The monumental Column of Marcus Aurelius (c.180-93), which is modelled on Trajan's Column, was erected in honour of the eponymous Roman emperor (r.161 to 180).
The height of the column is 39.7 m (130 feet), but 3 metres or so of its base still lies underground. In 1589 Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) commissioned his favourite architect and engineer Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) to restore the column, which was re-dedicated to St Paul. The bronze statue of St Paul, which crowns the column, is by Leonardo Sormani (1550-90) and Tommaso della Porta (1550-1606).
The shaft of the column is made up of 28 blocks of Carrara marble, each 3.7 metres in diameter. The blocks have been cut away on the inside to create a helical staircase. The reliefs on the exterior tell the story of the emperor’s wars north of the Danube. The column was once crowned by a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius.
The large base has inscriptions on all four sides. They were added at the behest of Sixtus V, the original dedicatory inscription having been destroyed. At the time, it was thought that the column had been dedicated by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to his predecessor the emperor Antoninus Pius (r. 138-61).
South side: SIXTVS · V · PONT · MAX / COLVMNAM HANC / COCHLIDEM IMP / ANTONINO DICATAM / MISERE LACERAM / RVINOSAMQ PRIMAE / FORMAE RESTITVIT / A · M · D · LXXXIX · PONT · IV (Sixtus V, Pontifex Maximus, restored to its original beauty this spiral column, dedicated to the emperor Antoninus, badly damaged and threatening to collapse, in the year 1589, the fourth of his pontificate).
North side: TRIVMPHALIS / ET SACRA NVNC SVM / CHRISTI VERE PIVM / DISCIPVLVM FERENS / QVI PER CRVCIS / PRAEDICATIONEM / DE ROMANIS / BARBARISQ / TRIVMPHAVIT (Triumphant and sacred am I now, in that I bear the disciple of Christ, pius indeed, who by preaching the Cross triumphed over both Romans and barbarians).
East side: SIXTVS V PON MAX / COLVMNAM HANC / AB OMNI IMPIETATE / EXPVRGATAM / S PAVLO APOSTOLO / AENEA EIVS STATVA / INAVRATA IN SVMMO / VERTICE POSITA DD / A M D LXXXIX PONT IV (Sixtus V, Pontifex Maximus, gave as a gift this column, cleansed of all wickedness, to Saint Paul the Apostle, setting on top his statue in gilded bronze, in the year of 1589, fourth of his pontificate).
West side: M AVRELIVS IMP / ARMENIS PARTHIS / GERMANISQ BELLO / MAXIMO DEVICTIS / TRIVMPHALEM HANC / COLVMNAM REBVS / GESTIS INSIGNEM / IMP ANTONINO PIO / PATRI DEDICAVIT (Upon the defeat in a mighty war of the Armenians, Parthians and Germans, Emperor Marcus Aurelius dedicated to his father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, this triumphal column, distinguished by his exploits).
For centuries, climbing the column, in order to enjoy the view from the platform at the top, was a popular pastime. It will come as no surprise to learn that this is no longer permitted.
Bronze statue of St Paul (1589) by Leonardo Sormani and Tommaso della Porta
Roman soldiers marching across a makeshift pontoon bridge