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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.

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

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The Imperial Fora of Rome: Emperors Vespasian and Nerva

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

In my previous post I stated that when Mussolini built the wide Via dei Fori Imperial he paved over almost 84% of the five Imperial Forums. The two that were most affected by this were those of the Emperors Vespasian and Nerva. When looking for where those two forums stood you need to go to the corners where the Via Cavour and the Largo Corrado Ricci joins into the Via dei Fori Imperial. It is there, on each of the Via dei Fori Imperial, that you’ll find what remains of these two Imperial Forums.
We will begin our search for these two Imperial Fora with…

 

The Forum of Vespasian, or the Temple of Peace

Temple of Peace

The façade of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano.   with the holes from which the Forma Urbis Romae hung.

Vespasian had already begun construction on his other grand building projects, such the Flavian Amphitheater, todays Colosseum, when he decided in 75 AD to build a grand showcase to show off all his booty taken from the Jewish Temple of Herod in Jerusalem. It is believed that one of those items was the temple’s magnificent Menorah.
Unlike Caesar and Augustus, Vespasian didn’t start off to build a traditional forum; he never designed it to have a civic function as a true forum would. For him it would only be a place for him to exhibit the spoils from his Jewish War. Because he had no desire to construct a forum he called it, the Temple of Peace. It wasn’t until much later when the Imperial Fora’s were being classified that it become known as the Forum of Vespasian.
The site chosen by Vespasian was just to the south of the forums of Caesar and Augustus next to the main entranceway that connected the Roman Forum with the Subura district. His Temple of Peace was designed completely different than any of the others with a large apsidal hall at the bottom of the portico, with a row of columns separating the portico from the temple building itself. Also its plaza was not paved, rather filled with gardens, pools and statues.
The temple building faced Rome’s Velian Hill and the Colosseum. Another lost feature of the Temple of Peace was the Forma Urbis Romae, a map of ancient Rome on a giant marble slab hung from one of its walls. This wall is now the façade of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. You can still see the mounting holes from which that map hung.
The Forum of Nerva, the Transitorium

The Temple of Minerva in the Forum of Nerva

What remains of the Temple of Minerva from the Forum of Nerva

Taking the area of the main entryway to the Rome Forum from the Subura, the street between the Vespasian, Augustus and Caesar forums, Emperor Domitian used this location to build his forum. Domitian began construction at around 85 AD; but like Caesar’s it would be left to his successor to be finished, the Emperor Nerva in 97 AD.
However unlike Caesar’s Forum, which retained his name, Domitian’s forum was officially named the Forum of Nerva after the emperor who completed it.
The long and narrow passageway that the forum occupied was the ancient Roman street, the Via Argiletum. Along it housed the shops of booksellers and cobblers. The Forum of Nerva would become the new monumental entrance to the Roman Forum. Also with its location between the other forums Romans citizens now had easy access to all of them though the Forum of Nerva, and because this unifying design it was popularly called the Transitorium.
The Forum of Nerva was almost 430 feet long by 148 feet wide, making it the smallest Imperial Forum. It featured protruding columns along its walls instead of an arcade. On the eastern end of the forum, behind its monumental entrance, was the Temple of Minerva. This temple remained intact until 1606 AD, when Pope Paul V demolished it for building materials for the Acqua Paola fountain and the Borghese chapel.
Today there’s not much left of these great temples and gathering places to be seen. They’ve become lost and almost invisible from all the commercial buildings and traffic that engulfs them. But if you take the time to seek them out you’ll be rewarded.

