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Column of Trajan

The Imperial Fora in Rome showcases Trajan's Forum, celebrating his military victory over the Dacians. The Basilica Ulpia, triumphal arch, and Column of Trajan are key features. The column's relief sculpture tells stories of the Dacian campaigns, highlighting the Roman army's engineering feats and daily work. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Beth] Standing in the middle of the Imperial fora in Rome, that is the series of forums of public spaces built by the emperors of Rome. This is distinct from the older Roman Forum. - [Steven] The place we're actually standing is in a footprint of what was once the Basilica Ulpia, a major building that occupied a central position in Trajan's Forum. This was the largest of the Imperial fora. - [Beth] This celebrated Trajan's great military victory, specifically his victory over the Dacians. - [Steven] Now, Dacia corresponds roughly with present day Romania. - [Beth] In fact, it's under Trajan that the Roman Empire reaches its greatest extent. So he's a conquering hero in Rome, and this forum celebrates that. - [Steven] Let's retrace what it would've been like to walk into the Forum of Trajan. You would have walked under a large triumphal arch surmounted by six horses pulling a chariot with the emperor being crowned by victory. - [Beth] In the center, was a gilded equestrian sculpture of Trajan. - [Steven] And all along the forum were large sculptures of captured Dacian soldiers. - [Beth] So he's a conquering hero in Rome, and this forum celebrates that. - [Steven] As you walked into the forum, you would've seen just over the Basilica Ulpia an enormous heroic sculpture of the emperor on top of a column. - [Beth] But also gilded, so this is a richly colored space with different colored marbles being brought in from all parts of the Roman Empire. - [Steven] And we should note that the enormous expense that was required to build this forum came from the conquest of Dacia. - [Beth] And that was made explicit when you walk within the forum, you saw the booty that was taken in Dacia. - [Steven] Sadly, the majority of the forum is gone, it's been sacked, it's been pillaged for its stone. What we see now are the ruins of medieval houses, scattered classical fragments, but still standing proudly is the Column of Trajan. - [Beth] Today, as we look up at the column, we see it framed by two baroque churches, and the column itself no longer has Trajan on top. Instead, in the 16th century, a sculpture of St. Peter was erected there. In a way, we're in the middle of Pagan Rome surrounded by Christian Rome. - [Steven] So the column is really made of three parts. You have a base, you have the shaft, which as this wonderful ribbon of carving, and at the top, a capitol which forms the base for the sculpture. - [Beth] We know that Trajan's ashes were once inside the base. - [Steven] And the base is almost completely covered with carvings. You see these wonderful garlands hung from the corners, each with an eagle perched, and below that, Nikes, that is figures of victory, and most prominently, you see representations of arms and armor. This is booty that had been taken from the Dacians, this is a symbol of Trajan's victory. And there are two winged victories framing a large plaque with a deep, beautiful inscription, which has actually become very famous, not so much for what it says, that this is erected in honor of Trajan by the Senate and the people of Rome, but for the quality of the lettering, the model for a type face known as Trajan. - [Beth] Above that, an enormous victory wreath that the column rises from, but the most famous part of the column is the relief sculpture that winds around it, telling us various stories of the two Dacian campaigns. - [Steven] The first war against the Dacians begins at the bottom, and what I find interesting is that we are not shown a triumphal victory. Instead, what we see across the entire column are images of the army marching, constructing garrisons, building bridges. The engineering and the day to day work that's required for a successful military adventure. - [Beth] Roughly 21% of the sculpture represents battle scenes, so when you're thinking about a victory monument, you would think about scenes of military victory. But here we'd have that day to day work of the army, and of course the army was, in Imperial Rome, along with the Senate, one of the great centers of power. - [Steven] And it's a reminder that the Romans were unparalleled in terms of their engineering. And so, we should mention Trajan's famous architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, who is often credited not only with the architecture that made these military campaigns successful, but also with being the architect of the forum itself. - [Beth] And the column. - [Steven] Now, the area where the forum is located, it was actually a kind of saddle between the Capitoline Hill and the Quirinal, and Apollodorus of Damascus was tasked with removing an enormous amount of earth. The column, one of the inscriptions tells us, is precisely the height of the top of the saddle. That is, we can get a sense of how much earth was removed by looking up to the top. - [Beth] This is not a literal document, on the other hand, it does show us various moments of the campaigns, but it's also filled with stock scenes that we would find in any Imperial monument where the emperor's addressing his troops or the emperor's making sacrifices, the emperor's leading his troops. Using those types of scenes helped to make the column readable. - [Steven] Recent analysis has revealed that the column was painted with the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, but also with black. But I have to say that even if this was painted, it would be a difficult story to follow, in large part because it turns around the column. But that's a reminder that this was originally surrounded by viewing platforms. There was a Greek library and a Latin library flanking it, and so you could stand almost 1/2 way up. - [Beth] Some of the scenes are very moving. We see scenes of battle, we see scenes of wounded Roman soldiers who are being attended to. - [Steven] And at the very top, very much the climax of the story that's unfolding, we see Decebalus, the general in charge of the Dacians, who commits suicide rather than be captured by the Romans. - [Beth] So let's have a closer look at one of the scenes toward the bottom of the column of the Roman army crossing the very wide Danube River. - [Steven] We've climbed up some stairs and are now standing about as close as you can get to the bottom few drums, and we can clearly see the large figure of the river god Danube. Now, the Roman soldiers needed to cross the Danube river in order to reach Dacia, and what we see is a famous engineering feat where the Romans constructed a temporary pontoon bridge floating over the river, and we can see the soldiers crossing. - [Beth] You can see the waves in the water of the Danube river, you can see the boats that are used as the base of the bridge, and you can see the soldiers crossing it in a very orderly fashion. - [Steven] Each of the soldiers is carrying supplies, you can make out bags and perhaps some pots and pans, but that's replaced as you move to the right with soldiers carrying military standards. - [Beth] In some ways, this relief is so naturalistic. The figures move and stand and interact so naturalistically as they build and listen to the emperor. But on the other hand, there are these shifts of scale so that the architecture is too small for the figures, and also the emperor Trajan appears larger than his soldiers. So all of these things help us to read the narrative on the Column of Trajan. - [Steven] Some day, I would like to be able to ascend to the top. There is a door, and inside is where the ashes of the emperor and his wife were located, but there's also a staircase. Each one of the drums that make up this column is hollow, stacked one atop another, but it allows you to go all the way up to the viewing platform, up to the feet of St. Peter. - [Beth] We see at the bottom, this war booty, on top of that, these symbols of victory, the hard work of the army to ensure these victories. Originally, at the very top, Trajan himself. - [Steven] And I think it's worth noting that the Romans who would have seen this would not have been for the most part the people who would have had access to the military victories against the Dacians, so this is bringing that story here, back to the capital. (upbeat music)