The Forum of Trajan

Apollodorus of Damascus, The Forum of Trajan, dedicated 112 C.E., Rome

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”forum of trajan,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re standing on a terrace looking out over Rome, and more specifically, over the Imperial Fora.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] A forum is something that you could find in any Roman city. It’s a civic space.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] It was an administrative center, it was a commercial center, and it was a political and social center.

Dr. Harris: [0:21] There was a long tradition of forums going back to the period of ancient Roman Republic, and that’s what we see in the space called the Roman Forum today.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] Then Julius Caesar starts a new tradition. He builds his own forum.

Dr. Harris: [0:33] The main area of the forum got too busy. Caesar wanted to showcase his own political power, and so beginning with Caesar, we get a series of forums built by various emperors.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] There were quite a number. There was the Forum of Augustus, there was the Forum of Domitian, which became the Forum of Nerva.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] Including the one we’re looking over now, which is the Forum of Trajan.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] But Trajan had a problem. The real estate was already filled with the fora of the previous emperors, so he turned to his architect, his engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus.

[1:05] Apollodorus was tasked with removing the hill that was in the way, or at least a good portion of it, in order to build the forum. Unfortunately, what we see now are the foundations and the ruins and the walls of medieval houses that were built on that earlier classical structure.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] Perhaps archaeologists in the future will one day decide to dig deeper and to discover what remains of the Forum of Trajan, but we can see an area that was excavated that was Trajan’s, and that’s the area of the Basilica Ulpia.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] Trajan’s forum is almost the size of all the Imperial fora put together.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] It was incredibly extravagant. There was an enormous ceremonial entranceway that led into the space of the Forum.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] We think that at the top was a sculpture of a chariot pulled by six horses, with the Emperor Trajan followed by the goddess of victory.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] Then, once you entered the space of the forum, in the center was an equestrian sculpture, a sculpture showing Trajan on a horse. To get an idea of what that looked like, we can think of the equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius that survived.

[2:06] Dr. Zucker. This enormous space would be flanked by huge lobed areas which were called exedrae, but as we looked forward, we would look at one flank of the largest basilica in Rome, the Basilica Ulpia.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] Imagine a public space filled with niches with sculpture in them, relief carvings, freestanding sculpture commemorating the great emperors and politicians and military leaders of ancient Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] There were beautiful colored marbles in the paving stones as well as in the structures themselves, and that’s beautifully exemplified by the Basilica Ulpia. It’s called the Basilica Ulpia because that’s Trajan’s family name.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] When we look out, we can at least see part of the enormous basilica. There would’ve been columns on all sides.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] They would have extended beyond the area that has been excavated.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] Beyond that, you went through another entranceway. There were two libraries on either side, one for Greek literature, one for Roman literature. In the middle was the Column of Trajan. The Column of Trajan looks really lonely today, but there were buildings surrounding it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] In fact, the Greek and Latin library were designed with porches so that you could get a great view of the relief carving on the Column of Trajan. The Column of Trajan is in extraordinarily good condition considering that the rest of this area has been destroyed.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to its largest borders. He was a great military general.

[3:25] When you looked at the Column of Trajan, the point was to see the story of Trajan’s great military exploits, specifically the two campaigns, which lasted over several years, where he defeated the Dacians. Trajan was obviously proud of his military endeavors and his expansion of the empire.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] Throughout his Imperial forum, Trajan had sculptures of captured Dacians, showing the Dacians as quite noble, as formidable adversaries.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] It was easy to recognize the Dacians. They looked very different from the Romans. They wore fringed shawls. They had a beard and long hair. Anyone looking at the sculptures could easily tell these were the defeated foes. There was a sense of the correctness of what the Romans had done. Everywhere one looked, you saw sculptures of the Romans conquering their enemies.

Dr. Zucker: [4:12] His success over the Dacians funded this monumental building campaign.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] When you approached the forum, you would see the equestrian sculpture and then the Column of Trajan. On top of the Column of Trajan, now, we see a sculpture of St. Peter. Originally, there was a sculpture of Trajan.

Dr. Zucker: [4:30] The pillar is 125 feet tall. It marks the height of the hill that was removed by Apollodorus of Damascus in order to build the forum here. It speaks to the Romans’ interest in making nature subservient to man’s will.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] We have the forum, beyond that the Basilica Ulpia, beyond that the libraries with the column in the center. Beyond that, Trajan had planned a temple. Temples were always parts of forum complexes, but Trajan died before he could build it. It was built by the succeeding emperor, Hadrian, who built it in honor of the deified Trajan.

Dr. Zucker: [5:07] This imperial forum, with its large open courtyard, with its basilica, with its libraries, with its column, with its temple, would have been a civic space. It would have been a ceremonial space. Just adjacent to it, built into the hill, and in part helping to hold the hill up, is the Markets of Trajan. Most of this area survives intact.

Dr. Harris: [5:28] And is a museum today.

Dr. Zucker: [5:30] Often when we think of ancient Roman architecture, we think of forums, we think of temples, but in fact, the Romans were extremely adept at building dense multi-story buildings, very much like our modern shopping malls or apartment buildings.

Dr. Harris: [5:43] This is because the Romans perfected the use of concrete. Let’s go inside and look at some of the spaces in the Markets of Trajan.

[5:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Forum of Trajan," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed April 15, 2024,