The Forum Romanum (Roman Forum) and Imperial Fora


View of the Forum from the slope of the Capitoline to the Palatine Hill


By Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker / 12.09.2015
Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies
Binghamton University


Forum Romanum (Roman Forum)

In his play Curculio, the Latin playwright Plautus offers perhaps one of the most comprehensive and insightful descriptions of the Forum Romanum ever written (ll. 466-482). In his summary, Plautus gives the reader the sense that one could find just about every sort of person in the forum—from criminals and hustlers to politicians and prostitutes. His summary reminds us that in the city of Rome the Forum Romanum was the key political, ritual, and civic center. Located in a valley separating the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, the Forum developed from the earliest times and remained in use after the city’s eventual decline; during that span of time the forum witnessed the growth and eventual contraction of the city and her empire. The archaeological remains of the Forum Romanum itself continue to provide important insights into the phases and processes associated with urbanism and monumentality in ancient Rome.

Earliest history: from necropolis to civic space

Seven Hills of Rome (image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Situated astride the Tiber river, the site of Rome is noted for its low hills that are separated by deeply cut valleys. The hilltops became the focus of settlement beginning in the Early Iron Age; the development of the settlement continued during the first millennium B.C.E., with the traditional Roman account holding that the city herself was founded in 753 B.C.E. (Livy 1.6)

The traditional foundation narrative holds that one of the first acts of Romulus, the city’s eponymous founder, was to establish a fortification wall around the Palatine Hill, the site of his new settlement. The Capitoline Hill, opposite the Palatine, emerged as the city’s citadel (arx) and site of the poliadic cult of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, among others (poliadic: the chief civic cult of an ancient city, derived from the Greek word “polis”).

Iron Age populations had used the marshy valley separating the Palatine and Capitoline hills as a necropolis (a large ancient cemetery), but the burgeoning settlement of archaic Rome had need of communal space and the valley was repurposed from a necropolis to a usable space. This required several transformations, both of human activity and the natural environment. Burial activity had to be transferred elsewhere; for this reason the main necropolis site shifted to the far side of the Esquiline Hill.

View of the Forum Romanum toward the Palatine Hill

Addressing the problems of seasonal rains and flooding proved more challenging—the valley required a landfill project as well as the construction of a drainage canal to manage standing water. Since the Tiber river tended to leave its banks regularly, the valley was prone to significant flooding, as a low saddle of land known as the Velabrum connects the forum valley to the riverine zone. As coring studies conducted by Albert J. Ammerman have shown, a deliberate landfill project deposited fill in the forum valley in order to create usable, dry levels during the sixth century B.C.E. Twentieth century excavators, including Giacomo Boni and Einar Gjerstad, revealed important remains of Iron Age burials that pre-dated the establishment of the forum valley as a civic space; in particular the necropolis in the area known as the Sepulcretum along the Sacra Via (“Sacred Way,” the main sacred processional road of the city) has been extensively studied and published. The investigations of the burials themselves, and the patterns they followed, have allowed archaeologists to understand not only funeral customs but also social dynamics during Rome’s proto-urban phases.

A view of the Via Sacra Via, with the Artium Vestae in the foreground

This major investment in the creation of civic space and the organization of labor also provides important information about the socio-economic structure of early Rome (Livy 1.59.9). The drainage canal eventually came to have a vaulted covering and was known as the Cloaca Maxima or “Great Drain.” One of the clear outcomes of these civic investments was the creation of a usable space that came to be a civic focus for activities in many spheres, especially political and sacred functions.

Temples and sacred buildings

From the Early Republican period the forum space saw the construction of key temples. One of the most prominent early temples is the Temple of Saturn (often considered the earliest of the temples in the Forum Romanum), the first iteration of which dates c. 498 B.C.E. The temple was dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and housed the state treasury. The temple was rebuilt in 42 B.C.E. and again after 283 C.E. Another early Republican temple is the Temple of the Castors (a.k.a. Temple of Castor and Pollux) that was completed in 484 B.C.E. and was dedicated to the Gemini who had aided the Romans at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 B.C.E. The temple had several construction phases. The Sacra Via passed along the forum square en route to the Capitoline Hill and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This sacred route was used for certain state-level ceremonies, especially the celebration of the victory ritual known as the Roman triumph.

