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Column of Marcus Aurelius
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41°54′2.880″N 12°28′48.000″E / 41.90080000°N 12.48000000°E / 41.90080000; 12.48000000

The Column of Marcus Aurelius (Latin: Columna Centenaria Divorum Marci et Faustinae, Italian: Colonna di Marco Aurelio) is a Roman victory column in Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy. It is a Doric column featuring a spiral relief: it was built in honour of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and modeled on Trajan's Column. The Imperial Monument is dedicated to the former emperor of Rome and his war effort in the Barbarian wars of his reign as Caesar of Rome from 161-180 AD. Standing as a testament to Aurelius' military achievements, it offers a visual narrative of his campaigns against Germanic tribes along the Danube River. Though there aren’t many direct sources from the time of reign of Marcus Aurelius, the monument itself can tell us a great deal about the Romans in the creation of the monument and the scenes from it. The column of Marcus Aurelius is a depiction of Roman life during the reign of Marcus Aurelius; the monument not only tells us the reason it was built but the importance this emperor had on society and the respect he had earned. Based on common understanding of Roman life and the belief that citizens felt a duty toward public service, the benevolence of Marcus Aurelius was such that this monument was erected in his memory and preserved for its grandeur and representation. The monument contains a frieze, which depicts the Northern Germanic campaigns of Marcus Aurelius’ and his war with the Barbarians. The Romans called these wars North of the Danube, Bellum Germanicum or bellum Marcomannicum. Though the monument is more likely a monument for military achievement, it’s also considered a funerary monument, since the planning and erection of the monument happened around the same time as the death of Marcus Aurelius. The monument was said to either begin at the end of the wars in 176AD and he died in 180AD, the monument finished construction in 193AD.


Because the original dedicatory inscription has been destroyed, it is not known whether it was built during the emperor's reign (on the occasion of the triumph over the Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatians in the year 176) or after his death in 180; however, an inscription found in the vicinity attests that the column was completed by 193.

In terms of the topography of ancient Rome, the column stood on the north part of the Campus Martius, in the centre of a square. This square was either between the temple of Hadrian (probably the Hadrianeum) and the temple of Marcus Aurelius (dedicated by his son Commodus, of which nothing now remains – it was probably on the site of Palazzo Wedekind), or within the latter's sacred precinct, of which nothing remains. Nearby is the site where the emperor's cremation occurred.

The column's shaft is 29.6 metres (97 ft) high, on a 10.1 metres (33 ft) high base, which in turn originally stood on a 3 metres (9.8 ft) high platform – the column in total is 39.7 metres (130 ft)[1] About 3 metres of the base have been below ground level since the 1589 restoration.

The column consists of 27 or 28 blocks of Carrara marble, each of 3.7 metres (12 ft) diameter, hollowed out while still at the quarry for a stairway of 190–200 steps within the column up to a platform at the top. Just as with Trajan's Column, this stairway is illuminated through narrow slits into the relief.


Detail from the column. The five horizontal slits (visible in the larger version) allow light into the internal stairway.

The spiral picture relief tells the story of Marcus Aurelius' Danubian or Marcomannic wars, waged by him from 166 to his death. The story begins with the army crossing the river Danube, probably at Carnuntum. A Victory separates the accounts of two expeditions. The exact chronology of the events is disputed; however, the latest theory states that the expeditions against the Marcomanni and Quadi in the years 172 and 173 are in the lower half and the successes of the emperor over the Sarmatians in the years 174 and 175 in the upper half.

