Trajan’s Column in Rome: why and how to see the ‘first film in history’

by marta

All you need to know about Trajan’s column in Rome: what it is, what makes it special and why it is called ‘the first film in history’. Plus practical tips for visiting.

What would you think of, if I told you that in Rome you could see the first film in history?

If your mind started visualizing a grainy moving image on a large screen, let me tell you: it is nothing of the sort!

In Rome, we do have what historians call the first film in history but it is not a movie: it is a column!

Trajan column in Rome against summer sky

More precisely a column dating back to Roman times decorated with a ribbon of images that tell a story: the ‘film’ of Trajan’s conquest in Dacia.

 Trajan’s column is a peculiar site in Rome and while not unique, it is the first of this kind and has inspired other versions of the same idea both elsewhere in Rome and Paris, just to name a couple.

This is all you need to know about it and tips for visiting.

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The Column of Trajan in Rome with text: what makes it special and why you should add it to your Rome itinerary

Trajan’s column in Rome: what it is and what makes it special

Trajan’s column is exactly what the name suggests: a tall column wanted by the emperor Trajan, made in 113 AD.

The column sits in what used to be Trajan’s forum and it is a monument celebrating the military campaign and victory that Emperor Trajan led in Dacia, the area that is now Romania. 

Trajan’s Column is one of the four triumphal columns in Rome and the first of its kind. You can learn more about them in >>> our guide to the columns of Rome.

It is about 30 meters tall (a little more, if we include the basement), over 5 meters large and it is made of marble, from the North of Italy.

It constitutes of 18 blocks of stone one on top of the other and it is hollow inside.

A staircase serpentines inside it and allows to go to its top where there used to be a colossal statue of Trajan himself, replaced in the Reinassance with one of St Peter. 

What makes the column special however is not its size or ancient origin, at least not only, but the fact that the column is entirely decorated with sculptures that tell the story of the campaign and the glory of the emperor!

The monument’s decoration is a ribbon of stone that climbs up the height of the column and is decorated with images recalling the salient moments of the campaign.

detail of Trajan's column in Rome
detail of column’s ribbon of carvings

If you look closely, you will see the military camp, the battles, the attacks, described with such precision you can really see history developing in front of your eyes, as told by the people who made it! 

The narration is detailed and realistic, however, there is a beautiful representation of the river Danube as a bearded figure, representing in the act of letting the Roman army pass and also a representation of Victory, in between the first set of images and the second, respectively describing the first and second Dacia campaign.

Detail of the bas relief on Trajan column made better visible by evening lighting
Detail of Trajan’s column bas-relief, lit at night

The column as we see it today is white however, it is likely that it would have been painted in bright colors, something that would have made it even more striking and definitely more resembling of a film in the modern sense. 

This story carved in stone is the reason why the column is referred to as ‘the first film in history’.

Trajan’s column facts and info

  • Year of built: 113 AD
  • Architect: Apollodorus of Damascus
  • Height: 100 Roman Feet, about 39 meters including the basement and statue, made with 10 blocks of stone one on top of the other
  • Width: 3,83 metres diameter
  • Material: marble
  • Technique: bas-relief
  • How many steps: 185 steps inside the column, lit by tiny openings in the sides of the column itself
  • Ribbon: the stone ribbon is 200 mt long and spirals up the column 23 times. It has 150/200 scenes and about 2000 figures! The ribbon is smaller at the bottom of the column (0.89 m) and taller as the column progresses (up to 1.25 mt), to adapt to the needs of perspective and maintain harmonious and ‘readable’ proportions.
Trajan's column with the Vittoriano and Piazza Venezia in the background at sunset
Trajan Column with the Vittoriano in the background, evening

Where is Trajan’s column

Trajan column is in modern Piazza Venezia, beside palazzo Valentini, in Trajan’s forum.

You can see the columns and its details simply passing by this piazza or you can get a closer, better look at it as part of the visit to Palazzo Valentini, which has a window opening very close to it and offering a good view of the bas-relief.

Nearest bus stop: Piazza Venezia (terminus to several buses such as 44, 46, 60, 80 and tram number 8)

Nearest metro station: Colosseo, about 7 minute walk up the road

Good to know: the column is free to see however, there are no info panels around it so it is hard to make sense of it unless you have a guide book (or this introductory article!) with you. The best way to learn about it is to also visit the nearby Domus Romanae at Palazzo Valentini: part of the visit it dedicated to the nearby column (you can see it from the Domus) and the movie devoted to it, watched as you sit in an ancient Roman home) is informative and atmospheric.

To learn more about Trajan as an emperor and his importance in the history of the expansion of the Roman Empire, you can visit the nearby Trajan’s Markets, which has a wonderful permanent exhibition about him, or visit them virtually: you can find Rome virtual tours and access links here

Trajan’s column and surrounding area, with the columns and remains of Trajan’s Forum

What to see near Trajan’s column

Trajan’s column is in Rome city center and is easily seen in conjunction with other important Rome monuments such as:

You can find my city center Rome itinerary here, which includes a stop in Piazza Venezia.

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