Tag Archive: Trajan


In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.

Trajan’s Column

Just up the road from the Colosseum and next to the modern city’s busiest road are the remains of Trajan’s forum, the largest of the Imperial Forums built by the Emperor Trajan. Trajan has gone down in history near to top of the list of good emperors. After Domitian was murdered in 96, Rome teetered on instability under the elderly Emperor Nerva, who was only around for 2 years before meeting his own cruel end. It was Trajan, a proud, popular, tall and supposedly good-looking general who took over. He was to bring about 20 years of relative peace and prosperity to Rome. Trajan was lucky enough to become Emperor at a time when Rome’s enemies weren’t exactly threatening the peace. Still, he was smart enough to know how to use war as a political tool.

As Emperor, he led Rome into 3 wars during his 20 year reign, 2 against Dacia in the north along the Danube river in modern day Romania. For all the good he brought to Rome, Trajan loved and gloried in war. He pressed for war as a way to keep the army employed and strengthen Rome’s borders while increasing his own popularity as victorious war hero. Dacia was eventually conquered, and vast amounts of plunder made their way back to Rome. This set financial troubles right and payed for an ambitious building campaign, furthering his legacy. Trajan was probably the greatest of the Emperor builders. He rebuilt the Circus Maximus, a huge Forum of his own, and Trajan’s market, the worlds first shopping mall.

Trajan’s Market is in pretty good shape today, built high into the hill behind it. In front of it, Trajan’s Forum has been reduced to rubble, but a very impressive monument to Trajan remains. Trajan’s Column is a 100+ ft high column, hollow on the inside with a spiral staircase to the top. At one point, the column held a statue of Trajan on top, removed a few hundred years ago for one of St. Peter.  The entire structure rests on a huge rectangular base which once held the cremated remains of Trajan. This column is a ceremonial monument and did not support any other structure.

Instead, it stood in the middle of a multi-teared building, allowing viewers to see it at different heights and angles. Imagine the large open rotunda at the mall and you get the idea. Look closely and you can see a staggering amount of detail. Here’s a image of what it would have looked like in the Forum:

The column was built from huge slabs of white marble, which were then carved by sculptors with amazing detail. A spiral begins at the bottom and wraps all the way to the top. Think of it as a huge sculpted comic book that tells the entire story of Trajan’s wars in Dacia. Today, it’s nearly impossible to grasp how detailed it is, let alone see the details at the top from the ground. In all, there are over 2,500 figures carved. Trajan himself is seen 59 times in a realistic portrait, rallying his troops in battle. Also seen is a large god figure, representing the Danube river. Trajan’s engineers had to build impressive bridges over the Danube to advance the army.

There are many fascinating things about the column, but probably none more impressive than all the figures. Trajan’s Column is sheer evidence that the Romans were amazing artists, with a firm grasp on body proportion. The amount of talent it requires to carve such realistic figures with such depth is staggering. This kind of craftsmanship is what went rejected and eventually forgotten in the middle ages, only to be rediscovered in the Renaissance. Today, the column appears white, but was originally painted in bright colors.

Here’s a great short video on the column, which moves around it a little bit to zoom in on some details:

The second century in Ancient Rome saw a period of prosperity. After the disasters of the early Roman Emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, Rome had some sorting out to do. Eventually, a new line of Emperors came to rule. They would be called much later in a term coined my Machivelli, “The Good Emperors”. One of the greatest of all Emperors was Trajan, who ruled from 98 to his death from a stroke in 117. Trajan was a wise ruler and military commander who extended the boundaries of Rome to their furthest regions (into modern-day Iraq and eastern Turkey).

Trajan’s enduring legacy is his construction of much of ancient Rome. He was an ambitious builder who altered much of the city for the better. He worked with his chief architect Apollodorus to design Trajan’s Forum, a huge temple complex made of gleaming marble in the center of Rome. It housed libraries, fountains, an enormous piazza with a marble floor and a 125 ft. tall column commemorating Trajan’s military victories. Many of the Emperors created Forums as part of the greater Roman forum, and Trajan’s was probably the most impressive. Today, the main road crossing the ancient Roman ruins covers half of what was Trajan’s forum, built by Mussolini in the years before WWII. The rest of the forum is in ruin, with the floor long since removed and relocated and only partial columns and sections of foundation remaining.

Directly behind Trajan’s Forum was Trajan’s Market, still in pretty good shape. Built into the hillside, this enormous complex was the world’s first shopping mall. It contains many shops that sold pretty much anything that you wanted to find in ancient Rome. Here’s a picture of the rounded market portico and what’s left of the forum in the foreground:

Trajan’s other big project was a partial renovation of the Circus Maximus, the enormous chariot racing track just south of the Palatine Hill. THe Romans loved chariot racing, and a racetrack had been on the site for hundreds of years. The Circus Maximus for a longtime was made of wood and was the starting point of the great Roman fire under Nero that destroyed most of the city. Later emperors has it rebuilt, and Trajan added lots of extra seats and gave it a facelift in marble. At 3 stories high, it held hundred of thousands of people who came to watch gladiators do battle and chariot races, which often ended in death for the racers. To the Romans, humans battling to the death was a sport. Today, the Circus Maximus is no more, but it’s imprint is still clearly visible. The site is a large park, and the center of the track is still clearly visible and a huge tree stands where an Egyptian obelisk did. The banks of seats were long ago stripped of marble, but the embankment is still there on wither size. It’s an absolutely enormous site. It must have been awe-inspiring with all of Rome in attendance. Here’s a view of what it looked like then and looks like now-

Here’s a great youtube video from a Discovery Chanel show that covers the Circus Maximus and Trajan’s building projects: