North Carolina (2021) p/b 264pp £40.04 (ISBN 9781469668635)

Visitors to Rome will be familiar with Trajan’s Column, the impressive marble column that towers over the Forum. Its sister column of Marcus Aurelius, only ten minutes’ walk away, gets much less attention—just two short paragraphs in my elderly Blue Guide.

Martin Beckman, assistant professor at McMaster University, now offers what will probably become the definitive treatment of Marcus’s column: its purpose, design and place in Roman art. There’s plenty to discuss: what do its sculpture and composition tell us about Rome’s sense of identity and self-confidence towards the close of the second century? Does the column’s frieze mark a genuine moment or change of style in the evolution of classical into ‘Antonine’ art?

With no literary evidence to go on (there’s no mention of the column anywhere in surviving texts), B. assembles what we know. The column was completed in AD 193, long after Marcus Aurelius was dead and deified. Taller than Trajan’s at over 175 feet, it towered over the Campus Martius and the via Flaminia, and would have appeared even higher back then, as the ground levels have since risen substantially around its pedestal, and as its capital was then crowned by a huge statue, later lost. Its purpose was clearly honorific rather than funerary: its subject matter was Marcus’ campaigns against the Germans and Sarmatians.

Statues on top of columns were a Roman innovation. These two imperial columns went further: for the first time, they incorporated an internal spiral stairway, enabling access to the statue and a viewing platform. But the main feature of what the Romans styled a ‘snail column’ (columna cochlis) was the 700-feet long frieze (much longer than that of the Parthenon) wrapped 20 times around it.

Marcus’s column was begun some seventy years after Trajan’s was completed. His designers had Trajan’s column to copy but long after its architects and carvers were dead, and without their drawings and blueprints. Using the compositional techniques of private sarcophagi, they had to adapt, following the Trajan design lower down but employing a much more rigorous pattern above the pedestal. The Trajan frieze narrates his two Dacian campaigns, with a panel dedicated to Victory exactly at its mid-point, but in an improvised and irregular composition with varying frieze heights. The Marcus frieze by contrast is more regular and simpler: given the large number of different borders, B. thinks it the work of multiple carvers.

Both friezes probably relied upon historical paintings that were carried in their respective triumphal processions. The Trajan carefully separates infantry and cavalry battles, and maintains a narrative order (marching, construction, address to the troops, battle, prisoners). The Marcus shows more violence and brutality, possibly because his wars involved the crushing of attacks on Roman citizens and territory. Its central position on the main northern artery would, B. believes, have sent a strong message to foreign delegations coming into the capital: this is how Rome punishes rebellions and incursions.

The Marcus, with more evenly spaced spirals, allowed deeper reliefs than the Trajan, with fewer and taller figures: its less crowded scenes have a ‘billboard’ effect. The carving is different again: deeper, more sculpted, more play of light and shadow. The bodies are thinner, taller, more elongated.

Can we call it a genuine change of style? B. isn’t convinced: the clusters of similar scenes in close-up may simply reflect the large teams of sarcophagi carvers involved. Without much to go on except the Trajan original, they fashioned their own, slightly later style. We don’t, interestingly, see it replicated on the next arch, that of Septimius Severus.

What would the Roman viewer have made of it? They wouldn’t actually have seen much of the detail of the higher panels towering above them, even though they were painted. Stepping up from the via Flaminia they would have focussed first on the reliefs on the pedestal, itself twice as large as that of Trajan, and then probably on the more historical panels, the Danube Crossing, the Rain Miracle and the Victory above the doorway, all of which were carefully positioned to face the viewer looking from the East.

No matter: the column’s overall effect would have been clear enough. Rome was not to be trifled with: the frieze showed Marcus Aurelius’ victories but not a single wounded Roman. As Gibbon’s golden age played out, Commodus and his successors had much to live up to.

Sir Michael Fallon
First chairman of the All-Party Classics Group