As I walked along the Via dei Fori Imperiali past what remains of the Forums of Augustus and Nerva toward the Piazza Venezia I see more ruins: a space littered with broken and fallen columns, a curved high wall, and a tall Imperial column. This is all that’s left of the last and most immense complex of all the Imperial Forums to be built by any of the ancient Roman emperors, the Forum of Trajan.
The history of this forum begins not with the Emperor Trajan but with one of his predecessors, Domitian. At that time in Rome a new city center was growing north of the Forum at the Campus Marius. Domitian saw that his forum could be the connector to this new center and the old. The most logical site to build his forum to complete his purpose was the vacant land between the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills. The problem was that there was a small saddle hill between these two hills that needed to be leveled. To accomplish this project it would require moving more earth than what Julius Caesar had to move when building his forum.
So extensive was this leveling that it hadn’t been finished at the time Domitian was murdered in 96 AD. This undertaking was so difficult that Domitian’s successor Nerva abandoned the site, selecting the already level street between the forums of Augustus and Vespasian for his forum (see my post on the Forum of Neva). It would be the more ambitious Emperor Trajan who would finish the leveling and to build his forum on this site.
Trajan began construction on his forum in around 112 AD, using the spoils he had acquired from his conquest of Dacia (todays Romania). Trajan commissioned his favored architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, to do the design and building. Apollodorus had also built two triumphal arches for Trajan and is credited as being the finishing architect on the Pantheon, the one we see today.
When removing the saddle hill Apollodorus found that the eastern side of the forum ran right up to the high rock face created when they cut into the Quirinal Hill. This unstable face was three stores high and needed to be reinforced. Apollodours solved this issue by including the cliff side into his design. He built an enormous hemicycle brick-faced complex up against the cliff side that completely covered and supported the hills from collapsing. This structure held offices, halls and other commercial usages. There were two wide hallways that ran between the complex against the cliff and the main forum buildings. Today this wall complex is referred to as Trajan’s Markets, however archaeological evidence does not support that this was ever used as a traditional marketplace.
As with all Roman forum designs the main area of Trajan’s Forum consisted of an enormous open interior square that at its center stood a large equestrian statue of the Emperor. This square was surrounded by columned porticoes, with the western and eastern sides being curved. The porticos on the long side featured statues and reliefs of Trajan’s conquests as well as portraits of previous emperors and Trajan’s family.
On the north side of the square stood the Basilica Ulpia. Ancient Roman basilicas were not used for religious purposes, as later Christian basilicas. Roman basilicas were places that housed the offices for the administration of justice, commerce, and also where the Emperors conducted their business.
Trajan’s basilica was the largest ever built in ancient Roman, measuring 385 feet by 182 feet. Its columns and walls where made of marble and measured 164 feet high, and its roof was made of gilded bronze tiles. As you entered the basilica from the forum’s great square you’d come into its center great nave surround by four columned aisles. On each of the basilica’s sides were libraries, one in Greek and the other in Latin. Those entering or leaving the forum by its main entrance on the north side would have been greeted by the magnificent Column of Trajan.
Trajan’s Column is the best preserved of the ancient Roman victory columns. It was inaugurated at the same time as Trajan’s Forum in 113 AD. Including its base the column stands 115 feet high. The column is constructed by a series of twenty Carrara marble drums 12.1 feet in diameter and weighing 32 tons. The columns famous frieze, depicting the Roman’s battle with the Dacian’s, wraps up and around the total height of the column, it would measure 620 feet long if stretched out. The columns capital block weights 53.3 tons and had to be lifted the 112 feet to its top, no simple feat for the ancient Roman builders. When it was inaugurated the column was crowned with a statue of Trajan, but this statue vanished sometime in the middle ages. Today a statue of St. Peter sits atop the column, placed there by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
Here are a couple of facts you may not know about Trajan’s Column: the column is hallow and features a 182 step spiral staircase going up to a viewing platform at the top. Ancient Romans could get a tremendous view of the city and its forums from there. Access to the stairs was through a door in its base. The climb was illuminated by forty window slits along its height that provided sunlight for those climbing up. Also Trajan’s Column was the first ever recorded usage of a spiral staircase. This was a fact that I didn’t know when I visited. I have a passion for these staircases, so without knowing I was looking at the very first spiral staircase in the world.
Also after Trajan died, and was deified by the Roman Senate, his ashes were place in a gold urn and entombed in the columns base.
The magnificence of Trajan’s Forum lasted long after the empire had divided. In 352 Ad, on his first visit to Rome, Eastern Roman Emperor Constantius II remarked of the beauty of equestrian statue of Trajan in the center of the forum. he said that he would like one like that made of him. With him on this visit was the Persian prince Hormisdas, who quipped, “But first, my lord, you have to build a stable to match this, if you can.”
Again, Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali has paved over most of Trajan’s, and Apollodorus of Damascmus, magnificent accomplishments.
I’ve included a drawing from Wikipedia showing the streets of Rome with what was Trajan’s Forum overlaid on it. Today you can still see Trajan’s Column, Basilica columns and the wall of Trajan’s Market, but not the sight that Constantius and Hormisdas witnessed.
Besides having covered much of the Imperial Fora with the busy four-lane Via dei Fori Imperiali the heavy trucks, their vibrations, and exhaust fumes continue to threaten what is left of the glory of Rome. However there are groups of citizens, archeologist and scientists who are trying to convince Rome’s city government to undo what Mussolini did and remove the road. And although nothing major has happened to correct these problems Mayor Ignazio Marino of Roma did close the southern section of this road by the Colosseum to motor vehicles in 2013.
This ends by posts of the Imperial Forums, but not the Roman Forum itself. My next post will be, Where was Julius Caesar murdered?