Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
previous section
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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
next section

 p97  Description of the Column

The Trajan Column is of the Tuscan order, but with the characteristics both of the Doric and Corinthian orders in the shaft and base, with enrichments on the capital, torus, and other parts. It stands on a pedestal covered with sculpture, of which the cornice and base mouldings are richly decorated, and the pedestal stands on a plain dado.

On the top of the abacus of the capital is a circular pedestal. On the circular dome-shaped summit of the original stood a colossal statue of Trajan holding a sceptre in his left hand, and in his right, it is supposed, a golden ball in which were placed the ashes of that emperor. The pedestal has been heightened and surmounted by a statue of St. Peter.

A schematic view of a slightly tapered columnar structure on a square base, surmounted by a pedestal on which there is the statue of a man holding a large key. It is a schematic view of Trajan's Column in Rome, and the statue is of Saint Peter. The actual column is seen in longitudinal section, showing a spiral staircase in it; only the bottom and top of that part of the structure are shown, with a break representing the portion not shown. The part viewed in section is marked as being 117 feet 7 inches in height (35,84 meters), and the part of the column above it, and below the pedestal at the top, is marked as 17 feet 11 inches in height (5.46 meters).

Fig. 31.

Round the edge of the abacus was a trellis of gilt bronze. It is replaced by an upright iron railing. A small portion of the shaft of the column is fluted. The rest is ornamented with a spiral band of sculptured bas-reliefs, bordered by an irregular fillet representing rock work, which separates the several compositions of the sculpture from each other. The sculpture begins at once from the apophyge of the lower part and continues to within 18 or 20 inches of the lower members of the capital, leaving room to show the heads of the flutings as stated above. All the surface of the shaft, pedestal, capital, base, &c. have been painted and gilt. On one side of the stylobate is a door giving access to a narrow stair which winds first round the interior of the base and so up the column by a corkscrew stair of 84 steps, each step cut out of the solid marble. It is said that a sepulchral chamber was constructed or proposed beneath the column.​a The height of the entire structure from the ground to the upper surface of the capital is 117 feet 7 inches. That of the pedestal 17 feet 11 inches, and the statue of Trajan is conjectured to have been  p98 about 20.​22 The head was found in the débris at the foot of the column, at the time of the first excavation, and was taken to the museum of the Cardinal Della Valle. This head, which was of bronze, measured two Roman feet four inches in height.​b The marks of the feet were still visible when the modern pedestal and statue were erected by Sixtus the fifth. The subdivisions of the column, according to the measurement given by Piranesi, which were found by Messrs. Taylor and Cressy to be correct in the year 1820, are best seen by the accompanying woodcut No. 31. The breadth of the spiral band varies considerably. Speaking generally it measures two feet in diameter at the base, and increases to four at the upper rings; but on being carefully measured in various parts I found what may be called the same rings of the spiral varying from three feet to three feet six inches about one third of the way up the shaft. This variation depends on the nature of the different compositions. The artists seem to have pushed the dividing line some inches up or down, wherever the height of objects or the quantity of detail seemed to require it. The variation in the width of the band is so arranged as to preserve an apparent equality which would be lost altogether, if the true breadth were uniform from base to summit.

The column could not be seen from any considerable distance, excepting only the summit, pedestal, and statue of Trajan visible from the Campus Martius over the tops of the temples and libraries near it. It could, however, be examined from the Greek and Roman Libraries, probably from the upper floors or galleries of the great Basilica close beside it. The buildings on the Capitoline and on the Janiculum must have been close above it,​c so that, though now the figures are indistinguishable as the column stands in its denudation of all accompanying buildings, they could be easily studied in their original state with cornices, galleries, and elevated ground on every side.

With regard to the colouring Francke describes the results of an examination of the under side of the abacus and various parts of the side of the shaft which show traces of green, blue, red, and gilding.

