The Column of Marcus Aurelius

  • Pim Wissink - Faculty of Law

A ten minutes' walk from Trajan's Column, on the aptly named Piazza Colonna, stands the Column of Marcus Aurelius. Presumably completed in 193 AD,[1] the monument bears great resemblance to Trajan's Column, after which it was modelled.[2]

The Aurelian Column

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

The Aurelian Column

Many of the column's architectural features were directly copied from its precursor: it is a single free standing marble column placed upon a sizeable pedestal and crowned – originally – with a statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Like Trajan's Column, its hollow inside houses a staircase that provides access to the balcony on top. The column is decorated with an impressive spiralling frieze depicting (mostly generic and likely somewhat historically inaccurate[3]) scenes of Marcus Aurelius' military campaigns in the so-called Marcomannic Wars (166-180 AD).

Though the similarities are many, there are also significant differences, most notably concerning the tone of the narrative on the monument's frieze. Whereas the depictions of the Dacian Wars on Trajan's Column are – taking into account its subject matter – relatively peaceful, focusing mostly on the down time between battles and the civilized aspects of warfare (e.g. military engineering), the scenes on the Aurelian Column are more, and more frequently of a violent nature.[4] There is, in other words, much more emphasis on the gruesome aspects of war. This has been considered by some incongruent with Marcus Aurelius' supposed mildness, and may be an indication that Commodus, Marcus Aurelius' 'wicked' son, was responsible for the graphic contents of the scenes;[5] others believe it was a reaction to the circumstances at the time. Unlike in Trajan's days, the effects of the war reached the Romans, as pillaging German and Sarmatian tribes penetrated the provinces and northern Italy. In order to restore lost confidence in Roman power in the minds of the Romans, the utter annihilation and humiliation of the enemy was emphasized on the column's reliefs.[6]

Like Trajan's Column, Marcus Aurelius' is surrounded with uncertainty regarding its intended purpose. The monument is, at first glance, primarily a victory monument,[7] as evidenced by a plethora of battle scenes in which the Romans emerge victorious. Some scholars argue, however, that the column may (also) have been a funerary monument in honour of the deceased Marcus Aurelius – perhaps inspired by the use of Trajan's Column as a funerary monument nearly a century prior. (Though, unlike Trajan's Column, the Aurelian Column never served as a burial site.) The answer to this question hinges on the date of the monument's commissioning: was it commissioned in 176 AD after the emperor's triumphant return to Rome, or in 180 AD after Marcus Aurelius' death and the ascension of Commodus?[8] Some ancient texts suggest construction of the column was decided upon after Marcus Aurelius' death,[9] but their credibility may be doubtful.[10] As touched upon above, the graphic nature of the scenes can also be interpreted as evidence of the column's commissioning by Commodus.


  1. Martin Beckmann, The Column of Marcus Aurelius, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2011, p. 22.
  2. Beckmann 2011, p. 58, 73.
  3. Beckmann 2011, p. 207-208.
  4. Felix Pirson, 'Style and message on the Column of Marcus Aurelius', Papers of the British School at Rome 1996, vol. 64, p. 140-141, 171-174; Péter Kovács, Marcus Aurelius' Rain Miracle and the Marcomannic Wars, Leiden: Brill 2009, p. 158.
  5. Pirson 1996, p. 140-141.
  6. Pirson 1996, p. 173-174, 176; Kovács 2009, p. 158-159.
  7. Kovács 2009, p. 159.
  8. Beckmann 2011, p. 22.
  9. Kovács 2009, p. 160.
  10. Beckmann 2011, p. 23.