Temple of Vesta

Two other early, sacred buildings are important to note. These are the Regia or “king’s house” and the Temple of Vesta, both located on the downward slope of the Palatine Hill near the point where it reaches the edge of the Forum Romanum proper. Both of these sacred buildings are quite ancient and had many building phases, making it difficult to refine the chronology of the earliest phases. The Regia served as a ceremonial home for the king—later passing into the ownership of the pontifex maximus (principal state-level priesthood) once the kings had been expelled—and consisted of an irregularly planned suite of rooms surrounding a courtyard. The sixth century B.C.E. phase was decorated with painted plaques of architectural terracotta, clearly indicating both elite function and investment. Across the way was the Temple of Vesta, focused on the maternal elements of the archaic state as well as safeguarding the cult of Vesta and the sacred, eternal hearth flame of the Roman people. Both the Regia and the Temple of Vesta developed from crude structures in earlier phases to stone-built architecture in later phases. The Severan family carried out the final significant restoration of the Temple of Vesta in 191 C.E.

Meeting spaces

Curia Julia

Important meeting spaces for political bodies emerged at the northwest side of the forum, namely a pair of complexes known as the Curia and Comitium. The Curia served as the council house for the Roman Senate, although the Senate could convene in any inaugurated space (i.e. a space ritually demarcated by Roman priests). The Curia emerged perhaps in the seventh century B.C.E., although little is known about its earliest phases. The surviving Curia is an imperial rebuilding of the Late Republican phase known as the Curia Julia, since Julius Caesar was its architectural patron. The Comitium was a tiered space that lay in front of the Curia that served as an open-air meeting space for public assemblies. Little of the Comitium remains today but it was a key architectural complex for political and sacred events during the time of the Roman Republic.

From Republic to Empire

During the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. the Forum Romanum certainly continued to develop, but material remains of large-scale architecture have proven elusive and thus our understanding of the space during those centuries is less clear than in other periods. One middle Republican development is the continued elaboration of the Rostra, the platform from which orators would speak to those assembled in the forum square. This monument would continue to develop over time and took its name from the prows (rostra) of defeated enemy warships that were mounted on its façade.

The Forum Romanum in the Late Republican period: 1) Tabularium; 2)Temple of Concord; 3) Basilica Opimia; 4)Tullianum; 5) Basilica Porcia; 6) Curia and Comitium; 7) Temple of Saturn; 8) Senaculum; 9) Volcanal; 10) Lacus Curtius; 11) Basilica Sempronia; 12) Basilica Fulvia; 13) Shrine of Venus Cloacina; 14) Temple of the Castors; 15)Fountain of Juturna; 16) Temple of Vesta; 17) Regia (Source image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The later second and first centuries B.C.E., the Late Republican period, witnessed many changes in the city and in the Forum Romanum. The successes of Rome and her growing empire during the second and first centuries B.C.E. led to a great deal of monumental construction in the city, including in the Forum Romanum itself. It was during this Late Republican phase that Rome became a metropolitan center, equipped with the monumental architecture that could compete with—if not eclipse—that of the foreign powers Rome had tamed during the Punic Wars and those against the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. In particular the Romans established a tradition of constructing monuments commemorating famous men who had achieved great success in military and public careers. The first of these was the Columna Rostrata that marked the naval victory of Caius Duilius at the naval battle of Mylae in 260 B.C.E. The Roman interest in monumental, commemorative monuments, now referred to as triumphal arches, would soon follow. The first of these, the Fabian arch (fornix Fabianus), was dedicated on the Sacra Via toward the eastern end of the Forum Romanum in 121 B.C.E., commemorating the military victories (and family) of Quintus Fabius Allobrogicus (Cicero pro Planc. 17). While the Fabian monument is no longer extant, its construction established a tradition (and a traditional form) for official commemorative and honorific monuments in the context of Roman public art.