In 1833 a committee of artists, under the presidency of the German architect, M. Semper, examined the column and attested to the fact that it had been painted, and that  p99 traces of the pigments were still to be traced. Towards the south, the side furthest from the Capitoline, these traces have disappeared, that being the quarter from which the weather beats on it with the greatest severity. On other sides traces remain of a pigment of yellow colour sometimes approaching to red, but oftener pure yellow. Under the abacus the pigment appears to have been little disturbed. The outer surface has blackened with time, and resembles, according to the statement of the committee, the remains yet to be seen on the Temple of Theseus and that of the Parthenon at Athens. The material is now hard, thick, and full of bubbles and irregularities, like old pitch on the sides of ships, and it is vitreous at the fractures whenever it was found possible to chip pieces of it off without bringing away portions of the marble with them. The colour seems to have been of a pale green (perhaps originally blue), with traces also of red. At the neck of the capital and in the channellings are distinct remains of blue. The figures are said by these gentlemen to have been gilt on a dark ground, the water, trees, buildings, &c. to have been coloured appropriately to the subjects represented, and the wavy line between the rings gilt. It is more probable that the arms, armour, and accoutrements of the figures were gilt than that the whole figures were so, as groups would be less rather than more distinct, unless such a careful distinction were preserved. The empty spaces were blue like the flutings, &c. above. The colouring of the pedestal could not be determined. The abacus, they thought, had been blue, though they seem to speak of it above as green. Perhaps the blue had gone from blue to green in this instance, as in many mediaeval wall paintings executed in encaustic, the vehicle used on the column. On it they think they traced patterns of some delicate design in red. The eggs in the mouldings of the capital were green with gold on it, the hollows blue, the arrows red, and their edges gilt. Some of these details, according to Francke, want confirmation; but the main fact of the colouring and the general prevalence of gold and blue seem to be undoubted.23

In such a gorgeous dress the bas-reliefs were at any rate distinguishable, as they would be if the marble were still white and transparent, as when it came from the chisel of Apollodorus and the artists employed under him, instead of stained with time and weather and battered by arrows, blows, and cannon shot, as it is at present, from the sieges  p100 the city has undergone and the rude possession taken of it at various times by conquerors of many ages and of all degrees of civilization.

The diameter of the shaft is at the base 12⅛ Roman, not quite 12 English feet, and immediately under the capital this measurement is reduced to 10½, about 10 English feet. This gives about 7½ diameter, a very elegant proportion.

The exact height of the column was fixed on for a special reason, viz., to show the height of the original spit of hill joining the Quirinal and Capitoline Hills, which was cut away to make room for the forum in which the column is built. A fact commemorated in the inscription on the base. These measurements are those of the original column, and are given in preference to those of the cast in the Museum, which is made up of a number of pieces, no doubt joined with certain inaccuracies, and of which portions may be warped or twisted.

The blocks of which the original column are composed cannot be shown in the cast. The pedestal is formed of nine pieces, of which the cornice and guscio and the dado are single blocks. The cap and base of the column are single blocks. The shaft is composed of 19 drums.

The upper portion of the column above the spiral shows just the heads of the flutings of the column, which are filled, and end with the increase of thickness in the shaft required for the bas-reliefs. The capital is an ovalo cut into egg and tongue of colossal proportions, the astragal below it is cut at intervals into double beads. Above the ovalo is the abacus, which is without ornament.

The pedestal of the statue is round, and stands on a double round offset or base ornamented with mouldings to each part. It is topped by mouldings, and on the upper surface supported the ancient statue of the Emperor Trajan in bronze, holding a lance in his left hand, which was raised, and a golden orb in his right, in which the ashes of the emperor were placed according to a special privilege granted by the Senate, as intramural burial was contrary to the laws of Rome.

The existing statue of St. Peter stands on a modern base, the sides of which are concave with mouldings where it touches the old plinth, a spreading top and an astragal round the centre of the concave sides.

Round the edges of the platform formed by the upper surface of the abacus there is now a plain railing of perpendicular bars.

The Author's Notes:

22 The height is considered by Francke to have been about 20 feet, taking this head as a standard of measurement.

23 See Francke Gesch., p188.

Thayer's Notes:

a It's easy to read this quickly, as I did for years, and slip by the great difference between a proposed burial vault and a real one still presumably existing now. Online in many places, mostly clones of the same unidentified and unsourced text, we read that Trajan's ashes are found under the Column; curiously in this very page you are now reading, Pollen also says (twice: p97 p100) that his ashes are supposed to have been placed in a golden orb held by the statue crowning the Column: dramatic but implausible.

The ancient sources are unanimous in stating, if with no details, that Trajan's ashes were "under the Column"; Cassiodorus and Jerome additionally mention a golden urn. Platner/Ashby write (A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, p243) that the sepulchral chamber is above ground, forming part of the base of the Column; and report on the investigation of the base that was made in 1906, after Pollen wrote. I have been unable to sort this out firmly, and specifically whether there is in fact a second chamber beneath the base. And no, Trajan's ashes have not been found.

b I have been unable to discover where this head might now be; or even whether in fact this story of the finding of the head is true.

c An odd slip on Pollen's part. The Janiculum is 2 km away.

Page updated: 5 Sep 20