Trajan’s Forum

Trajan’s Forum

The last, largest and most magnificent of the imperial fora, built by Trajan with the assistance of the Greek architect Apollodorus, and dedicated, at least in part, about 113 A.D. When completed by Trajan it consisted of the forum proper, the basilica Ulpia, the column of Trajan, and the bibliotheca, and extended from the forum Augustum north-west between the Capitoline and Quirinal hills, with the same orientation as the other imperial fora. Unlike these it did not contain a central temple of which it formed a virtual porticus. After Trajan’s death, however, Hadrian erected the great temple of Trajan on the north-west side of the bibliotheca, which thenceforth formed an integral part of the forum whole, and made it conform somewhat to the imperial type. Although the walls of the forum of Trajan and the forum of Augustus seem to have been separated by a short distance, they must have been connected by a wide avenue at least, and thus Caesar’s plan of connecting the forum Romanum and the campus Martius was finally carried out.

Trajan's Forum

Trajan's Forum

The construction of Trajan’s forum necessitated much excavation and levelling. The space thus prepared was 185 metres in width, and the extreme length of forum and temple precinct was about 310 metres. The inscription on the pedestal of the column in connection with a passage in Cassius Dio was formerly taken to mean that the height of the column (100 Roman feet) was that of a ridge between the Capitoline and Quirinal hills which had to be cut away, but geological evidence showed that it never existed. This was confirmed by the discovery of an ancient street and houses of the early empire beneath the foundation of the column. In view of this fact various attempts have been made to explain the inscription, and especially mons, in some other way. The least unsatisfactory explanation as yet suggested is that mons refers to the extreme eastern shoulder of the Quirinal, the collis Latiaris, that was cut back so far that the height of the excavation was approximately 100 feet. Groh accepts this view, explaining that the mons was probably situated to the north-west of the forum of Augustus; and suggests that the column was not placed there, but further west, in order that Trajan’s tomb might not fall within the Pomerium.

The forum proper was a rectangular court 116 metres wide and 95 long, enclosed by a wall of peperino faced with marble, except on the sides, where great hemicycles, 45 metres in depth, projected outwards. Around three sides was a colonnade of different kinds of marble, single on the south-east, and double on the north-east and south-west.

Entrance

Entrance to Trajan's Forum

Entrance to Trajan's Forum depicted on a coin struck circa AD 112-115. (image by:Cristiano64)

The entrance to the area was in the middle of the south-east side, opposite the forum of Augustus, where in 116, the year of Trajan’s death, the senate erected a magnificent arch to commemorate his victories in Dacia. This arch is represented on coins as single, but with three columns on each side of the passage way and niches between the columns. It was surmounted by a six-horse chariot, in which stood the emperor crowned by Victory. On the roof of the colonnade were gilded statues of horses and military standards, provided from the spoils of war, and in the centre of the area was a bronze equestrian statue of Trajan himself. On each side was a smaller arch; and the three entrances corresponded to those of the basilica Ulpia. One of the colonnades in this forum was called porticus Purpuretica, probably because the columns were of porphyry.

In the intercolumnar spaces of the porticoes, and perhaps here and there in the area, Trajan and his successors set up statues of many distinguished statesmen and generals. A large number of the inscriptions on these statues have been found within the precincts of the forum, some of which state that they were placed ‘in foro Traiani’, while the rest omit any such statement.

In this forum the consuls, and presumably other officials, held court, and slaves were freed; here Hadrian burned the notes of debtors to the state, Marcus Aurelius sold the treasures of the imperial palace to defray the expenses of war, and Aurelian burned the lists of the proscribed; and here the laws were frequently fastened up on bronze tablets. Down to 353 A.D. the senators kept their money and silver in chests in this forum and the place of deposit was called Opes. The forum is represented on coins.