The Basilica

Western end of the Roman Forum, c. 300 C.E. In the foreground is the Rostra Augusti. In the background are (left to right) the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vespasian, and the Temple of Concordia. Elements of the model © 2008 The Regents of the University of California, © 2011 Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, © 2012 Frischer Consulting. All rights reserved. Image © 2012 Bernard Frischer

The second century B.C.E. saw the creation and introduction of a unique Roman building type, the basilica. The basilica was a columnar hall that often had a multi-purpose use—from law courts to commerce to entertainments. Roman planners came to prefer them for lining the long sides of open squares, in a way not dissimilar from the Greek stoa. The sources claim that the Basilica Porcia (c. 184 B.C.E.) was the first basilica built at Rome, although no trace of it remains. The Basilica Porcia served as an office for the tribunes of the plebs. Other, more elaborate basilicae were soon to be built, including the famous Basilica Aemilia, first built in 179 B.C.E., and remodeled from c. 55 to 34 B.C.E. as the Basilica Paulli. Restored again after a fire in 14 B.C.E., the famous basilica was deemed by Pliny the Elder to be one of the three most beautiful monuments in Rome (Plin. HN 36.102.5)

Imperial period

The advent of the principate of Augustus (27 B.C.E. – 14 C.E.) brought about additions and renovations to the Forum Romanum. With the deification of Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father, a temple dedicated to Caesar’s cult (templum divi Iulii) was constructed on the edge of the forum square (15 in the diagram below).

The Forum Romanum in the Imperial period: 1)Tabularium; 2) Tullianum; 3) Temple of Concord; 4) Temple of Vespasian; 5) Portico Dii Consentes; 6) Arch of Septimius Severus; 7) Umbilicus Urbis; 8) Rostra; 9) Temple of Saturn; 10) Curia Julia; 11) Lacus Curtius; 12) Basilica Julia; 13) Basilica Aemilia; 14) Shrine of Venus Cloacina; 15) Temple of Divus Julius; 16) Arch of Augustus; 17) Temple of the Castors; 18) Temple of Ant0ninus and Faustina; 19) Regia; 20) Temple of Vesta; 21) Fountain of Juturna (source image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Augustus restored existing buildings, completed incomplete projects, and added commemorative projects to celebrate his own accomplishments and those of his family members. In this latter group, the Arch of Augustus (#16 above) and the Porticus of Caius and Lucius are notable. The former was a triumphal arch celebrating significant military and diplomatic accomplishments of the emperor, while the latter honored the emperor’s grandsons.

Augustus also followed Julius Caesar in creating yet another new forum space beyond the Forum Romanum that was named the Forum of Augustus. (dedicated in 2 B.C.E.). These new Imperial Fora in some cases provided additional space and, in turn, shifted attention away from the Forum Romanum.

During the Imperial period the Forum Romanum itself saw only sporadic new construction, although the maintenance of the existing structures would have provided a pressing and ongoing obligation. Just beyond the limit of the forum proper the second century C.E. temple of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina was constructed in 141 C.E. (and then modified in 161 C.E. following the emperor’s death).

Arch of Septimius Severus, 203 C.E.

Coming to power at the end of the second century C.E., the Severan family erected a triple-bay triumphal arch commemorating the victories of emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211 C.E.) at the northwestern corner of the forum square. The third century C.E. saw rebuilding of structures and monuments that had been damaged by fire, including the rebuilding of the Curia Julia by the emperor Diocletian in the late third century C.E. following a fire in 283 C.E.

Decline

View of the Roman Forum

Declining imperial fortunes led inevitably to urban decay at Rome. After the Severan and Tetrarchic building programs of the third century C.E. and Constantinian investment in the early fourth century C.E., the forum and its environs began to decline and decay. Constantine I officially relocated the administrative center of the Roman world to Constantinople in 330 C.E. and Theodosius I suppressed all “pagan” religions and ordered temples shut permanently in 394 C.E. These changes, coupled with population decline, spelled the gradual demise of spaces like the Forum Romanum. Roman monuments were cannibalized for building materials and open, unused spaces were re-purposed—sometimes as ad hoc dwellings and other times for the deposition of rubbish and fill. Thus the forum slowly yielded its sacro-civic functions to more mundane concerns like pasturage—in fact it eventually came to be known as the “Campo Vaccino” (cow field).

