Engineering Rome

Trajan’s column


While the Ancient Romans made many impressive advances in the field of engineering, particularly civil engineering, Trajan’s Column remains high on the list of ambitious endeavors for its time. Apollodorus of Damascus, who designed Trajan’s Forum, is thought to be the designer behind Trajan’s Column as well. In this section, proposed building techniques for the column and the engineering behind it will be explored.


Research for this section was done using Lynne Lancaster’s “Building Trajan’s Column,” unless it is otherwise noted.

The column, standing ninety-eight feet alone and about one hundred and twenty-six feet with its pedestal, is made entirely of Luna (also known as Carrara) marble. In total, there are twenty-nine Luna marble blocks weighing one thousand and one hundred tons. A bronze statue of Trajan is thought to have been atop the column when it was first erected; however, this piece of the monument was lost somewhere in the Middle Ages. On 4 December 1587, Pope Sixtus V crowned the column with a bronze statue of St. Peter, which remains to this day (see Figure 1). The foundation of the column consists of concrete and a cap of travertine, a common building material in Rome.

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Figure 1 – The statue of St. Peter was put on top of Trajan’s Column by Pope Sixtus V (Image taken by author at Trajan’s Forum).

Considering the fact that each block of marble weighed between twenty-five and seventy-seven tons, the constructors of the column knew to expect an extremely heavy structure. The foundation beneath the column would have to uphold the column itself, all building materials and structures, and the workers and bystanders on the site. The column’s foundation extends four and seventy-six hundreds feet out from every side of the square pedestal and is topped with thirty inch thick travertine caps. Romans were masters of concrete and had travertine quarries in numerous areas in the outer reaches of the city around Rome. While today modern machines do most of the work when it comes to mining materials (see Figure 2), ancient Romans had thousands working to cut, clean, transport, and carve their building materials. While only a fifty-one minute bus ride to Tivoli today (see Figure 3), it took a much longer and harder effort to retrieve just the travertine in 100 AD. According to Lynne Lancaster, the Romans used animal drawn carts and sledges to transport their heavier materials, including the travertine. This would have taken days or even weeks. All that time and work had to be done before carving and building could even begin on the column.

Figure 2 – Today travertine quarries use machinery to speed up the mining and cutting process (Image was taken by the author at a travertine quarry in Tivoli, Italy).

Retrieving the marble was a much lengthier process, considering the entirety of the column’s pedestal, shaft, viewing platform, and capital block is made of Luna marble from Carrara. Carrara, some one hundred and eighty-six miles from Rome, is a four hour transit to Rome today (see Figure 2) and a multi-week endeavor for ancient Rome. As with the travertine, massive amounts of work were done at the quarries to prepare the marble for transport. These large blocks of stone would have been moved using sledges rolling over thin round sticks or on animal drawn carts. For the long journey down to Rome, the marble was shipped along the Tyrrhenian coast to Portus, where they were then moved to river barges to be brought up the Tiber and into Rome. Then the blocks would be put back on carts and sledges to navigate them through the city and to the work site near the Forum. At this work site they would be carved so the greater detail of the frieze could be perfected, the spiral stair could be accurately measured, and excess weight could be shed before lifting was necessary. This work site would have been close to the north end of the Forum where Trajan’s Column sits so that there would be minimal transport required after carving.

Figure 3 – The drive from Tivoli to Rome is less than an hour today (Image is a screenshot taken by the author from Google Maps).
The drive today from Carrara to Rome is between a three and four hour drive (Image is a screenshot by the author from Google Maps).

Lynne Lancaster explores the development of that work site and what discoveries by modern excavation can shed light on for ancient building plans.


Research for this section was done using Lynne Lancaster’s “Building Trajan’s Column,” unless it is otherwise noted.

