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

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

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

By Martin Beckmann. Pp. ix + 248, figs. 69, map 1. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2011. $65. ISBN 978-0-8078-3461-9 (cloth).

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The Column of Marcus Aurelius has long remained an academic dark spot, despite its impressive size, its status as one of the few ancient sculptural monuments in situ, and its prominent location in the center of Rome. This new book by Beckmann, the first major monograph dedicated to the column since 1955, makes significant strides in the study of an important monument and opens the door wide for further scholarship. This book is also of interest from a methodological perspective, asking probing questions about the production of such a large monument and exploring links between privately commissioned sculpture and state-financed “public” undertakings.

The introduction begins with an overview of the column’s modern documentation through sketches and photographs. This highlights how such early documentation was driven primarily by nationalistic concerns for the monument’s supposed anthropological record of early “German” peoples. The introduction also outlines Beckmann’s goal for his book, namely “an examination of the creative process behind the monument with the goal of trying to piece together how and what the Romans themselves ... thought of the Column of Marcus Aurelius” (14). The basis for this approach will be a close examination of the column itself. Beckmann also stresses the importance of the Antonine column as a unique example of “Roman artistic and architectural criticism” (15). The Column of Marcus Aurelius is clearly based on the earlier Column of Trajan, adopting some aspects directly and making changes in others, and Beckmann argues that this can reveal what the ancients judged worth saving and worth modifying from the Trajanic column.

The first chapter addresses the most debated, and to some extent most prosaic, problems surrounding the column: its date of decree and completion. Beckmann summarizes the debate nicely and argues against reading the frieze in any strictly historical sense, even suggesting that important historical scenes may have been placed at the bottom of the frieze in order to be seen clearly from ground level. Beckmann concludes that the column refers to events from before 175 C.E., based on the monument’s generally victorious (rather than funerary or divinizing) tone, and the lack of references to Commodus, either in preserved portraits or in evidence for damnatio memoriae. Chapter 2 presents a summary of the topographic problems associated with the Marcus column, such as the location of the temple to the Divine Marcus and the general reconstruction of the funerary monuments of the Antonine family on the Campus Martius.

Chapter 3 begins the proper work of the book, an exploration of the way the Romans themselves thought about the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Beckmann discusses at length the odd term columna cochlis (“snail-shell column”) used in the third-century C.E. Regionary Catalogues to describe both columns. Beckmann maintains that this refers to the monuments’ internal spiral staircases and that this term, coupled with the fact that the Trajanic staircase is copied so faithfully by the Antonine monument, indicates that the staircases were considered by the ancients to be the columns’ most notable feature. The fourth chapter sets out the various stages of the production process for such a monument, starting with its commissioning. For most of the early stages of this process, Beckmann by necessity relies on literary evidence, which is sparse, and at times may stretch the evidence too far. His discussion of whether emperors favored particular architects, as Trajan supposedly did for Apollodorus of Damascus, is based on a few passing references in Dio Cassius and the Historia Augusta, both problematic sources. He also maintains that because the Column of Marcus Aurelius copies a good deal from the Trajanic column, the former cannot be “the product of a single, brilliantly original mind” (70). This projects modern notions of the connection between artistry and originality into the past. There is simply no evidence one way or another for whether a single “master” architect designed the Column of Marcus Aurelius, or, for that matter, the Column of Trajan.

While the discussion of possible architect(s) may be speculative, the two chapters that follow are based firmly on close examination of the Trajanic and Antonine friezes. Beckmann’s detailed overview of the architectural planning of the two columns is informative and offers an intriguing contrast between the haphazard layout of the Trajanic frieze and the regularized application of the same feature in the Antonine monument. He also makes the clever argument that the apparently random copying of minor elements (e.g., carts and oxen) from the Trajanic column to the Antonine frieze can be explained by the position of the Trajanic elements in concentrated areas of their frieze, namely those areas that would be most visible from balconies on the buildings surrounding the Trajanic column. This is the first concrete evidence for such balconies, despite their popularity as hypothesized “solutions” to the difficulty of viewing the Trajanic frieze. This shows the advantages of a close examination of the individual constituent elements of a monument, even ones as large as these two columns. Similarly, Beckmann’s careful analysis of the different carving styles for the border of the Antonine frieze allows him to reconstruct how the carving was carried out by teams of sculptors, working in synchronization and moving from bottom to top of the column.

The last three chapters address the more abstract problems surrounding the column. Chapter 7 explores whether the Antonine frieze can be read as a historical narrative in any sense. Beckmann’s conclusion—that it cannot—is in line with current approaches to Roman state reliefs. Beckmann’s discussion of the various supposedly historical scenes will be of service to anyone interested in the relationship between historical writing and the visual arts in ancient Rome. In chapter 8, Beckmann dives into the murky waters of the significance of the column’s artistic style, once thought to show a growing preference for a “plebian” style. Drawing on a detailed analysis of the battle scenes, particularly their composition, Beckmann argues instead that the column was carved by teams of sculptors who were accustomed to working on sarcophagi and that they simply applied the style they knew from that medium to the public monument. This effectively defangs once-prevalent opinions that the style of the column was some sort of statement in and of itself. Chapter 9 closes the book with a discussion of the effect that the column would have had on its viewers, focusing on the frieze’s emphasis on punishment and absolute victory in troubled times.

This book is a strong addition to the study of Roman sculptural monuments. It deserves particular notice from those interested in the Antonine period, the ancient sculptural process, and different approaches to the study of state reliefs. Its writing style is clear and avoids technical jargon. The black-and-white illustrations are excellent and well chosen, although as always one wishes that there were more. Anyone looking for an all-encompassing or novel exploration of the content and themes of the frieze may be disappointed, but one book cannot be expected to do everything. This book’s close reading and careful reconstruction of the production of the Column of Marcus Aurelius frieze serves as an accomplishment in its own right and a necessary foundation for further research into the frieze.

Elizabeth Wolfram Thill
Cavanaugh Hall 545
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
425 University Boulevard
Indianapolis, Indiana 46202

Book Review of The Column of Marcus Aurelius: The Genesis and Meaning of a Roman Imperial Monument, by Martin Beckmann

Reviewed by Elizabeth Wolfram Thill

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Thill

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