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The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration

Penelope J. E. Davies
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 101, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 41-65
DOI: 10.2307/506249
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/506249
Page Count: 25
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The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration
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Abstract

The frieze on Trajan's Column has long been criticized for requiring the visitor to circumambulate the column to read it. By considering the Column within the context of Roman funerary monuments, I argue that the frieze's spiraling motion was designed to manipulate the viewer into a reenactment of ancient funerary ritual as it is described in literary sources. Furthermore, the Column functioned as a viewing station; the helical staircase inside its shaft cast the visitor into disorienting darkness, before thrusting him or her at the summit into dazzling sunlight, simultaneously presenting a dramatic vista that promoted Trajan as an accomplished general who restored Rome's self-esteem-and her coffers-through military victory. The Column's full and powerful impact, which extends well beyond the decorative frieze, can only be appreciated by understanding the ancient viewer's experience as he visited Trajan's tomb.

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