German council of war depicted on the column – considered early evidence of what would become known as the Thing (assembly)

One particular episode portrayed is historically attested in Roman propaganda – the so-called "rain miracle in the territory of the Quadi", in which a god, answering a prayer from the emperor, rescues Roman troops by a terrible storm, a miracle later claimed by the Christians for the Christian God.[2]

In spite of many similarities to Trajan's Column, the style is entirely different, a forerunner of the dramatic style of the 3rd century and closely related to the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus, erected soon after. The figures' heads are disproportionately large so that the viewer can better interpret their facial expressions. The images are carved less finely than at Trajan's Column, through drilling holes more deeply into the stone, so that they stand out better in a contrast of light and dark. As villages are burned down, women and children are captured and displaced, men are killed, the emotion, despair, and suffering of the "barbarians" in the war, are represented acutely in single scenes and in the figures' facial expressions and gestures, whilst the emperor is represented as protagonist, in control of his environment.

The symbolic language is altogether clearer and more expressive, if clumsier at first sight, and leaves a wholly different impression on the viewer to the whole artistic style of 100 to 150 as on Trajan's Column. There, cool and sober balance – here, drama and empathy. The pictorial language is unambiguous – imperial dominance and authority is emphasised, and its leadership is justified. Overall, it is an anticipation of the development of artistic style into late antiquity, and a first artistic expression of the crisis of the Roman empire that would worsen in the 3rd century.

Later history

In the Middle Ages, climbing the column was so popular that the right to charge the entrance fee was annually auctioned,[citation needed] but it is no longer possible to do so today. Now the Column serves a centerpiece to the Piazza Colonna, in front of the Palazzo Chigi.

Inscription describing the restoration
The column (right) in the background of Panini's painting of the Palazzo Montecitorio, with the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius in the right foreground (1747)


About three metres of the base have been below ground level since 1589 when, by order of pope Sixtus V, the whole column was restored by Domenico Fontana and adapted to the ground level of that time. Also a bronze statue of the apostle St. Paul was placed on the top platform, to go with that of St. Peter on Trajan's Column (27 October 1588[3]). (Originally the top platform had a statue of Marcus Aurelius, but it was removed and switched with St.Paul after Christianity took reign as the dominant religion.) That adaptation also removed the damaged or destroyed original reliefs on the base of garland-carrying victories and (on the side facing the via Flaminia ) representations of subjected barbarians, replacing them with the following inscription mistakenly calling this the column of Antoninus Pius, which is now recognised as lost: Specs The Monument stands 100 roman feet tall total. Nicknamed the Columna centenaria , by contemporary romans, and columna cochlis (snail column) , because of the size of the monument, commonly referred to it by its size, because of it enormity, the Column of Trajan was nicknamed the same way. The column is made of white Italian Carrera marble, brought from Northern Rome for the monument. Constructed in a Doric style, which refers mostly to the shape of the cap of the monument before the placement of the statue on top. The pedestal is made up of large rectangular blocks, with an inscription around the base, a Column with a frieze of the Germanic war north of the Danube, and originally has a bronze statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, last replaced with that of St. Paul in the 16th century. The Columns shaft is made up of 20 marble drums that were carved and stacked to shape, then the frieze was carved in after the monument was standing. The column though compared often the Trajan column, it is also seen as a funerary monument to Marcus Aurelius’, but the monument is technically a Cenotaph, a monument/tomb with no physical body, whereas the Trajan’s ashes are contained within the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Viewing the Column

When viewing the column, you must know that the events of the frieze aren’t chronological. Strong evidence of this is shown, when the scenes of the Victoria, Danube Crossing and Miracle Rain are stacked on top of each other. They are also placed at the front of the column, the front being that which faces the Via Flammania. Roman soldiers are said to have past this column on the round North to war and gain strength from the Column as a symbol of Roman military might. When viewing the column Miracle rain is placed lower on the monument, not chronologically, but the placed lower so that its easily visible.


