Roman Art during the Antonine dynasty, Trajan period (98-117 AD)

The Triumphal Arch of Trajan at Benevento, (southern Italy), built between 114 and 117 AD.
“The Capitoline Triad”, from left to right in the foreground: Minerva, Jupiter, Juno. Relief from the Arch of Trajan at Benevento.

The emperors of the Flavian dynasty were succeeded by those of the Antonine dynasty, who were seven in total, and reigned between 96 to 192 AD, they were: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus.  Construction efforts initiated by the Flavian emperors continued in Rome during the rule of the Antonine dynasty, particularly during the reign of Trajan.  During the twenty-year rule of Trajan, from 98 to 117 AD, all the Empire (but mainly Rome) was filled with magnificent buildings.  As a typical example of the imperial art from the time of Trajan is the triumphal arch of Benevento. It was built in 114 AD to commemorate Trajan’s government.  The reliefs that decorate its external and interior walls were devoted to perpetuate the glory of Trajan as Emperor.  On top of the monument’s attic to the left, there is a relief where the three Capitoline deities, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, contemplate Trajan’s acts and abdicate the protection of Rome in his favor. The other arch’s reliefs included scenes of land granting to veterans, enactment of privileges to the provinces, or  merchants receiving commissions, while in the background the ports’ minor deities, in the form of naked gods and with anchors as attributes, witness the Emperor’s generosity.

But the most interesting of these reliefs are those decorating the arch’s interior.  In one of them, the emperor made a sacrifice to inaugurate another era of peace; while in the other, the people is surrounding Trajan’s courtship and acclaiming him, the poor with their little kids on their backs are introduced to the Emperor for submission while he extends his hand over them.

Panel of the “Sacrifice”, relief from the interior of the Arch of Trajan at Benevento.
Panel of the “Trajan’s courtship”, relief from the interior of the Arch of Trajan at Benevento.
Imperial eagle from the II century AD, once located in Trajan’s Forum, today housed at the Basilica of the Santi XII Apostoli (Rome).
Flavian medallions originally in Trajan’s forum, later placed on the Arch of Constantine.

The great Trajan Forum was built close to the Capitol for the glorification of Trajan’s military achievements and in memory of his campaigns against Parthians and Dacians.  The architect-in-chief of this work was a Syrian, Apollodorus of Damascus, under whom an entire school of famous artists and sculptors worked, decorating the Forum with exquisite balustrades and reliefs, like the Imperial Eagle which is now housed in the church of the Holy Apostles in Rome, and also two medallions that were later used to decorate the arch of Constantine.  The Trajan’s Forum had an almost oriental grandeur; a triumphal arch gave access to the arcaded courtyard which was the real Forum, with the equestrian statue of the emperor at the center.  On each side of this courtyard was a hemicycle and at one end was the Basilica Ulpia with five naves and two apses.  Behind the Basilica there were two libraries and between them there was a courtyard with the triumphal column whose base had a small chamber, now empty, where the sarcophagus of the emperor was placed.  Behind the column there was a temple dedicated to the deified emperor.

Panoramic view of the Trajan Forum with the Trajan column to the far left (Rome). The Trajan’s Forum was the largest and most splendid of the Imperial Forums.
Reconstruction of the Trajan Forum.
Remains of the Basilica Ulpia and behind, the Trajan Column (Trajan Forum, Rome).

From the Trajan Forum only survives the column erected above the tomb of the emperor which included a helical frieze with reliefs describing Trajan’s campaigns in the Danube.  By studying the reliefs of this column some great Roman artists like Raphael and Michelangelo learned artistic techniques.

The Trajan’s Column, completed in 113 AD.
Pedestal of the Trajan’s column.

Trajan’s column rests on a cubic pedestal decorated with reliefs alluding to military trophies; on a simple base in the form of a crown of laurel leaves, starts the spiral containing the reliefs which describe step by step the campaigns of the great emperor with astonishing thoroughness of detail. Many of the figures shown in the column are considered faithful portraits. The scenes unfold one after another; there is no frame or line of separation for each battle or every moment of action, although the figures are skillfully grouped. This is the same continued style* of historical representations that will be subsequently adopted by the Christian art.  The giant spiral of Trajan’s column is the illustration of the chronicles of his campaigns, like a book carved in marble.  This relief is over two hundred meters long.

Above and below: three details of the famous bas reliefs of the Trajan column depicting the Dacian wars.

In addition to descriptive reliefs, the art during the Antonine dynasty preferred decorations with military and civilian scenes such as those observed in the naval relief of the Medinaceli collection.


Continuous Narrative: A type of narrative art that illustrates multiple scenes of a narrative within a single frame. Multiple actions and scenes are portrayed in a single visual field without any dividers. The sequence of events within the narrative is defined through the reuse of the main character or characters. It emphasizes the change in movement and state of the repeating characters as indicators of scene or phase changes in the narrative.