Trajan's Forum and Market

Trajan's Forum and Market

The hemicycle on the north-east side of the forum area has been partially excavated. Built of ornamental brick with travertine trimmings, it consists principally of two stories of chambers abutting directly against the side of the Quirinal hill. The rooms on the ground floor, which were probably shops, open on the marble pavement of the forum. Above the first story is a gallery with Tuscan pilasters, into which the rooms of the second story open. Above this gallery there was another story, the front of which was not flush with the lower façade but pushed back on the slope of the hill. The semi-circular space in front of this hemicycle was paved with white marble and surrounded with a colonnade decorated with gilt bronze trophies.

Still higher, on the upper level of the Quirinal, is a series of halls, now occupied by the barracks of the Milizia, approached by steps from the forum level. The mediaeval name Magnanapoli is by some thought to be a corruption of Balnea Pauli, but this is itself merely a sixteenth century invention, based on a false reading in Juvenal.

Two drawings by Cronaca show a portion of the south enclosure wall of the forum proper, which was of blocks of white marble, and decorated with an internal colonnade like the Forum Transitorium, with a line of tabernae outside. The frieze with a griffin and cupids, now in the Lateran, belonged to this wall, and from its style has been attributed to the period of Domitian. It has also been thought that the brickfacing of the north-east hemicycle is characteristic of his reign. If, however, this were so, we should have to attribute to Domitian the removal of the mass of earth from the slopes of the Quirinal which is communicated by the inscription on the column of Trajan — and this is of course impossible.

The name porticus curva should probably be applied to the south-western hemicycle of this forum, and not to the apse of the Secretarium Senatus.

Basilica Ulpia

Basilica Ulpia artist's rendering and footprint

Basilica Ulpia artist's rendering and footprint

On the north-west side of the area of the forum was the basilica Ulpia (probably completed in 112 A.D.), rectangular in shape with apses at each end. Its floor was one metre higher than the level of the area, and was approached by flights of steps of giallo antico. The main entrance was in the middle of the east side, from the area of the forum, where there was a decorative façade, represented with variations on three coins. This consisted of a row of ten columns, probably of yellow marble, in the line of the wall, with six others in front on three projecting platforms. These columns supported an entablature and attics on which stood quadrigae and statues of triumphatores. The central quadriga was escorted by Victories.

Basilica Ulpia Interior

Artist's rendering of the Basilica Ulpia Interior

The great hall of the basilica was surrounded with a double row of columns, 96 in all, probably of white or yellow marble, with Corinthian capitals, which formed two aisles 5 metres wide, and supported a gallery on both sides of the nave and at the ends. The nave itself was 25 metres wide, and the total length of the rectangle, without the apses, about 130. The walls of the basilica were faced with marble, and its roof was of timber covered with bronze which is mentioned by Pausanias as one of the most notable features of the whole structure.

Trajan's Forum - Basilica Ulpia

Trajan's Forum - Basilica Ulpia

The central part of the basilica has been excavated, but the fragmentary granite columns now standing do not belong here, although they have been placed on the original bases. Some of the original pavement of white marble is still in situ. The architectural fragments now visible in the forum have not been properly assigned to its various parts. For the reliefs attributable to the frieze which were used for the decoration of the arch of Constantine, while other fragments are in the Villa Medici and the Louvre.

Basilica Ulpia Interior

Artist's rendering of the Basilica Ulpia Interior

Libertatis

On one of the fragments of the Marble Plan, in the north-east apse of the basilica, is the inscription LIBERTATIS; and Sidonius Apollinaris seems to refer to this shrine, and to indicate that the ceremony of manumitting slaves, previously performed in the Atrium Libertatis, took place here. This was probably a sacellum (small shrine), not merely a statue, and its presence may indicate that this goddess was recognized as the presiding divinity of this forum, a choice significant of the liberal character of the emperor.

Trajan’s Column

On the north-east side of the basilica Ulpia was a small rectangular court, 24 metres wide and 16 deep, formed by the basilica itself, the two halls of the bibliotheca, and, later, the temple of Trajan. In the centre of this court the columna Traiani was erected in 113 A.D. Nibby had already pointed out that the colonnade joining the two libraries on the north was only removed when the column was built.

