innumerable layers to the column and its depictions.

    One particular detail that I feel could be explored more is the simple helical nature of the column. While it is constantly referred to as helical, that particular detail in itself does not seem to pique the interest of scholarship (yet). The reason this caught my attention was the fact that the column itself would have been a representation and an implication that Trajan was above most rulers. The height and the nature of the architecture implies his larger-than-life status. But, in addition, to being represented in this rather massive column, the helix of images with depictions of Trajan as well continuously wrap around the column in an upward movement. Therefore, the viewer standing at the base of the column will, to an extent, regard Trajan slowly moving upwards, in life and battle, towards the heavens. The same way standing at the foot of a spiral staircase looking up makes it seem as if they never end, so would the images of Trajan seem as if his glorious battles and victories will continue ceaselessly. The viewer might not even know or remember what exactly happens at the end of the battle; all they can see and perceive is that Trajan’s legacy continues to the heavens (or so it would seem when standing directly beneath the column).

    Not only is it an image and representation of ceaseless glory and honor for Trajan, but the upwards spiraling of the scenes seems to represent the constant climb of the entire empire. Rather than layer upon layer of victory and prosperity, growth comes with a steadfast and perseverant climb to the top. The images don’t jump from one layer to the next but flow steadily from beginning to end.

    Since it is hardly likely than any viewer in the ancient world or even today (outside of scholars, of course) would truly take the time to examine and analyze each detail of the column, it seems to me that the most prominent and noticeable feature would be the helical presentation of the images. That being the most obvious detail before even being able to distinguish the depicted figures, logically, it would seem that that helical theme may mean much more than expected.

    As a final note, it also seemed to me that the sculpting of the column would have been a testament to the skill of the artist or even the artists of that era. To be able to work on such a large image with so much detail as well as maintaining the consistent spiral throughout is a true demonstration of artistic prowess. It would almost make one wonder whether the artist had purposely made the image in this way so as to prove his own skill set. This, of course, would throw away all thoughts and discussion on the deeper meaning of the spiral. However, this is rather unlikely considering the politics and power that play into the simple commission of the column itself.

    In the end, Trajan’s column is yet another example of the mysteries that ancient art continues to provide for modern viewers and scholars.

  • Sarah Murphy

    The Column of Trajan is unusual in its structure, its content, and its purpose. The Column stood in the Trajan’s Forum, along with two libraries, a basilica, and a temple to Trajan. In order to understand the purpose of the Column, one must consider both the column itself and its surroundings. Several characteristics indicate that this column should be regarded as architecture. The column at one time contained the ashes of Trajan within its base, signifying that the column was a sort of tomb. The stairs that remain within the column give clear evidence that people were meant to enter this column. One, however, cannot separate the architecture of this column from its propagandistic properties. The column itself had a statue of Trajan at the top and stood in the center of Trajan’s Forum. Perhaps its most overtly propagandistic quality is the continuous frieze spiraling around the outside of the column. The images of a triumphant army and a victorious emperor clearly emphasize the greatness of the empire and its ruler. In fact, without the architectural qualities of the column, its power as a piece of propagandistic art would be severely diminished. After climbing inside the column, the viewer would be able not only to examine the statue of Trajan but also to survey the surrounding forum that glorifies the emperor.
    As is discussed in Brilliant’s article, it would be nearly impossible for an average viewer to follow the frieze completely; the helical nature of the frieze and the height of the column contribute to this confusion. As a result, the viewer has a difficult time following the narrative thread and even seeing the imagery at the top. While the viewer may be hampered from having a complete view, what he can see would immediately indicate the glory and power of Trajan. Even by glancing up and down at the column without following the frieze would show Trajan’s triumph. As a result, the idea that the frieze depicts a historical narrative is interesting, but history is not necessarily the focus of the column’s frieze. As Brilliant mentions, it would be impossible for the viewer to follow the frieze as a historical narrative, which indicates that the artist did not think the narrative function integral to the column’s message. Even a cursory glance from afar at the Column would make the viewer marvel at the power of Trajan and his authority, regardless of whether the frieze is historically accurate or even solely a historical narrative. Its message is clear regardless.

  • Lili Dodderidge

    After reading both Brilliant’s and Dillon’s explorations of the meaning of the Trajan Column, I tend to agree with Dillon’s argument much more than Brilliant. Dillon recognizes the historical relevancy of the monument—the Column serves as a template upon which to commemorate the Dacian wars won by Trajan. This remembrance, Dillon suggests, does not deliver an accurate look at the wars in a historical manner. Rather, the reliefs of the Trajan Column—like so many examples of Roman art and architecture from antiquity—act as propaganda, revealing the values of Roman living and garnering support for the empire and its army.

    The Column twisted its narrative reliefs up so high into the air that to truly read the depictions and comprehend the representations was an impossible feat. For then-contemporary viewers of this Column, the impact of the monument laid more in the majesty of the object than the historical documentary of the images themselves. However, the knowledge of what the images depicted allowed the monument to stand as a representative form and propagandistic tool beyond the symbolism that could be derived from its grandeur and size.

    The images chosen for the Column elicited very specific reactions, a goal by the artist to implant a certain ideal into the minds of the Roman people. Rather than emphasize the violence and gore of war, the Column depicts scenes of Roman soldiers granting clemency to enemies, the army building and marching, the emperor inspiring his troops with motivational words—the Roman army’s portrayal on the Trajan Column exalts military life and instills support and respect for Trajan and his leadership within the hearts of the empire’s citizens. Other non-military images continue to propagate Roman society. Scenes of peace and tranquility, sacrifice and imperialism, all reveal Roman virtues that ought to be valued by citizens and government alike.

    Just as Roman art and architecture had done previously in antiquity, the Trajan Column reveals a set of ideals that the government wished its citizens to respect. The reliefs on the Column offer an idealized and honorable perspective on Trajan and his army while further emphasizing Roman values of mercy, peace, piety, and nationalism. Whether or not the viewers of the monument could even decipher all of the images as it climbed the Column in a helical pattern, these virtues and beliefs were still conveyed through the dominating size and grace of the Column itself. Rather than act as a historically accurate narrative of the Dacian wars and Trajan’s triumph as Brilliant so suggests, the Trajan Column serves as a symbol of Roman imperialism and a propagandistic piece of architecture to further emphasize the empire’s stature and moral code.

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