The Markets of Trajan

Apollodorus of Damascus, The Markets of Trajan, 112 C.E., Rome

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Perhaps the most powerful emperor in the history of Rome.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:08] Well, certainly one of the most popular.

Dr. Zucker: [0:10] And one of the most successful in a military sense, was the Emperor Trajan. He built not only the largest imperial forum in Rome’s history.

Dr. Harris: [0:19] That is the biggest, most magnificent public space. In addition to temples and libraries, he also built a vast public bathhouse.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] He also built the Markets. This was, in essence — what we would recognize in the modern world — a huge shopping complex, a kind of mall, with more than 150 offices and storefronts.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] As emperor, you could choose to build public buildings. You could build private dwellings, palaces for yourself. You could build a combination of both.

[0:46] Not long before Trajan, the Emperor Nero had appropriated vast amounts of land that belonged to the Roman people to build his palace, the Domus Aurea. The emperors that came immediately after him for the most part decided to build instead projects for the Roman public.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] The Flavians, for example, built the amphitheater that we call the Colosseum. Trajan continues that tradition by building this massive public project, both the forum and the adjacent market.

[1:14] The market is so interesting to me because for so long when I thought of ancient Roman architecture, I thought of temples, I thought of fora, I thought of these large civic spaces. What I didn’t realize was that the Romans were extremely adept at building dense, multi-story structures, that is, basically apartment buildings, office blocks. That’s what we have here.

Dr. Harris: [1:34] They had concrete, which allowed them to really shape space in a way that you can’t do with spaces that are constructed with post-and-lintel architecture, essentially columns and roofs. For example, here in the Markets of Trajan, when we enter the central hallway, we look up and we see this very high, wide space constructed with the use of groin vaults made with brick-faced concrete.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] A groin vault is simply a barrel vault that has been intercepted by a second barrel vault that is perpendicular to it. In this case, we have the main barrel vault of the hallway, which is quite long, intersected by additional barrel vaults at right angles. You get this X-shaped archway.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] This was done by Trajan’s chief architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, an amazing engineer and architect who also built bridges and other military structures for Trajan. Apollodorus of Damascus also built, on either side of this groin-vaulted hallway, offices that are supported by barrel vaults and linked to the main hallway by buttresses.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] What I find so phenomenal about this space is the amount of light that is let in. This is because the Romans had become so adept at using concrete. The ability to give up weight-bearing wall for apertures, for windows to let light in, both in the vaulting and in the walls, speaks to the extraordinary level of confidence of the ancient Romans under Trajan.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] Soon after this, under the Emperor Hadrian, the Romans will build one of the most beautiful surviving monuments today, and that is the Pantheon. An enormous, uninterrupted domed space, created with the use of concrete.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] Here in the center of Rome we have, intact, one of the most complex urban spaces dating from ancient Rome. It is a spectacular display of Roman engineering, and gives us a real window into what Roman life must have been like.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] The Romans had a nickname for Trajan, and that was “Optimus Princeps,” and that means “best leader.” Standing here, overlooking Trajan’s forum, and standing in the market that he commissioned, we can understand why they would call him that.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Markets of Trajan," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,