website banner for 'atouchofrome.com' 
showing a yellow sunset and a landscape featuring roman ruins and a roman eagle flying above


Bust of emperor Trajan plain with no background
  
roman motif design

FORUM OF TRAJAN
EXPLAINED



roman motif design


THE MAGNIFICENT IMPERIAL FORUM OF A BELOVED EMPEROR


Forum of Trajan wide view recreation drawing featuring the Basilica Ulpia with Trajan's Column in the background and the forum square in the 
  foreground - this is a color and highly detailed recreation of what the forum looked like in the year 200 AD
The grand Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan
Dedicated to Emperor Trajan who ruled from 98 to 117 AD

"And Trajan ... his Forum in Rome worth seeing not only for its general beauty but especially for its roofs made of bronze"
- Pausanias (125 - 180 AD) - Book 5: 12, 6

If you stand in what remains of the Forum of Trajan today, you could hardly be blamed for not realizing that, for over 500 years, this was one of the greatest constructions of ancient Rome, a place that ancient tourists made sure to visit. This was the largest and the last of the five Imperial Forums to be fully completed in 113 AD by the renowned ancient architect Apollodorus. No expense was spared in the construction of this forum - every statue and building was made of luxurious marbles, granites, and bronze gilded with gold. While the forum was opened in 112 AD, the huge Column of Trajan that soared above all was completed the next year.

In the image above, we are looking north from the entrance and towards the large Basilica Ulpia building with Trajan's Column towering above the roof. Along the sides of this forum's wide courtyard are columned porticos, also known as colonnades. In the middle of the vast square is a large equestrian statue of Trajan on a horse. Above the columns along the sides of both porticos are statues of Dacians, mementos of the long Dacian Wars that Trajan fought and won for the glory and stability of the Roman Empire. In fact, the main theme of this whole forum was Trajan's great victory in 106 AD over the Dacian people who lived in eastern Europe.

Some of the basilica's front columns are made of a yellow-gold marble known as "Giallo Antico", while all the others (including the portico columns) are made of Pavonazzetto marble - white with bluish veins. There were statues of Dacian barbarians above the columns, one of which has survived. The second floor of the basilica is composed of a series of columns open to the air and allowing much light to enter the building.


Basilica Ulpia as seen in the year 2022 showing just some partial columns
The Basilica Ulpia in Forum of Trajan at dusk in 2020
All columns were raised in 1814 after excavations in 1813
Photo: Licensed from Dreamstime.com

This forum was so vast that the entire Forum of Augustus could fit in the courtyard, and the Forum of Nerva could fit inside the length of the Basilica Ulpia and its two apses. This whole forum was designed to stun the viewer with its size, its numerous and sometimes huge statues, and the beautiful details of its columns, entablatures, and gold-coloured roofs made of gilded bronze tiles. It is a tragedy that this monumental architectural creation was not maintained for future generations.

In addition to the forum's impressive architecture, it was also much appreciated by the Romans because Emperor Trajan was a great and noble Emperor, noted for the vast number of public buildings he built, his just and temperate governing, improvements to the social welfare of the people, the expansion of the empire, and his military accomplishments. The Roman Senate honoured him with the title of Optimus Princeps - "The Best Ruler." Simply put, though Trajan ruled for only nineteen years (98 AD to 117 AD), he was one of greatest and most beloved emperors in Roman history.


Basilica Ulpia as seen in the year 2022 showing just some partial columns
Bronze statue of Emperor Trajan
Trajan's full title was: IMPERATOR TRAIANO AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS DACIUS PONTIFEX MAXIMUS TRIBUNITIA POTESTAS which translates to: Emperor Trajan, Conqueror of Germany and Dacia, High Priest and Tribune

In the year 117 AD, just five years after his forum was built, Trajan became ill while fighting the Parthians in Syria and Armenia. Consequently, while sailing home for Rome, he suffered a stroke and passed away in the city of Selinus, located in present-day southern Turkiye. He was cremated and his ashes were transported to Rome. He was succeeded by his nephew, Emperor Hadrian, who also became one of the great Roman Emperors. After the death of Trajan and his deification that transformed him into a god, Hadrian added to the forum by building a temple whose exact location still remains a mystery - something I discuss further on in great detail.



FORUM OF TRAJAN - THE BASILICA ULPIA



Basilica Ulpia interior recreated in color showing the yellow and white marble floors, the ceiling, numerous statues, and many columns.  
  Trajan's Column can be seen between the upper columns on the right side of the Basilica Ulpia
Basilica Ulpia interior seen from second level
Lower columns are grey granite - Upper are green Cipillino Verde marble
Floor tiles : Giallo Antico, Pavonazzetto, Africano marbles
This is my remastered version of a drawing by Gilbert Gorski. There is an amazing book full of Mr. Gorski's superb drawings of Roman structures (historical advice by James Packer) - it is expensive but worth every penny. I added more of the basilica to create more depth, perspective, while also increasing the brightness and heightened details.

In the image above, people are walking inside the Basilica Ulpia with its beautiful and vibrant marble floors. At the far end is the north-east apse where Roman slaves were set free (the Atrium Libertatis). I like the open and airy structure of this building which must have been delightful to explore on a warm, sunny day with a light breeze blowing through the columns. For those admiring the stunning floor, some of those marble floor tiles have survived, as seen in the two images below.

To see the original ancient Basilica Ulpia marble floor tiles you have to go below the neighbouring large Palazzo Roccagiovine building where a museum is located. The current floor tiles you see on the ground when looking at the ruins of the basilica are not the original floor tiles - they are reconstructions, as seen in this photo.


two photos showing surviving marble floor tiles from the Basilica Ulpia.   Giallo Antico, Pavonazzetto, and 
Cipillino Verde marble tiles are seen and they are located under the Palazzo Roccagiovine
Ancient Basilica Ulpia floors photographed during my Feb. 2024 visit to under Palazzo Roccagiovine
Photo on right shows border tiles made of greenish Cipillino Verde in addition to the yellow/orange Giallo Antico and whitish Pavonazetto marble tiles
© atouchofrome.com

The Basilica Ulpia was one of the largest basilicas ever built by the Romans, second only to the Basilia of Maxentius built two centuries later in the Forum Romanum in Rome.. The interior space was so vast - 118 metres long (385 ft) and 55 metres wide (182 ft) - it contained 96 columns and five naves (click to see diagram). The floor tile patterns along the two outer naves differ from the pattern of the main central nave of the basilica.