On the pedestal of the column there is an inscription that states, according to Lancaster, that the column was built “in order to show how lofty had been the mountain – and the site for such mighty works was nothing less – which had been cleared away” (see Figure 4). Before excavations launched in the nineteen hundreds this inscription was taken to mean that a hill or mountain had been cleared to make the column’s site flat and level with the rest of Trajan’s Forum. In 1906 excavations made by G. Boni revealed a road underneath the column which was cut into by the column’s foundations. In 1934 C. Ricci discovered pre-Trajanic structures consisting mostly of brick walls that would have formed a portico along the road discovered by Boni. Since both structures were from the Julio-Claudian era, this is clear proof that the mountain discussed in the column’s inscription is not referring to a hill at the site of the column. The most likely “mountain” is Quirinal Hill, which was where Trajan dug into the hillside in order to construct Trajan’s Market. These same 1906 and 1934 excavations have also shed light on the question as to whether or not Trajan’s Column was in the original plan for the forum or if it was an afterthought.

In his 1906 report Boni states that the column’s foundation cuts through the seventy centimeter thick setting bed laid as a base for the marble paving of the column’s courtyard. The gap between the setting bed and the column’s foundation was then filled in with selce and mortar. This has been taken by some historians to mean that the column was built after the initial plans had been laid out, as an afterthought. But Lynne Lancaster concludes otherwise. The column’s foundation does not cut through the marble paving of the courtyard and there is no evidence that the marble was laid before the column’s foundation. Lancaster believes that this indicates the column was indeed planned at the same time as the forum and that the massive construction project merely required more preparation work and support to be laid before the structures of the forum, including the column, could be started upon. This means that the column was begun some time into the process of building up the forum.

These excavations also revealed an interesting fact about how the Romans building Trajan’s Column and Forum dealt with the structures already on the site. Typically, the pre-Trajanic walls already found where the column was to be built would have been razed and back filled, but the ones currently under the column’s courtyard were cut down and entombed in barrel vaulted substructures. The vaulting under the north portico of the courtyard is reinforced with brick ribs of bipedales. The ribbing continues under the east portico and then tapers off. This type of support under the setting bed and marble paving would have provided extra strength, much more strength than would seemingly be needed for a simple courtyard with visitors. Lancaster offers an explanation that states the builders reinforced those particular sections of the courtyard to provide a sort of bridge for the transport and working of the twenty nine marble drums need for the column, which at most would weigh seventy seven tons. This would also mean that the blocks came in through the north side of the courtyard before being maneuvered onto the column. This explanation places the vicinity of which the work site for the carving of the marble could have been just north of the column.

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Figure 4 – The pedestal bears an inscription from the Senate and the people of Rome describing Trajan’s lofty contributions (Image taken by author in Trajan’s Forum).

Spiral Staircase

Research for this section was done using Lynne Lancaster’s “Building Trajan’s Column,” unless it is otherwise noted.

Carving the marble drums before lifting them would make the most sense from a detail and weight perspective. The interior staircase was carved inside each monolithic marble drum and winds from the base to the viewing platform at the top. The staircase consists of one hundred and eighty five steps with a full turn every fourteen steps, a more complex design than the more common twelve or sixteen full turn. There are also forty three window slits spiraling up the column. Carving the staircase out while the drums were on the ground would have decreased the weight needing to be lifted by thirty percent, which is 1.75 to 4 tons per block.

The incredibly difficult part of choosing to carve out a spiral staircase inside so many marble drums is aligning the steps seamlessly between the breaks in drum. The builders of Trajan’s Column had to have exact calculations and incredible precision while lifting each of the twenty nine marble blocks up the entirety of the column’s ninety eight feet. A completely horizontal surface would also have to be maintained between each block in order to preserve the column’s vertical stature. Another detail making this on ground carving difficult is that the column has entasis, a gentle tapering along the curve of the main shaft. The slight curve would have to be carved out on the ground to an exact diameter for each individual block. All of this carving, and the work on the frieze, would have to be done before the builders could even begin to think about lifting.


Research for this section was done using Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker’s paper “Column of Trajan” and the Trajan’s Column in Rome website by Roger B. Ulrich, unless otherwise noted.

The frieze wrapping twenty three times up the column consists of one hundred and fifty five scenes depicting the first and second Dacian Wars. Trajan is exhibited prominently in fifty eight of the scenes and the visual war diary is clearly honoring and from the point of view of the victorious Roman legion.

