The Column of Marcus Aurelius

Oct 17, 2020, 09:58 PM
This monument celebrates Marcus Aurelius’ two successful military campaigns against tribes north of the Danube in what is modern day Germany.  The first campaign ran from the year 172-173 and was waged primarily against the Marcomanni tribe, the second in the following two years was principally against the Sarmatians.  For over a decade, these and other German tribes had been orchestrating raids into the provincial territory of Gaul (what we know today as France) and in the area south of the Danube, even going so far as laying siege to Roman settlements and exacting significant defeats against major Roman forces.  

In an effort to decisively counter these incursions, in the year 172 under Marcus Aurelius’ command the roman forces crossed the Danube into Marcomannic territory. Although few details are known, his troops were successful in defeating the Marcomanni and their allies as can be inferred by the Emperor adopting the title "Germanicus"..

Echoing the design of Trajan’s column, the central cylindrical shaft is 100 feet high (29.5m) and made of 17 cylindrical blocks.  A further 14 blocks in the base, plinth and attic gave a total of 31 massive pieces of marble that originally supported a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius positioned at the top.  Like Trajan’s column, it has a central spiral staircase and is decorated with a spiral frieze that wraps around the column shaft, in this case circling the column twenty-one times and maintaining a very uniform height throughout. The narrative of the carvings start with Roman troops crossing the Danube and then, in contrast to Trajan’s Column that heavily focused on construction works and religious duties undertaken by his roman forces on campaign, this storyline extensively catalogues the brutality of the roman troops and cruelty shown towards the Germanic tribes.  Also, this carving is significantly deeper, its details are less subtle and it portrays a much less ambiguous message which might be simply stated as “mess with Rome and you’ll pay the price”.  

Following closely the narrative format established on Trajan’s column, Marcus Aurelius’ two campaigns are recorded reading from the bottom to the top. They are delineated by the inclusion of Victory figures half-way up the column.  Starting with the crossing of the Danube, the first campaign follows a fairly conventional storyline of troops marching, imperial speeches, sacrifices to the gods and then the sacking of enemy towns. That said, the inhumanity with which the barbarians are treated in this case can perhaps be understood when one considers that this was not a military force out to annex an area of land with the intent of putting a new governance structure in place.  Instead it had been mobilized to enact retribution for previous attacks against the empire and therefore focused primarily on punishment. Rome’s success in Marcus Aurelius’ first campaign is depicted as being delivered, in the end, by a miraculous intervention from the gods. Corroborating this, we understand from historians of the time that a summer’s drought was alleviated in the end by heavy rains that saved the imperial forces. The carvings then close their story of this first campaign with a surrender and a peace arrangement with the enemies of the empire, acts of imperial clemency and various religious sacrifices.

The storyline of the second campaign reads as being even more brutal than the first.  The Germanic tribes had broken whatever peace pledges they had made and Marcus Aurelius once again found himself waging war to suppress the empire’s troublesome northern neighbors.  This time there would be no hint of clemency or forgiveness from the imperial troops.  The story told by the carvings evidences intense fighting, decapitations of prisoners, the unmerciful destruction of villages; slaves, animals and crops were taken in a way that left the land barren and the people with no means of surviving the coming winter – leaving no doubt this was a brutal campaign.