Basilica Ulpia interior recreated and shown from ground level, again showing the yellow and white marble floors with 
reddish dark circles sparkling on a sunny day
Basilica Ulpia interior seen from ground level
The interior of the Basilica Ulpia is a symphony of beautiful coloured stones from all over the Roman Empire
My remaster of a 3D graphic image by Joost Van Dongen

The arrangement of numerous grey granite Corinthian columns on the ground floor and green Cipilino Verde marble Ionic columns on the top floor, combined with the statues and the coffered ceiling, is a stunning example of Roman architecture at its finest. It is said that there were two huge bronze statues of Trajan that were part of the Basilica Ulpia, showing him as both warrior and as a lawmaker.

The basilica's upper floor is called a Clerestory, whose purpose is to provide ample light into the structures interior - which it certainly does very well in the image above. The roof of the basilica was not flat like the vast and impressive coffered ceiling. Instead, the basilica had a trussed roof made of wood, pointed like an upside down "V", just like the forum's porticos and many other Roman buildings.

To see a very realistic recreation showing how the floors of the Basilica Ulpia looked like long ago, please click here.

The Basilica Ulpia gets its name from the middle name of Emperor Trajan. His full name, in Latin, is Marcus Ulpius Traianus, and thus Ulpius became Ulpia when used as a descriptive name for the basilica. After this vast and beautiful basilica was built, it quickly became the most important public building in Rome, and many of the politicians relocated from the Forum Romanum to the Basilica Ulpia to conduct their political activities.

Another important aspect of the Basilica Ulpia is how it is the prototype for Christian basilicas, a process begun by Emperor Constantine. Interestingly, I wonder why the Basilica Ulpia, itself, was not converted into a church, like so many other Roman buildings such as the Pantheon, or Temple of Antoninus and Faustina? But even if it had been converted into a church, that would not have saved the building from devestating earthquakes in later centuries.


photo of columns from the ancient Basilica Ulpia that are now being used in St. Peter's basilica today
Basilica Ulpia columns inside St. Peter's basilica
Image licensed from Luis Avarenga - Picfair

One of the most striking features of the basilica's exterior were the deep yellow columns all along the front porches, two of which have survived and are shown above - what an amazing colour of marble.

As you can see, yellow was a very dominant theme colour in the Basilica Ulpia and the Forum of Trajan, but all traces of the wonderful colours used to construct the forum were not seen for centuries. After the forum was destroyed by earthquakes in 801, and 847 AD, what remained of the collapsed basilica was buried under several metres (yards) of dirt. Furthermore, after hundreds of years, two convents were built over the site and the forum virtually disappeared from view, except for the nearby Column of Trajan and Trajan's Market structures.

Nevertheless, in the 1530s, Pope Clement VII had several of the yellow marble columns that used to adorn the front of the basilica dug up. Those recovered columns (shown above) were then taken and used in constructing St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican that was built between 1506 to 1626 AD. The photo above shows how tall (8 metres/25 feet), and how very yellowish/gold these columns are. The photo below shows us a beautiful carved frieze that adorned the entablature above the ground level columns of the Basilica Ulpia. Interestingly, a section of the Basilia Ulpia is currently being rebuilt by a former mayor of Rome.


Frieze from inside the nave of the Basilica Ulpia showing a winged victory slaying a bull
Basilica Ulpia interior frieze showing a Winged Victory slaying a bull
Photo permission: M.G. Conde Nov 2021

The interior of the Basilica Ulpia, with its wide open spaces, beautiful and coloured marble floors, was also enhanced by sculptured friezes all along the interior. The frieze shown above was located above the basilica's lower tier of gray granite columns, all along the entablature just above the columns. Many thanks to the well-informed and helpful Mr. Martin Conde who has many great photos of the Forum of Trajan ruins.

Archaelogists have determined that this frieze panel was repeated approximately 65 times within the Basilica Ulpia's interior. According to one of the world's foremost experts, Ph.D. historian James Packer describes the frieze above as, quote:


Inside, the nave (Basilica Ulpia) was dominated by the frieze of the lower order (of columns), a single scene of four winged victories repeated 65 times ... Depicted as priestesses sacrificing bulls and decorating candelabra, they also recalled worship of the emperors and symbolized victory over death ...

James E. Packer, Trajan's Glorious Forum - Feb. 1998

Whether visualizing the interior or exterior of the basilica or the porticos of the Forum of Trajan, we can be confident that today's portrayals are probably accurate thanks to the large number of excavations. Many remains of the forum's structures, lying like puzzle pieces, have been found, thus providing archaelogists and historians a pretty good idea of what the structures looked like.

Despite the overall ruined condition today, the Forum of Trajan really was a public space in ancient Rome that amazed and delighted people. The impression ancient Romans undoubtedly had as they walked through the various forum areas was how vast and complicated it was, filled with so many huge structures, columns, statues, all made of coloured marbles and gilded bronze that delighted the eye while enhancing the overall architecture. It must have been so wonderful, as I will show you through many reconstruction images on this page. I will begin my tour with a look at the long columned passageways - known as porticos - that ran along the far sides of the forum.



