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Symbolism of Roman Columns

Most Roman columns were in Corinthian style.
corinthian temple image by Robert Kelly from Fotolia.com

Roman columns were a major component of Roman architecture. As with Doric and Ionic columns, the original design was Greek; the Romans adopted the styles for their own use. Subsequently, the Corinthian column came to be identified as a literal pillar in Roman civilization As edifices, Roman columns were often adorned with symbols, friezes, and bas reliefs. Unlike the simpler, unadorned Doric columns, Roman Corinthian columns were illustriously sculpted and at times used as "victory columns" to commemorate success in military campaigns.


Roman columns were chiefly built as support structures.
columns of roman temple.old construction.travel. image by L. Shat from Fotolia.com

The most basic symbolism of a Roman column is as a stylized interpretation of a tree. Tall, straight, and slender, the Roman column is likewise topped by sculpted acanthus leaves and four scrolls. These columns are ordinarily fluted along their length. Leaves like the acanthus, oak, and laurel were prized aesthetic features of Greco-Roman artists. The scroll has long been an artifact and symbol for civilization, as a means of conveying laws, histories, and other information. The Roman column was therefore a celebration of Roman aesthetic sensibilities.

Victory Columns

Roman emperors sometimes built victory columsn to commemorate their military successes.
emperor bronze statue image by inacio pires from Fotolia.com

In the same way that Victory Arches are used to commemorate success in battle, certain Roman columns (often freestanding) were used to the same purpose. The Column of Marcus Aurelius is a good example. In a tiered, scrolling pattern, it tells the story of his successful military campaigns in the Danubian Wars. Dramatic scenes of conquest are depicted. The chief purpose of these kinds of Roman columns was as a means of securing posterity. In the same way as Pharaoh Khufu is forever identified with the pyramids he ordered built, a Roman victory column was a physical testament, record, and reminder to future generations of success during a particular emperor’s reign.

Religious symbols

Commemorative engravings
Delphi image by rakloth from Fotolia.com

Ancient Roman columns are often a feature of temples, although they tended not to have any overt religious symbolism on them. Instead, such columns would support a Roman temple or be used as borders to stylistically separate religious imagery; for example, the Pantheon of Rome, commissioned by Emperor Hadrian, had many columns and pilasters separating statues and reliefs of the gods. This makes them differ from Egyptian columns, which were typically brightly painted with illustrations of gods and the afterlife. In Rome and her provinces, religious imagery and sculpture would be supported by columns, not usually on the column themselves.


Trajan's funerary column
close view of trajan column image by Pierrette Guertin from Fotolia.com

A funerary column, such as that of Emperor Trajan, was unique. The ashes of a deceased emperor would be interred in the ground, and a funerary column would be built over it. Much as with victory columns, the funerary column would be lavishly illustrated with scenes fro the emperor's life. Trajan's column rises from an 18-foot-high pedestal, is 12 feet in diameter, and 98 feet in height. It was originally adorned with a statue of the emperor (although that has since been replaced by a statue of Saint Peter by Pope Sixtus V) and a frieze of battle winds along the length from base to top.

Roman Columns Today

The U.S. Capitol Building, with Roman columns.
us capitol with fountain image by Geoff Habiger from Fotolia.com

Roman architecture in general and the column in particular has never truly gone out of style; major European and American structures continue to make use of the Corinthian feature. The U.S. Capitol Building, the General Post Office in New York, and assorted colleges and universities continue to make use of this structural motif in conscious imitation of the Roman Republic or of Empire. The Reichstag in Germany also sports Roman columns, as do many administrative buildings across Europe.

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