National Geographic : 2015 Apr
122 national geographic • april 2015 accuracy. It sometimes seems as if there are as many interpretations as there are carved figures, and there are 2,662 of those. Filippo Coarelli, a courtly Italian archaeologist and art historian in his late 70s, literally wrote the book on the subject. In his sun-flooded liv- ing room in Rome, he pulls his illustrated his- tory of the column off a crowded bookshelf. “The column is an amazing work,” he says, leafing through black- and-white photos of the carvings, pausing to ad- mire dramatic scenes. “The Dacian women tor- turing Roman soldiers? The weeping Dacians poisoning themselves to avoid capture? It’s like a TV series.” Or, Coarelli says, like Trajan’s memoirs. When it was built, the column stood between the two libraries, which per- haps held the soldier- emperor’s account of the wars. The way Coarelli sees it, the carving re- sembles a scroll, the like- ly form of Trajan’s war diary. “ The artist—and artists at this time didn’t have the freedom to do what they wanted—must have acted according to Trajan’s will,” he says. Working under the supervision of a maestro, Coarelli says, sculptors followed a plan to create a skyscraping version of Trajan’s scroll on 17 drums of the finest Carrara marble. The emperor is the story’s hero. He appears 58 times, depicted as a canny commander, ac- complished statesman, and pious ruler. Here he is giving a speech to the troops; there he is thoughtfully conferring with his advisers; over there, presiding over a sacrifice to the gods. “It’s Trajan’s attempt to be not only a man of the army,” Coarelli says, “but also a man of culture.” Of course Coarelli’s speculating. Whatever form they took, Trajan’s memoirs are long gone. In fact clues gleaned from the column and ex- cavations at Sarmizegetusa, the Dacian capital, suggest that the carvings say more about Roman preoccupations than about history. Jon Coulston, an expert on Roman iconog- raphy, arms, and equip- ment at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studied the column up close for months from the scaffolding that sur- rounded it during restora- tion work in the 1980s and ’90s. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the land- mark and has remained obsessed—and pugna- ciously contrarian—ever since. “People desper- ately want to compare it to news media and films,” he says. “ They’re over- interpreting and always have. It’s all generic. You can’t believe a word of it.” Coulston argues that no single mastermind was behind the carvings. Slight differences in style and obvious mistakes, such as windows that disrupt scenes and scenes of inconsistent heights, convinced him that sculptors created the column on the fly, relying on what they’d heard about the wars. “Instead of having what art historians love, which is a great master and creative mind,” he says, “the composition is be- ing done by grunts at the stone face, not on a drawing board in the studio.” The artwork, in his view, was more “inspired by” than “based on.” Take the column’s priori- ties. There’s not much fighting in its depiction of the two wars. Less than a quarter of the frieze shows battles or sieges, and Trajan himself is never shown in combat. Andrew Curry wrote about the Roman frontier in the September 2012 issue. Kenneth Garrett is a frequent contributor. GOLDANDSILVERPLUNDEREDFROMDACIABUILTTRAJAN’SFORUMANDHISCOLUMN,CHANGINGTHELANDSCAPEOFROME.