Published Catalogue Text: Stone Sculptures: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums , written 1990
Statue of the Emperor Trajan
The right shoulder and section of the chest, also the remaining section of the upper arm, have been broken and rejoined. The head and neck were made separately and inset. The statue was taken apart completely, cleaned, redoweled, and reconstituted at the Fogg Museum during 1983-1985.
Marcus Ulpius Traianus, of Roman Spanish ancestry and son of a distinguished Roman magistrate, was adopted by the aged Senator Nerva (emperor, A.D. 96-98) and ruled as emperor from A.D. 98-117. It was in this time, with the conquest of Dacia and military expeditions on the eastern frontier from Armenia to Arabia, that the Roman Empire reached its maximum geographical area. This statue shows Trajan in ceremonial armor (in contrast to the field equipment seen on the Column of Trajan in Rome), standing or stepping forward as if in the act of addressing his troops. His elaborate cuirass or breastplate has long tabs or pteryges, leather straps at the shoulders, and longer leather straps around the thighs. A tunic is visible under this ensemble, and a long cloak or paludamentum is worn on the left shoulder and around the left arm. The open-toed sandals are purely ceremonial, in keeping with the symbolic nature of the statue as suggested here and in previous publications.
In recent years, studies of important Roman Imperial cuirassed statues have been concerned with the meaning of scenes and objects on the ceremonial armor of these images. This statue of Trajan, presumably brought to England from Italy in the eighteenth century, is no exception. Here the decorative enrichment of the cuirass and of the tabs below appears to allude to the emperor's untimely death from natural causes at Selinus (Trajanopolis) in Cilicia at a time when the wars on the Parthian frontier were going badly for the Roman armies. This was also the period when the Jewish communities of North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Cyprus were developing a major revolt, which devastated cities such as Cyrene and parts of Alexandria in Egypt (Lepper, 1948, pp. 89-92; Magie, 1950, pp. 609-613). After Trajan's widow Plotina had engineered Hadrian's alleged adoption and his recognition as emperor (ruled A.D. 117-138), and after the Roman East was pacified and the frontiers stabilized, Rome and the surrounding towns were awash with monuments to the deified Trajan, the greatest of these being the Trajaneum at the end of the Forum Traiani. The provinces were similarly embellished—witness the Trajaneum at Pergamon. While this statue is not heroic, semi-nude, Jovian image of a true Divus, in the traditions of the Primaporta Augustus, it has enough of the subtle allusions of cuirassed iconography to show this was a statue of Trajan in his period of transition from emperor to god.
The main scene on the breastplate is an Amazon or female Arimaspe fighting two griffins, all symbolic of wars on the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire. On the tabs of the skirt below, at the bottom of the breastplate and above the leather straps, bovine skulls alternate with palmettes. The skull, rather than the bull's or cow's head, very often suggests death and funerary commemoration. Combined here with a portrait of Trajan based on a model created fairly late in his reign, this iconography suggests the statue was a posthumous commemoration of the Optimus Princeps, the "best of princes", as Trajan was hailed by the Roman Senate. The statue was carved in the months or years immediately after the emperor's death, when monuments such as the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum were completed to honor the military and civic acts of the ruler who brought the Roman Empire to its greatest heights. That the cuirassed statue is one of a vigorous commander addressing his troops, rather than an ill, old man, is emphasized in the pose and proportions of the body, based on the ideal statue of Achilles by Polykleitos, a bronze known as the Doryphoros or Spear-Bearer.
Cornelius Vermeule and Amy Brauer