The Project

Trajan’s Column and visitors, Piranesi, 1770

This website dedicated to Trajan’s Column in Rome is designed to be a continuously developing and expanding resource for anybody interested in the monument, from casual tourists, leisure historians and wargamers to students and research academics. It is about access to a monument which few people have the opportunity and pleasure to view close-up, whether that means observing from the surrounding road level, walking around the base, entering the pedestal door, climbing the spiral staircase, taking the views from the balcony, or mounting scaffolding which enshrouded the building in the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually all of these perspectives will be closely reflected in the accessible images.

The project is part of Jon Coulston’s wider research interests, which may be summarized as the study of how the identity and status of Roman soldiers were portrayed and projected through iconography. Three intertwined strands involve (i) study of Trajan’s Column in Rome, (ii) examination of the presentation of soldiers (and gladiators) in figural art, especially metropolitan monuments and the personal gravestones of soldiers, underpinned by military equipment research, and (iii) analysis of the imagery created by Roman soldiers in one region particularly rich in surviving stone sculpture, Hadrian’s Wall. Together these build up a multi-layered picture of how Roman soldiers were perceived by broader Roman society, how soldiers celebrated their own identity and achievements through images, and how modern societies have received Roman military identity and achievement. The overarching research framework is ‘Shaping Public Perceptions of the Roman Army’.

Gravestone of C. Castricius, later 1st c. AD, Aquincum (Hungary)

Gravestone of an unknown soldier on Hadrian’s Wall (Castlesteads, Cumbria)

Roman soldiers formed a military community which developed from the 1st century BC through into the 7th century AD within the kind of professional, standing army not seen again until the later 17th century. The post-Roman reception of this community, and of the artworks created by and for its soldiers, have played a major part in the development of world culture. Trajan’s Column has cast a long shadow through its pictorial presentation of imperial achievement and rulership style, not least because of its amazing survival, despite human depredations, earthquakes and fires.

Trajan’s Column, pedestal SE side (Side 1), looking NW

There are three sculptural components of Trajan’s Column: the inscription and reliefs on the sides of the pedestal; the helical relief frieze on the Column shaft; the other carved ornament (pedestal moldings, swags and eagles; torus wreath; upper shaft flutings; egg-and-dart frieze on the capital). The helical frieze has attracted most attention from artists, antiquaries and scholars from the Renaissance to the present, with the pedestal having been comparatively neglected. Since the 1980s there has been increasing study of the practicalities of planning, monumental construction and sculptural execution, mainly facilitated by the direct access provided by enshrouding scaffolding around this and other monuments in Rome.

The helical frieze depicts the two Dacian Wars of the emperor Trajan (princeps AD 98-117), which took place in AD 101-102 and 105-106, principally in the Danube lands of modern Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria. These conflicts resulted in defeat of the Dacian Decebalus and incorporation of his kingdom into the Roman empire. The wars are divided up on the Column frieze by a winged Victory flanked by trophies, and internally fall into several sequences of ‘events’. The frieze is further subdivided into ‘Scenes’ which contain a total of 2,662 human figures, plus animals, vehicles, shipping, artillery, architecture and natural scenery.

M. Ulpius Traianus, Trajan’s Column (LXVIII.16)

Decebalus, King of the Dacians, Trajan’s Column (XCIII.26)