 

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The Imperial Fora of Rome: Julius and Augustus Caesar

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

When I visited the Roman Forum I had no idea that there were other forums separate from the main forum, each with their own unique histories. I couldn’t imagine that there were other magnificent forums buried right under my feet as I walked along the Via dei Fori Imperial from the Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. In fact there are five separate forums built between 46 BC and 113 AD, by ancient Rome’s most famous emperors, that are today almost hidden that make up what is referred to as the Imperial Foras.
Sadly, when the fascist dictator Mussolini built the wide Via dei Fori Imperial he paved over almost 84% of the forums of the emperors Nerva and Trajan and severely dividing the other others to make this road, all so that he’d have a clear view of the Colosseum from his office window.
So what is the history of these forums, what did they look like, why were they built, and what can been seen of them today?
To answer these questions we need to go back to the end of the Republican era of Rome, and the reign of Julius Caesar. So join with me now to rediscover the Imperial Fora, beginning with…

 

The Forum of Caesar

 

The ruins of the Forum of Caesar

The Forum of Caesar as seen today. The forum’s open plaza is in the foreground, the colonnade can be seen in the background, and in the back center is what remains of the Temple of Venus.

As you walk along the west side of the Via dei Fora Imperial just south of the Via di San Pietro in Carcera you’ll notice behind the Curia Julia rows of smaller columns and a section of three taller columns connected with a capital. At first you’d think that these are just more of the main Roman Forum, but there not. They are actually what remain of a later and completely separate forum, the Forum of Julius Caesar. This was the first of the Imperial Fora.

 

The ruins of the Temple of Venus of Genetrix

These three columns are what remain of the Temple of Venus in the Form of Caesar. 

 

As Rome grew its original forum became over crowed with new and larger government buildings and temples. Soon the forums purpose as a marketplace and gathering plaza for its citizens became lost. Seeing this Julius Caesar decided to construct a large forum bearing his name next to the exciting forum.
Caesar meant for his forum to be an extension to the original Roman Forum so he chose its site to be at the base of the Capitol Hill and behind his Curia Julia, the Senate House. Caesar began construction at around 46 BC, purchasing a large number of houses that were located on the proposed site. Also vast amounts of earth had to be moved to level the area for its open plaza and temple. To pay for this Caesar used the spoils from his Galli Wars for its construction.
The design of the Forum of Caesar was a large rectangle with a paired colonnade (these are the smaller columns seen) running along the east, south and west sides of the open plaza. At the north end sat the crown jewel of his forum, the Temple of Venus Genetrix (its remains are the taller columns with the capital) who he believed he was descended from. Within the temple were statues of the goddess Venus, Caesar and also one of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. The temple and forum were inaugurated in September of 46 BC, but was most likely it was not finished when he was assassinated in 44 BC. Completion fell to his adopted son, and the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar.

 
If you look across the Via dei Fora Imperial from the Forum of Caesar on the north corner where the Via Cavour comes in you’ll see what is left of the Forum of Augustus, the second of the Imperial Fora to be built.

The Forum of Augustus

 

Forum_of_Augustus_drawing

The Forum of Augustus and its Temple of Mars as it was in ancient Rome.

After completing the building projects started by Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum and also finishing the Form of Caesar August turned to the building of his own forum. After Augustus had defeated Brutus and Cassius, two of the murderers of Caesar, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, he vowed to build a temple to honor the Roman war god Mars. This temple he would make the centerpiece of his own forum.
It would take over forty years for the Forum of Augustus to be completed due to postponements because of Roman politics. The still uncompleted forum and temple was finally inaugurated in 2 BC.

 

 

Forum of Augustus

What is left today of the Temple of Mars in the Forum of Augustus. 

Augustus also built his forum in the traditional rectangle design, and had it run adjacent and at a right angle to the Forum of Caesar. It consisted of an open plaza surrounded by a colonnade that included a most unique feature, two large covered hemicycles on each side with a double columned portico and niches on the back wall. These niches held statues of famous Roman leaders and of Augustus’ ancestors. Some of the inscriptions that were below those statues can still be seen and read.
At the back of the forum was a tall wall that still exists. This wall separated the Forum of Augustus from Rome’s Suburra district, a neighborhood that you wouldn’t want to venture at night. This wall also acted as a firebreak to protect the forum from the all too frequent fires that broke out in the Suburra.

