Monday, January 22, 2007

Forum, Markets and Column of Trajan

Kristina Dahlberg

Honors in Rome – Winter 2007


Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, was born September 18th, 53 AD in the city of Italica. Commonly referred to as Trajan, the Roman Empire achieved its greatest historical extent under his rule. Trajan was the son of a prominent Italian senator and general, Marcus Ulpius Traianus. Trajan served in the Roman army and Syrian army when his father was governor of that province. Trajan quickly rose through the ranks, becoming nominated as Consul in 91 AD with Domitian was emperor at the time.

It was at this point that Trajan brought Apollodorus of Damascus to Rome. Apollodorus was a Greek architect, engineer and sculptor who designed Trajan’s forum and Column as well as being widely acknowledged as the main architect of the Pantheon.

Trajan took a significant part in Domitian’s wars along the Rhine River, as well as others under Nerva’s short rule. When Nerva became emperor, Trajan was appointed as governor of upper Germany. Nerva was the first emperor to select his successor by potential rather than paternal relation. Nerva was also considered to be the first of the “five good emperors of the Roman Empire”, a series of five emperors all chosen by adoption and known for less tyrannical and oppressive policies. Nerva became emperor after the murder of Domitian, and his seat in office was not considerably stable. To cement his rule, Nerva chose the popular Trajan as his adopted son in the summer of 97. Trajan was highly respected and succeeded to power without issue.

The Forum of Trajan was the last in a series of grand imperial constructions that were intended to complement the fairly limited space of the Roman Forum. Domitian specifically had taken a personal interest in the architecture of Rome and wanted to add to the existing imperial constructions, so he began the construction of a vast Forum, including clearing out markets that citizens had previously used in the area. During Nerva’s short rein of 96 to 98 AD, he did not permit the resumption of Domitian’s forum because he was otherwise occupied with foreign affairs. The neglect of the construction of the Forums continued as Trajan first assumed office, as Domitian’s costly constructions had consumed the imperial treasury.
Construction of the forum did not continue until the Dacian wars, which provided Trajan with the funds to complete the Forum and its lavish buildings. The construction of the Forum began in 106 AD, and most of the buildings were complete by 112 AD. The Column of Trajan was dedicated in 113 AD, and upon Trajan’s death in 117 AD he was cremated and buried inside it. In the next 11 years Hadrian had completed a temple to Trajan, now defied, which was completed in 128 AD. Though not constructed by Trajan, the temple likely was planned in advance and constructed in the Forum itself.


The forum was designed as “a rectangular, axially symmetrical, and frontally orientated plaza that was framed by the Basilica Ulpia and the adjacent East and West colonnades and separated from the rest of the city by high fire walls.” (Packer 174) The Basilica Ulpia, divided the piazza from the Column of Trajan, two opposite Greek and Latin libraries and, later, the Temple of Trajan were all hidden by the law court. Curving around the eastern hemicycle of the forum were Trajan’s markets, a complex of shops and offices for Roman citizen use.

The Forum of Trajan was influenced by the large scale temples of Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as markets and shrines of the Hellenistic east. The forum also incorporated some local architecture; the Theatre of Pompey and the Forum of Augustus himself, which really influenced much of the plan and the “cool classicizing style of the architectural elements.”(Packer 174) “Apollodorus’s plan for the Forum of Trajan was an intelligent blend of oriental, Greek, Italic and Roman elements that visually expressed Rome’s unique position as the capital of the Mediterranean World.”(Packer 174)
The Markets of Trajan were fairly innovative in that they were the first to incorporate an indoor shopping experience. All markets previous had been a series of outdoor shops.

The Markets were truly revolutionary in that they did not utilize one supporting column but instead were able to successfully disperse the weight through a series of arches. The markets also show extensive planning in “the relationships between the streets and shops, the functional locations of the stair systems and ramps, and the pains taken to bring adequate lighting and ventilation to nearly every roofed space.” (Packer 25) The markets were roofed by a concrete vault raised on piers, serving the dual purpose of providing cover and also to allow in air and light.

The Forum of Trajan, again, borrowed heavily from other sources and this is evident even in the equestrian statue of Trajan in the center of the forum. This statue heavily imitated the equestrian statue of Caesar in the Roman Forum. Trajan’s column was innovative in its design of the rotating depiction of the Dacian wars, which was depicted, arguably, to great effect. Although it was common to engage the viewer, and force one to focus on a particular tomb, none arguably, was able to do so with quite as much success as Apollodorus in the Column of Trajan.


The Markets of Trajan were again created as replacements to former markets, destroyed by Domitian to make way for the Forum. The shops inside the markets varied in size, though most were rather small, the customer would have actually approached the door from outside and then have been served. The rooms at the level of the Forum would have been occupied by cashiers of the imperial treasury, while shops at higher levels would have been given to private venders.

The Column of Trajan was designed to attract attention and keep the focus of the viewer, for only “disinterest or neglect means a true ‘death’.” (Davies 56) Many believe that the design was not successful because of the awkward viewing angle as well as the fact that because of the location of the Basilica Ulpia and the surrounding libraries, the viewer would not have a sufficient amount of space to back away from the column so to view the various scenes depicted. However, according to Davies’ article, the Column of Trajan was successful in its task of maintaining reader focus because circumventing the column was fairly ritualistic and insured that attention was maintained.