FORUM OF TRAJAN PORTICOS



drawing showing the northeastern portico colonnade in the Forum of Trajan.  The floors of this portico are 
        made of yellowish (giallo antico) marble and whitish (pavonazzetto) marble.  The rounded ceiling is 
highly decorated and many columns border both sides of the passageway.   This portico leads towards 
        the Basilica Ulpia
Northeastern Portico with Giallo Antico and Pavonazzetto marble tile floors
This is my remaster of an Italian School painting - late 1800s to 1930s - original artist is unknown - Public Domain

The image above shows the Basilica Ulpia's yellow and white marble floor pattern being used on the floor inside the Northeastern Portico on the right side of the Basilica Ulpia and the Forum of Trajan. However, the Basilica Ulpia floor pattern also included circles of a dark marble (africano). The white/gold marble floor pattern was used extensively throughout many of the structures in the Forum of Trajan. Further down the page, I show more photos of surviving floor tiles from this forum that still show their gold and white colouring after almost 20 centuries. In this image (click to view) of what the east portico looks like today - bits of the white and yellow marble flooring can still be seen.


Forum of Trajan Southwestern portico showing its interior with a focus on the golden marble floors and colorful ceiling -
 also showing part of the Basilica Ulpia
Southwestern Portico on other side of the Forum with Basilica Ulpia on the right
This is my remastered version of an image by unknown artist

And on the other side of the forum is the southwestern portico, shown above. This image shows how Trajan's forum looked like in the early 2nd century. The beautiful ceiling and that same white/gold marble floor theme used throughout much of the forum can be seen once again. The golden columns of the Basilica Ulpia and its gilded bronze roof can be seen, as well as statues of the Dacians above the columns. Those statues can be seen more clearly in my drawing below showing how a Forum of Trajan portico appeared when viewed while standing direclty in front.


Forum of Trajan northeastern  portico reconstruction seen while facing it straight on, with the bronze equestrian statue of 
Trajan shown on the right, with the courtyard paved with white marble paving slabs
Forum of Trajan Northeastern Portico seen from the front with Equestrain statue on the right
My drawing was inspired by images sourced and cited below:
Arch. Paolo Martellotti & Arch. Barbara Baldrati (1999-2002); courtesy of M.G. Conde (2023)
I also incorporated information from Archaeologist Amanda Claridge, Prof. J. Packer (Historian), and ancient Roman descriptions.

We know how the Forum of Trajan's porticos looked like in the past because of many excavations by archaelogists over the years who uncovered numerous surviving pieces which they then reassembled. In addition, our understanding of how this ancient forum looked is assisted by surviving records of ancient Romans describing what they saw. The quote below is an example of one of those ancient descriptions by a Roman scholar of the 2nd century AD.


All along the roof of the colonnades of Trajan's forum there are placed gilded statues of horses and representations of military standards, and underneath is written Ex manubiis"
- Aulus Gellius, Attic Knights, 13.25


Below the roof line, a repeating pattern of Dacian statues and circular clipeus reliefs, also known as Imago Clipeata, running along the length of the portico closely resembles the attic sculptures seen in the Forum of Augustus, which obviously inspired the architect. A "Clipeus" was basically a carved marble round shield with a carved portrait of a person at its centre. What is interesting about these is that there were multiple people portrayed in addition to Trajan, and the carved portraits changed over time. In 2006, a clipeus showing the face of emperor Constantine I, who lived two centuries after the Forum of Trajan was built, was excavated.

Somewhat perplexing are images by other artists often showing a Forum of Trajan portico with even more Dacian statues all along the roof. I believe that is an error. An ancient Roman (quoted above) who visited the forum described only gilded statues of horses and representations of military standards along the roof - no mention of more Dacian statues - I have corrected this in my recreation drawing. Another aspect of the portico that is very likely was the existence of statues along at least one side of the portico floor because such was the case in both the Forum of Caesar and the Forum of Augustus, for example.

On the right side of the image, you can see part of the large equestrian statue showing Trajan riding a horse. So many images show the horse facing inwards to the Basilia Ulpia, instead of outwards towards the entrance - again, I believe that is incorrect simply because such horse statues typically faced the people as they entered a forum, as was done in the Forum of Caesar and Forum of Augustus.

You can see that the three steps leading into the portico from the courtyard are made of yellowish Giallo Antico marble, which can be seen in the portico floors also. Furthermore, on the left side of my drawing, the opening to one of the portico's large exedras is seen. Finally, the white and shining Carrara marble slabs of the courtyard are very impressive and must have been very stunning on a sunny day.

No expense was spared during the construction of the Forum of Trajan, and the architect used a large pallet of different marbles and other types of stone to create a magnificent forum making a bold architectural and artistic statement in addition to the many symbols of a great and proud victory by Trajan and the Roman Empire on display. Below is a diagram showing the various marbles and granites used to make columns, and to pave the floors of the basilica, courtyard, and porticos.


the six main kinds of marble and granite used in the Forum of Trajan are shown, namely:  pavonazzetto, giallo antico, 
africano, carrara, cipillino, and gray granite
Six types of marble and granite used in the Forum of Trajan

These various kinds of stone were quarried and then transported to Rome from all over the Roman Empire. The first three types of stone shown above were used to make the beautiful floor tiles of the Basilica Ulpia: Yellowish Giallo Antico - white with bluish veins Pavonazzetto - dark red/black Africano marble.

The fourth kind (Carrara, also called Luna) was the white marble used to pave the huge courtyard of the forum which I discuss in detail further down the page. Carrara was used also to construct the Column of Trajan. The fifth kind of greenish stone (Cipilino Verde) was the marble used for the upper tier of columns in the Basilica Ulpia. The sixth kind of stone, not a marble, (Gray Granite from Egypt) formed the ground floor columns of the basilica. Not shown is a form of cheap and hard limestone called Travertine that was used in various areas of the forum, such as the foundations and walls. Travertine was sourced from quarries located in areas just outside Rome.




THE COLUMN OF TRAJAN



drawing of Trajan's Column as it appeared in the second century showing the column soaring upwards between the two libraries of the Forum of Trajan
Trajan's Column the year it opened - 113 AD
Remaster of an original drawing by Joost Van Dongen

Very few Roman structures have survived almost fully intact across twenty centuries. One of these survivors is the soaring 1,900-year-old Column of Trajan, shown above. This huge triumphal column was built to commemorate Emperor Trajan's victories over the Dacian people who threatened the eastern part of the Empire. Through two war campaigns from 101 to 106 AD, Trajan led 100,000 Roman troops to a victory that forever vanquished their Dacian enemies who lived in present-day Romania. A large statue of Trajan stood on top of the Column of Trajan, but it vanished long ago, although the head and foot from the bronze statue were found in the 1500s, but were lost in later centuries.