A full description of the frieze’s narrative, the Dacian Wars, is given later in this article. In short, the frieze depicts the events leading up to the war for expansion, certain battles sequences, victory, rebellion, the Roman army reentering Dacia, battles from the second Dacian War, final victory, and celebration. The incredibly detailed frieze also gives portrayals of the army doing every day chores and small events along the campaign. As a whole, it gives the story of epic battles but also the little daily events that make such a campaign possible. Trajan is the central protagonist of the narrative and the story revolves around him. One theory actually hypothesizes that the column was designed after the scrolls upon which Trajan wrote his account of the wars as a sort of diary. The scrolls were kept in the library right next to the column, so the proximity of a visual version would complement the library’s newest acquisition. In this sense, the marble carved frieze acts as one long comic strip telling the public a heroic story of their great leader.

The actual engineering behind the frieze was an architectural innovation for the time, and was copied by numerous leaders after Trajan, notably Marcus Aurelius. Each scene was carved with great care and detail, and each block had to be lined up perfectly to make a cohesive story, while also maintaining a smooth spiral staircase inside. Calculations and placing had to be exact for every angle of every marble drum. Once the section of spiral staircase and frieze had been carved, the block would be ready for lifting.

For a tour of the “unwrapped” frieze in the EUR museum in Rome, follow this link:

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The frieze wraps around Trajan’s Column twenty-three times and depicts scenes of Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia (Image taken by the author in Trajan’s Forum).
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The frieze wraps around Trajan’s Column twenty-three times and depicts scenes of Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia (Image taken by the author in Trajan’s Forum).
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The frieze wraps around Trajan’s Column twenty-three times and depicts scenes of Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia (Image taken by the author in Trajan’s Forum).

Lifting the Blocks

Research for this section was done using Lynne Lancaster’s “Building Trajan’s Column,” unless it is otherwise noted.

After being carved and moved into the courtyard, the next challenge faced was lifting the drums high enough to stack them to the ninety eight feet at which the column stands today. The pulley system needed to lift these massive drums would have been very complicated for the time of construction.

Lynne Lancaster’s review of available lifting tower technology at the time found that Hero of Alexandria’s four post lifting tower was the strongest design modern day historians know of for the first to second centuries AD. However, Lancaster’s structural analysis of this design concludes that it is not sufficient to lift neither the weight of the heaviest of the blocks nor to the height of the column. She therefore theorizes that two other methods might have been innovated at the time to accomplish the daunting task. Considering that Apollodorus of Damascus designed Trajan’s Forum, it has been widely concluded that he also had a hand in erecting Trajan’s Column. The ancient engineer was also well versed in siege technology. Some surviving copies of his designs depict towers using composite constructions which have members tied together and secured by braces nailed along the member. The tower was 173.89 feet high and 34.12 feet wide at the base, more than enough to reach the top of Trajan’s Column.

Another possible source for the technology comes from Domenico Fontana’s 1586 design used to lift and lower the Vatican’s obelisk outside St. Peter’s Basilica. This structure successfully maneuvered more weight than the heaviest marble block in Trajan’s Column (the obelisk is three hundred and sixty one tons) while using materials, technology, and designs that would also have been available in the first to second centuries AD, right on time for Trajan’s Column. Using ideas from Hero of Alexandria’s lifting tower, Apollodorus of Damascus’ siege tower, and Domenico Fontana’s tower, Lancaster designed a reconstruction of a possible lifting tower that would have been conceivable for a Roman builder in 113 AD.

While the blocks of the pedestal are the heaviest in the column at seventy seven tons, they did not have to be lifted or stacked to a great height and would not have required the same lifting tower as the marble drums of the column’s shaft. Lancaster’s tower deals only with the problems faced by lifting and placing the marble of the shaft.

