I didn’t want to take my children with me for most of my journey, because they are deeply distracting. But I didn’t want to shut them out of it entirely. So I am bringing them along to what I assume will be the easiest library sites, as they are the only ones within Europe.

I part with Andy and the children on the Capitol. They walk southwards to the Coliseum at the far end of the Forum, and I turn north to the reason we are here—Trajan’s column.

The column celebrates Trajan’s battle victories over Dacia, now Romania. The story of his victories is detailed in a procession of bas-relief scenes that wind clockwise up the column, from base to tip. The column was once the center of the Ulpian library, also founded in 112 CE by Trajan, who you might remember from my visit on Dec 7th had the splendid temple to himself built on the acropolis at Pergamum in what is now Turkey. Roman libraries had two reading rooms; one for Greek texts, the other for Latin. The two Ulpian library buildings positioned to the East and West of the column used to double as platforms from which the frieze carved onto the column could be read. The libraries were to facilitate reading in a double sense.

I can’t get close to the column, which is tremendously tall and built from stacked drums of white Carrera marble, each hollowed out to create an internal staircase, which spirals up to the statue of Trajan which still surmounts the column. The ground on which the column stands is significantly lower than street level, maybe five meters lower, and it has a generous space around it before walls are raised to form the street-level pavement on which I stand. It’s entirely impossible to read the frieze that spirals up the column. It’s not adjusted to read from ground height and progresses skywards at unvarying scale. I vaguely make out the figures of men and horses, a city wall, a boat, a forest of bossed shields…all progressing up the twisting ribbon like a road.

The sharp winter sun bleaches the bright side of the cylinder and eclipses the dark side. The carving is white and in low relief. I can’t read it. Also, the surrounding trees preoccupy me. They are umbrella pines, very tall and spare, supporting a single cumulous of needles, densely and darkly packed in one single mass at the top of the spindly trunk. They are everywhere, just as in a Samuel Palmer drawing. Rome is a deeply beautiful city; at times expansive as when you cross the Tiber bridges, or walk around the walls of Sant’Angelo fort, at other times wonderfully and eccentrically detailed in its frenzied architectural repurposing. However, I enjoy the trees most.

28.12.2016, Rome