Set in Stone

by Danilo Brunetti

Images of ancient Rome are wrapped around the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius and set in the marble of the Arch of Constantine like a movie sequence.

Quo Vadis?, the colossal 1951 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’s another even older movie still playing in town, set in stone and winding around a unique screen: Trajan’s Column. This towering monument located in the Imperial Fora commemorates Emperor Trajan’s victory over Dacia with singularly figurative language. The 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 (nighttime illumination makes it even more fascinating).

Various scenes narrate the different phases of the Dacian campaign with a lively sense of realism in the details, from the crossing of the Danube to the suicide of the Barbarian King Decebalus.

Other moments captured on the column include the Roman departure for war and the positioning of the navy, cavalry, and legions—the core of the Roman army. On the enemy’s side are illustrated different sequences of the Dacians and the Germans in the midst of battle, culminating in the capturing of their flags and the triumph of Trajan. The column is a historic document and studying it—particularly considering the scarcity of contemporary documentation—reveals much about the war tactics and military equipment of the times. Originally, a statue of Emperor Trajan topped the column, which was entirely painted in vivid color and stood between two large libraries with windows looking onto it, making it possible to observe the scenes from beginning to end. Since it’s no longer possible to look at the scenes from up close, you can either consult an illustrated guide book or use a strong pair of binoculars. Incidentally, if you’re 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 deciphered vertically along the four quarters of the column without disrupting the chronological order of events.

Another important and illuminating monument is the Arch of Constantine, flanking the Colosseum and displaying a stone commemoration of the history of Rome. Although named for the first Christian emperor, the arch’s true protagonist is Marcus Aurelius, both a successful military commander and a philosophical writer. Although the 4th-century arch officially celebrates Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, it was decorated with sculptural fragments that had been salvaged from older Roman monuments, while 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 winged victory—a symbol of imperial power—prepares for his departure for Susa, whereas Marcus Aurelius harangues the crowd and interrogates the captured Barbarian leaders while doling out food and money and offering tributes to protecting gods.

The same great 2nd-century emperor is the star of another tale set in stone on the Column of Marcus Aurelius placed at the midpoint of Via del Corso, in today’s Piazza Colonna. It was erected in 180 AD by the emperor’s son and successor, Commodus, to celebrate his military victories. Although the reliefs spiraling 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 Sarmathian or Marcomannic tribes (historians still disagree on which). The figure of 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, predecessor, and adoptive father. The ancient column has been a tourist attraction ever since the Middle Ages when it belonged to the nearby convent of San Silvestro in Capite, which charged pilgrims a fee to walk up the 190 spiraling steps inside leading to the top.