 

In front of the wall was the location of the temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). This temple was built entirely of Carrara marble, with eight columns along the front and both sides. It is said that one its rooms held Caesar’s sword and his legions standards that had been recovered by Augustus from the Parthians. Standing in front of the temple was a forty-five foot tall statue the Emperor Augustus.

With the additions of the forums of Caesar and Augustus Rome’s city center had expanded nicely to fit its needs then. But soon Rome would need to grow again and there were emperors also ready then to make their marks with their own forums.

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The Church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome Italy

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

 

In an ancient and historic city like Rome there is always something right under your nose that you could miss if you don’t keep eyes open and listen to other. As tourists we sometimes only focus on the main sites and literally walk past others of equal or greater historical value.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post our hotel in Rome was the Grand Hotel Palatino on the Via Cavour. The Palatino is just a few blocks from the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Many times my wife and I would leave the hotel and walk down to those famous ancient sites, ignorant of what we were passing. At breakfast one morning another guest at our table asked, “Have you been to the St. Peter in Chains Church?” “The what,” I asked. She explained that it had Michelangelo’s the famous statue of Moses. We told her we had not and asked where it was located. Her answer makes my point, “Across the street from the hotel and up a few steps.”

 

the-church-of-st-peter-in-chains

San Pietro in Vicoli, Saint Peter in Chains Basilica

And she was absolutely correct in her directions. Across the Via Cavour was the narrow Via di San Francesco di Paola, which was more of a walkway in that location than a street. And she was also correct about the short set of steps up. At the top steps the walkway expanded into a street that vehicles could drive on. And there, as our tablemate had said, was San Pietro in Vicoli, Saint Peter in Chains.

 

the-main-altar-of-church-of-st-peter-in-chains

The main alter with is its frescos

 

Built in the fifth century this minor basilica is rather unassuming on the outside when compared to Saint Peters, Sant’Agnese in Agone, or the other majestic churches of Rome. But once you enter you’ll be surrounded by the colorful beauty of its many frescos. But it’s not the frescos, or even the holy relic that this basilica is named for that brings the tourists here, it’s the statue of Moses.

 

 

ceiling-painting-in-church-of-st-peter-in-chains

This fresco was on the ceiling of the main aisle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelangelo’s statue of Moses

close-up-of-michelangelos-moses-in-the-church-of-st-peter-in-chains

There is a wonderful history behind this work of art, but first of all it wasn’t sculpted as a standalone. Michelangelo was first commissioned by Pope Julius II to create a funeral monument and tomb for him. The original design was to be massive, with 40 statues. However Pope Julius II had a big ego, and in his drive to immortalize himself with giant projects he kept pulling Michelangelo off working on the tomb to do other projects, like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter, but rather a sculpture, causing a deep friction between them. Because Julius kept veering off to other projects his tomb and monument was not finished at the time of his death in 1513, and so the complete monument was never finished. Julius’ well to do family had the finished portion of the monument, with the statue of Moses, moved to Saint Peter in Chains because of the Pope’s love for this small basilica.

 

michelangelos-statue-of-moses-in-the-church-of-st-peter-in-chains

The entire portion of the funeral monument with the statue of Moses. This is just one part, imagine what the entire tomb would have looked like if finished

 

Michelangelo considered his statue of Moses to be his best work. The statues surface looks more like it was brushed on rather than chiseled. It was said that Michelangelo saw this statue to be so lifelike that he asked for it to talk when he had finished it. There is also a controversy about the statue’s horns. Moses seems to have two horns coming out of his forehead. Some scholars believe that the reason for these horns could be due to a miss translation in the book of Exodus. In the most common translation of Exodus it says that Moses came down from Sinai with two rays on his forehead. This is the translation of the Hebrew word “Karan” or “Karnaim” meaning “rays.” However the confusions by Michelangelo could have because he thought the Hebrew word was “keren” which means “horns.” No one really knows what Michelangelo’s intentions were. It is also said that Michelangelo hid his profile, and those of his patrons in Moses’ beard as a joke.

