Column of Marcus Aurelius
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Roman Daily Life video

Ancient civilizations liked to commemorate their victories in battle over an opponent.

The ancient Romans were no different. They constructed numerous monuments around ancient Rome memorializing their victories of war. The Column of Marcus Aurelius is an outstanding example of paying tribute to a leader and decisive victory of war by the Romans.

The column was constructed to celebrate the victories by Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 175 C.E. over the barbarians of the northern frontier named the Sarmitians, Marcomanni, and Quadi in present-day Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius was built in the Piazza Colonna in the northern section of the Campus Martius in ancient Rome. The Column of Marcus Aurelius is designed after the famous Trajan’s Column in ancient Rome.

The Marcus Aurelius and the Northern Wars

Marcus Aurelius became the emperor of Rome in 161 C.E. and ruled until his death in 180 C.E. He was the last emperor of the Pax dynasty.

Marcus Aurelius was one of the Five Good Emperors to rule ancient Rome during a time of peace. He is also known as the philosopher-emperor. His wife Faustina was the daughter of former Roman Emperor Hadrian.

During his rule ancient Rome was in a time of peace that continued from the days of Emperor Augustus. Although the Roman Empire was at peace that did not mean the Roman Empire did not engage in war against their enemies.

In 168 C.E. the barbarian tribes from Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians invaded Italy. The invasion eventually reached the Adriatric Sea near the town of Aquileia. The war between the Romans and the tribes lasted almost eight years. Eventually Marcus Aurelius would die during battle leading his troops in war during 180 C.E.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

The Column of Marcus Aurelius was commissioned by his son Emperor Commodus. The column was completed sometime around 193 C.E. The Column of Marcus Aurelius is fashioned after Trajan’s Column.

The column stands 130 feet (40 meters) with the main shaft being 97 feet (30 meters) high and the base 33 feet (10 meters). The platform on top is 10 feet (3 meters) and originally contained a statue of Marcus Aurelius.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius is built with a Doric style. There are 28 hollowed blocks of Carrara marble. Each block is 12 feet (4 meters) in diameter. The hollow center of the column contains a 200 step spiral staircase to the upper platform.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius has a spiral design on the outside. There are numerous scenes or pictures carved onto the marble. The scenes display the wars with the northern barbarians. The upper portion of the column begins with Marcus Aurelius crossing the Danube River with his forces.

The scene highlights the victories of his troops over the Marcomanni and Quadi. The lower scenes highlight the victories over the Sarmatians in the later part of the war in 175 C.E.

Although the Column of Marcus Aurelius is similar to Trajan’s Column the carvings on the column are a different style. The Column of Marcus Aurelius displays a more dramatic theme with large heads on the figures.

The images are quite graphic with villages burning, women and children being captured, and men killed. The images display emotion, suffering, and despair.

Originally the Column of Marcus Aurelius contained a statue of the emperor on the top of the platform. The statue was replaced with St. Paul in 1588 C.E. to accompany the statue of St. Peter on Trajan’s Column.

Facts about the Column of Marcus Aurelius

  • Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Pax dynasty emperors. He was one of the Five Good Emperors in ancient Rome.
  • He ruled from 161 C.E. until his death in battle in 180 C.E.
  • The column commemorates the victories by Marcus Aurelius over the northern barbarian tribes of Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians during campaigns from 168 C.E. until 175 C.E.
  • The Column of Marcus Aurelius is designed after Trajan’s Column. The column was commissioned by his son Emperor Commodus and was completed sometime around 193 C.E.
  • The column is constructed of 28 blocks of hollowed Carrara marble and stands 130 feet (40 meters) in height.
  • The carvings are done in a spiral and contain graphic scenes of the war between the northern barbarians and the Roman troops. Unlike Trajan’s Column the figures within the scenes contain large heads to show the expressions of the people.
  • The hollow column contains a 200 spiral staircase that leads to the upper platform.
  • The upper platform originally contained a statue of Marcus Aurelius. This statue was replaced in 1588 C.E. with a statue of St. Paul.

What did you learn?

  1. Which dynasty did Marcus Aurelius belong to?

Pax dynasty

  1. Marcus Aurelius led the Romans to victory over which northern barbarians?

Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians

  1. What famous column is the Column of Marcus Aurelius designed after?

Trajan’s Column

  1. What statue sits atop the platform today?

St. Paul

  1. What type of architectural column is the Column of Marcus Aurelius?

Doric column