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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: a blank space] This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.
Any color photographs are © William P. Thayer 1997-

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The Trajan Column stands on one side of the great Ulpian basilica or hall in the forum built by Trajan, and called after the name of that emperor. Its position is shown in the accompanying plan. On two sides of it stood libraries, one for Greek and one for Latin books. The fronts of these are perhaps indicated by the colonnades which surrounded the column on two sides, as may be seen by the foundations still remaining in the forum. A third row, or foundations of a third colonnade, can be traced at the same distance from the column, on the side furthest from the basilica.

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Fig. 1: Plan of the excavations of the forum of Trajan in Rome
(reduced from Taylor and Cressey and turned 90° by me)

Beyond the column stood the temple erected and dedicated (at a later period, perhaps by his adopted son Hadrian) to Trajan. It would seem as if, independently of the two libraries and temple, there may have been a colonnade surrounding the column as described above; the foundations of three rows of columns can be traced corresponding with each other in the spaces of inter-columniation, as well as in size and distance from the sides of the pedestal of the great column.

p4 The front of the great Ulpian basilica formed the western side of the forum of Trajan, an oblong enclosure surrounded by a covered colonnade walled on the outer side, and having an entrance under a triumphal arch in the middle of its eastern side, that opposite the basilica. The statue of Trajan on horseback, in gilt bronze, stood in the middle of the forum, and the actions of Trajan were commemorated in several groups of bronze or marble. The balustrades and many adjuncts and portions of these buildings were decorated with gilded images of arms, horses, &c.

The whole was designed by Apollodorus, an architect who was employed by Trajan and the senate, not only in the construction of the forum, basilica, and later of the temple;1 but his engineering powers were best illustrated in the bridge or bridges which he threw over the Danube, the greatest achievement probably in that kind of construction brought to completion by any nation of antiquity. There is little known of him; classical biographers name Damascus as his birthplace. He is said to have been put to death by Hadrian.2

Though Apollodorus was the architect and sculptor chosen by the emperor, it is more than probable that much of the outline of these vast undertakings was suggested by Trajan himself. That emperor was a careful general and a valiant soldier rather than a man of letters or a connoisseur in art. "It may be presumed," says Merivale, "that an officer who was deemed qualified to become praetor and consul had enjoyed the ordinary advantages of training in rhetoric" (it will be seen in examining the bas-reliefs of the column that Trajan was fond of oratory) "and literature; but Trajan's attainments in learning were slender, and modesty or discretion led him to conceal deficiencies rather than to affect accomplishments he did not possess."3 Nevertheless it is difficult to suppose that the emperor was without a real love of art, and appreciated more than any ruler of Rome the magnificence of the scale both in size and splendour of material to which Roman architecture had attained, and which he did so much to increase. Both the basilica and the column reached the utmost that was possible in architecture in these respects, and are justly reckoned as the last successful efforts of classic art. His buildings were badly copied or actually robbed, as in the case of the triumphal arch of Constantine, by the architects of future emperors.

p5 Besides erecting these great buildings, Trajan accomplished the desire of former improvers of Rome, often partially attempted, as in the fora of Caesar or Augustus; and of Nerva, that of opening a way round the Capitoline hill into the flat ground of the Campus Martius behind. He cut away accordingly a tongue of land that united the portion of the Capitoline, now occupied by the church of the Aracaeli, with the Quirinal. The exact proportions of the column were so arranged as to show what height of ground had been cut away in finding a level for the forum, basilica, and temple beyond, as will be seen in the description of the base of the column. As regards the scale of the whole of these buildings the breadth of the Ulpian basilica has been ascertained by the excavations made in the early part of this century: it is given as 183 feet by Taylor and Cressy in the 'Architectural antiquities of Rome.' The length has not been explored, as the ground lies over it to a depth of 15 feet. Canina gives the total length, including absidal ends, at about three diameters and the length or area of the forum at about two diameters of the basilica, i.e., at between 300 and 400 feet. The columns of the basilica are noble blocks of Egyptian granite, 3 feet 8‑2/10 inches in diameter. The triumphal arch, which gave entrance to the forum, was the last commemoration of the triumph of Trajan after his Dacian wars and the subsequent warlike achievements of his reign, and was not completed till after his death.