The beauty of the ruins

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “Veduta di Campo Vaccino,” Views of Rome, plate 82, 18 x 27.75 inches, etching, 1772

The monument that is considered to be the final ancient structure erected in the Forum Romanum is a re-purposed monumental column set in place by the emperor Phocas in August of 608 C.E. The anonymous Einsiedeln itinerary, written in the eighth century C.E., mentions a general state of decay in the forum. A major earthquake in 847 C.E. wreaked considerable damage on remaining Roman monuments in the forum and in its environs. During the Middle Ages ancient structures provided reusable buildings materials, as well as reusable foundations, for Medieval structures.

The ruins themselves provided endless inspiration for artists, including painters the likes of Canaletto who became interested in the romanticism of the ruins of the ancient city as well as for cartographers and engravers the likes of G. B. Piranesi and G. Vasi, among others, who created views of the ruins themselves and restored plans of the ancient city.

Interpretation

Recent excavation at the northeast corner of the Palatine Hill

The Forum Romanum, despite being a relatively small space, was central to the function and identity of the city of Rome (and the wider Roman empire). The Forum Romanum played a key role in creating a communal focal point, one toward which various members of a diverse socio-economic community could gravitate. In that centralized space community rituals that served a larger purpose of group unity could be performed and observed and elites could reinforce social hierarchy through the display of monumental art and architecture. These devices that could create and continually reinforce not only a sense of community belonging but also the existing social hierarchy were of vital importance in archaic states. Even as the Forum Romanum changed over time, it remained an important space. After a series of emperors chose to build new forum complexes (the Imperial Fora) adjacent to the Forum Romanum, it retained its symbolic importance, especially considering that, as a people, ancient Romans were incredibly loyal to ancestral practices and traditions.

Rediscovery and excavation

Many of the monuments of the Forum Romanum, along with ancient occupation levels, gradually disappeared from view. Systematic exploration and study began under archaeologist Carlo Fea who started to clear the area near the Arch of Septimius Severus in 1803. Study continued during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with prominent scholars including Rodolfo Lanciani, Giacomo Boni, Einar Gjerstad, and Andrea Carandini, among others, leading major campaigns. Study and excavation—as well as the hugely important obligation of preservation—continue in the Forum Romanum today. The bulk of the forum is accessible to visitors who have the opportunity to experience one of the great documents of urban archaeology.

Imperial Fora

View of the Forum of Trajan, c. 112 C.E.. Later medieval walls can be seen amidst the grass on the left; the upright columns of the Basilica Ulpia can be seen on the right in front of the larger Column of Trajan

For centuries, the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) was the civic, juridical, and social heart of the ancient city of Rome, a place where civic buildings, sacred buildings, and monuments were to be both found and admired. Beginning in the first century B.C.E., a new series of public spaces, also dubbed as fora (fora being the plural form of the Latin noun forum) began to be created. These fora (called Imperial fora since they were built by Roman emperors during the Roman imperial period) would eventually number five in all and were important public spaces that relied upon the visual potential of monumental art and architecture to reinforce ideological messages.

Topography and chronology

The Imperial fora are located in an area bounded on the southwest by the Capitoline Hill, on the northeast by the Quirinal Hill, and extending toward the Esquiline Hill to the east. The fora were initially built between c. 54 B.C.E. and 113 C.E., with continuing additions, restorations, and modifications through late antiquity. In the middle ages the fora were spaces re-used for building materials, housing, industry, and burials. Gradually these spaces faded from view, buried beneath the medieval and modern city of Rome. A massive campaign of excavation in the twentieth century on the orders of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini returned large areas of the fora to view. Ongoing archaeological investigation continues to reveal additional elements of the fora and to provide additional data that allow for their contextualization.

Forum of Julius Caesar

The Forum of Julius Caesar (also known as the Forum Iulium or Forum Caesaris) was the first of the imperial fora complexes to be built. Pompey the Great, a political rival of Caesar, had dedicated a monumental theater and portico complex in the Campus Martius in 55 B.C.E. and this perhaps spurred Caesar’s ambition to construct a new forum complex.

