Column of Trajan as a funerary monument

Was the column of Trajan built with the intention to make it a funeral monument?

  • Pim Wissink - Faculty of Law
  • Else Huis in 't Veld - Faculty of Medicine
  • Marlinde Koops - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

This Wiki is part of the series The Column of Trajan. Other parts of this series are:

Details and surroundings The death of Trajan and his succession Functions of the Column throughout history The column of Trajan as a triumphal monument

Using the information already obtained before, this page will discuss how and why the Column of Trajan became a funeral monument. Historical texts [1] show that Trajan's column came to serve as a funerary monument after the emperor's death. However, whether the column was originally intended to function as such, or whether this use was conceived at a later time remains a matter of scholarly debate. There are arguments – admittedly, often speculative – to be made for both scenarios, but conclusive evidence for either possibility is not available. Our hypothesis is that the column was not originally intended as a funerary monument, as it was not possible to arrange a burial within the ancient city limits before one's death and the column was already built before Trajan's death.

1. Ad hoc funerary monument or deliberate choice?
2. Burial beneath the column as political propaganda
3. Funerary monument by design?
5. Sources

Picture of Rome, the pomerium is the area within the red lines. [7]

Ad hoc funerary monument or deliberate choice?

Trajan had not made arrangements for his funeral or named a successor at the time of his death (See also The death of Trajan and his succession). This might explain why his ashes were ultimately placed in the small room in the base of Trajan's column. The column was a very unusual choice for a final resting place, since it was customary for deceased emperors to be buried in dedicated mausolea outside the pomerium, the ancient city limits. Burial within the pomerium was considered to be among the greatest of honours and was only permitted after special permission from the Senate. Such permission could only be granted after the ruler in question had passed away [2].

Burial beneath the column as political propaganda

It can be speculated that Trajan's burial underneath the column was a political move by Hadrian, Trajan's successor[3]. During his life Trajan had been immensely popular. Hadrian, however, had not yet managed to gain favour with the Roman people. By providing a hero's burial in the very heart of Rome and dedicating a temple to the deified Trajan on the forum Traiani, Hadrian would have ensured that the memory of the great emperor remained alive in the minds of the Roman people. The grandeur of the column and the forum on which it stands, as well as the abundant references to Trajan's exploits and victories in the Dacian wars depicted on the column's frieze, would have undoubtedly left a profound impression on many a passer-by. This, in turn, would have further aggrandized Trajan's character and lay the groundwork for Hadrian's propaganda based on his predecessor's popularity.

In this manner, Hadrian, who had been the late emperor's protegé and also claimed to be the emperor's adopted son[3], put himself in a position to associate himself with his popular predecessor. He could present himself to the Roman people not just as their new emperor, but as a true successor to the great and deified Trajan, a person in whom Trajan's rule and works would find continuation. It would not be unreasonable to presume that many Romans would thus come to the conclusion that it is only logical that this man should be the new emperor.

Funerary monument by design?

There are, on the other hand, also arguments that point to the column having been intended to serve as a funerary monument from the beginning. One such argument can be found in a peculiar element of the column's design: inside its base, there has always been a small room, which provided a convenient place to put Trajan's ashes. Such a room would have been a most unusual feature for a triumphal monument, and it can be interpreted as an indication that the Column of Trajan was intended by its builders not only as a triumphal monument, but also as a funerary monument. An alternate explanation, however, can be offered. The column's architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, was known to dislike wasted space in his buildings[4]. His efforts to make use of every last bit of available space may have led him to have the room (that would later hold Trajan's ashes) carved out in the column's base.

Cross-section of the column, showing the room which contained Trajan's ashes. [8]

Some scholars theorise that the column's shape and location, which forced those who wished to view the scenes on the spiraling frieze to circumambulate the monument at a close distance, are evidence of it having been designed as a place of burial.

To the Romans, “[in] man's memory lay a form of immortality [...]”[5]. A man lives on after death for as long as he remains in living memory, and for that reason many Romans would go through great lengths to ensure they would not be forgotten: building gardens around one's tomb to draw in visitors and providing funds to pay for yearly rites to be organised at one's final resting for many years to come are just some examples. In Roman funerary custom, circumambulation was another such way to provoke interaction with a funerary monument, thus keeping the memory of the deceased alive and ensuring his immortality [6].

Although there is no conclusive evidence that shows that ceremonies were held in Trajan's honour at the site of the column, it would not be unreasonable to assume that at the least funerary rituals were organised on the occasion of Trajan's burial. However, any Romans passing by – and the column was located in one of the busiest areas of Rome – who were lured in by the impressive sight of the monument, and who proceeded to circle the column in order to examine the war scenes depicted on the frieze, would thereby – perhaps unknowingly – engage in a modest ritual in Trajan's honour.

In this light, it would seem unlikely to construe the column's design and placement, encouraging passers-by to circumambulate, as a simple coincidence. If we assume this effect was deliberate, it provides a clue that Trajan's burial in the column had been devised before its construction had started.

However, this would mean Trajan had already given some indication that he wanted to be buried inside the column. It is important to once again emphasize how unusual – unorthodox perhaps – a burial, not even in a proper imperial mausoleum, inside the pomerium was. Permission for burial in the city could not be granted before Trajan's death, and to build a funerary site in the heart of the city in anticipation would surely have been considered an affront to the Senate and ancient custom. Therefore we believe the column was not intended as a funerary monument, but only became one by an ad hoc decision of Hadrian.


  1. Eutropius, Breviarum ab urbe condita 8.5.2: “[Traianus] inter divos relatus est solusque omnium intra urbem sepultus est. Ossa conlata in urnam auream inforo, quod aedificavit, sub columna posita sunt (...)” Transl.: "[Trajan] was enrolled among the gods, and was the only one of all the emperors that was buried within the city. His bones, contained in a golden urn, lie in the forum which he himself built, under a pillar (...) "
  2. P.J.E. Davies, 'The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration', American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), p. 45
  3. Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1997), pp. 202-204
  4. F.J. de Waele, Marcus Ulpianus Trajanus. Veldheer, bouwheer, rijksheer, Nijmegen (1956), p. 48
  5. P.J.E. Davies, 'The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration', American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), p. 49
  6. P.J.E. Davies, 'The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration', American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 49-58
  7. C'est quoi. Pomerium. (As accessed on the 27th of August, 2015)
  8. Rome across Europe. Trajan's Column: A Historical Comic Book. (As accessed on the 27th of August, 2015)