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

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

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

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

Synopsis

One of the most important monuments of Imperial Rome and at the same time one of the most poorly understood, the Column of Marcus Aurelius has long stood in the shadow of the Column of Trajan. In The Column of Marcus Aurelius, Martin Beckmann makes a thorough study of the form, content, and meaning of this infrequently studied monument. Beckmann employs a new approach to the column, one that focuses on the process of its creation and construction, to uncover the cultural significance of the column to the Romans of the late second century A.D. Using clues from ancient sources and from the monument itself, this book traces the creative process step by step from the first decision to build the monument through the processes of planning and construction to the final carving of the column's relief decoration. The conclusions challenge many of the widely held assumptions about the value of the column's 700-foot-long frieze as a historical source. By reconstructing the creative process of the column's sculpture, Beckmann opens up numerous new paths of analysis not only to the Column of Marcus Aurelius but to Roman imperial art and architecture in general.

Excerpt

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” This is the well-known verdict of Edward Gibbon on the condition of life in the Roman Empire between A.D. 96 and 180, a happy period of stable government, benevolent rulers, and more or less peaceful frontiers. It ended, in Gibbon’s opinion, with the death of the last of the good emperors, Marcus Aurelius. But a strong argument can be made that things had ceased being “happy and prosperous” well before the philosopher-emperor passed the throne to his delinquent son. By far the most vivid illustration of this dramatic and depressing change in the circumstances of the empire is the remarkable decoration of a monument in the heart or Rome: the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Life and Times of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Marcus Aurelius (fig. i.1) was born in a villa on the Caelian Hill in Rome in April of A.D. 121. He was raised by his grandfather, a holder of three consulships (a rare honor) and a relative of Hadrian. Hadrian took Marcus under his wing and eventually ordered his own chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him. On Pius’s death in 161, Marcus became emperor; he promptly raised his adoptive brother Lucius Verus to the position of coemperor and took his adoptive father’s name. Thereafter he was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. But all was not smooth: various peoples beyond the Roman frontiers seized the opportunity offered by the imperial transition to stir up trouble. Marcus and Verus were ill prepared to deal with these developing crises: neither had gained any practical military experience in their youth, and one of them—Marcus—had never even been outside of Italy. The most pressing problem was an invasion of the eastern provinces by the Parthians, successors to the Persian Empire and the only single power of the time capable of rivaling Rome. This attack was so threatening that the junior emperor, Verus, personally took charge of the military response— . . .

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