Marcus Aurelius is commemorated as being the last of the 5 Good emperors. He is known for this as being the “Antonine” emperor. These were emperors from the same family, who also were leaders in Roman politics. Marcus Aurelius’ was the last of 5 emperors between the years 96AD-180AD, this was a time of semi-peaceful borders, prosperous growth, and a stable government with leaders with a desire to serve. The Roman Empire at the time was at the height of its influence and its borders spread far across modern Asia, Europe, and Africa. The borders spread in every direction of Rome. The Northern Border didn’t spread past the Germanic borders the Romans were fighting in the campaign against barbarianism. The Western Border spread through Spain and Portugal and even spread Northwest into Britain, and the Eastern border included Syria but didn’t exceed it. The Southern border was south of Rome, across the Mediterranean Sea, and spread into Northern Africa and parts of the Sahara. The map of the Roman Empire was surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and included the southern border of the Black Sea. The water was a key element for communication in trade among the empire and allowed for a progressive and stimulated society, that allowed for open communication and trade of ideas, goods, and news.

Public officials in Rome were set and relied on the practice of civic virtue. The innate sense to put oneself second to the needs of the public good, to serve the public even if it wasn’t in their own personal best interest. Marcus Aurelius was revered as a stoic and wise emperor. Known best for his strategic political and militaristic decisions, as a force to be reckoned with and even despite that he grew up wealthy and in favor of the emperor’s family, he didn’t attain a more selfish attitude but with the mentality to serve for the betterment of his empire.

The Monument was also erected by Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius’ and Co-emperor since 166AD, a tradition in Roman life was that they were indebted to their predecessors and “a comparison between the monument and its forerunners can often reveal the sources of inspiration” . The only forerunner to the Column of Marcus Aurelius is the column of Trajan, elements of the Trajan were directly incorporated into Marcus Aurelius’ Column. Providing a direct link between the families of Marcus Aurelius’ and Trajan. The Column of Marcus Aurelius’ is taller and carved deeper. Interpreting this could represent Commodus’s drive to raise his family to the top of Roman life and to ensure his father’s reign is respected and in turn his as well.


The lack of missing direct information of the Column has led to the use of using other found sources to depict what Roman life and practices that, we can determine are missing pieces of information or missing documentation that would provide more information on its construction and planning. The planning and purpose would have been written in a decree, where all the information about the building of the Column would have been decreed. Everything about the construction, material, height, timeline would have been in the decree, except for the carved out frieze, this would have been later planned out later on in the process. The project would have then started to accept bids on the project and designs on the planning of the monuments where they would have accepted different proposals of begin and art depicted on the monument. Finally after they choose a proposal, they would start the construction of the monument.

Compared to the Trajan, which had little to no planning, the Column of Marcus Aurelius’, has had infinitely more, even though the whole of the design of the frieze wasn’t designed when construction began, the planning was planned more so than the Trajan as parts of the 2 are the same. The frieze, the internal staircase, and its style of architecture. Except the Column of Marcus Aurelius’, us purposefully carved and designed to be better than Trajan’s. The carvings are deeper and better detailed, scenes that have been directly pulled from the Trajan to the Marcus Aurelius’.