The column was specially intended as the personal monument and tomb of the emperor, wherein his ashes were laid, an honour exceptionally decreed to him by the senate, as all intramural burials were contrary to law. The bas-reliefs round the shaft commemorate only one of his warlike achievements, viz., the conquest of Decebalus and the annexation of the whole of Dacia to the empire as a Roman province, after two difficult and bloody wars. Throughout these sculptures we trace the character of the emperor, and a detailed description of a notable portion of his life. He is held up by the historians of the imperial ages as the type of the military hero, as such a type was measured by the Romans of his day, yet with the exception of the sculptures about to be described no history of the life and actions of Trajan has survived. Pliny, the younger, has left behind him a number of letters addressed to the emperor on questions connected with his government of Bithynia, and a panegyric which he pronounced in the autumn of the year 100. In it are compliments to some of his known good qualities, anecdotes or allusions to his military powers, his patience and humanity, but not much p6material for history. The poet, Caninius Rufus, projected an epic in praise of the Dacian war, but it was never completed. The Augustan history, the work of several authors, begins with the reign of Hadrian, the successor of Trajan. The part of the history of Dion Cassius which treats of the reign of Trajan has been lost, and survives only in the abridgment of Xiphilinus; and of the commentaries on the war, written by the emperor himself, there remain but fragments which, however, are just sufficient to confirm the evidence we have from other sources of one of the lines of march from the Danube into Transylvania.4

Great, therefore, as the place is that Trajan holds in Roman history by his character, his military accomplishments, and his virtues, we know less of him from the Roman historians than of his degenerate successors, and hence the Trajan Column, with its sculptured bas-reliefs, is of exceptional importance as a contemporary pictorial record. And as the province of Dacia was one of the last great conquests and acquisitions of the empire, and amongst the most carefully ruled and colonized as long as the great emperor lived, such an authentic record of the war is of value, quite apart from its interest as a monument of Roman art. Dacia was abandoned by Hadrian, who broke down the bridge that connected that country with the southern bank of the Danube.5

p7 The school in which the conqueror of Dacia was formed was the command of the Roman army, still an instrument of power without rival; in distant provinces far removed from the dangerous influences that made the praetorian guard in Rome a source of danger to the emperor, the senate, and the people. The Ulpian family is reputed to been ancient. It was supposed to have been transplanted into Spain from Italy when Scipio Africanus founded a colony at Italica on the Baetis. Here the family gave birth to many persons of note, amongst them to Trajanus, the father of the emperor. Trajanus commanded the tenth legion at the bloody storming of Joppa. He became proconsul of Asia. As Pliny, in his panegyric, aad 100, alludes to him as dead but not yet deified by the emperor, it is supposed that his death had not long happened, and that he survived the elevation of his son to the imperial dignity.

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Fig. 2: M. Ulpius Trajanus Imperator

Trajan the emperor was born about AD 53, and was elected emperor about his 45th year. He had been trained in the camp under his father, with whom he served in his Parthian campaign in 67, and had won the confidence and love of the legions from his youth. He had held the post of military tribune for ten years, and while p8serving in this rank he had learnt the names, and had witnessed the services and the wounds6 of both officers and soldiers subsequently placed in distant garrisons. He seems to have shown talents for civil administration as well as war, and like some of our great modern commanders he was called to the capital in the intervals of war to fill civil appointments at home. He was made praetor; was afterwards in command in Spain; from Spain he was set to quell the revolt of L. Antonius Saturninus in Upper Germany (the revolt, however, had been already suppressed when he reached Germany); he was consul in 91, and afterwards sent to a government in Germania Superior. Here he ruled with firmness, and kept the border tribes under control. He seems to have shown not only great military experience and skill in his German government, but to have given proofs of a loyal fidelity to the emperor and the senate, and of his capacity for the difficult and important services he could render to the empire, in not only subduing, but attaching rich and important dependencies, inhabited by vigorous and valiant tribes, who could add to the security and wealth as well as recruit the legions of the state. It was to these various qualities, and to his popularity with the legions, that Trajan owed his adoption by Nerva, a just and merciful Emperor, but too old to stand alone and not strong enough to ensure the tranquil accession of a successor.