Regarding the superstructure and foundations, Lancaster notes that Hero’s four post structure would likely be used for the basic structure, but no writer has ever written how a block was moved horizontally after being lifted. Because the stacking of marble drums in Trajan’s Column requires the block being lifted and then moved horizontally to align with the block below it, Lancaster proposes the builders must have used a two-shaft system: essentially two towers next to one another, one for lifting and one for lowering. This would also have required a trundling floor of some sort in order to complete the transfer. A number of trundling floors at a few set heights would have been sufficient to maneuver the blocks. The foundation discussed in an earlier section of this paper was structurally sound enough to support the column, scaffolding, people, and marble while construction was underway. The four posts of the basic structure would have been fully supported and posts supporting the beams of the trundling floor and towers would also have been present. Consideration for such a complex lifting tower and the weight of the marble of the column must have contributed to the early decision for such a strong foundation.

In Lancaster’s discussion of the sort of truss necessary to support a pulley system in each of the towers, she highlights the fact that the sides of the tower had no foundation support and would thus require loads shifted to the corners. However, the large distance (22.15 feet) between the corner posts would have required a truss structure in order to support the pulleys. Fontana’s parallel truss system would not have been sufficient due to the lack of foundation support. Lancaster thus proposes a pyramidal truss structure even though such a design has little factual support in the ancient world. Even though there is little evidence, Lancaster states that the Basilica Ulpia and Trajan’s Forum had apses even wider than the column and must have also needed a pyramidal sort of truss. This kind of innovation was required to build these structures and if something along the lines of Lancaster’s suggestion had not been worked out they would not have been built. Trajan’s Column is such an architectural innovation due to problem solving like the trusses.

In regards to bracing and scaffolding, Lancaster asserts that a series of inclined braces to shore the vertical mast of the tower like Fontana had used for the Vatican obelisk would also have sufficed for Trajan’s Column. Using ideas from siege towers Lancaster also believes a wider bottomed tower would have reduced wind loads and lowered the center of gravity enough to stabilize the structure. Because the scaffolding would need to support its own weight, materials, and men, sleeper beams spanning foundation to foundation would have helped with support.

Reviewing some notes on rope from Pliny the Elder, Lancaster reviews the common use of hemp in Roman ropes. If the builders of Trajan’s Column had used a hemp rope similar to Fontana’s at 7.5 centimeters in diameter, each rope would have had a breaking load of thirty two tons. It would require eight such ropes and capstans to lift the fifty five ton base block. While a little under today’s safety factor of six, the ropes suggested would have been feasible and likely successful. Due to the great heights the workers would have had to lift the marble drums to, extremely long ropes at three hundred meters in a three-pulley system. The Romans would have to keep on constant watch and coil the excess rope diligently.

History is rife with thievery and many treasures have been lost to it throughout the ages. An interesting example of this can be seen in Trajan’s Column. A “robber hole” shows a missing metal dowel that was taken from between two marble drums in the post-antique period. The metal dowels were placed to connect the blocks together by hammering holes into the lower surface of the upper block. Then the block with the dowels sticking out would be lowered so the dowels fit into holes on the upper surface of the lower block and the gaps between filled with molten lead. This lowering technique would have required a sledge to perfectly place the dowels and therefore a second lift for the sledge to be removed and a second set of pulleys to make this happen.

In order to lift the block with connections from above and without the interference of ropes, Lancaster believes Lewis irons were most likely used. An eight ton cornice block from a portico around the column’s courtyard was found with a single Lewis iron hole. Evidence from the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek shows that eight Lewis irons were required for blocks between fifty five and sixty tons, which places about seven and a half tons on each Lewis iron. These discoveries have yielded the apparent maximum capacity for a single Lewis iron in the ancient world. The eight Lewis irons per block are also convenient to match up with the eight ropes and capstans Lancaster already established were used on Trajan’s Column. For a better idea of what a Lewis Iron looks like and does, follow this link:

Perhaps one of the most exciting stages of the construction project was the coordination of the lift for each marble block. Although there is no account of this process for Trajan’s Column, Fontana left a description of drama and tension with regards to the lifting process for his Vatican obelisk project. Exact coordination between every individual and animal involved in the lifting process was crucial, and in an age without electronic communication, silence was an absolute requirement for safety and success. For Fontana’s project, the spectators were watched by police with orders to punish noise with death. Without even distribution of load upon the ropes, excess strain in one spot could have severe consequences. Fontana had numerous checkpoints and failsafe mechanisms to isolate each capstan in case of emergency. For the average citizen in ancient Rome, the drama and excitement related to such an event must have been a rare experience.

