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The Column of Marcus Aurelius

The Column of Marcus Aurelius: The Genesis and Meaning of a Roman Imperial Monument

Martin Beckmann
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  • Book Info
    The Column of Marcus Aurelius
    Book Description:

    One of the most important monuments of Imperial Rome and at the same time one of the most poorly understood, the Column of Marcus Aurelius has long stood in the shadow of the Column of Trajan. InThe Column of Marcus Aurelius, Martin Beckmann makes a thorough study of the form, content, and meaning of this infrequently studied monument. Beckmann employs a new approach to the column, one that focuses on the process of its creation and construction, to uncover the cultural significance of the column to the Romans of the late second century A.D. Using clues from ancient sources and from the monument itself, this book traces the creative process step by step from the first decision to build the monument through the processes of planning and construction to the final carving of the column's relief decoration. The conclusions challenge many of the widely held assumptions about the value of the column's 700-foot-long frieze as a historical source. By reconstructing the creative process of the column's sculpture, Beckmann opens up numerous new paths of analysis not only to the Column of Marcus Aurelius but also to Roman imperial art and architecture in general.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0302-5
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”¹ This is the well-known verdict of Edward Gibbon on the condition of life in the Roman Empire between A.D. 96 and 180, a happy period of stable government, benevolent rulers, and more or less peaceful frontiers. It ended, in Gibbon’s opinion, with the death of the last of the good emperors, Marcus Aurelius. But...

    (pp. 19-36)

    At the end of the second century A.D., in the early years of the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, a Roman official named Adrastus—a former slave but now a freedman of the emperor—moved into a new house. Adrastus was not just any official, and his was not just any house. He was theprocuratoror caretaker of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, and his new residence was built just behind the column. The remains of his house were found in the year 1777 during excavations beneath the Piazza di Montecitorio, about one hundred meters to the west...

    (pp. 37-54)

    The Column of Marcus Aurelius stood in the northern part of the Campus Martius, the flat expanse of land bounded by the Capitol to the south, the wide bend of the Tiber to the west, and the Via Flaminia to the east. To be more precise, its ancient location was on the west side of the Via Flaminia just north of a road sometimes called the Via Tecta or Via Recta, though in ancient times it almost certainly was called something else altogether, that led west past the Pantheon and the Stadium of Domitian to the Tiber and to Nero’s...

  7. chapter three FORM & FUNCTION
    (pp. 55-67)

    One of the most common expressions used by the Romans to describe the Column of Marcus Aurelius wascolumna cochlis: “snail column.” This appears not just in one obscure author, but in many sources over centuries. Its meaning was obviously clear to the Romans but is, at first glance at least, extremely obscure to us. What kind of a monument was the Column of Marcus Aurelius, exactly? None of the words the Romans used to describe it—including “snail column”—seem to reflect the overwhelming modern interest in the historical frieze that adorns its exterior. But these expressions hold our...

  8. chapter four PLANNING & CONSTRUCTION
    (pp. 68-83)

    The Column of Marcus Aurelius was a complex monument, combining architecture, relief carving, statuary, and an inscription into a single, unified whole. The planning of these different elements would have been a complicated, multistage process, an understanding of which could provide an idea of the relative significance of the column’s different parts in the minds of the people who created it. Which elements were given greatest priority in planning? Which details were decided on at the highest level? Were all elements of the column planned at the same time, or were some left to be resolved later? The construction challenges...

  9. chapter five THE FRIEZE: CONCEPT & DRAFT
    (pp. 84-109)

    The designers of the frieze of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (its regularity suggests that a single designer was responsible for the general form and layout—the generation of its content is a different matter) did not face the same challenge as did the designer of the frieze of Trajan’s Column. They did not have to create an entirely new form of architectural sculpture, but rather were able to rely on a model for guidance. At the same time, the existence of a model (Trajan’s Column) did not make the task an easy one. To start with, the designers would...

  10. chapter six CARVING THE FRIEZE
    (pp. 110-127)

    For the frieze of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, carving was the final step in the long genetic path from conception to execution. This massive and complicated task is naturally of great interest in and of itself, but the study of its process can also provide many clues about how its iconographic content was created. Carving involved the translation of the ideas of the frieze’s designer(s) into stone, and the appearance of the final product depended not only on his wishes but also on the skill, training, and organization of the men charged with the task. How many men were...

  11. chapter seven THE FRIEZE AS HISTORY
    (pp. 128-155)

    Lactantius, a Christian writer of the early fourth century A.D., tells a revealing story about the sufferings of the Roman emperor Valerian, captured through treachery by the Persian king Sapor in 260. “When King Sapor, who had captured him, wanted to mount a vehicle or a horse, he would order Valerian to kneel on all fours and, placing his foot on his back, he would reproach him, saying with a smile, ‘The Romans may paint things on their tablets and walls, butthisis really the way it is!’”¹ It is doubtful whether Sapor actually said these words, but there...

  12. chapter eight THE FRIEZE AS ART
    (pp. 156-186)

    “Compared with the noble Column of Trajan, that of Aurelius is in all ways inferior.”¹ This was the opinion of Percy Gardner, professor of classical archaeology at Oxford University in the late nineteenth century. His views on the value of the art of the Column of Marcus Aurelius were shared by many of his contemporaries. Eugen Petersen, even after becoming intimately acquainted with the column through many weeks spent on a platform hanging from its capital, still concluded that in comparison to the richness of Trajan’s Column “the art of the Marcus Column seems poor and sober, restricted to only...

  13. chapter nine VIEWING THE COULMN
    (pp. 187-206)

    Up to this point, I have concentrated on questions related to how the Column of Marcus Aurelius was created. This last chapter has a different focus and asks a more problematic question: what did the column mean? For the modern viewer, the main message of the column at first seems to be contained in the frieze: a vast expanse of detailed images, inviting equally detailed interpretation. But the frieze is a frustrating artwork, full of contradictions. It appears to tell a story, yet very few of its scenes are historical. It is detailed, but many of the details are wrong....

    (pp. 207-214)

    The Romans saw things differently than we do today. When looking at the Column of Marcus Aurelius, the modern observer usually thinks first about the remarkable helical frieze, wonders what events it might record, and then wishes that he could see them better. The Roman first thought of a snail. He looked at the column and was captivated not by the spiraling frieze on the exterior but by the dark, winding passage inside, a hidden passage leading up within the monument to a lofty balcony atop its capital. Our priorities were not necessarily theirs.

    Evidence of these priorities is unfortunately...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 215-232)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-242)
  17. Index
    (pp. 243-248)