The monument was created in honor of their emperor by Commodus and the Senate of Rome, for his military prowess, strategic political thinking, and legacy as emperor. The Column stands 100 Roman feet tall and is made of white Carrera marble. The Column of Marcus Aurelius was designed in the Doric style, which is an ancient Greek and Roman style of architecture that signified strength and dignity, its strong, firm, and simple design. It was constructed by his son and new emperor, Commodus, upon the death of his father but interpretation from the frieze indicates, that it might have been constructed, while the emperor was still alive and was a monument to commemorate Marcus Aurelius’ first campaign against the Germanic Barbarians in the North. Since there isn’t a lot of evidence of the actual constriction of the Column of Marcus Aurelius and no architectural plans, a lot of the existence and development of the Column is based on interpretation. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, does share a lot of the same characteristics of the Column of Trajan, as they are both imperial monuments, in Doric style roman architecture and contain a frieze throughout the center column of the monument, the Column of Marcus Aurelius was carved deeper in fact than the Trajan column, this was how roman architecture has developed since the Trajan and the Column of Marcus Aurelius was based largely off the Trajan, the desire for better viewing was determined necessary for Marcus Aurelius’. Making the carving more prevalent and details noticeable to get clear ideas of the project. The monument is located in. Piazza Colonna in Rome was erected in around the year 180 CE. The monument is made of white Carrera Marble and is about 175 Roman feet tall and consists of a base and 30 spirals stacked, depicting scenes of Marcus Aurelius, fighting barbarianism, spreading Romanism, and speaking/philosophizing to his constituents. The sculpture is hollow on the inside with a door at the base and a staircase on the inside of the spirals that leads to the top where there is a lookout. There is no actual evidence of the construction of the column, but the caretaker was a man called Adrastus, and the reason we link him to the creation of the column was because of a home he built near the Column in 180 CE, and his role in the republic was to maintain the reliefs in the city. In conclusion, the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a difficult source because of its alteration, but it does help us to define and piece together time in history in 176 and 1588. The shaft tells us mostly about 176 AD, and Marcus Aurelius and his effect on Rome, and its military in leading them as emperor and commander. It represents his influence and greatness in Roman life in 176 AD- 193 AD. The Base on the other had since been destroyed and reconstructed with new inscriptions, now tells us of 1588 Rome and the influence of Christianity in Rome. The surrounding area of the Column, during its construction, was full of other structures that were built to support the construction of the column. Building such as storerooms, specialized work spaces and possibly housing for the workers of the monuments.


Throughout the history of the Column of Marcus Aurelius it has remained in the same location The Column location is the Piazza Colonna in Rome and is central to the geography of mapping of the city. The location of the Piazza Colonna is in the Northern sector at the heart of the city. It is viewed on the road that leads in and out of Rome, this was also the road that the Roman soldiers would travel up and down to fight the barbarians in the north or any other expedition Romans would take north. Though the completion of the Column wasn’t until 193 AD, after the Barbarian wars and the death of Marcus Aurelius, it was still placed where the public and Roman soldiers could draw strength and pride. The monument is in the center of Rome and is surrounded by other imperial monuments and is a landmark spot in Rome that would be used to determine location. The column is in the northern part of the Campus Martis, it is located on Via Flaminia, an ancient Roman road, that leads in and out of the city and is the road Roman armies would take when going or coming, from war in the North. It is viewed by the soldiers going to war and regular people who take that road north of Rome. The view from the top looks North and stretches over the Via Flaminia Road. The Column is a major landmark and was seen by all Romans who traveled that road. The monument was in an open space likely in a colonnaded court, surrounded by open its courtyard and then its family of imperial monuments nearby. Since the monument is designed in a fashion that depicts it as large military achievement and because of the generally accepted timeline of events that signify the monument to have started construction in 176AD upon winning his second campaign north against the Sarmatians, but the location is in the Northern part of the Campus Martis, this area of the Campus Martis is used for victory monuments particularly in the north.


Connection to Religion

The only time the interpretation of the Column was changed was in the sixteenth century, when Pope Pius commissioned Domenico Fotigo to restore the frieze and make some changes along with it. For one the base the column sat on was changed out due to damage from an earthquake. And when it was replaced, it was changed with new inscriptions on the base, stating the columns new representation, as a ward off of barbarianism because of the church and commemoration to St. Paul, when they replaced the statue of Marcus Aurelius’ with one of St. Paul. This isn’t the only depiction of divinity on the Column, the frieze itself contains scenes that depict divinity being a presence in the scene “Miracle Rain”, where it seems the spirit of the holy spirit is descending upon them. The feeling of déjà vu would be correct because the scene was carved before on the Column of Trajan and is an exact replica on two imperial monuments. Studies have also been done on the symbolism of the Column, and its main effort from the monument is to express roman superiority over barbarianism. Since the monument was in the eyes of the public, it had to express a message over the populace and the size and scenes carved into the stone all play a factor in its meaning and symbolism in every aspect, to learning more about Roman history during this time.

