Travelogues

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

In Rome, as you take that mandatory walk around the historic centre, that most tourists do, you will find yourself in a shopping arcade which hosts the latest fashion brands. This is the Galleria Colonna, which is now renamed as the Galleria Alberto Sordi . The 19th century building is done up in Art Nouveau style. As you emerge from the far end of the Galleria, towards Piazza Colonna, you are treated to one of the most spectacular sights of Rome- the incredible Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Looming high into the blue sky, the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a tall Doric Roman victory column bearing spiral relief. The exquisitely carved column with high-relief commemorates Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ victorious military campaigns across the Danube between 172 and 175 CE.

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 t0 180 AD. He is often called the ‘philosopher on the throne’. He is the last of the “Five Good Emperors” as described by Machiavelli. Italy faced a grave crisis then, as it had been infiltrated across its northern frontier by several tribes (Quadi, Marcomanni, Sarmatians). After initial setbacks, the tribes seemed to have been defeated.  But war resumed after a brief truce, and Marcus Aurelius died at the front. It was his son Commodus who signed the peace treaty, when victory was ultimately attained.

Because the original inscription no longer exists, it is not known who started work on the column. But the column is popularly believed to be erected by Commodus to celebrate his parents, Marcus Aurelius and Faustina. Another inscription attests to the fact that work on the column was completed by 193.

The Column emulates the more famous Column of Trajan. When it was built, the Romans called it the Centanaria as it was 100 Roman feet or 29.6 metres tall. To give you more numbers, the column stands on a 10 m high base, which in turn stood on a 3 m high platform. However, that base is now below the ground level and can no longer be seen. It is built of 28 blocks of Carrara marble, each of which is 3.7 m in diameter.

The inscription at the base of the column

Inside the column is a spiral stairway of around 200 steps which runs up to a platform on the top. Narrow slits in the column allow sunlight to illuminate the stairway. A doorway to the stairway can be seen at the base of the column, though it is not open to the public. What is amazing about the column is that these blocks were hollowed while still at the quarry. How they were placed in such perfect alignment in that era is still a matter of astonishment.

The 700 foot helical frieze has remarkable sculptural detail

The stunning visual that the column presents comes from the painstakingly done high relief carvings all along its surface. These are engraved in 21 spirals. The 700 foot helical frieze shows images from Marcus Aurelius’ conquests against the Marcomanni and the Sarmatians. There are glimpses of the campaigns- with carvings showing emperor addressing his men, images of his cavalry and infantry, sieges, the taking of prisoners, and other anecdotes from the battlefield. What makes this column different from Trajan’s column are the violent nature of the graphics. This column seems to depict the gory consequences of war,  that the Romans experienced during these armed campaigns.

At the lowermost section is a beautiful frieze of the army crossing a river on a pontoon bridge.

Over the years, the Column has weathered much damage. It was restored by Pope Sixtus the Fifth in 1589.  Originally, a statue of Emperor Aurelius had been installed at the top of the column. This has now been replaced by a bronze statue of St Paul holding a sword.

The Italian Prime Minister’s official residence

TThere are other sights too in Piazza Colonna. In the north, is the Palazzo Chigi which is the official residence of the Italian prime minister. The Via del Corso runs through the eastern end of the piazza. On the west side is the Palazzo Wedekind with a colonnade of Roman columns. In front of the piazza is a fountain which has dolphins sculpted at the edge of the basin. This was designed by Giacomo Della Porta.

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