These wars were very important to the Romans, and Trajan's victory was a considerable achievement for him and the Roman Empire. His campaign secured not only the Empire's eastern border, but also enormous amounts of gold (225,000 kg / 500,000 lbs) and silver (450,000 kg / 1 Million lbs) for the Roman empire. Furthermore, Rome celebrated for an incredible 123 days after the final victory over the Dacians, with parades, sacrifices to their gods, feasts, plays, and games. And the crowing touch to Trajan's victory was the completion of both the Forum of Trajan in 112 AD and the Column of Trajan a year later, just seven years after the defeat of the Dacians in 106 AD - paid for, of course, by all that Dacian loot the Romans brought back to Rome.


1. THE SCULPTURED SURFACE OF THE COLUMN

The Column of Trajan represents one of the greatest achievements in Roman art. Incredibly, a continuous spiral of sculptures winds around the column 23 times as the tale of how the Romans vanquished the Dacians is skillfully depicted. Roman artists sculpted 155 bas-relief scenes containing thousands of figures showing Trajan and his soldiers from start to finish progressing through the Dacian Wars until they gained final victory. This enormous spiral relief, now faded to white, was originally painted using many colours, as seen in the pair of images below. We know the Column of Trajan's surface art was painted because small bits of pigment can still be seen, as shown in an excellent pdf document showing photos of red, yellow, orange, and gold paint specks from the Column of Trajan - thank you to the University of Paris.


two photos of the Column of Trajan surface showing today's plain white sculptures and the same photo that has 
been colorized to show the original appearance 1,900 years ago
Column of Trajan's carved figures today versus when new and painted
Photo left licensed from CanStock - Colour drawing is mine

The Column of Trajan's height is 36 metres (125 ft), and its width is 3.5 metres (12 ft). Additonally, the giant column was not made from a huge shaft of solid carrara marble - instead, it was composed of 20 separate marble drum sections weighing 30 tons each. Completed one year after the rest of the Forum of Trajan opened in 112 AD, the Column of Trajan was not only hollow, but it also contained a spiral staircase inside that led to an observation deck on top, as shown in this image.

Amazingly, sculptors chiselled the interior of each huge marble drum section to create narrow windows and a part of the spiral staircase. Afterwards, all the huge circular sections were carefully stacked and aligned to create the 185-step spiral staircase that led up to the observation deck - an impressive feat of planning and engineering on the part of Roman architects.

The photo below shows the upper and lower limit of one Column of Trajan drum section. Also, two small windows that let in light and air can be seen. To see one of these windows from inside the column, view this photo. To see the narrow 1,900-year-old staircase inside the Column of Trajan, please see this photo, courtesy of St. Andrews University.


Column of Trajan photo diagram showing the window locations and drum section limits, showing that starting
about 1 foot (30 cm) above each window a new drum section was added
Window locations and drum section borders
Photo licensed from Dreamstime with my labels added

The sculptures on the outside were done after the column was assembled to ensure there was no damage to the artwork while the column sections were being lifted into position by large Roman cranes. The smooth and seamless way the sculptures were all done make it obvious they were created after the Column of Trajan drum sections were all assembled and aligned correctly. After the column was assembled, much scaffolding that encirlced the structure was required to support the numerous artists working on the great column for several years.

Altogether, 2,662 figures were carved onto the column, and Trajan can be seen in 58 of the 155 carved relief scenes that rotate around the column 23 times for a total length of over 183 metres (600 ft). And, the story being told by all those carved reliefs is that of Roman soldiers building, marching, and fighting, with numerous scendes showing Trajan giving speeches and negotiating. Most interesting is how the carved scenes were arranged along the column so that people could get the gist of what was being told from two different viewpoints. The Column of Trajan certainly represents a great Roman artistic and engineering achievement.


2. COLUMN OF TRAJAN COURTYARD IN 113 AD

Below is a drawing showing the elegant courtyard that housed the Column of Trajan in 113 AD, the year when the column was finally completed. This courtyard was bordered by the Basilica Ulpia and its two rear entrances at the back, a library on both the left and right side, and a forum entrance (not seen) at the bottom. Along three sides of the courtyard, a peristyle made of Pavonazzetto marble columns in the Corinthian style (order) is seen. As discussed in earlier sections of this page, splendid pavonazetto marble was used extensively throughout the Forum of Trajan - on the floors, walls, and columns.


Reconstruction drawing showing the Column of Trajan courtyard in 113 AD, the year when  the Colum of Trajan
         was completed.  A courtyard with a peristyle of pavonazzetto marble columns surrounds the large base 
of the column which sits in the center of a white marble floor.  The column base is covered with reliefs of enemy weapons and 
armor that have been painted
Column of Trajan courtyard in 113 AD
© atouchofrome.com

The entire base and column are made of white Carrara marble. Roman eagles are seen at the corners just below a large green torus encircling the bottom of the giant column. The Torus is a giant wreath of laurel leaves symbolizing the Crown of Victory (Corona Triumphalis) worn by victorious Roman Generals and Emperors during victory parades. Once again, the message that Trajan and the Roman Empire was victorious is being loudly conveyed. People are seen walking through the courtyard towards the libraries and the Basilica Ulpia.

The lower part of the Column of Trajan base is covered with marble reliefs painted in vivid colours. These carved reliefs represent the "Ex Manubis" (spoils of war) armour and weapons the Romans took from their defeated Dacian enemies. Interestingly, when armour and weapons were taken from a defeated enemy Commander, these were considered the ultimate spoils of war, the Spolia Opima, and these were very rare. The next photo below shows the same view of that courtyard in the year 2020.