Symbolism as Art

The monument is seen as a sculpture of art because if its historical frieze. The freize is sculpted by what seems be about teams of 6 or about 46 different carvers. The difference can be spotted in the carvings of the borders of the monument as it runs between the above/below scenes as it goes up the shaft of the column. The style of the column is depicted the same throughout but the borders are where the artists/carvers weren’t given specifics and could set the borders as they desired. The monument also forgoes background and landscapes in the frieze, and instead use it to depict more details such as weapons or soldiers, to fill the marble without adding landscape in the background.

Miracle Rain

The scene miracle rain is one of the most important scenes on the monument, more information has been gathered and studied about this one scene worldwide, more so than the monument itself. That’s because of the religious significance of this scene on the monument. The scene is as depicted and said by Dio. The Quandi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing in the line and at the several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them. Indeed, there is a story to the effect that Arnuphis, an Egyptian magician, who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air, and by this means attracted the rain…When the rain poured down, at first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they drank and fought at the same time; and some becoming wounded, actually gulped down the blood that flowed into their helmets along with the water. So intent indeed, were most of them on drinking that they would have suffered severely from the enemy’s onset, had not a violent rainstorm and numerous thunderbolts fallen upon the ranks of the foe. Thus in one and the same place one might have beheld water and fire descending from the sky simultaneously; so that while those on the one side were being drenched and drinking, the others were being consumed by fire and dying; and while the fire, on the one hand did not touch the Romans, but, If it fell anywhere among them, was immediate extinguished, the rain however on the other hand, did the barbarians no good, but, like so much oil, actually fed the flames that were consuming them, and they had to search for water even while being drenched with rain. Some wounded themselves in order to quench the fire with their blood, and others rushed over to the side of the Romans, convinced that they alone had the saving water; in any case Marcus took pity on them. He was now saluted imperator by the soldiers, for the seventh time; and although he was not wont to accept any such honor before the senate voted it, nevertheless this time he took it as a gift from heaven, and he sent a dispatch to the senate. (Dio 72.8.1-3 and 72.10.1-5, trans E Cary.) This was a representation at the beginning, a defining moment in Marcus Aurelius’ campaigns, the miracle rain did happen earlier on in the timeline of the northern campaigns and gave Romans the idea that it was their divine right to ward off barbarianism.

Historical Significance

The significance of the monument has been displayed for two main reasons in its history, both signifying a battle against barbarianism.The frieze serves as historical evidence on the war with Barbarianism, as studied by German historians, depictions of the barbarians and the Romans, and Marcus Aurelius were depicted on the frieze. The war with barbarianism was prevalent part of roman life as its children were the ones fighting against barbarianism. The frieze doesn’t depict Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelias and co-emperor of Rome after 176 AD. Commodus isn’t depicted on the frieze because he didn’t join the war front until the second campaign against the Samaritans. This tells us that the monument was most likely started construction while Marcus Aurelius was still alive to commemorate the war against the Marcomanni, and boost war support.

It was erected during the Nerva-Antoine Age and is compared frequently to the Trajan column, erected about 100 years prior in the Trajan Age. In 1893, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, took notice of the column of Marcus Aurelius and funded the future exploration and documentation of the monument because of it significance in depicting early Germanic life, should be made available for scholarly work. Peterson was a scholar assigned with documenting the column and using the fire for historical interpretations. From this work, an entirely documented frieze was taken with photographs of all the scenes on the frieze and stored. These photographs taken circa 1896 are the best images taken from the monument and are possible the best pictures ever to be taken of the monument. Due to the rise of pollution since the 20th century, the monument has taken more damage, in the past 100 years than it did in the 1700 or so years since its erection.

