Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.32

Alexandre Simon Stefan, La colonne Trajane: édition illustrée avec les photographies éxécutées en 1862 pour Napoléon III.   Paris:  Éditions Picard, 2015.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9782708409460.  €100.00.  

Reviewed by Fred S. Kleiner, Boston University (

Having been fortuitously preserved in almost unaltered form since antiquity, the Column of Trajan has been sketched, reproduced in miniature, and written about for centuries, and the modern scholarly bibliography on the monument is vast and includes several monographs and countless articles in different languages. Is there a need for still another book on the subject? Perhaps not. But this new folio-size and richly illustrated monograph is most welcome and belongs on the shelves of all institutional research libraries and in many private libraries as well.

Stefan’s exemplary discourse opens with a survey of the history of the study of the Column from the Renaissance to the present and of the artists who made drawings of the lower bands of its famous spiral frieze—Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Poussin, and David among them. Here, Stefan also sets out the basic dichotomy of interpretations of the frieze on the part of historians and art historians: on one side, those who, noting the near-total absence of allegorical figures and apparitions of divinities, regard the frieze as an essentially accurate documentary record of Trajan’s Dacian campaigns, a pictorial pendant to Trajan’s Commentaries on the war; on the other side, those (including this reviewer) who, pointing to the frequent incorporation of conventional topoi (sacrifices, addresses to the troops, supplications of captured barbarians), prefer to see the frieze as primarily a celebration of the virtues of the emperor and the power of his army that is only loosely tied to specific events (with the notable exception of a few scenes such as the crossing of the Danube on Apollodorus of Damascus’s new bridge and the suicide of the Dacian king Decebalus).

Chapters 2 and 3 treat the history of Dacia and of Romano-Dacian interactions leading up to Trajan’s campaigns against those northern “barbarians,” including a brief discussion of monuments commemorating Domitian’s successes against the Dacians. Stefan attributes the “Great Trajanic Frieze,” generally thought to be late Trajanic or early Hadrianic, to Domitian, and postulates that its panels were readily available for reuse on the Arch of Constantine because of Domitian’s damnatio memoriae. The Domitianic date is a credible alternative to the usual dating, but Stefan’s specific rationale for the Flavian date is unconvincing given that reliefs of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were also reused on Constantine’s arch (with their heads recut as Constantine, as are Trajan’s [or Domitian’s] in the Great Trajanic Frieze) and both of those emperors were deified, not damned, after their deaths.1

Chapter 4 examines the Column of Trajan as an architectural monument rather than as the most famous example of Roman narrative relief sculpture. Stefan points out that in addition to its many other singular features, this is the first column to have an interior staircase. The colossal shaft is fashioned from 29 hollowed-out blocks of Luna marble. The hollowing of the drums undoubtedly occurred at the quarry to reduce the immense weight of the marble cylinders that had to be transported to Rome. (The best estimate of the weight of the Column is 1,036 tons.) The reliefs were carved in situ as were the 40 windows that admit essential light to the internal staircase. The oft-quoted inscription on the Column’s pedestal stating that the height of the monument corresponds to the cutting back of the Quirinal hill to make way for the Column (and the Forum of Trajan) indicates that contemporaries viewed that Roman engineering feat as a triumph over nature, a parallel to the army’s defeat of the Dacians—a conceit that surfaces consistently in both Roman art and literature.