Temple of Venus Genetrix (plan), Forum of Caesar

Caesar’s project required the acquisition of land at the flank of the Capitoline Hill and he was aided in this early on by political allies, including Cicero, with the initial land purchased at a cost of sixty million sesterces (Cic. ad Att. 4.16.9). Additional landacquisition may have ballooned the total cost to one hundred million sesterces (Suetonius Divus Iulius 26; Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.103). The construction of Caesar’s forum resulted in significant reorganization of the northwest corner of the Forum Romanum.

Cupids, frieze-architrave, Temple of Venus Genetrix, Forum of Julius Caesar, 113 C.E., marble (Mercati di Traiano Museo dei Fori Imperiali)

The Forum of Caesar takes the form of a rectangle measuring 160 by 75 m. The centerpiece of the complex was the Temple of Venus Genetrix, dedicated to the goddess that Caesar celebrated as his distant ancestor. The octastyle (eight columns across the façade) temple was made of solid marble and sat atop a high podium. The long sides of the forum square, flanking the temple, housed two storeys of rooms that may have served political and/or mercantile functions. The complex was dedicated during the festivities surrounding Caesar’s triumph in September of 46 B.C.E.

Forum of Augustus

The Forum of Augustus (known as the Forum Augustum or Forum Augusti) followed the Forum of Caesar as the second of the imperial fora.  At the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.E., Augustus vowed a temple to Mars in exchange for help in avenging the slain Caesar (Suet. Aug. 29.2), but the temple and forum complex would not be dedicated until 2 B.C.E. (Res Gestae 21). The Forum of Augustus provided additional room for the meeting of law courts and was built on land acquired by Augustus.

Model of the Temple of Mars Ultor between twin porticoes, Forum Augusti (Mercati di Traiano Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Rome)The temple at the center of the Forum Augusti was sacred to Mars Ultor (“Mars the Avenger”), and was surrounded by a portico that defined the forum space and played a key role in the visual narrative of the public art program installed in the forum. As Augustus had emerged as the sole leader of the Roman state, it was important for him to create and display messages of continuity and stability.

View of the ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum Augusti, c. 2 B.C.E.; the stairs to the temple platform are visible (left) and the paving stones of one portico can be seen at the lower right

The visual program in the Forum of Augustus is complex. The architectural sculpture adorning the Temple of Mars Ultor inserts Augustus into the Julian family (gens Iulia) by portraying Augustus in the context of divinities (Mars, Venus, and Cupid) and the deified mortal—Julius Caesar (divus Iulius). Flanking the temple in the exedrae (the semicircular, recessed areas behind the colonnades to the left and right of the temple) of the porticoes were sculptural groups depicting both Romulus and Aeneas, thus connecting Augustus to Rome’s two legendary founders (Ovid Fasti 5.549-570).

This drawing shows an ancient sculpture now in Tunis that may be a depiction of the actual pedimental group from Mars Ultor (possible identifications left to right: Venus, Cupid, Mars, and Divus Iulius)

To complete the narrative cycle, statues of famous Romans of the Republican period adorned the attic of the porticoes. These famous men (summi viri) were portrayed alongside small, inscribed plaques (tituli) bearing their political and military accomplishments. In this way, Augustus portrayed himself as the ideal man to lead the Roman state; he was connected to Rome’s divine origins and he represented continuity with its republican tradition. This powerful visual narrative represents an important early use of public art to transmit ideological messages in the western world.

View of the capitals of the Temple of Mars Ultor, Forum Augusti, c. 2 B.C.E.

Subsequent emperors continued to elaborate upon the Forum of Augustus. The emperor Tiberius added two arches in 19 C.E. meant to honor the German victories of Drusus and Germanicus (Tacitus Annales 2.64; CIL 6.911) and the emperor Hadrian restored the forum complex in the second century. Pliny the Elder deemed the Forum of Augustus one of three most beautiful monuments in the city of Rome (Pliny the Elder Natural History 36.102.5).

