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Bill Thayer

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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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Roman art under Trajan

The height and size of the column of Trajan exemplify, no doubt, incongruities and violations of the principle of architectural propriety, yet it is one among the noblest monuments as well as the most valuable historical records of antiquity. A column enlarged to the proportions of a tower, with stylobate, cornices, base, torus, capital, and other architectonic members, with no weight to carry, is an anomaly. A structure so solid and so lofty intended as the pedestal of a statue, though that statue be 20 feet high, might be a notion borrowed from the Greeks,112 but could have been imagined by no Greek artist of better times on such a scale as we here see it. Much of the sculpture and all the composition is stiff and graceless, though each individual figure is incomparably faithful to life, and has all the qualities that give so high a place to the sculptured portraiture of the Imperial time in Rome till long after the age of Trajan. It is worth notice that the small figures of periods in decay of art often retain an excellence and dignity that are wanting in sculptures on a large scale, such as the bas-reliefs now on the arch of Constantine. We may take the column and its sculptures as the last great achievement of the classic period. Such as it is, however, it contains the only record we possess of an important conquest of imperial Rome, and is the principal source of our knowledge of the military equipment, armament, and engineering skill of the Roman legions. For much light on this part of the subject we are indebted to the late emperor of the French, Napoleon the Third,113 who has not only written on the subject after careful and costly research, but caused these engines to be reproduced in many forms and tested at the French artillery ranges, as stated above. Further he had picked men from his army trained to throw the pilum, and in other ways to prove what the effect of the weapons of the legionary really was. Nothing in historic sculpture is more vivid and exact than these representations of antique warfare, battles, sieges, and marches, or truer than the portraiture of the Roman and the Wallach: life-like according to the narratives of modern travellers even at the present day.

The minuteness of historic sculpture to be seen at so great an elevation is a serious defect. It is to be remembered, p91however, that the column could be seen from the upper story of the Basilica, perhaps from upper windows of the two libraries, forming two other sides of the space in which the column stood. Further I must remind the reader that the column was coloured and gilt, so that the figures stood out in strong relief, and that the climate of Italy and the transparent air of Rome make fine lines and forms easy to examine at the distance of 300 or 400 feet, which are misty and indistinguishable at 40.a The work will be but very partially seen in the museum from the different galleries, and most students of antiquity will regret that it cannot be thoroughly seen and carefully studied.

The Author's Notes:

112 Plin. Hist. Nat. XXXVI.6.

113 Le passé et l'avenir de l'Artillerie, Vie de Jules César.

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Page updated: 27 Nov 01