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Trajan: Learn to paint the King of Romans

The Trajan Inscription

April Romans and Serifs – As part of our NGS Signsmiths’ Classical workshop April 2016

Emperor Traiano – King of Romans

Traiano, Trajan ( Latin: Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus; September 18, 53 – August 8, 117 AD) was Roman emperor from 98 AD until his death in 117 AD. Officially declared by the Senate optimus princeps (“the best ruler”), Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He is also known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which earned him his enduring reputation as the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.

As a civilian administrator, Trajan is best known for his extensive public building program, which reshaped the city of Rome and left numerous enduring landmarks such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column


Column Location: The Trajan Forum, Rome 

Coordinates: 41°53′44″N 12°29′09″E

The Trajan column is an important architectural monument in the heart of Rome. The first Archetypal Roman victory column, located between the Greek and Latin libraries in front of the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan.

This forum was built on the order of the emperor Trajan with the spoils of war from the conquest of Dacia, which ended in 106. The Fasti Ostienses state that the Forum was inaugurated in 112, while Trajan’s Column was erected and then inaugurated in 113.

To build this monumental complex, extensive excavations were required: workers eliminated the sides of the Quirinal and Capitoline (Campidoglio) Hills, which closed the valley occupied by the Imperial forums toward the Campus Martius.

It is possible that the excavations were initiated under Emperor Domitian, while the project of the Forum was completely attributed to the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, who also accompanied Emperor Trajan in the Dacian campaign.

During the time of the construction, several other projects took place: the construction of the Markets of Trajan, and the renovation of theCaesar’s Forum (where the Basilica Argentaria was built) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix.

The Column

The Doric column is decorated with a elaborate spiral frieze, carved in low relief, depicting Emperor Trajan’s own account of his conquest of Decebalus and the annexation of Dacia (the campaigns of 101–102 and 105–106 AD). The monument, designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, was erected between 106–113 AD and was dedicated in May 113.

The Column therefore represents Trajan’s achievements as a popular leader, and on his death his ashes were buried in a chamber at the base of the Column. At the top of the Column is a statue of Trajan himself. The ground level of the Forum, which is a center of life for Romans, is where the earthly remains of Trajan are buried. The Column from the base goes up, taking us through Trajan’s triumph in the Dacian wars, and finishes with a statue of Trajan above the forum. If we consider the practice of deification of emperors, which was expected during this time period, especially of glorious Trajan, it is hard to ignore the symbolism here. Trajan’s earthly remains stay in the Forum with the Roman people, while his conquests ascend him up into the heavens. It would be hard to prove this set up as a coincidence, thus the Column should be regarded in some sense as a symbol of glorification.

The inscription above it’s entrance consists of six lines and 37 words, and is a dedication of the Emperor.



Translated, the inscription reads:

The Senate and people of Rome [give or dedicate this] to the emperor Caesar, son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Traianus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, pontifex maximus, in his 17th year in the office of tribune, having been acclaimed 6 times as imperator, 6 times consul, pater patriae, to demonstrate of what great height the hill [was] and place [that] was removed for such great works.

The letter forms, in such context had to represent a leader of great importance and it appears that the set was indeed handled in a special manner. It stands as the most elegant, and the most celebrated, example of the Roman letter. The inscription has served as the model Roman alphabet for almost two millennia.

But by understanding the commissioner, Traian himself, we can see that this panel was culmination of an era of great architectural development, and that he had created a new level of craftsmanship via the projects of the day.  Having moved mountains to build this Forum, quite literally, he only had to find the very best artisans and his orders were complete. Wherever such energy is present in a project absolute excellence is borne.

The level of precision we see in this panel are the fruits of that labour, the only surviving example from the Forum that would have undoubtedly been laden with such wonderful examples.


Evolution of Letters

Sometime around the first century BC Roman lapidary dramatically changed; from a flat and monoline inscription to a much more elegant geometrically based letter with terminal serifs. Exactly how or why this change occurred is the subject of debate, but it most likely has to do with Roman calligraphy tools and gestures but could just as easily be subscribed to the influence of mosaic artists involved in earlier and associated architectural works. As the images shows mosaic offered a good opportunity to add in slab serifs to plain Sans.


Antioch Roman mosaic evil eye    Below: Basilica della Corte   Bottom: The Medici Chapel, Florence


med 3

By this time the Roman scribes had developed a flat brush-written, condensed writing style that was particularly suitable for use on expensive parchment and vellum. Very little of this early calligraphy has survived with the notable exception of the Pompeiian ruins. Excavations of Pompeii, preserved under the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius, revealed thousands of examples of written graffiti, such as these political notices:

Capitalis Rustica at Pompeii

In many of these posters we can see the hand of the writer moving toward elaborate terminals and swash serifs in some cases representing the half way point in the journey from sans serif to serif.