The Chains of St. Peter

the-chains-that-held-st-peter

The Reliquary holding the chains that bond St. Peter

 

The statue of Moses overshadows what I think is an equally interesting and historical artifact housed in this church, and what this basilica is named and constructed to house. That would be the relic of the chains that supposedly bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem and Rome. 

The story is that Empress Eudoxia, wife of Roman Emperor Valentinian II, had gotten the chains that held St. Peter while imprisoned in Jerusalem from her mother, who had gotten them from the Bishop of Jerusalem. Eudoxia then gave those chains to Pope Leo I, who already had the chains that bound Peter while he was imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison in Rome before he was martyred. Legend says that as Pope Leo was comparing the two chains they miraculously fused together.

This relic is kept in a reliquary under the main alter. You can go down a few steps at the front of the alter for a closer look. And at peek tourist time it may be easier to view those that the statue of Moses.

So as you travel to historic cities and countries don’t forget to look across the street and up a few steps, you may be surprised what you’ll find there.

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Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain

 

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

 

My wife and I love to traveling through history. Seeing all the famous sites and learning the history behind them. And then sharing them with you, hoping that when you too visit you’ll have a deeper appreciation of what you’re seeing.

 

 

 

 

trevi-fountain-3

The Trevi Fountain while under its twenty month major restoration

With so much restoration going on in Rome it’s hard to find everything you want to see when you visit open, and so it was with the Trevi Fountain. As my wife and I walked down the Via delle Muratte toward the Piazza di Tervi we were told that you can hear the fountain’s gushing water getting more intense as you drawn near it. For us, when we visited, it was only the sound of the crowds in the piazza. When we reached the piazza we found that the fountain was dry, scaffolding was up among the statues, and a plexiglass wall surrounding it.

 

This was due to a major twenty months restoration of the fountain that had begun in 2014, using a 2.2 million euro sponsorship from the Fendi fashion company. Completion, of what was to be the most thorough restoration of the fountain ever done, wasn’t until November of 2015, and our visit was in September of that year. Even with it being dry and having the surrounding wall, the fountains sheer size (161 feet wide by 86 feet high) with its classic grouping of statues makes this magnificent work of art awe-inspiring.  

 

The location of the Trevi Fountain is at the end of one of Rome’s ancient aqueducts, the Aqua Virgo. This aqueduct was built by the Emperor Augustus to feed the hot baths of Agrippa and to also provide water to Rome, which it did for over 400 years.

 

Even after the fall of Rome the aqueduct, with a simple fountain, continued to provide water to the area. It was with Pope Clement XII in 1730 that the fountain we know today came into being. The fountain was to be part of Pope Clement’s project in rebuilding the Tervi district. He knew of plans for a magnificent fountain designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was to be built there, but that project had never gotten started. After a heated contest between Roman architects the Pope gave the commission to Nicola Salvi. Salvi began his construction in 1732, incorporating some of Bernini’s original concepts into his final design. When Salvi was constructing his fountain he was bothered by an unsightly sign that a barber refused to remove, so he hid it behind a large sculpted vase. Today Romans call this vase asso di coppe, “the Ace of Cups.” Salvi didn’t live to see his fountain completed, he died in 1751. The fountain was finished by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762, when Pietro Bracci’s large statue “Oceanus” was placed in the fountain’s central niche. The Trevi Fountain remains today one of the most spectacular works of Baroque art in the city.

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The Via delle Muratte leading to the Piazza de Trevi, and its fountain. 

 

The Trevi Fountain has been made famous by being featured in the movies “La Dolce Vita” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.” I was in this last film that began the tradition of throwing coins into the fountain. The proper way is to use your right hand and throw the coins over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. It is estimated that over 3,000 Euros are removed from the fountain each day. That is why they included a recessed section of the plexiglass wall so that visitors could still tosh coins into the dry fountain during the restoration.

 

Tradition says that when you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will return to Rome, but since the fountain was not working when we were there we did to return to see it in all its glory.  

 

 

 

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