Trajan left on the Rhine, and in the states between that river and the Danube, enduring memorials of his skill in military engineering. He built Ulpia Trajana, a military town that bore his name for centuries. He threw a bridge across the Rhine at Mainz, as Julius Caesar had done lower down the river, and we shall have to compare the structure of the latter with that thrown over the Danube below the Iron gates. He planted a colony 10 miles beyond the river at Hochst,7 and another at Aquae, or Aurelia Aquenus, the medical springs of the modern Baden Baden. He seems to have completed the lines of Drusus and Tiberius, which ran across the Taunus in an oblique direction from the banks of the river opposite to Bonn, and to have entertained the notion of a rampart from the Rhine to the Danube, a design carried out by degrees by several of his successors, and of which traces can be made out still from river to river.8

p9 Trajan made his entry into Rome in the year 99, as soon as matters were satisfactorily disposed for the security of the empire in this quarter. He had been honoured with the title of Germanicus and the name of Nerva, his father, on his adoption; and he had been nominated consul for the second time before the death of Nerva, but had declined to accept it on account of his residence abroad. His entry into Rome was remarkable. "He had made no exactions from the provinces as was usual on such occasions. Pliny describes the condescension and affability of the prince, who entered the capital on foot unattended by guards, distinguished only by the height of his stature and the dignity of his bearing; he allowed citizens of all ranks to throng about him; returned the greetings of the senators on his return as emperor, with the same kind familiarity with which he had accepted them when he set forth as a fellow-subject; addressing the knights by name; paying his vows to the gods in the Capitol; and entering the palace of the Caesars as the modest owner of a private mansion."9 His wife Plotina and his sister Marciana, who gave her name to one of the military stations in Dacia, were worthy associates of the great emperor, and maintained along with him the same magnanimous behaviour from the beginning to the end of his reign.

Trajan remained in Rome two years settling important matters. He punished the delators; reduced the privileges of the praetorians, and reformed the law courts. He earned the title of Optimus. It was, according to Eutropius, the custom of after ages to salute an emperor as more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan10 but the title of Best was one never given to any other emperor, though all other epithets and titles were transmitted from father to son. It was in the fourth year of his reign that he left Rome for his Dacian wars. He was eager to make use of an army trained with so much care under his own eye, and he also conceived that war was in some sort the mission and business of Rome, and that his own title to hold and transmit the imperial crown would be consolidated by military exploits, an opinion in which he has had many successors in modern times.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dion Cassius, lxix.4

2 Out of jealousy, but the story is open to doubt.

3 Merivale, Rome under the Emperors, lxiii.

4 "It is sincerely to be lamented that whilst we are fatigued with the disgustful relation of Nero's crimes and follies, we are reduced to collect the actions of Trajan from the glimmerings of an abridgement, or the doubtful light of a panegyric." — Gibbon, iii.

5 According to Dion, though there seem reasons to doubt the truth of his statement. Merivale, ch. lxvi.

6 Pliny, Panegyr. 15

7 Mannert, Geogr. iii.463

8 See a detailed account of the Limes Rhaeticus and Limes Transrhenanus, by Mr. Yates, in the Proceedings of the Archaeological Institute, 1852, vol. 2.

9 Merivale from Pliny, Pan. 22, &c.

10 Eutrop. viii.5.

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Page updated: 17 Dec 03