S study Trajan

The link between the Pompeiian writing and the Capitalis Monumentalis was first suggested in the early 1900s. W. R. Lethaby, in his introduction to Johnson’s classic 1906 writing manual stated that “The Roman characters… must have been settled by an instrument used rapidly; I suppose, indeed, that most of the great monumental inscriptions were designed in situ by a master writer, and only cut in by the mason, the cutting being merely a fixing, as it were, of the writing.” A half century later, Fr. Edward Catich, in his seminal studies of inscription, made the case that the letters were quickly drawn using a flat chisel-shaped brush (at about a 35° angle), creating the modulation of stroke widths as well as the serifs, then cut with a hammer and chisel into a V-shape, creating the illusion of form through shadow.

Trajan brushstrokes

Individual brushstrokes (left), shown combined (center), and compared to the inscription

Catich extensively studied the individual letters and found that the vertical strokes were about twice as thick as the horizontal ones, and the height of the letters about nine times the width of the vertical strokes ― proportions that Catich considered nearly ideal. Perkins, further analyzing Catich’s drawings, found that the letters closely followed the classic geometries of the square, the golden rectangle and the similar root five rectangle.

Trajan geometry

While I agree the brush was used as the final layout tool it was in the case of the Trajan and important panels preceded by a meticulous drafting. In all subsequent studies the dissection of the letters takes place via drawing which is by nature the most accurate structural implement of all art.


While it’s pretty clear that the ancient Romans had their geometry down, the inscription is also highly calligraphic and spaced by eye. Adjectives such as lively or kinesthetic have been used to describe it. According to Catich, the inscription is “the best roman letter designed in the Western world, and the one which most nearly approaches an alphabetic ideal,” or, even stated even more emphatically by White: “No single designer, nor the aggregate influence of all the generations since, has been able to alter the form, add to the legibility, or improve the proportion of any single letter therein.”

After some 1300 years of scribal book hands, the Trajan inscription was “rediscovered” by the 15th century humanists. Beginning with Felice Feliciano, in his Alphabetum Romanum (1463), many scholars attempted geometric constructions of the Roman alphabet. These exercises were noted by the early type cutters, such as Griffo, and the influence of the Captialis Monumetalis is seen in serifed typefaces to this day.

German painter Albrecht Dürer depicts the geometric construction of the Latin alphabet, relying on Italian precedent. However, unlike his peer Alberti and Leonardo, Dürer was most troubled by understanding not just the abstract notions of beauty and proportion but also as to how an artist can create such. Between 1512 and the final draft in 1528, Dürer’s belief developed from an understanding of human creativity as spontaneous or inspired to a concept of ‘selective inward synthesis’. That an artist builds on a wealth of visual experiences and observation in order to imagine beautiful things.

In order to recreate these ‘harmonies’ I believe the power of observation is the first primary tool to be relied upon – before Geometry as geometry fails to cope with unforeseen changes that the artist continually accommodates and derives new forms and inspiration from.

Geometry can recreate a beautiful structure but not a beautiful letter. And it is that liveliness and confidence in the original that is forever lost by those who trust and rely upon Geometry and law based design principles.

350px-Root_rectangles_Hambidge_1920e30ee3547be7afeab3e76d3dc09744bf (1)


Much debate has continued as to whether it was the pen or brush that set out the earliest forms of Roman letter, we can derive from time honoured lettering processes it must have been both. While I believe it could only have been set out by an inscripted draft and painted as a final stone cutter’s ‘pattern’, what is clear is the brush played the crucial role in forming the transitions of thick to thins and serif finishes.

What is certain is that the serif letter evolved naturally along with its architectural setting. As the more decorative masonry developed the need was there for a letter to hold its own in a newly flamboyant human expression and statement of power by decree, law, a letter style fit for the rites of both life and death.

Overlooking the power of observation

When studying the panel one feels a steely tension in the setting out of the letters. The artist will have used a preferred rule to finally plant the linears. Because the letters have such resonance two things spring to mind that are commonly responsible for such intensity: layers of process and fine drawing.

Whenever I produce a piece with a fine drawing as the principle guide it imbues and resonates that linear tension within each form.

The later analysis and construction of geometric laws allows reproduction by hand for the enthusiast yet nothing can be taken away from the originators sole reliance on the eye and artistry that achieved the finest version of the perfectly balanced Roman.

Drawing Romans NGS

By observing the spaces and shapes of the characters over time and by drawing the letters by eye, the structure and visual character will remain alive and open to variation and development for application in the modern setting.

And all this must be done on the vertical plain, intensely encapsulating the originator’s beauty.

All roads lead from Rome and branch out into every typeface on earth. For each and all to enjoy on their own personal journey.

NGS Classical Roman Lettering Course Link


April Romans and Serifs – As part of our Signsmiths’ Classical workshop April 2016 this article aims to show the importance of the Italian lettering heritage in the lettering industry today.

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