Column of Marcus Aurelius history

This monument was raised to honor the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor during a time when the northern provinces of the Roman Empire were under heavy stress. Nobody knows exactly why the tribes, in what are now the Czech and Slovak republics, became so violent at this moment in history.

Barbaric Invasions

Several different barbaric tribes were raiding along the northern border and across the river Danube, causing chaos and destruction in the Roman provinces. One of the tribes was the Germanic tribe known as the Marcomanni.

The other one was the Sarmatians; a people of ancient Iranian origin who migrated from Central Asia and settled in the south-eastern parts of Europe.

A struggle for control

Marcus Aurelius, who was more known for studying philosophy, shouldered the burden. In order to keep control over the area, Marcus Aurelius himself personally led the struggle against the Germanic tribes and the Sarmatians for the remaining time of his life.

Many people have actually seen these battles on screen, even though they might not know. The struggle against the Macromanni is depicted in the popular movie “Gladiator”, during its very first minutes.

Column founding

After Aurelius death, his son – the newly crowned emperor – Commodus quickly winded down the wars and declared that his father had them won. As a way of celebrating the victory and his father, he had this beautiful column raised.

Exactly when the column was raised is hard to say, but an inscription found in the vicinity attests that the column was completed in year 193. The column was most likely intended to be part of a larger complex, including a temple to the deified Marcus Aurelius.

However, there are no such remains left that indicate that anything else was actually built.In terms of the topography of ancient Rome, the column stood on the north part of the Campus Martius, in the centre of a square.


The column has been the subject for a large restoration project, which is rather rare. The fact that it has been restored is not rare, but the time is happened is. The column was restored on order of pope Sixtus V, already in 1589.

The restoration included repairing and removing damaged and badly eroded decorations and inscriptions. During the project, the base of the monument was also lowered down in the ground to create stability and a new inscription was added on the renewed base.

Incorrect inscription

The inscription however mistakenly addresses Marcus Aurelius predecessor, Antoninus Pius, instead of Aurelius himself. The inscription says:

“Sixtus V, Supreme Pontiff, restored this spiral column, dedicated to the emperor Antoninus, sadly broken and ruinous, into its original form in 1589, in the 4th year of his pontificate.”

The statue

Another major change that affected the column during the restoration was the addition of the statue at the top. Originally, the column was most likely crowned by a statue of Marcus Aurelius, but it was lost before the 16th century.

For this reason, Sixtus V ordered that a new statue should be placed at top. This new statue, which is the same that stands today, was not of Marcus Aurelius but of Saint Paul.

Why visit the Column of Marcus Aurelius ?

This Doric column, covered in brilliant relief, stands an impressively tall on the Piazza Colonna. The monument, also known as the Aurelian Column, commemorates the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his military campaigns in a stunning way.

Impressive detail

The column consists of almost 30 blocks of Luni marble. It is modeled after the nearby Trajan Column, which can be found a few hundred meters south of this column. The spiraling relief tells the story of Marcus Aurelius’ struggle against his northern enemies. The lower parts of the column tell the story of how the Roman army crosses the river Danube and fights the Macromanni. The upper part shows Marcus Aurelius victory over the Sarmatians.

The heads of the figures in the relief are made disproportionately large on purpose, so that the viewer can better interpret their facial expressions. Visitors to the column can probably see the amazing level of detail on the relief, even though it can be hard to spot from afar.

The pictorial language in the relief is unambiguous. The column depicts villages being burnt down and women and children being killed and captured by the tribesmen. It also emphasizes the Imperial army’s dominance and authority.

Observation point

Unknown to many is that there is actually a stairway inside the column. Hundreds of steps lead up to the small observation point at the top. By looking closely at the column, visitors can spot several tiny windows throughout the relief which leads light into the stairway.

Earthquake twist

Another thing that many don’t know is that the upper part of the column is displaced a bit, due to an earthquake. The twisting movement can be seen right at the middle of the column, where the battle versus the Macromanni ends and the battles versus the Sarmatians start. Again, this can hard to spot from afar.

Today, the column itself has give name to the surrounding square – Piazza Colonna. It is considered by Romans to be the very centre of the city.

Column of Marcus Aurelius location

The Column of Marcus Aurelius is located in RomeItaly. The column is located in central parts of the city. For the exact location of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, check out the location map to the right.

Column of Marcus Aurelius Video

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