3. COLUMN OF TRAJAN COURTYARD IN 2020


Column of Trajan courtyard in 2020 showing it now has no marble floor tiles, all the courtyard columns and 
libraries are gone and only now unpainted base and giant column exist
Column of Trajan courtyard in 2020
Licensed from Dreamstime

Of course, the entire courtyard has mostly vanished, but the Column of Trajan and its elaborate base have survived 1,900 years. And though all the pavonazzetto columns have vanished, a series of white squares - possibly mortar or marble - mark the location of the column plinths. The ancient pigments that once covered the column and base sculptures have all faded to the underlying white colour of carrara marble. In front of the base, archaeologists have placed a large cracked column that was either part of an elaborate northern entrance to the forum, or part of the Temple of the Divine Trajan whose location is still not certain. Any marble or granite floor tiles that covered the courtyard are long gone, and all that remains is the underlying mortar or concrete that supported the floor.


4. THE TOMB WITHIN THE COLUMN OF TRAJAN

In the early second century, Romans thought very highly of Trajan. For example, the Roman Senate gave him the title "Optimus Pinceps" meaning "Best Ruler". And another way they honoured him, after his death in 117 AD, was by allowing his ashes (and his wife's four years later) to be stored within the Column of Trajan in the heart of Rome - something usually forbidden. The photo below shows the bronze doors within the column base which lead to the inside chamber and tall, winding staircase. Above the doors is an inscription (click to read) honouruing Trajan by listing his accomplishments, and also saying that a hill, as high as the column itself, had to be removed in order to build that part of the forum - quite an accomplishment back then.


photo of the base of Trajan's Column showing a doorway made of two bronze doors
The ashes of Trajan and Plotina were placed inside the base
This is the other side of the column base with bronze doors allowing access to the spiral staircases. Damage was caused by a Medieval church attached to the column. Above the doors is a large inscription.
AncientDigitalMaps CC BY-NC-2.0

However, allowing Trajan's ashes to be entombed at the Column of Trajan should have been prohibited because the Forum of Trajan was located well within Rome's Pomerium zone, a sacred area of the city where burials were forbidden. Obviously, because Trajan was so beloved and declared a god soon after his death, his adopted son, Emperor Hadrian, made an exception allowing the Column of Trajan to be used as a tomb. Ordinarily, the ashes of emperors were stored in the Mausoleum of Augustus, followed by Hadrian's Mausoleum after the death of emperor Hadrian in 138 AD.


bust of Roman emperor Trajan, made of marble
Emperor Trajan (53-117 AD)
bust of Plotina, wife of Roman emperor Trajan, made of marble
Pompeia Plotina (?-121 AD)

Although Emperor Trajan died just five years after his forum opened in 112 AD, his wife passed four years later in 121 AD. Golden urns containing the ashes of both Trajan and his wife Plotina (seen above) were stored inside the base below the column. Unfortunatley, the urns have been lost to the ages. Both Trajan and his wife were deified after their deaths and thus became Roman gods (divus and diva). Just like Trajan, his wife Plotina was held in high regard because it was believed she tried to help the poor, and she curtailed the zealousness and ruthlessness of Roman tax collectors. In addition, she had a strong interest in both philosopy and the Roman religion ("Religio Romana"), and was considered to be a virtuous person.


CONDITION OF THE COLUMN OF TRAJAN TODAY

Anyone looking at the Column of Trajan today may well think the column is in an almost pristine condition. Unfortunately, however, the ancient column was definitely damaged over the centuries by people, earthquakes, weather, and air pollution (acid rain). For example, all the Column of Trajan's ancient metal has been pillaged - all the doors, railings, clamps holding marble sections together, bronze statues - they are all gone. The doors you see today were replaced. I have read that some of the damage to the sculptures was actually caused by the scaffolding erected to examine the surface of the column.

Thankfully, the Column of Trajan was built on top of very solid ground made of sandstone. Such a firm foundation has protected it very well from earthquakes, but not totally. Within the spiral staircase, for example, you can see cracks caused by earthquakes - nevertheless, the column has been spared from serious damage.


close-up photo of Column of Trajan relief sculptures that are degraded due to weather and pollution, showing 
Roman and enemy cavalries
Some Column of Trajan sculptures have been degraded by weather and pollution
In this scene, Roman and enemy cavalries are fighting

Because wind, rain, and pollution have degraded many of the relief sculptures (as seen above), the surface of the Column of Trajan has been treated with chemicals, such as Ethyl Silicate that hardens and protects mortar, cement, and stone surfaces. Additonally, holes and cracks have been filled in with a kind of white mortar. Nevertheless, many holes remain that were caused by pillagers digging out metal clamps from the stone surfaces inside and outside the column. Also, the Column of Trajan was used as a bell tower for the church of San Niccolo de Columna (removed in 1500s) which was located right beside the column - this caused damage to the column in various places where the church was attached.

The Column of Trajan has a twin column in Rome - the Column of Marcus Aurelius - completed in 193 AD, eighty years after the Column of Trajan was built. Unfortunately, the column dedicated to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his victory over barbarians, was not constructed on a solid stone surface and consequently suffered earthquake damage that has misaligned some of its drum sections.


photo of ruins of Trajan's Forum showing the Column of Trajan and Basilica Ulpia on the left side and the 
modern Altare della Patria monument on the right side at sunset
Trajan's Column behind the Basilic Ulpia, with modern 'Altare della Patria' monument on the right

This final view of the Column of Trajan above shows it during a beautiful Roman sunset, behind the ruins of the Basilica Ulpia. The vast Altare della Patria memorial structure is seen on the far right. Known also as the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, this large structure was inaugurated in 1911, and was built over a period of 50 years, from 1885 to 1935.

This concludes my look at the Column of Trajan. I hope this impressive and iconic structure stands for another 1,900 years and beyond so future generations can appreciate the great artistic and engineering skills of the ancient Romans who built it. Next, I look at the overall structure of the whole Forum of Trajan before it was ruined, and I have identified all the major points-of-interest within the forum.