The Forum itself was decorated extremely lavishly with marble from all over the world. The extensive flashy use of different colored marbles emphasized the imperial power able to organize extensive human and monetary resources that was able to provide Rome with such expensive foreign material. “Although composed of simple geometric elements, the plan of the forum must have seemed enormously complex to the ancient visitor.” (Packer 37)
The Forum constantly revealed itself to the visitor; “a series of unfolding surprises, with each new perspective revealing something new.” (Davies 57) The Basilica Ulpia hid much of the Column of Trajan, the libraries and the temple from view, the Column of Trajan was “only fully visible from the north terrace of the Basilica Ulpia of the Steps of the temple.” (Packer 175) “Consequently, these architectural “secrets” transformed a casual walk through the forum into a series of progressive visual revelations...” (Packer 176)

The Forum was a complex structure, chosen to be an optimum method of political propaganda because it would continue to be an essential part of everyday life for many Romans utilizing the libraries, law office or, usually, the markets. The complex was designed chiefly to glorify the new Roman Empire and his military victories in Dacia. The citizens of Rome required the explanation of necessity and benefit of the Dacian wars, as wars are generally costly and often fruitless.

Trajan’s primary operative was to remain in power, and he had learned from past Emperors such as Domitian how fickle public opinion could be. Trajan and Apollodorus apparently consequently conceived of the Forum of Trajan as the triumphant climax in the series of imperial propaganda that were designed to maximize public opinion by showing a understanding and concern of a Roman citizen’s needs.

The Forum and Markets were created for the people, to show off an aggressive grandeur, which was successfully gained from the Dacian wars. The Forum of Trajan was designed to show off the competence, strength and superiority of Rome to its citizens and visitors. This is entirely evident in the monument at the center of the Forum. This depicts the figure of Trajan mounted on an impressive steed, with the symbols of war and victory held high. The richness and exoticness of the materials chosen to use also ensured a similar effect. “Expensive imported marbles and standards and statues of gilded bronze that crowned the surrounding buildings were the unmistakable signs of an overwhelming imperial prosperity and achievement.” (Packer 187)
The Column itself is the most clearly attempting to convey a message. The Column is an obvious tribute to Trajan’s wars, with the bottom half devoted to the first Dacian war, and the top half devoted to the second Dacian war. The column is designed with very little actual battle scenes in an attempt to downplay the actual atrocities and realities of war. Instead the column depicts more peaceful scenes, always showing Roman soldiers in complete control. The Roman soldiers depicted struggle almost exclusively in the direction of the spiral itself, this allows the viewer to add his or her own strength when viewing and essentially is simply another technique in which to downplay the reality of war.
Roman society was fairly poor at the beginning of Trajan’s rule, largely due to Domitian’s lavish building. In many ways Trajan’s conquests of Dacia were viewed as costly rather than valuable by the common people because of the large cost of war in general. Thus Trajan was required to show what money was gained from these conquests, and he did this not only in the excessive grandeur but also in placing “From Spoils” on many of the columns in the Forum itself to further cement this idea.


As the Forum of Trajan borrowed heavily from other monuments it does not appear to be considered extremely influential. However, the Markets of Trajan were extremely influential and revolutionary in form, and essentially were the birth of the shopping mall experience.

The Column of Trajan continues to fascinate us to this day because of the stunning artwork portrayed. The artwork continues to astound and inform audiences to this day. Historians look to the intricate artwork for clues on how wars were fought, what kind of weaponry was used as well as many other historical clues. A perfect example of the influence of the Column of Trajan is the Column of Marcus Aurelius, now standing in the Piazza Colonna. This Column borrows heavily from Trajan’s Column, utilizing the circumventing imagery effectively. The Column is so similar in fact, it is often confused with Trajan’s.


The most fascinating find during my research was the through extent that the propaganda infiltrated every aspect of the construction of the Forum and Column of Trajan. Knowing how many specific instances could be explained in such minute detail was eye opening for me and really made me realize how many other Roman monuments were just as carefully constructed. This knowledge has made me rethink the way in which I approach any monument constructed by the governing body in power.

Another fascinating bit of information was the sheer detail that one could see and learn by studying the Column of Trajan. One could learn a great deal of historically significant and fascinating information simply by thoroughly reading into the Column’s artwork. The information that fascinated me the most involved the fact that all of this information – the way in which the statues were poised as well as the hand gestures, would convey their meaning to the Roman citizen clearly with little effort. An uneducated Roman citizen would be much better positioned to read the artwork of the Forum of Trajan than some of the most learned historians today. This realization of what really is meant by 2000 years of history, and how much can change in culture and our understanding of it is the most profound ‘take-away’ of this project and presentation.


Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. Classical Art : From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Davies, Penelope J.E. The Politics of Perpetuation:Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration. American Journal of Archaeology, v. 101, 1997.

Hedrick, Charles W. History and Silence : Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity. Texas: University of Texas P, 2000.

Heiken, Grant, Renato Funiciello, and Donatella De Rita. The Seven Hills of Rome : a Geological Tour of the Eternal City. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Macdonald, William. The Architecture of the Roman Empire. 2nd ed. Bingham, NY: Yale UP, 1982. 75-83.

Packer, James E. The Forum of Trajan in Rome. 1st ed. London, England: University of California P, 2001.