Unwinding History

by admin_wr

Images of ancient Rome are wrapped around the Imperial monuments like a movie sequence. By F. Schiaffino

Quo Vadis?, the colossal production starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor, showed us what life was like in ancient Rome, and though it may be an old flick, there is another even older movie still playing in town. It is set in stone and winds around a unique screen: Trajan’s column. This monument commemorates Emperor Trajan’s victory over Dacia with singularly figurative language. Author of this incredible feat was Apollodoro of Damascus, the greatest architect of the era later executed by Hadrian after having fallen out of the emperor’s favor. Standing eighty meters high and four meters in diameter, the column is made up of stacked single blocks of marble around which the story of the victory over Dacia unfolds in 23 loops (recently introduced nighttime illumination makes it even more fascinating).

Various scenes narrate the different phases of the Dacian campaign with a live sense of realism and fullness in all the details, from the crossing of the Danube to the suicide of the Barbarian King Decebalus. Moments recorded include the Roman departure for war and the positioning of the navy, the cavalry and the legions – the true core of the Roman army. On the enemy’s side, different sequences of the Dacians and the Germans in the midst of a tough battle are recorded, culminating in the capturing of their flags and the triumph of Trajan. The column is a historic document and studying it (also considering the paucity of news about the facts) reveals much about the war tactics and military gear of the times. Originally, a statue of the emperor topped the column, which stood between two big libraries with windows looking onto it, making it possible to observe the scenes from beginning to end. The entire column was also painted in vivid color. Since in its current setting it is no longer possible to have a close look at the scenes, it is best to either consult a guide of ancient works of art in the capital or to use a strong pair of binoculars. Incidentally, if you are wondering how the ancient Romans could follow the story coiling around the column without making themselves dizzy, a recent theory by the scholar Salvatore Settis clears up the mystery. The scenes could be “read” vertically along the four quarters of the column without disrupting the chronological order of events.

Another extremely important monument is the Arch of Constantine, with its stone commemoration of the history of Rome. Although named for the first Christian emperor, his saga drifts to the background as the real protagonist of the monument is Marcus Aurelius, glorious commander and decent writer. The arch (A.D. 315), which celebrates Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, was decorated with sculptural fragments from older Roman monuments, and the new pieces were grafted onto the already existing structure. It is difficult to put an exact date on the origins of the arch, but it was by popular demand that Marcus Aurelius became the focal point, shown in his victory over the Germanic tribes and involved in great hunts and sacrificial ceremonies. Prisoners of war watch sadly as the great conquerors of the world take over: Constantine beneath a winged victory – symbol of imperial power – prepares his departure for Susa, whereas Marcus Aurelius harangues with the crowd and interrogates the captured Barbarian leaders while doling out food and money to the happy crowds and offering tributes to protecting gods.

Marcus Aurelius is the star of another tale set in stone on the Colonna Antonina placed at the midpoint of the Via del Corso. It was erected in 180 A.D. by the emperor to celebrate his victories in Armenia, Persia and Germany. Although the reliefs spiralling up it are of a lower quality than those on Trajan’s column, they still provide a vivid account of Roman life. The column is 30 meters high and depicts 116 episodes of the emperor’s wars against the Germanic tribes and the Sarmathians. Marcus Aurelius is almost always shown from the front to accentuate his majesty, and a bronze statue of the emperor used to stand where the statue of St. Paul now looks out over Rome. The latter was placed there by Domenico Fontana who is responsible for the column’s restoration in 1589 and for erroneously attributing it to Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius’ uncle and adoptive father. Another project, which was never carried out, was developed by Bernini who thought of bringing Trajan’s column here as well and having the two stand side by side. Interestingly, the column has been a tourist attraction ever since the Middle Ages when it belonged to the convent of St. Silvester in Capite which used to charge pilgrims an entrance fee to walk up the 190 steps inside which lead to the top.