Its construction is ascribed in the dedicatory inscription on the pedestal to the senate and people, but elsewhere to Trajan himself, who is said to have built it to show the depth of excavation of his forum, and for his sepulchre. It is also figured on several coins of Trajan after 113. It was called columna cochlis, and was a columna centenaria, like the Column of M. Aurelius, although the latter adjective is not actually applied to it in the few extant references in ancient literature.

Trajan's Column

Trajan's Column

It is built of Parian marble. The shaft and basis, composed of 18 blocks, 3.70 metres in diameter, with the additional block that forms the capital, and the plinth which is cut in the upper block of the pedestal, measure 100 Roman feet (29.77 metres) in height. The height of shaft and pedestal together is 38 metres, which corresponds with the figures of the Notitia. On its top was a statue of Trajan in gilt bronze, of which we have no representation. Sixtus V erected the present statue of S. Peter in 1588.

Within the hollow column a spiral staircase with 185 steps leads to the top. Light is furnished by 43 narrow slits in the wall. The pedestal, 5.4 metres high and 5.5 square, is ornamented on three sides with trophies. The south-east side has a door, and above it the inscription. Within the pedestal are a vestibule, a hallway, and a rectangular sepulchral chamber lighted by a window on the south-west side, in which the ashes of Trajan in a golden urn were probably placed. This chamber was evidently robbed, for when re-excavated in 1906, it was found that a hole had been cut through the travertine foundation. To secure the stability of the structure the chamber itself had afterward been filled up with concrete, certainly after 1764, in which year one Radet wrote his name on the lintel of the door.

The entire surface of the shaft is covered with reliefs, arranged on a spiral band, which varies in width from about 90 centimetres at the bottom to nearly 1.25 metre at the top. These reliefs represent the principal events in the campaigns of Trajan in Dacia between 101 and 106 A.D., and also form a complete encyclopedia of the organisation and equipment of the Roman army in the second century. The average height of the figures is 60 centimetres, and they were cut after the column had been erected, so that the joints of the blocks are almost entirely concealed. These reliefs were also coloured most brilliantly. Casts of these reliefs may be seen in the Lateran Museum, St. Germain near Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London. In this connection it is worth noting that the earliest exemplification of the idea of a column decorated with a spiral band may be seen in a fresco on the back wall of the central room (the so‑called tablinum) of the house of Augustus (Livia) on the Palatine.

The little church of S. Nicolas de Columna at the base of the column is mentioned as early as 1029‑32. It disappeared between 1560 and 1570.

Trajan's Forum

Trajan's Forum with Trajan's Column in the center, the bibliotheca on either side of the column, and Trajan's Temple in the foreground

Bibliotheca Ulpia

On either side of the column and abutting against the north-east wall of the basilica were the two buildings of the library, the bibliotheca Ulpia; also called bibliotheca templi Traiani. One building was for Greek and the other for Latin books. In both were reading rooms, and on the walls were placed busts of celebrated authors. State archives, such as the edicts of the praetors and the libri lintei, or acts of the emperors, were kept here. At a later period, and for some unknown reason, the books were transferred to the baths of Diocletian.

Temple of Trajan

The forum of Trajan was completed by Hadrian, who erected the great temple of Trajan and his wife Plotina, templum divi Traiani. Fragments of the double dedicatory inscription have been found. The temple was octostyle peripteral, and stood on a raised platform, round which was a porticus. Fragments of its granite columns 2 metres in diameter, of smaller columns 1.80 metre in diameter, and some corresponding capitals of the Corinthian order, have been found at various times. The reliefs found within the area of the forum may have belonged to the temple, but more probably to the encircling colonnade.

Summary

The forum of Trajan was probably the most impressive and magnificent group of buildings in Rome, and a vivid picture is given of the astonishment of the Emperor Constantius on the occasion of his visit to it in 356 A.D. The history of its destruction begins with the sixth century, and throughout the Middle Ages it furnished an almost inexhaustible supply of decorative material for the churches and palaces of Rome.

SOURCE:A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by Samuel Ball Platner

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