Trajan’s Column: A Historical Comic Book

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! With so much simply within the city limits of Rome itself it is a challenge just to figure out what to discuss each day. That’s the beauty about our site though.

Yesterday we discussed the #5 of our Top 15 Roman Commanders, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, more commonly known as Trajan. Today we will specifically talk about Trajan’s Column and how it has become a lasting part of Rome throughout the years.

The COLVMNA·TRAIANI is a Roman triumphal column commemorating Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars, a conflict waged in two separate campaigns over the years AD 101-102 and AD 105-106.

Dacian Wars

Funded by the rich spoils from the wars, Trajan’s Column has served as a prominent landmark of the Capital City since it was dedicated at the height of the Emperor’s reign in AD 113.

Standing today in isolation, the Column was a focal point of the great forum and market complex built by Trajan to complement a group of older imperial fora clustered around the venerable Forum Romanum itself.


The freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief of the Dacian Wars. Trajan’s Column can be considered one of the world’s most grand and expensive comic books. Its design has inspired numerous victory columns, both ancient and modern.

The Column was originally thought to be a propagandist monument glorifying the Emperor’s military exploits, as was custom at the time. However, with the structure surrounded by the two libraries in Trajan’s Forum, and because of the difficulty involved in following the frieze from end to end, it would have been almost invisible to see unless which would then decrease the likelihood of its propaganda value.

Dedication in Color

Constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus at the order of the Roman Senate, it was believed that the column was supposed to stand where the saddle between the Capitoline and Quirinal Hill used to be. Excavation has revealed that the saddle was where Trajan’s Forum and Trajan’s Market stood.

The structure is about 98 ft in height, 125 ft including its large pedestal. The shaft is made from a series of 20 colossal Carrara marble drums, each weighing about 32 tons, with a diameter of 11 ft. The 625 ft frieze winds around the shaft 23 times.

Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 steps provides access to a viewing platform at the top. The capital block of Trajan’s Column weighs 53.3 tons, which had to be lifted to a height of over 112 ft.


The interior of the Column is hollow. One entered by a small doorway at a side of the base to climb the spiral stairs to gain access to the platform above. Before reaching the top, and giving the visitor in antiquity a view over the surrounding Trajan’s forum, 43 window slits illuminated the ascent.

Located immediately next to the large Basilica Ulpia, it had to be constructed sufficiently tall in order to function as a vantage point and to maintain its own visual impact on the Forum.

(c) National Trust, Nostell Priory; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The spiral stair itself was carved out of 19 blocks, with a full turn every 14 steps; this arrangement required a more complex geometry than the more usual alternatives of 12 or 16.

The quality of the craftsmanship was such that the staircase is practically even, and the joints between the huge blocks still fit accurately. Despite numerous earthquakes in the past, the Column today leans at an angle of less than half a degree.

Like an unrolled scroll, a spiral frieze winds 23 times around the column, depicting the campaigns of Trajan in Dacia in AD 101-102 and AD 105-106. There are 155 scenes depicted, in which more than 2,500 figures are represented, no less than 60 of Trajan, himself. Only 18 scenes actually depict battles; most show the day-to-day activities of the Army.


Depicted in low relief, the weapons and armor of the conquered Dacians are portrayed on the pedestal frieze in wonderful detail. On the cornice, swags of oak leaves tied with fluttering ribbons are held at the corners in the talons of eagles, 2 of which survive.

Upon the base of the column, in finest lettering, the inscription reads:


Translated this means:

The Senate and people of Rome [give or dedicate this] to the emperor Caesar, son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Traianus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, Pontifex Maximus, in his 17th year in the office of Tribunus, having been acclaimed 6 times as Imperator, 6 times Consul, Pater Patriae, to demonstrate of what great height the hill [was] and place [that] was removed for such great works.


This is perhaps the most famous example of Roman square capitals, a script often used for stone monuments and, less often, for manuscript writing. As it was meant to be read from below, the bottom letters are slightly smaller than the top letters, to give proper perspective.

Some, but not all, word divisions are marked with a dot, and many of the words, especially the titles, are abbreviated. In the inscription, numerals are marked with a titulus, a bar across the top of the letters. A small piece at the bottom of the inscription has been lost.

The lettering inscribed on the base of the column is termed scriptura monumentalis or capitalis monumentalis, a form of majuscular (capitals) used for larger architectural inscriptions.

Like all capital letters in the Latin alphabet since the 2nd Century BC, it is shaded, the vertical strokes twice as thick as the horizontal ones. Here, too, the height of the letter is approximately 8 to 9 times the width of the vertical stroke, an ideal ratio for the letter type.

By studying the inscription on Trajan’s Column, Father Edward Catich reconstructed how the Romans made their capital letter shapes. He hypothesized that the 1st forms were sketched using a flat square-tipped brush, using only 3 or 4 quick strokes to form each letter.

The characteristic variations in line thickness were then formed by the changing cant of the brush. The letters then were cut in the stone by the same person giving the illusion of form being created by shadow.

The same letter can vary in thickness and width to maintain the correct proportion between other letters. Such symmetry and balance convinced Father Catich that “the Trajan alphabet is the best roman letter designed in the Western world, and the one which most nearly approaches an alphabetic ideal.”

One example is “Trajan,” a typeface developed by Carol Twombly for Adobe Systems. Modified for printing on paper, the font has stronger serifs than the original, with different stem and bowl weights, the letter “N” being narrower and “S” wider.

Plaster casts of the relief were taken in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Examples can be studied at the Museum of Roman Civilization in Rome; the National Museum of Romanian History in Bucharest, Romania; Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Archaeological Collection of the University of Zürich, University of Zürich; and the Museum for Ancient Navigation in Mainz.

Trajan’s Column, especially its helical stairway design, exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Roman architecture. While spiral stairs were before still a rare sight in Roman buildings, this space-saving form hereafter spread gradually throughout the Empire.


Apart from the practical advantages it offered, the design also became closely associated with Imperial power. It was later adopted by Trajan’s successors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

In Napoleon‘s time, a similar column decorated with a spiral of relief sculpture was erected in the Place Vendôme in Paris to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz.

After Trajan’s death in 117, the Roman Senate voted to have Trajan’s ashes buried in the Column’s square base, which is decorated with captured Dacian arms and armor. His ashes and those of his wife, Plotina, were set inside the base in golden urns. As a side note, the ashes no longer lie there.


Ancient coins indicate preliminary plans to top the column with a statue of a bird, probably an eagle, but after construction, a statue of Trajan was put in place. This statue, however, disappeared in the Middle Ages. On December 4, 1587, the top was crowned by Pope Sixtus V with a bronze figure of St. Peter, which remains to this day.


“And he set up in the Forum an enormous column, to serve at once as a monument to himself and as a memorial of his work in the Forum. For that entire section had been hilly and he had cut it down for a distance equal to the height of the column, thus making the Forum level.”

Cassius Dio, Roman History (LXVIII.16.3)

Given the prominence of this important monument and its distinctive place in Roman history, it comes as little surprise that the Column of Trajan has drawn the attention of artists, scholars and visitors over many centuries. Hopefully it will last for many more.

Trajan's Column & Market

We hope you have enjoyed learning about the COLVMNA TRAIANI, and will visit it for yourself the next time you are in Rome. Till then, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Edward M. Catich, The Origin of the Serif: Brush Writing & Roman Letters (1968).

Edward M. Catich, The Trajan Inscription (1973).

Rev. John Selby Watson, Eutropius: Historiae Romanae Breviarium (1876).

Roma Antiqua: Forum, Colisée, Palatin (1985).

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