Trajan's Column: an Exemplary Exhibit of Roman Art


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Roman art is a vast art form that bridges over Europe, Africa, and Asia. It dates back to almost 1,000 years and contains a huge spectrum of media (Ambler 2015). Such media included paintings, mosaics, bronze work, marble, and terracottas. Around the city of Rome at this point, the Romans were conforming artistic influences from other Mediterranean cultures. This is a big reason why there are some specks of Egyptian and Greek impact throughout Roman art. Perhaps one of the most famous works, Augustus of Primaporta, was a powerful statue that communicated his ideology. The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is an ancient equestrian statue located in Rome, Italy with a rich history. Another piece of outstanding Roman art is Trajan’s Column. The Ancient Romans excelled in many areas, including art; they left behind many pieces that identified them as a once successful empire.

Augustus of Primaporta of 20 B.C.E foretold a long, victorious legacy. The statue was discovered on the 20th of April in 1863; it gets its name from the town in Italy where it was found (villa of Livia in Prima Porta). The marble statue was made during Augustus’ time in power; it was “closely intertwined with politics and propaganda” (Fischer 2013). The purpose of this piece was to represent Augustus as a powerful leader and communicate his ideology, a piece to show his legacy. It conveys him as a strong military victor and a big supporter of the Roman religion. By Augustus’ right leg are a cupid and a dolphin. The dolphin symbolizes Augustus’ gladiatorial victory in the Battle of Actium 31 BCE over Cleopatra and Mark Antony. It was a takeover that made Augustus the ruler of the Empire. The cupid that is riding on the dolphin symbolizes that he shared a connection with the Gods and that he descended from Venus. Venus is Cupid’s mother and Julius Caesar is the adoptive father of Augustus, which makes Augustus have a connection to the Gods. It is an extremely powerful statue with amazing details by Polykleitos who was the creator. The details start with the emperor’s stance. He is seen with no shoes, only on his feet. Many scholars found this odd because Roman generals never went into battle barefoot. Some believe this symbolizes his godly status, which I agree with because the Gods are depicted without shoes. The portrait is also seen wearing a decorated cuirass and a tunic.

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The breastplate is covered with detailed figures which communicated propagandistic messages; there has been many debates on what these figures mean. The general meaning is that he has God on his side. Augustus, a worldly military warrior and the bringer of peace which embraces the Roman Empire. At the center of the plate, there stands a Roman and a Parthian. It references another famous victory in 20 B.C.E. Around the corners of the cuirass (breastplate), are many imageries of Gods. On the top stands the sun and sky Gods, Sol and Caelus. The message behind it is that the sun will continue to shine on the Roman Empire, bringing long lasting peace and wealth to the people. The Augustus of Primaporta is not just simply a statue. It represents victory, prosperity, religion, and the rise of the Roman Empire. I was drawn to this piece because of how important Augustus was in history. It was extremely symbolic with a lot of hidden elements, which to this day, still poses questions. I think Augustus was one of the most powerful figures ever and the statue really encompassed his god-like aura. One reason why I think it still influences art today is the amount of detail that the portrait has; it communicates power and elegance.

Since it is known that Romans create elaborate works for their leaders and emperors, it is not a surprise that the next piece is of a past ruler. The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is another famous Roman statue, which is located on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy. It is completely sculpted with bronze and nearly fourteen feet tall or 4.24 meters. Where the sculpture originated from is unknown, but it was in the Lateran Palace since the 8th century before it was removed and placed in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio by Michelangelo (the creator) in 1538. Now, it is indoors to preserve it and for maintenance. The statue is of Marcus Aurelius who ruled over Rome in 160 C.E. to 180 C.E. It is an important piece that dedicates emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and is considered monumental, a reason why it attracts millions of visitors yearly. The statue itself is an exaggerated sized depiction of the ruler who is on top of his horse with his hand reached out, believed to be some public ceremony. This elegant bronze statue was cast using the lost-wax technique. It is the method of metal casting in which hot metal is poured into a mold that is shaped like the model made from wax, in this case, the statue.

Then the wax is drained once the metal mold is made. Like many ancient Roman pieces: “…the use of the statue in the Medieval, Renaissance, modern, and post-modern city of Rome has important implications for the connectivity that exists between the past and the present” (Becker). Starting with the horse, it shows how dynamism is captured in sculptures. The horse is sculpted to look like it was in motion as it is raising one leg; the statue is extremely detailed because it was made so carefully. It looks so realistic due to all the elements provided by Michelangelo. There are overly a hundred discovered portraits of the past ruler, yet, this one encompasses his ranking the most. This statue has many symbols that are up to interpretation. Marcus Aurelius is seen with his arm out and his hand pointing out, like he was about to grab something: “a pose that could be interpreted as the posture of adlocutio, indicating that the emperor is about to speak” (Becker). Another theory states that it is the gesture of clemency which means peace or the happening of it. A scholar noticed that he was in military attire, seen by his armor-clad body. It gives off the idea that it is not meant to represent a post battle victory, which further backs up the peace theory. I think this statue is a monument that has gone through a lot, from the rise of the Roman Empire, glorious victories, and to the fall of the Empire. To this day, it is still witnessing history and the 21st century. I believe the reason why it is still influencing the art world is because it evokes life and cultural identity. There are memorable experiences and highlights the time period when Marcus Aurelius was in power. There seems to be an eternal feeling when it comes to this piece.

Straying away from statues, the Romans created extremely impressive architecture and Trajan’s Column is one of many. The purpose of the column was to commemorate Trajan who was once a Roman emperor. It represents his victory in the Dacian Wars, a war that was fueled by the continuing Dacian threats and the need for resources. The man behind this triumphal piece is Apollodorus of Damascus. He built it in 107 AD and finished in 113 AD. The column itself is entirely made of white Italian marble and is mounted on an eight block base, which is now standing in Rome, Italy. The statue of emperor Trajan that was originally placed on top of the column is made of bronze and is sixteen feet top. When he died, his ashes were spread over the foundations of the column. However, in 1599 CE., the piece was replaced with a statue of St. Peter.

Standing at over 140 feet, it has stood for over 1,900 years. The column is not a simple, smooth piece. It is almost entirely covered with thousands of figures and war scenes that were carefully carved in a spiralling direction. It is extremely impressive; it was noted that there were over a hundred and fifty scenes from the Dacian War that goes on for 200 m. Each intricate figure is highly detailed with the emperor in many different settings, from leading the army to punishing the prisoners. The architect even went as far as to situate each affair in chronological order with a scene of a shield and victory trophies between them. “Most individual scenes on the column run into each other but sometimes scenes are separated by a feature of landscape such as rocks, trees and even buildings which indicate a change of narrative scene” (Cartwright). There is not much hidden symbolic elements in the column. A recurring theme is how the Romans depicted the Dacians. They were seen as uncivilized and barbaric. The Dacians wore messy uniforms and were unkempt. The Romans looked to be the superior ones, they had powerful armor and looked orderly, nearly the opposite of their counterparts.

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