Prehistory of Comics Part 3: Trajan’s Column

A 1721 illustration including Trajan’s Column by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach.

The Splash Page

One of the major monuments to survive the fall of the Roman empire, Trajan’s Column commemorates two wars fought by Emperor Trajan and the Roman armies against the Dacians in what is modern-day Romania. The column features a massive, single frieze including scenes of construction, diplomacy, warfare, and enslavement.

Past the Page Turn

Emperor Trajan was relatively new to the job when he took 100,000 Roman soliders to conquer the Dacians.

The armies fought in 101 ACE, with the Dacians losing but not vanquished. The Roman army, frustrated, retreated back south of the Danube to their winter encampments. The next year, the Roman forces were split, with a portion of the army attacking the Dacian capital from the front and the rest attacking from the rear. Successful in their siege, the Romans took tens of thousands of prisoners. To commemorate the campaign and the emperor, the Romans memorialized both of them in Trajan’s Column.

The column is constructed out of 22 layers of marble, with each block weighing between 25 and 77 tons. Windows and an internal staircase were carved first (probably, there’s still some disagreement, it seems), then the blocks were stacked. Next, a single 650-foot-long frieze consisting of 155 different scenes was carved along the outside of the column.

The scenes of the frieze give a real, recognizable, visceral sense of drama to the military campaigns. Battles are brutal and desperate. Scenes involving construction and oratory involve groups of figures crowded beside and over each other. The sense, overall, is one of people stuffed in on top of each other, people crashing into each other, of a world so chock full of bodies and that each person and each group can be rightly judged based on the success of their ability to organize, to work effectively together. The Romans, not surprisingly, are presented as the apotheosis of these values. The Dacians, while vigorous enemies, appear less collected.

Looking for Closure

The interconnected scenes, jostling for attention, remind me quite a bit of the massive scroll-objects that Scott McCloud writes about in Reinventing Comics. The big difference here is that the internet-enabled scroll-objects can basically only be consumed personally, in an intimate setting: one person, one art object. Trajan’s Column was not just public, it was extremely, gloriously public.

The biggest thing that Trajan’s Column makes me think about, though, is about the emotional effect that seeing something this would have had on a viewer. Most would have known the story, it seems, or parts of it, but standing in the shadow of this massive column must have encouraged a specific kind of contemplation. How long would it have taken to examine the entire frieze? Was that even possible, given the column’s height? Was the desired effect merely the impression of wealth and martial power on behalf of the Roman state? If so, how did that effect the carvers and artists, the storytellers, as they set about their work?

How many viewers looked on the column’s characters and felt divided in their feelings? How many used its magnificence to flatter themselves? How many identified with the downtrodden and underdog Dacians? How many felt conflicted about the nation they lived in, the conflicts it took part in, its mission to conquer, civilize, enslave? How many thought it distasteful to brag about war but still believed in the mission of the Roman military, or, at the very least, in their own urgent desire for safety?

How many had never met a Dacian? How many never would?


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