Book Review by Patrik Klingborg
I have oft walked the streets of Rome, admiring the numerous monuments of the Eternal city; most are far grander than anything any other place can boast. Great as they are, it is however still quite natural that our attention has not been evenly spread. Some ancient remains have received far less attention than other. The column of Marcus Aurelius is perhaps, especially in contrast to the column of Trajan, the best example of this.
Unfortunately, I must admit, I was no exception. Up to the point when I opened Beckmann's book, I hardly knew anything about the column even as I had passed it innumerable times. Worse, most of what I thought I knew came indirectly from its predecessor. Founding my understanding of the monument on such a basis soon turned out to be a mistake.
Beckmann begins his book with a short reflection over how he came to understand that so little was known about the column of Marcus Aurelius and then enticies in the reader by an introduction about the times of the Emperor whose name it carries. Here the book is securely founded by summing up the questions the author wants to answer - primarily understanding how the Romans viewed the monument.
Several chapters follow in a pleasant and logical order. The red line can always be clearly seen in the headings, working its way through nine chapters, beginning with basics such as the construction of the column, leading on to more advanced questions about the nature of the frieze. My only objection on this point is that the author immediately attempts to discuss the purpose of the monument. This could have been saved for later on in the book, perhaps as a final chapter; it ends up there in practice anyway under the heading Viewing the Column.
The content of the chapters are, however, of shifting quality. The first six, primarily concerned with date, location, form and construction of the column, continuing with the development and execution of the frieze are both interesting and informative. Fair enough, some of the arguments are not entirely convincing, but that is the case in most studies. You have to decide for yourself what you perceive as reasonable.
Reading about the frieze, in the authors’ own words, as art and history, is unfortunately nowhere near as stimulating. I find many of the arguments weak, the logical structure of the chapters lost along the way and the conclusions based on too few facts. Beckmann, further on, makes a classic mistake in founding conclusions on other, sometimes unconvincing, conclusions - the result is an exponential effect of uncertainty.
He should on the other hand be complemented on the footnotes; they are both extensive and informative. It can be plainly seen that a lot of work, and quite possibly joy, was put into them. I only wish that they would have been allowed to remain with each page and not bundled together at the end of the work. I was further on impressed by some bold statements on the question of visibility. Up till now I had considered it more or less impossible to find individual scenes on the column. One book later I could identify several during the brief moment it took my bus to pass by the Piazza.
But who is the book written for? I’m having a hard time seeing it as something a layman would pick up and read for fun. Interesting as it is, it is certainly on a quite specialized topic and most people with a moderate interest would probably prefer a quicker guide. Yet, placing the footnotes after the book proper was certainly an attempt to make it more appealing to a general audience. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. The book is in many ways a scholarly text under the disguise of a popular work; it should have been allowed to live up to its full potential.
The Column of Marcus Aurelius is, in the end, a book of ups and down. Some parts are very good, others less than impressive.
Yet, I know much more about the monument now than I did a week ago. And more importantly; Beckmann may have aimed at producing an insight to the ancient view of the monument, but he rather came to provide a firm basis from which I formed my own. Anyone else reading this book will be able to do the same.