Using Fontana’s Vatican obelisk project, Apollodorus of Damascus’ siege plans, and Hero of Alexandria’s description of ancient Roman lifting towers, Lancaster weaves together a possible process for constructing a monument as ambitious as Trajan’s Column. While there is no certainty to the exact methods used at the time, known Roman practices would not have been up to the task. Analyzing varied methods for a number of different projects, Lancaster has shown that with the knowledge and materials available at the time, Trajan’s Column would have been an engineering innovation every step of the way.

For an animated take on the construction of the Column that is similar to Lancaster’s ideas, follow this link:


Trajan’s Forum

Research for this section comes from “Trajan’s Glorious Forum” by James Packer.

Today Trajan’s Column is the most prominent structure in Trajan’s Forum. Its great height makes following the frieze up the column difficult from the ground, and one wonders how Trajan expected passerby to read the story of his great deeds. Although there is no good vantage point to view the whole column today, when the column was first erected it stood upon the northernmost point of a fully intact Forum. Flanking the Column courtyard were the Basilica Ulpia and two libraries, one for scrolls in Latin and the other for scrolls in Greek. It is in one of these libraries where Trajan’s war diaries were kept. The combination of visual awe from the column and the great libraries caring for some of Rome’s literary treasurers were a credit to the emperor in the people’s eyes. One significant feature of the libraries was that they had viewing platforms from which the entire length of the column could be seen. With the shallow carving of the frieze, this helped viewers read the entire story. The setting of the column, libraries, and forum was a large hub for the Roman populace to gather. Trajan’s building contributions to the city are one of the many credits to his rule.

Triumphal Columns

This section’s uses research from the lecture given to University of Washington Engineering Rome students by Dr. Alison Roy, a UW history professor, unless otherwise noted.

According to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols by Udo Becker, a column is a symbol for the connection between heaven and earth, and a free standing triumphal column symbolizes victory. A key aspect of power for a Roman emperor was to appear touched by the divine, the only one to have the gods’ approval to rule. They accomplished this image by choosing various gods to be descendants of; for example, Augustus himself claimed to be a descendant of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty (Heckster). Building a column would further the people’s perception of a connection between victory on earth and a victory for the gods. Emperors would also add victory epithets to their titles, such as when Trajan conquered the Dacians and became “Dacicus Maximus,” or “greatest Dacian” (Becker, Jeffrey A.). Creating a lasting monument of this victory would remind citizens and visitors to the capital of the emperor’s title and success as their ruler.

Triumphal columns would also be a reminder of the triumph the conqueror had earned. According to Dr. Roy, a triumph was a difficult thing to obtain, considering the military leader had to prove, among other requirements, that his armies had killed at least five thousand men during the campaign. Although these kinds of facts were problematic to verify, the rewards were well worth it. Trajan’s triumph after the Dacian Wars lasted one hundred days and brought parades full of foreign treasures, prisoners, and vast amounts of wealth and war prizes (Becker, Jeffrey A.). The city would be alive and happy, the crowds fed and given gifts. These were joyous times for the average citizen, and any military leader who could make this happen was well loved by the people. Building a triumphal monument like Trajan’s Column would remind anyone who walked by it of the great deeds the conqueror had achieved and how the bystander had benefited from it.

Trajan’s Column is the oldest surviving triumphal column, and inspired many more after it. Today there are numerous examples throughout the world of this kind of monument and its effects on the reputation of the man it was dedicated to. For historians, these columns are also important pieces of history that give a view into an area’s military past. For Rome, Trajan’s Column is one of its many historical treasures.

Purpose of Trajan’s Column

Research for this section comes from “Trajan’s Glorious Forum” by James Packer and “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration” by Penelope Davies.