Religious Reconstruction in 1588

The base of the Column was reconstructed by Domenico Fontana and was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V, in 1588, previous restorative or alternative work to the column is not documented. Pope Sixtus V commissioned Domenico Fontana, to reconstruct the base of the column when earthquakes had damaged the previous base. The original base had 4 original inscriptions on the base, that were changed during the restoration. The original inscriptions have been lost, but the replaced ones did change the kind of source it was. The inscriptions were one on each side of the Column, the North side, facing the La Flaminia road, said the Column was dedicated to Saint Paul and the defeat of barbarianism. The eastern inscription says its new Christian role with Saint Paul. The south inscription records the restoration of the Column under Domenico Fontana and Pope Sixtus V. Finally, the western inscription is the Column being dedicated by Marcus Aurelius to his predecessor, Antonis Pius. The Columns base wasn’t the only thing that was replaced but also a statue of Saint Paul was placed on the Top of the Column, which replaced an old one of Marcus Aurelius. This was advocating that the Column was for Christianity and would stand as a monument with Saint Paul as its representative against barbarianism.

The new inscriptions were written by the Catholic church, and all four changed from their original form. Almost all of them speak of the events of 1588 and the reconstruction of the monument and its new role. The inscriptions on the base can be trusted because it’s a document that tells us of its representation after that time and didn’t change past events but redefined its role in its new time. The old inscriptions might have been able to tell us about the original meaning and making of the Column, but since those were removed, we must interpret what was left there. While the inscriptions don’t represent what time was like in 176, they do symbolize its meaning and role in 1588. In 1588 the Column was, a representation of Christian power and might, that the stretch of their power had come far enough as to change public monuments and establish themselves as the leading authority in Rome.

Procurator - Adrastus

Adrastus was a procurator or caretaker, of the Column and the actual job description is lost to time. The information received from Adrastus, which makes him so significant is that he requested to build a home permanent structure on the Campus Martis, after the construction was said to be completed. Adrastus was not only allowed to build a permanent structure on the land by the monument but was given that land in perpetuity, for his heirs to receive upon his death. This is very un-common for a general official to receive land in such an important area of Rome, but Adrastus was able to do so. There is multiple reasons for this, and an inscription found on the entryway threshold of this was found but offered no more than the decree that allowed for the structure to exist and nothing more. The ideas around Adrastus are that he was the caretaker during its construction as well. That even if he wasn’t the architect, since he was a roman official, he was the on-site official that oversaw during the planning and execution of the monument. Since the monument took about 17 years to construct during its planning and execution, the house could have been a gift for his commitment to the project. The other notion was that he was just the procurator after the monument was erected and was given a place their to maintain the monument as well as lead people up and down the internal staircase.

The inscription on the home of Adrastus did have on the inscription that he was allowed to recycle the materials used from the construction of the Column of Marcus Aureliulas, measuring that the construction ended by 193AD, this gives that the construction of Adrastus home marking the end of the construction, also giving the monument at a 17 year time line from planning and designing to full construction.

SIXTVS V PONT MAX Sixtus V High Priest (or Supreme Pontiff),
COLVMNAM HANC this column,
COCHLIDEM IMP which is spiral, to the emperor
ANTONINO DICATAM Antoninus dedicated,
MISERE LACERAM sadly broken
RVINOSAMQ[UE] PRIMAE and ruinous, into its original
FORMAE RESTITVIT form restored.
A. MDLXXXIX PONT IV Year 1589, 4th year of his pontificate.


See also


  1. ^ Height of shaft, base and above ground: Jones 2000, p. 220
  2. ^ See the presumably spurious letter about the miracle found at the end of Justin Martyr's First Apology.
  3. ^ Art in Renaissance Italy By John T. Paoletti, Gary M. Radke
  4. ^ All data from: Jones 2000, p. 220


Media related to Column of Marcus Aurelius at Wikimedia Commons

Preceded by
Column of Antoninus Pius
Landmarks of Rome
Column of Marcus Aurelius
Succeeded by
Column of Phocas