When one wanders through any major city in our day and age, it is possible to cast one’s eyes over various monuments of war erected by the city, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the al-Shaheed Monument in Baghdad and the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. However, when gazing over these war monuments, one does not instantly think of the influences of earlier times and creations that were integral to their design. This article, the first in a two-part series, will consider ancient Roman influence on the construction of two specific modern war monuments.
Nelson’s Column stands proudly in the middle of Trafalgar Square in London. It was constructed to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This monument of war was constructed between 1840 and 1843 to a height of 169 feet tall. The column is of the Corinthian order. The monument is crowned with a statue of Nelson and the pedestal is adorned with four bronze relief panels, the latter of which were cast from captured French cannons and depict the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen and the Death of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar.
War monuments in the form of columns date back to Ancient Rome, with the most famous example being that of Trajan’s Column in Rome. A monument that was erected in the 2nd c. AD by the Emperor Trajan to commemorate his victories over the Dacians in modern day Romania. When comparing the two, it is easy to see many similarities; obviously, they are both columns and so the architects of Nelson’s Column would have looked back to that of Trajan’s, a monument that is still standing and the first of its kind. Secondly,they both are crowned by a statue of the man that they were erected to commemorate. Thirdly, both columns depict campaigns in which each man fought. Finally, they both were constructed with an internal staircase, which can still be used today. A rather less obvious point to make is that the pedestal of Trajan’s Column is decorated with depictions of weapons and armour captured during the Dacian Wars and in a similar guise, which I do not believe to be a coincidence, the pedestal of Nelson’s Column is garnished with bronze relief panels that were cast from the French cannons captured in the aftermath of Nelson’s naval victories. In addition to Trajan’s Column, there are other ancient influences at play on Nelson’s Column. The Corinthian order, in which Nelson’s Column was built, is one of the three principal classical orders of Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, the other two being Doric and Ionic. The Corinthian capital, upon which the statue of Nelson resides, is based on that of a Corinthian capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome. The Temple of Mars Ultor, as well as being a temple, is a Roman war monument constructed by the Emperor Augustus after winning the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, defeating the murderers of his father, Julius Caesar.
ARC DE TRIOMPHE
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris was constructed to commemorate the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The arch stands 164 feet tall and 148 feet wide. It was commissioned after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806 by the Emperor Napoleon, although, it was not completed until between 1833 and 1836. On the facades of the arch are reliefs depicting important events from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, including General Marceau’s burial, the Battle of Aboukir, the Battle of Jemappes, the Battle of Arcole, the Fall of Alexandria and the Battle of Austerlitz. On the inside of the arch are engraved the famous battles of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, along with every French victory and the names of every French general who fought in the wars.
Monuments of war in the form of arches also date back to Ancient Rome, with examples such as the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine. It could be said that the builders of the Arc de Triomphe simply copied the generic Roman arch form, but on closer comparison one can see that the Arc de Triomphe more closely resembles the Arch of Septimius Severus than it does any of the other Roman arches. For example, the Arch of Severus was adorned with reliefs that depict important battles and events from his Parthian campaigns, such as the capture of Babylon and Ctesiphon, and the Arc de Triomphe depicts important battles and events from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as mentioned above. Having said that, it has been influenced by other sources. One such influence is the fasti triumphales, a list of Roman generals in chronological order who had obtained a triumph. These were thought to have been inscribed on the inside of the Triple Arch of Augustus in Rome. The fasti triumphales could be the inspiration behind the names of the French generals on the inside of the Arc de Triomphe. Lastly, many of the reliefs on the Arc set heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors, which is a clear throw back to classical art in general and also to ancient war monuments.
One can clearly see from these two modern war monuments that Ancient Roman influence is still alive today in regards to how we choose to commemorate our victories in war. Having read this article, next time you care to venture past either the Arc de Triomphe or Nelson’s Column, I would advise that you take a closer look and see the Ancient Roman influences for yourself.
Don’t miss part two in this series when we will explore several more modern war monuments and the ways in which ancient architecture influenced modern design.
Author: Russell Fleming has a Masters degree in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology and an MLitt degree in Ancient History from the University of St. Andrews. He wants to inspire young minds by teaching Classics and in his spare time he coaches hockey at Christ’s Hospital School.
Kleiner, D., Augustus Assembles His Marble City. Yale.
 In this article, modern war monuments refers to any monuments of war erected after the 17th c.
“The Selected Design for the Nelson Testimonial”. The Art Union 1: 100. 1839.
Coarelli, F., The Column of Trajan. Translated into English by C. Rockwell. Rome. 2000.
Brilliant, R., “The Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum” in AARM.XXIX. 1967. 171-3