Historians have explored whether the purpose of Trajan’s Column was as celebratory monument, propaganda piece, or funerary monument. When Trajan’s Forum was in full standing the libraries flanking the courtyard around Trajan’s Column would block most views of the frieze. For this reason, its narrative power is diminished. But getting close to the column from the ground or standing upon the viewing platforms of the libraries would solve any visual problems. Trajan’s figure can also very clearly be made out from the others, singling him out as the hero of the story (SEE FIGURE X). The viewing angles of the library and Trajan’s very clear profile indicate propaganda for Trajan’s military agenda and traditional celebratory purposes of the triumphal column. A strong argument can also be made for underlying purposes of a funerary monument. Although now lost, golden earns containing Trajan and his wife, Plotina’s, ashes were placed in the base of Trajan’s Column by order of the Roman Senate. With Trajan’s ashes remaining with the people of Rome, the base of the column represents Trajan’s earthly contributions while the column reaches up to the heavens and represents the divinity of the great emperor. This symbolism is a great indicator of an initial purpose of glorification in his funerary monument.


This section is extracted from the Wikipedia page on Trajan’s Column and contains links to further information on the columns.




Museums Around the World

There have been a number of plaster casts of the column’s frieze taken throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These copies, when laid out at the same level and in order, can offer a closer look at the carving than the original column does with its great height. A number of museums around the world offer a viewing of these plaster casts: Museum of Roman Civilization in Rome, National Museum of Romanian History in Bucharest, Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Archaeological Collection of the University of Zurich in Zurich.


Trajan’s Life and Policies

This section’s research is from “Trajan” and “Five Good Emperors” on Encyclopedia Britannica, unless otherwise noted.

Trajan is widely considered as one of Rome’s finest emperors. He is the second in a series of rulers known as the “Five Good Emperors,” who reigned between 96 AD and 180 AD. In his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbons famously defined this period of time as a high point in human history for both its prosperity and general well-being of the average citizen. Trajan managed to balance and advance both domestic and foreign policy, bringing the empire to its zenith of size and power.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Trajan was born as Marcus Ulpius Traianus on 15 September 53 AD in Italica, Baetica (modern day Spain). Descended from early Romans, Trajan’s family had become wealthy and prominent in the Roman province of Baetica. His father, also Marcus Ulpius Traianus, rose to the highest position in imperial service: one of two consuls under the emperor Vespasian in 70 AD. Clearly a favorite of Vespasian, Traianus the Elder earned his family a place among the patricians, “Rome’s most aristocratic group within the senatorial class” (“Trajan”). With a good family name and a start in the legion as tribune, Trajan had a bright future. Trajan rose through the ranks of leadership and in 89 AD, aged 36, was promoted to take command of a legion in Spain. A few years later, with a quelled revolt to his name and a place in Emperor Domitian’s thoughts, Trajan obtained the esteemed role of consul in 91 AD.

With the assassination of Domitian in 96 AD, the conspirators put the first of the “Five Good Emperors,” Nerva, into power. As is frequently true with coups and uprisings, there was tension between the ruling class and the military. Now a member of the patricians and a successful military commander, Trajan was a candidate both the Senate and legions could accept as heir to the imperial throne. Nerva chose Trajan as his successor, and the empire entered the period of the “Five Good Emperors.”

Although Nerva’s time as emperor was short, it was peaceful and the transition of power to Trajan was relatively smooth for the period. While Nerva worked with and shared more power with the Senate, Trajan was a much more active emperor. He did not return to Rome until a year after ascending to rule, facilitating discipline and the strengthening of the empire’s defenses. Upon his return Trajan set about initiating a domestic policy of increased social welfare, lessening taxes and giving out financial help to the poor. His policies within his empire were firm but fair. An example of this can be found in his correspondence with Pliny the Younger, whom he had sent to Bithynia-Pontus in an attempt to employ more competent and honest officials. In this correspondence Pliny asks for advice in the wake of the rise of Christianity. In a show of tolerance, Trajan instructs Pliny not to seek Christians out or unfairly prosecute them, but to punish only when there is a clear breaking of the law.

Trajan also dedicated efforts towards public works, repairing old and funding new roads, building, aqueducts, and other community structures throughout the empire. Some examples survive in both Africa and Europe, but none so famous as Trajan’s Forum in the center of the capital, Rome. This gift to the people provided a marketplace, public hall, two libraries, a temple, and an engineering masterpiece dedicated as a monument to Trajan’s military campaigns in Dacia. This monument, which still stands nearly two thousand years later, is Trajan’s Column. Through public works such as these, Trajan proved himself to be a caring and generous ruler to all his people.