Despite the understandable modern focus on the spiral frieze, the Column itself, like most triumphal arches, was, in essence, a gigantic statuary base. Atop stood a gilded bronze statue of Trajan, shown on some coin reverses as wearing the armor of a general in the field, on others as heroically nude. The former is more consistent with the way Trajan is depicted in the spiral frieze but the latter is more fitting for the portrait of a divus above his tomb—which is what the Column became, whether so intended from the outset or not. Stefan argues convincingly in favor of the former, citing, inter alia, the articulation of the interior of the pedestal, which resembles a typical imperial Roman tomb chamber. It is noteworthy that the form of the pedestal was not emulated in the otherwise very similar Column of Marcus Aurelius because Trajan’s Antonine successor was not interred beneath his column but in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. As many commentators have observed, the location of Trajan’s tomb within the boundaries of the pomerium is remarkable indeed. It established Trajan as an official hero of the state, a status amplified under Hadrian by the erection of a temple for his worship behind the Column. Excavations have not yet revealed unequivocally whether there was, in fact, a Temple of Divus Traianus behind the Column. In any case, it is unknown whether such a temple was part of Trajan’s plan for his new forum or Hadrian’s idea. The likelihood that the Column of Trajan was intended from the beginning as the emperor’s tomb within the pomerium supports the view that Trajan anticipated his divinization and that Apollodorus of Damascus incorporated a temple in honor of the optimus princeps from the start.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Stefan examines several of the central questions that have always been posed with regard to the frieze itself, and he does so with characteristic thoughtfulness fortified by long and close looking at the reliefs. With regard to the authorship of the frieze, Stefan agrees with those who believe there was a single master designer, a directing sculptor, even if the idea for the historiated spiral frieze was the brainchild of Apollodorus of Damascus, architect of Trajan’s forum and the emperor’s military engineer who accompanied him on both Dacian campaigns. The nameless artist would have produced a full-size cartoon for the entire frieze, almost certainly in consultation with representatives of the Senate and/or the emperor about the content of the scenes. The team that executed the frieze must have had a degree of authority to adjust details during the actual carving of the reliefs, for example, to ensure the vertical alignment of key scenes featuring the emperor (Trajan appears 60 times) or to rearrange figures to take into consideration the placement of the windows opening into the internal staircase. These chapters also contain detailed analyses of Roman and Dacian costumes, armaments, fortifications, and civic buildings, perspective conventions, and sculptural technique.

Chapter 7 treats the frieze as a work of imperial pictorial propaganda with insightful observations about the decidedly different presentations of the Roman emperor and the Dacian king. Among the many points of contrast is the emphasis on Trajan’s piety in constantly seeking the favor of the gods through formal sacrifices and the apparent “atheism” of the Dacians, something that is strongly contradicted by archaeological evidence. In short, Stefan’s approach to decoding the “message” of the frieze is admirably characterized by attention not merely to what is represented and how but also to what has been omitted or deemphasized.

The second half of the volume consists of Stefan’s scene-by-scene commentary on the spiral frieze (and also the pedestal reliefs), documented by the publication for the first time of the 250 photographs produced from the original glass negatives made in 1862 of the casts of the frieze executed on the orders of Napoleon III in 1861–1862. The project to recover and study the negatives (described in detail in her appendix) was undertaken by Hélène Chew, chief curator of Gallo-Roman antiquities at the Musée d’Archéologie nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the museum in 1862. The commissioning of the casts and photographs reflected the French emperor’s interest in both the Roman Empire and the history of warfare. The Napoleonic negatives are also valuable documents for the early history of photography and of the ways in which the new medium was used for archaeological research. All students of the Column of Trajan should be grateful not only to Chew for initiating the recovery and publication of the Napoleonic photographs but also to the publisher, Picard, for beautifully reproducing them in 63 horizontally oriented folio-size two-page spreads. The unusual format is perfectly suited to the shape of the frieze. Not surprisingly, the casts reveal details that have deteriorated during the past 150 years due to exposure to inclement weather and especially the pollution produced by heavy automobile and tour bus traffic on one of Rome’s major thoroughfares. It is fair to say that the Napoleonic photographs “speak for themselves.” Consequently, it is to the great credit of Stefan, Chew, and Picard that publishing those photos in an impressive folio format was not seen as an end in itself but as the springboard for a comprehensive new treatise on all aspects of the Column. La colonne Trajane is a must-see and must-read for all those interested in Roman sculpture and Roman history.


1.   The Arch of Constantine also features freestanding statues of Dacian prisoners, presumably taken from the Forum of Trajan itself.

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