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Rome: Column of Marcus Aurelius


The column of Marcus Aurelius. Photo Marco Prins. Column of Marcus Aurelius: one of the war monuments from ancient Rome.

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome between 161 and 180. Although he is often called the "philosopher on the throne" or the "philosopher-emperor", he was also one of the greatest warriors of the Roman empire, and might be called "a philosopher in arms" - with more justification that Alexander the Great, who did in fact receive this title. The column of Marcus Aurelius commemorates his northern war, which is probably the largest Roman war since the civil wars.

In the winter of 168/169, Marcus Aurelius attacked the tribes across the northern frontier of the empire: the Marcomanni and Quadi in Czechia and Sarmatiansin Hungary. The invasion had become necessary when these tribes had invaded Italy, and even reached the Adriatic Sea near Aquileia. This was a very grave crisis.

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Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema.

After initial setbacks, the enemies appeared to be defeated in 175, but after a brief peace, the war was continued, and Marcus died at the front, in Vindobona (modern Vienna). His son Commodus signed the final peace treaty when victory was really achieved, and erected this column as a monument to his father. It was nicknamed Centenaria, 'the hundredfooter', because it was 100 Roman feet or 29.60 meters high.

On the top of the column was a statue of Marcus Aurelius; today, the apostle Paul stands there. The same happened to the Column of Trajan, which was once the pedestal of a statue of that emperor, until it was replaced by a statue of the apostle Peter.

The inscription on the base of the column gives the honorific titles of the emperor.

Among those who are also represented on the relief of the column of Marcus Aurelius, are his son Commodus, who erected the monument, and Pertinax, Marcus Aurelius' best general, and, ironically, the man who succeeded Commodus. Unlike the Column of Trajan, which is decorated in low relief, the Column of Trajan is in high relief, which adds to the monument's realism. We can see all the disasters of the war.

The relief of the column of Marcus Aurelius. Photo Marco Prins. The destruction of a Germanic village by Roman soldiers. A man speared to death. Top of the column of Marcus Aurelius. Photo Jona Lendering.
Part of the relief Destruction of a Germanic village A man speared to death Top, with a statue of Saint Paul
Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema. Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema. Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema. Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema.
The entire column Lower part of the shaft Central part of the shaft Upper part of the shaft
The inscription on the base of the column. Photo Marco Prins. Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema. Detail. Photo Tineke Meinema. Relief showing the Rain miracle. Column of Marcus Aurelius, Rome (Italy).
Pedestal Detail Detail The Rain Miracle


During the northern war, the legion XII Fulminata (the "Thundering legion") was surrounded by the Quadi and almost forced into surrender because the soldiers had no water. However, when disaster seemed inevitable, a heavy shower relieved the Romans. This Rain Miracle seems to have happened in 172. The full story can be read here.

A satellite photo of the monument can be found here and another article is available here.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 26 Dec. 2009
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