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The Imperial Fora of Rome: The Forum of Trajan


The Imperal Forums.docx

The Roman Imperial Forums at the height of the Empire. Art from Wikipedia.



Ron Current

Ron Current

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.

The Imperial Forum of Trajan

The ruins of what remains of Trajan’s Forum today. Photo from Wikipedia

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.


Trajan's Market

The supporting wall today known as Trajan’s Market. Photo from Wikipedia.

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.

The ruins of the Forum of

What remains of the columns of the Basilica Ulpia. The base of Trajan’s Column is in the right foreground. Photo by the author.



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

Trajan’s Column today. Photo by the author

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.



The base of Trajan's column

The base of Trajan’s Column which it is said to have held the emperors ashes. The door leading to the spiral stairs are on the opposite side. Photo by the author.

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.



The Forum of Trajan with todays streets

Where Trajan’s Forum stood with todays streets. Art from Wikipedia


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.



The author standing on the closed Via dei For a Imperiali near the Colosseum.

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?





Ancient Roman, history and travel, History in Time, Italy, Myths and Legends, Rome, Still Current, The Pantheon, Travel, Uncategorized, World history

The Pantheon of Rome: A window into ancient Roman architecture



The majestic Roman Pantheon seen from Piazza della Rotonda.

Ron Current

Ron Current

As you enter the Piazza della Rotonda and first see the Pantheon what comes to mind is how good it looks. Unlike the other ancient structures in Rome, like the Colosseum and those in the Forum, that are in ruin the Pantheon looks as if it successfully survived the ravages of man and time over its almost two thousand year history. That’s because the Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. So why was it built and how did it survive the destruction that befell the other Roman monuments?  What is the history behind this magnificent and breathtaking structure?


Sunlight streaming into the Pantheon’s rotunda from the Oculus at the top of its dome

Roman legend says that the first temple built on that site was to Rome’s mythical founder Romulus, however most historians’ now agree that the first Pantheon was constructed by Emperor Augustus’s right hand, Marcus Vipsanius Aprippa, in 27 AD. That temple burned in 80 AD, followed by a second temple constructed by Emperor Domitian. This building also was destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning in 110 AD. The Emperor Hadrian began the reconstruction on what is the current Pantheon in 120 AD, with the Greek architect Apollodorus of Damascus, and completed it in 125 AD. Hadrian is known for rededicating buildings and monuments that he rebuilt or repaired after the original dedicator, this is why the name on the facade reads: M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, the three-time consul, made this). This facade is the only portion of the original structure remaining of the 80 AD Pantheon.

What does the name Pantheon mean? Records do not specifically state to what god the temple was built for, but the name Pantheon in Greek means, “Honor all gods.” A theory is that it was the place that the Emperors could go to make public appearances that would reinforce their divine status to the citizens. On April 21st, the date that ancient Romans consider as the founding of Rome, an amazing lighting effect occurs.  When the midday sun hits a metal grille above the door it causes light to radiate out into the courtyard. Picture the Emperor standing in the door with all the light streaming around him from inside the Pantheon; they would look like a god.


The wondrous design and color of the interior rotunda.

How did the Pantheon survive what happened to the other buildings in Rome through time, that suffered from neglect and their materials reused for other buildings.  The Pantheon very well would have gone the same way if not in 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV who consecrated it as a Christian church: the Church of Mary and all the Martyr Saints, as it is still known today. This saved the Pantheon from being abandoned and ripped apart. The only losses to it were the sculptures that adorned the pediment above the front door and also Pope Urban VIII took all the bronze from the Pantheon’s dome and melted it down to be recast into canons. Another reason that helped preserve the Pantheon is that it was later also used as a tomb for the famous and the noble. The artist Raphael and several Italian Kings and poets are entombed there.


The Oculus at the center of the Pantheon dome.

The Pantheon may be one of the first Roman buildings whose interior is more glorious than its exterior.  As you enter through the two giant bronze doors you’re told that although these doors are ancient they are not the originals, those have been lost.  Now you are in the most amazing aspect of the Pantheon, its rotunda. As I walked in what awed me was the shaft of light coming into the rotunda from the hole at top of its dome (I snapped a photo as I entered, which is the one near the top of this post).

This hole, that is open to the sky, is almost 29 feet in diameter and is called a Oculus (sky), and is the only source of light inside the rotunda. Even with this sizable hole in its roof rain very seldom falls in and if it does the floor is slanted to drain the water.

You learn that the rotunda is a perfect hemisphere, where the diameter of the room is the same as the maximum height of the dome itself. This breathtaking dome is made of concert and was covered in bronze on its exterior, this is what was removed by Pope Urban VIII. The Pantheon’s dome was the largest in the world for over 1,300 years. It still holds the record as the largest unsupported dome. Although it doesn’t look like it it’s larger the dome of St. Peter’s basilica. Comparing it to our U.S. Capitol’s, which is 96 feet in diameter, the Pantheon’s is much larger at 142 feet. It’s an amazing architectural feat done by the Roman engineers, who lighted the weight of the dome by progressively decreasing the thickness of the its walls and creating internal spaces within those walls.


M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, the three-time consul, made this).

Everything about the Pantheon is amazing. The columns supporting the portico came from Egypt and weigh 60 tons each. They are 39 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter.

The Pantheon is not only the most perfectly preserved building from the ancient Roman period,  it is also with its magnificent dome and interior design a perfect example of the skills of Roman architects and engineers.