Templum Pacis / Forum of Vespasian

The next imperial forum to be built was commissioned by the emperor Vespasian following the suppression of the Great Jewish Revolt that lasted from 66 to 73 C.E. Vespasian came to power following civil chaos in 69 C.E. and, together with his eldest son, Titus, suppressed the revolt and sacked the city of Jerusalem. During the summer of 71 C.E. Vespasian and Titus jointly celebrated a lavish triumph at Rome—an ancient ritual celebrating significant military victories. One of the key tenets of Vespasian’s new administration was the restoration of the city, including the construction of new buildings and monuments. He dedicated a forum complex that housed a temple dedicated to Peace (Pax) in 71 C.E., completing it by 75 C.E. (Flavius Josephus Jewish War 7.5.7). This innovative complex was deemed one of Rome’s most beautiful monuments by Pliny the Elder and housed not only significant spoils from Jerusalem but also masterworks of Greek art that had previously been hoarded by the emperor Nero.

Restored plan, Temple of Peace

The Temple of Peace (Templum Pacis) stands out among the imperial fora for its innovative architectural design. Rather than featuring a central temple seated atop a prominent podium, the Templum Pacis complex consists of a square portico (dimensions 110 x 135 m) with the temple itself set within the eastern side of the portico, flanked by ancillary rooms. This left the square itself open for the installation of decorative water features and plantings which are seen both archaeologically and on fragments of the Severan marble plan of the city of Rome (forma urbis Romae) that was mounted in the forum complex in the third century C.E. The fragments of the Severan plan provide valuable information about the design of this architectural complex and has led scholars to speculate that the inspiration for its design may have been the great market (macellum magnum) of the city that had likely been destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. It is especially significant to note that this is a public space and that Vespasian’s generosity granted the populace of Rome access not only to a beautiful, monumental square, but also to art and the spoils of military victory (including spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem).

Forum Transitorium

Columns and relief sculpture, Forum Transitorium (Forum of Nerva), c. 97 C.E.

Forum Transitorium

The Forum Transitorium, also referred to as the Forum of Nerva, was begun by Domitian, the younger son of Vespasian. Incomplete at the time of Domitian’s assassination in 96 C.E., the complex was completed by Nerva in 97 C.E. This is a narrow forum complex that abuts both the Forum of Augustus and the Templum Pacis and is constrained by these pre-existing structures (dimensions: 131 x 45 meters); as well as the Argiletum, a street that ran the length of the forum. The Forum Transitorium’s temple was sacred to Minerva, who had been a patron divinity of Domitian, and the architectural sculpture that decorated the porticoes featured imagery connected to Minerva and scenes from the private lives of women.

Forum of Trajan

Plan of the Imperial fora showing a freestanding Temple of the Deified Trajan at the western end of the Forum of Trajan. 1) Forum of Caesar; 2) Forum of Augustus; 3) Templum Pacis; 4) Forum Transitorium; 5) Forum of Trajan; 6) Basilica Ulpia (part of Trajan’s Forum)

The Forum of Trajan (Forum Traiani), the final imperial forum, was both the largest and the most lavish. Inaugurated in 112 C.E., the architectural complex relied upon imposing architectural and sculptural features to glorify the accomplishments and principate of the emperor Trajan. The elaborate forum complex has a vast footprint, measuring 200 x 120 meters. The open square of the forum is flanked by porticoes that contain exedrae and point viewer attention toward the main structure, the massive Basilica Ulpia. The architect Apollodorus of Damascus was responsible for the innovative design. On the western side of the basilica was another courtyard, flanked by two libraries (one Greek and one Latin), that contained a monumental honorific column, known today as the Column of Trajan.

View of the Forum of Trajan, c. 112 C.E., the Column of Trajan can be seen behind the columns of the Basilica Ulpia

The Column of Trajan, inaugurated in 113 C.E., is a main feature of the Forum of Trajan and is, in its own right, a masterwork of Roman art. ​The column carries an helical frieze of historical relief that provides a pictorial narrative of the events of Trajan’s wars in Dacia (101–102 and 105–106 C.E.), culminating with the death of the enemy commander, Decebalus. The column stands 38 meters tall and its frieze wraps around the column shaft 23 times, with a total length of roughly 190 meters. Carved in bas relief, the exquisite frieze carefully narrates Trajan’s campaigns and its level of detail is simply astounding.