FORUM OF TRAJAN - MAP AND GUIDE


The map and guide to the Forum of Trajan below is explored in detail, from the south entrance on the left to the north entrance and a possible temple on the far right. This really was the largest of the imperial forums, and a great architectural creation. Note that when I point out directions in the Forum of Trajan, I usually use north, south, east, etc in order to keep the discussion more straight-forward and simple. However, the forum is located more on a north-west by south-east trajectory, as seen in this image.


Trajan's Forum map with guide showing major points of interest such as the Basilica Ulpia, Trajan's Column, the libraries, exedra, and entrance
Forum of Trajan Map Guide

 
Between the northern entrance (Map #1) and the Basilica Ulpia (Map #4) was a large courtyard containing a statue of Emperor Trajan (Map #2) riding a horse. There was a long columned a portico (Map #8) along both the left and right sides of the forum courtyard. The whole forum measured almost 330 x 200 metres (1,000 x 600 ft).

 
There are four exedras (Map #3): one along both porticos, plus one at either end of the Basilica Ulpia. An exedra is a structure - square or rounded - that protrudes outwards from a larger structure. This diagram shows both kinds of exedras.

 
Behind the Basilica Ulpia (Map #4) , the Column of Trajan (Map #6) stood between two libraries (Map #5), one dedicated to Latin documentgs, the other to Greek documents. These libraries, also known as the Ulpian Libraries, were listed among the best librairies in the Roman World.

 
The right side of the forum shows where the Temple of the Divine Trajan (#7) may have been located. However, the temple may have been located on the other side of the forum, as indicated also (#7). The question of where the forum's temple was located is discussed in detail in the next section, below.



TEMPLE OF THE DIVINE TRAJAN


Within the great forums of Rome, one often encounters the ruins of a grand temple. These ruins not only show us the temple's exact location within a forum but also offer us glimpses of its past magnificence. The Forum of Trajan, however, presents a puzzle because the exact location of its temple, known as the Temple of the Divine Trajan, remains uncertain. This ambiguity has sparked ongoing debates among scholars, with some arguing for its placement at the north end of the forum (as depicted below), while others contend that it occupied the south end (as illustrated further down).


My colour drawing showing the Temple of the Divine Trajan in the early second century AD 
being located north of the Column of Trajan.  A huge Corinthian order temple, octastyle, on a high podium fills the area 
north of the Column of Trajan courtyard and entrance
Temple of the Divine Trajan imagined as huge and located north of the Column of Trajan
The courtyard's bottom wall has been made transparent

The image above shows a long-standing and traditional point-of-view that places the Temple of the Divine Trajan at the north end of the Forum of Trajan, as shown also in this diagram looking straight down at the whole forum. The grand octastyle (8 columns wide) temple in the image has a total of 34 huge gray granite columns standing 18 metres high (60 ft). To date, 29 of these columns have been found buried in that area of the forum, which is why it was assumed these large columns must have been part of a huge temple. Below is an image of one of these columns, lying flat on the ground in front of the Column of Trajan (north side).


gray granite column section lying beside the Column of Trajan
Massive gray granite column lying beside the Column of Trajan
2 metres wide (6 ft), the broken granite column was also 18 metres long (60 ft) - its matching white marble capital is also seen (arrow)
Photo: Ellen Fitzsimons - CC BY-SA-2.0

However, because the large foundation (podium) that such a huge temple would require has still not been found in that area, a new theory says the numerous gray granite columns found in the northern part of the forum were actually part of a grand entrance to the Forum of Trajan. Therefore, the temple was perhaps located elsewhere. As quoted below, the question of where the Forum of Trajan's temple was located is still being debated (words in brackets added for clarification).


The position of – and very existence of – the temple dedicated to the deified Trajan is a matter of hotly contested debate among archaeologists, particularly clear in the ongoing debate between (historian) James E. Packer and (archaeologist) Roberto Meneghini.

Italian archaeologist Prof. Roberto Meneghini, former Director of the Imperial Forums for 30 years, has discovered archaeological evidence that places the location of the Temple of the Divine Trajan in the southern end of the Forum of Trajan complex, right next to the Forum of Augustus, and facing the southern entrance to the Forum of Trajan courtyard.

Furthermore, a century of excavations of the area just north of the Column of Trajan has revealed only the foundations of ancient Roman apartment buildings, known as "insulae", and those foundations are not very deep, as explained in quote below:


... excavation has found no trace of a temple, only remains of insulae with shallower foundations than those needed for a temple...

The implications of not finding the foundation ruins of a large Roman temple in the area just north of the Column of Trajan are considerable - it means there is no definitive proof the temple was located in the north. Consequently, if the Temple of the Divine Trajan was instead located in the far southern end of the Forum of Trajan, as shown in this diagram (click to view), then the temple must have been small and shrine-like (as shown below) simply because it was located in a courtyard of limited size.


my reconstruciton showing the Temple of the Divine Trajan in Rome, at the 
south end of the Forum of Trajan, located next to the Forum of Augustus.  Showing a rather miniature octastyle temple with two 
narrow colonnades on either side - the image is based on the images of the temple shown on surviving coins
Temple of the Divine Trajan imagined as small and located south, with the Forum of Augustus behind
The courtyard acts as a transit corridor between the Forum of Augustus (top) and the Forum of Trajan below

The image above is the Temple of the Divine Trajan imagined as located at the far southern end of the Forum of Trajan. In this image, we see a small, shrine-like temple that is six columns wide (hexastyle), and it fits comfortably within the medium-sized courtyard lying between the Forum of Augustus and the courtyard entrance of the Forum of Trajan. The temple and courtyard may have been somewhat larger than shown. When I created this image, I was making my best guess based on the information available to me.

Because it is small, the temple sits atop a low, Greek-style foundation called a crepidoma, instead of the typical high Roman podium foundation. Additonally, within the temple are cult statues of Emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina, who have both been deified. It is important to note that this temple is also sometimes referred to as "Temple of the Deified Trajan." On either sides of the wall behind the temple you can see entrances to the northern colonnade portico of the Forum of Augustus.

