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Matthew’s virtual tour: Forum of Trajan

Professor Matthew Nicholls explains more about the monuments in the Forum of Trajan, in a video tour of his virtual model of ancient Rome.
As the original Forum became crowded and filled up with monumental structures, Rome’s emperors needed room to expand. They wanted space to house functions of the state, ceremonies, imperial speeches, and acts of government, religious rituals in which the emperor participated as priest, room for archives and law courts, and so on. But they also wanted to fashion great commemorative complexes to express their power, wealth, and ambition of their rules, and the old Forum space constrained that ambition. It was already largely full, and was too confined by the weight of history and the geography of the surrounding hills to allow a really free architectural hand.
So as we’ve heard, beginning with Julius Caesar and Augustus, the emperors laid out large symmetrical extensions to the Forum that we call the Imperial Fora. The last and greatest of this sequence of Imperial Forum spaces was Trajan’s Forum, dedicated in January 112 AD. It is now partly buried under modern Rome, but was the subject of interventions by Mussolini and more sympathetic recent excavations to try and bring parts of it to light. Trajan, who built it, was emperor in AD 98 to 117, conqueror of Dacia, modern Romania, and the Near East. Known as the best emperor, a legacy partly secured through building projects, which were always a hallmark of excellence in the rule of Roman emperors as judged by their contemporaries.
Trajan relied on an architect of genius called Apollodorus from Damascus in what’s now Syria. And Apollodorus helped Trajan transform the city of Rome. He also built the huge bathhouse that we’ll encounter later in the course. Apollodorus drew on the design of these previous Imperial Fora, but amplified them and perfected them. The best known surviving feature of Trajan’s Forum is the spiral Column. At its base are Trajan’s ashes, and the frieze ascending the Column shows his campaigns in Dacia, perhaps completed after his death. And that frieze winding up to the emperor’s statue on the top of the Column might, in fact, allude to his ascent to heaven– his deification after his death.
And somewhere behind the Column was the temple where he was worshipped as the deified emperor. That temple dedicated by his successor, Hadrian, who of course had a stake in cementing the rule and legacy of his predecessor. We don’t quite know where that temple was. My model shows it directly behind the Column, but other people might choose other locations. But the Column is not just a symbol, or at least not just a symbol of Trajan. It’s also an engineering monument.
The inscription at the base says that the height of the Column, which is about 38 metres, is intended to show how high the hill was that was cut away by Trajan’s builders to make the huge area of flat ground that the Forum occupies, about 240 by 175 metres. So a really enormous excavation project before they could start building. The Column contained a spiral staircase and a viewing platform at the top for a view out over the Forum. And from up here, and really only from up here, you can see how Trajan’s Forum aligns with and completes and perfects and outdoes all its predecessors.
And you can also get a good view of the so-called Markets of Trajan, over on the side of the terraced Quirinal Hill, the curving complex of brick galleries and shop-like units with commercial functions that terrace back the exposed side of the hill cut by Trajan’s builders and re-threads the severed road network of the district. This is Roman brick-faced concrete architecture at its most confident and accomplished. Back inside the Forum at ground level, the largest feature was the great central paved piazza. And I’ve put trees in here to cast some shade because it must have been horribly hot in the summer.
The whole complex would have been adorned with decorative portraits of previous emperors linking Trajan to those rulers of the past, carvings of captured arms to celebrate his victories, and, in the middle of the square, a huge statue of the emperor on horseback. Down each side of the square were long colonnades with semicircular apses behind them. And capping off the square at the far end, a basilica, an aisled hall, the Basilica Ulpia, adorned with statues of captured Dacians, whose conquest by Trajan funded the construction of the whole complex. The basilica had five aisles, a forest of Egyptian granite and green Carystian marble columns, a massively impressive cathedral-like space.
And these aisled halls, by the way, became the model for the basilica churches of early Christian Rome. This basilica held law courts. It probably functioned as an imperial audience hall. And it was in some form of use right up until the early ninth century AD. Behind the basilica stood Trajan’s Column, as we’ve already seen. On either side of that stood buildings that probably housed libraries containing, we might imagine, accounts of Trajan’s reign, his campaign diaries from Dacia, and the literary output and the archival output that acted as testament to his reign for later ages.

Now that you’ve looked at Rome’s forum spaces, and at monumental structures such as arches and obelisks, let’s look at a complex that combines elements of both – Trajan’s Forum.

In this tour and in the digital walkaround model that follows we hope that you’ll get a sense of the scale and grandeur of this complex, one of the imperial fora that we met in Step 2.3. Look out for the huge Basilica Ulpia; how does it compare to the Basilica Julia you saw earlier this week? Keep an eye open for the rich decorations of the Forum space – we’ll ask you a question about your impressions in the follow-up discussion.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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