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A marble bust of Emperor Trajan (Image taken by the author at the museum in Ostia Antica).

Dacian Wars

Research for this section mainly comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Trajan” and Everett L. Wheeler’s Rome’s Dacian Wars: Domitian, Trajan, and Strategy on the Danube, Part 1.

While Trajan’s domestic policies showed him to be an intelligent and just ruler, it was his military campaigns that cemented him in the history books as a conqueror. His first major opportunity to expand the empire’s borders was in Dacia (modern day Romania) in 101 AD when he resumed Domitian’s invasion against the Dacian King Decebalus. The Dacian defenses were sophisticated and extensive, requiring more advanced technology and tactics than the legions had probably seen before. It took Trajan two campaigns (101-102 AD and 105-106 AD), capturing the Dacian capital Sarmizegethusa, and Decebalus’ suicide to finally conquer Dacia and its impressive defense. The newly acquired lands provided space for Roman settlers, access to gold and salt mines, and a stronger defense against the tribes of southern Russia. This was a major win for Trajan and his legacy as emperor, or at least that’s how his column’s massive frieze of the events depicts it. While there was some debate among scholars as to whether or not Trajan’s attention to border expansion showed vanity or genuine interest in the good of the empire, Trajan’s extremely positive view on the campaign is detailed in 155 panels displayed for all of Rome to see on Trajan’s Column, and that is the viewpoint the citizens of Ancient Rome absorbed every time they passed the monument. In this sense, the column can be seen as a propaganda tool on top of its doubtless status as an engineering marvel.

Trajan’s second major war (sporadic battles between 105 AD and 114 AD) brought him to the east, in a battle against the Parthians. Through the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom and the construction of Via Nova Traiana, alongside the ancient “King’s Highway”, between Bostra and the Red Sea, Trajan made his way to Arabia. There he conquered upper Mesopotamia and marched down the Tigris River to capture the Parthian capital. Having made it all the way to the Persian Gulf, Trajan was responsible for the greatest expansion of the empire before or since. At the end of Trajan’s rule, in 117 AD, the empire was at its zenith of size and military power.

Having traveled the known world and ruled for nineteen years, Trajan died with a successful legacy in 117 AD in Selinus (modern day Turkey), aged sixty-four. Known as a fair and generous ruler domestically and an ambitious conqueror internationally, Trajan left his adopted heir Hadrian much to maintain. While a great deal of Trajan’s rule is documented for historians, no military diary in antiquity is quite so vivid and intriguing as Trajan’s Column. A detailed story of war, the column gives a unique insight to the viewpoint of one of Rome’s greatest generals. Aside from its engineering prowess, the column is a monument to the life of a man more impressive than the two thousand years his most famous legacy has already withstood upon the earth.

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Trajan’s Column at sunset (Image taken by the author at Trajan’s Forum).

Author Perceptions

Trajan’s Column and Forum are in the heart of a thriving and modern city. The juxtaposition of the busy traffic center, the Altar of the Fatherland, and Trajan’s Forum and Column is incredibly thought-provoking. Most of Rome houses sites from many periods of its history, but none is quite so jarring as the area surrounding the Column. Trajan’s Column is a towering reminder of the ancient, the Altar of the Fatherland is a large (and according to locals, pompous) reminder of the 1920s, and the busy and seemingly life-threatening traffic next to both sites is a blaring presence of the modern era.

The white surface of the column is a far cry from what some believe to have been an extremely colorful original face of the monument. Looking at the current Column it is fascinating to imagine how impressive and eye-catching a fully colored Column would be to an ancient populace.


Trajan’s Column is an engineering marvel, work of art, rare military diary, and monument to one of history’s great figures. In a city already rich with history, the Column stands out as a treasure worth studying and maintaining.


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“Trajan.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dr. Alison Roy, UW History Professor.

Wheeler, Everett L. “Rome’s Dacian Wars: Domitian, Trajan, and Strategy on the Danube, Part 1.”

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