I will now focus on the implications of the Temple of the Divine Trajan being located at the far south end of the Forum of Trajan.


IF THE TEMPLE OF THE DIVINE TRAJAN WAS IN THE SOUTH, WHAT WAS IN THE NORTH?

If the Temple of the Divine Trajan was indeed located in the south, then the far northern end of the Forum of Trajan almost certainly contained a large monumental entrance to the forum instead of a temple. The dozens of large columns mentioned earlier found in the north of the forum had to be part of some kind of great structure. And, if that structure was not a temple, then almost certainly the columns were part of a large and grand entrance structure likely resembling the Pantheon's entrance portico built around the same time using the same kind of columns. The first image below shows a three-quarter view of what a grand entrance to the northern end of the Forum of Trajan may have looked like.


My colour reconstruction of how the whole northern end of the Forum of Trajan area looked like in the early
second century AD.   This reconstruction assumes the Temple of the Divine Trajan was not located in this part.  We have 
a large Pantheon-like columned portico with additional columns along the wall on either side of the entrance.  A large 
courtyard stands before the entrance
Northern monumental entrance to the Forum of Trajan
The courtyard's bottom wall has been made transparent

The image above displays massive gray granite columns forming the large portico entrance to the forum, and also arranged along the walls on either side. Behind the entrance, on the far left and right are the libraries of the Forum of Trajan, also known as the "Ulpian Libraries."

Soaring between the two libraries, the magnificent and huge Column of Trajan honours the emperor's victories over the Dacians. Along both sides of the large courtyard are walls that enclose and protect the area. I have made the nearest wall transparent so we can see the interior of the courtyard.

Some scholars challenge the concept shown in the image above for two reasons. Firstly, they argue that the 29 buried columns so far discovered far outnumber the 16 columns required for such a Pantheon-like entrance. Secondly, they dispute the notion that the extra columns lined the entrance walls because, in their opinion, the forum's northern wall was not high enough for 18-meter tall (60 ft) columns.


sketch from year 1606 showing the northern part of the Forum of Trajan, and only the Column of Trajan remains,
        with medieval buildings surrounding the area
Forum of Trajan North in 1606 AD
Only the great Column of Trajan stands - the forum's northern walls are gone
Aegidius Sadeler II, after Etienne DuPérac - The Met

However, a counter-argument to the wall height problem asks how anyone knows what its original height was anyhow since the walls were damaged severely by powerful earthquakes in 801 and 847 AD. The walls very likely collapsed over 1,100 years ago, and those parts that remained standing were pillaged for stone over the course of the remaining centuries.

Over 400 years ago, as seen in the drawing above, an artist drew the northern part of the Forum of Trajan, and the only part of the forum still standing is the Column of Trajan - there are no forum walls remaining. At that time, all the columns that can be seen today were still buried under metres (yards) of dirt and rubble. The buildings seen in the drawing were built long after the western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD. My next drawing shows the northern grand entrance to the Forum of Trajan 1,900 years ago, when viewed while standing in front.


My colour drawing showing how the Northen Monumental Entrance to the Forum of Trajan may have looked in the year 
112 AD.  We see an entrance looking much like the Pantheon columned entrance with numerous huge grey granite columns all 
in the Corinthian style with a classical tympanym roof, and a broad staircase
Northern monumental entrance to the Forum of Trajan
© atouchofrome.com

Notice how the base of the Column of Trajan can be seen behind the gray granite columns. Above and behind the entrance you can see the beautiful second-floor clerestory colonnade of the Basilica Ulpia with its greenish Cipillino Verde marble columns.

The architectural impact of such a magnificent entrance, combined with the soaring triumphal column painted in vivid colours must have created a stunning experience for ancient visitors to the Forum of Trajan. In my next drawing below (seen previously in the Column of Trajan section) above, I have imagined that someone has climed the entrance steps and walked through the large doorway - he is now standing just inside the the courtyard surrounding the Column of Trajan, with the Basilica Ulpia rear wall behind the column.


Reconstruction drawing showing the Column of Trajan courtyard in 113 AD, the year when  the Colum of Trajan
         was completed.  A courtyard with a peristyle of pavonazzetto marble columns surrounds the large base 
of the column sitting within a white marble floor.  The column base is covered with reliefs of enemy weapons and armor 
that have been painted
Column of Trajan courtyard in 113 AD
© atouchofrome.com

Once again, the blend of white carrara marble and pavonazzetto marble on the floor and columns creates a really nice effect, as does the 3-sided peristyle of columns around Trajan's Column. The display of colours from all the painted sculptures on the huge column and its base contrasts nicely with the more subdued hues of the courtyard's other surfaces. There may have been a railing all around the base of the huge column because it was a sacred place where the ashes of Trajan and his wife Plotina were entombed.

The libraries were located at the far left and right of the image, past the columns on both sides. At its peak, the population of ancient Rome was around 1 Million, so it is likely that thousands of people coursed through this courtyard every day as they headed to the libraries, the basilica, on their way to Trajan's Market, or other forums.

I will next look at who built the Temple of the Divine Trajan, and when, and why.



WHO BUILT THE TEMPLE OF THE DIVINE TRAJAN ?


bust of emperor Hadrian showing front view and a side view of his face and chest - he has very curly hair and a 
medium length beard and moustache
Emperor Hadrian, who completed the Temple of the Divine Trajan
Images: British Museum - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Temple of the Divine Trajan was built and financed by Emperor Hadrian, Trajan's adopted son and heir. And, of all the many buildings Hadrian built all over the Roman Empire, this temple was the only one he put his name on. It is believed the temple was designed by ancient architect Appolodorus of Damascus, who also created the design for the whole Forum of Trajan.

The purpose of the Temple of the Divine Trajan (and the likely reason why he put his name on the temple), for Hadrian, was to honour his adoptive parents, Trajan who died in 117 AD, and Plotina, who died in 122 AD.