Column of Trajan, Carrara marble, completed 113 C.E., Rome; dedicated to Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus in honor of his victories over Dacia (now Romania) 101-02 and 105-06 C.E.

The column’s frieze may draw inspiration from earlier Roman triumphal art, the tradition of which was inclined to depict scenes from the foreign campaigns and, in so doing, glorify the accomplishments of the commander and his soldiers. Throughout the Forum of Trajan the theme of military victory, and its celebration, permeate the monumental decorative programs.

Pontoon bridge with Roman soldiers (detail), Column of Trajan, Carrara marble, completed 113 C.E., Rome (photo: ElissaSCA © All rights reserved, by permission)

When Trajan died in 117 C.E., sources tell us that the Roman Senate allowed a special dispensation whereby Trajan’s cremated remains could be deposited in the base of the column and that a temple to his cult (Templum Divi Traiani et Plotinae) was added to the forum complex between 125 and 138 C.E. (Historia Augusta – Hadrian 19.9). An ongoing point of scholarly contention is the position and appearance of this plan. Traditional reconstructions favor a free-standing temple at the western end of the forum, while more recent reconstructions instead favor a shrine positioned against the western exedra of the Forum of Augustus. Ongoing archaeological fieldwork may yet shed light on this contentious topographical debate.

Interpretation

The Imperial fora represent important architectural landscapes in the city of Rome. They demonstrate the efficacy of public art and architecture with respect to creating collective identity and communicating clear messages that both disseminate and reinforce ideology. The strength and accomplishments of the Roman state, not to mention its stability, are key themes in any such program of message making. We should also not underestimate the psychological effect of these grandiose, soaring, bedecked complexes, based around massive open plazas, on the minds and experiences of city dwellers (many of whom lived in crowded squalor). The Imperial fora demonstrate that within the mechanisms of Roman urbanism, civic architecture occupies a crucial role. We are reminded of this efficacy by an ancient example that is perhaps no different from the reaction of a modern visitor to the city of Rome. The emperor Constantius II, visiting Rome in the mid-fourth century C.E., was amazed by the Forum of Trajan, something he considered “a construction unique under the heavens” (Ammianus Marcellinus 16.10.15).

Additional Resources

A. J. Ammerman, “On the Origins of the Forum Romanum,” American Journal of Archaeology vol. 94, no. 4, 1990, pp. 627-45.

A. J. Ammerman, “The Comitium in Rome from the Beginning.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 100, no. 1, 1996. pp. 121-36.

J. Anderson, The Historical Topography of the Imperial Fora (Collection Latomus; 182) (Brussels: Latomus, 1984).

S. Baiani et al., Crypta Balbi-Fori imperiali: archeologia urbana a Roma e interventi di restauro nell’anno del Grande Giubileo (Rome: Kappa, 2000).

P. Carafa, Il comizio di Roma dalle origini all’età di Augusto (Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1998).

A. Carandini and P. Carafa, eds., Atlante di Roma antica: biografia e ritratti della città, 2 v. (Milan: Electa, 2012).

A. Claridge, Rome: an Archaeological Guide 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

F. Coarelli et al., The Column of Trajan (Rome: Colombo, 2000).

F. Coarelli, Il foro romano, 2 v. (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1983-1992).

F. Coarelli, Rome and Environs: an Archaeological Guide, trans. James J. Clauss and Daniel P. Harmon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

R. Darwall-Smith, Emperors and Architecture: a Study of Flavian Rome (Collection Latomus; 231) (Brussels: Latomus, 1996).

J. Geiger, The first hall of fame: a study of the statues in the Forum Augustum (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008).

E. Gjerstad, Early Rome, 7 v. (Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1953-1973).

C. Hülsen and J. B. Carter, The Roman forum: its history and its monuments, 2nd ed. (Rome: Stechert, 1906).

R. Krautheimer, Rome, profile of a city, 312-1308 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

R. Krautheimer, Three Christian capitals: topography and politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

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Digital Roman Forum (UCLA)

Digital Augustan Rome

Rome Reborn

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill


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