According to a Wikipedia article, the temple was built between the years 125 to 138 AD. However, renowned scholars (Amanda Claridge, J. Packer) state the temple was completed by 128 or 129 AD at the latest, with construction having begun as early as 112 AD - the year the Forum of Trajan opened. For the purpose of this article, I have picked a completion date of 128 AD. Interestingly, this date coincides closely with the year when the Pantheon - built by the same architect - was completed. In the next section, I take a close look at the two Ulpian libraries that were located on either side of the Column of Trajan.




THE FORUM OF TRAJAN LIBRARIES



My color drawing showing the front entrance of a Forum of Trajan library, showing pavonazzetto columns and a library 
interior containing two tiers of columns and statues and floors made of pavonazzetto and giallo antico marble tiles
Entrance to a Forum of Trajan library in 120 AD

The Ulpian Library in the Forum of Trajan existed for almost four centuries. It was one of the greatest Roman libraries ever built, and was composed of two separate library buildings - one for Latin documents, the other for Greek. Both buildings were comissioned by Emperor Trajan in 112 AD, and they were finished two years later in 114 AD, two years after the forum opened. It is thought that Trajan wanted the libraries built not only as a service to the public, but also to enhance the prestige and glory of his forum.

The two libraries, located on either side of the Column of Trajan, were known as the Greek (west) and Latin (east) library. The location of these libraries is found at the top of the diagram below showing the Forum of Trajan in the year 120 AD from above. The interior columns and the veneer covering the libraries' brick walls, were made from a whitish marble with bluish veins known as Pavonazzetto - this was the same marble used for many of the columns in the Forum of Trajan's porticos and the Basilica Ulpia.


diagram showing the Forum of Trajan from above in the year 120 AD and showing how the two libraries of this 
forum were located on either side of the Column of Trajan
Both Forum of Trajan libraries were located on either side of the Column of Trajan

It is believed by many historians that Emperor Trajan either bought or was given the entire private library of Marcus Mettius Epaphroditus, who had collected 30,000 documents by the time his life ended. Though the Romans did have actual books, called a Codex, the vast majority of their books were in the form of scrolls.

All these scrolls were stored in large wooden shelves called Armaria, which contained many compartments. These large shelves were located in several floor-to-ceiling niches in the library walls. My drawing below shows what a typical Roman library "Armaria" looked like. In addition to Armarias, Roman libraries also provided desks with chairs or stools for people to read and study the various documents. As you can see, an ancient Roman library was very similar in many ways to a modern library. A drawing by an unknown artist, which I remastered for clarity, shows a great view of the Library of Alexandria interior filled with many armarias and scrolls (click to view).


my drawing showing what a wooden Roman armaria (cupboard like shelves) for storing scrolls looked like
A wooden Armaria used to store scrolls and codices (books)
©atouchofrome.com

The next two alternating images below show how the interior of the libraries looked. The first image is a photo from 1932 of the western library, and very little remains. You can see steps leading up to a recessed niche in what remains of the back wall. In the foreground you can see column sections, and a Corinthian capital that crowned the marble columns within the library.


Google Earth view of Basilica Ulpia area from above Eastern view of Forum Roman in Rome
Ulpian Library interior in 1932 versus 120 AD
1932 Photo: SIMARTWEB Roma Culture - Recommended by M.G. Conde
Drawing (120 AD) is my own

The second image that fades in is my drawing of how that same view of the library looked like 1,900 years ago in 120 AD. The restored library image shows us a series of armaria bookshelfs within their niches in the library walls. Additionally, each armaria section is divided by a wall and Pavonazzetto column. The floor of the library is paved with more Pavonazzetto and Giallo Antico marble tiles. Furthermore, tables and stools are provided for people using the library.

The Ulpian Libraries in the Forum of Trajan lasted a long time, and they were used even after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. We know the libraries were still in use in the 400s AD and perhaps even the 500s AD because Roman writers mention statues being installed at that time period, in addition to the works of famous Roman writers - such as Virgil - being recited. Unfortunately, just like the rest of the forum, the two library buildings on either side of the Column of Trajan were destroyed by a combination of earthquakes (801 AD, 847 AD) and pillaging.

Very little remains of the two libraries today - some partial walls, stairs, column fragments, partial capitals. Nevertheless, what remains suggests that the libraries were two stories tall, built according to the Corinthian Order. Additonally, typical of Romam buildings, the upper floor would not be as tall as the lower floor, being 25% shorter.


FORUM OF TRAJAN LIBRARIES IN THE 20TH CENTURY AND TODAY


Forum of Trajan library (west) area is seen from above and it is mostly completely
covered by a sidewalk area and road
West Ulpian library area from above, covered by a road and sidewalk
I made this image using Google Earth

If you visit the Forum of Trajan today, it is possible to observe the ruins of the west Ulpian library (the east library is buried), but very little remains easily visible. The 2024 photograph above clearly displays the west library area above the Column of Trajan, now concealed by a walkway, staircase, and roadway. Consequently, to glimpse the remnants of the west library, one must peer into the dark arches beneath the walkway. Compare the photo above to the one below, taken over ninety years ago when the large west library excavation site was fully exposed.


Forum of Trajan library (west) area in year 1932 is seen from above and the whole 
excavation can be seen, with the ruins of the Basilica Ulpia on the left and the Column of Trajan at the bottom
1932 library excavation seen from top of Column of Trajan
Library is bluish, Column of Trajan is gold, Basilia Ulpia is yellow
Photo (modified) courtesy: Simartweb & Museum of Rome - Educational Use - Recommended by M.G. Conde

In contrast to the 2024 photo, the one seen above was taken in 1932. This photo shows the same library area after extensive excavations in the Forum of Trajan removed much of the dirt and rubble covering the area. As you can see, the library excavation was rather extensive, but all that remained of the original library were several toppled columns, large stone fragments, steps, and partial brick walls. You can also make out the alcoves where the large armoria were housed.

After earthquakes in 801 and 847 AD destroyed much of the Forum of Trajan, what remained of the libraries - statues, marble floor tiles and wall veneers - were all pillaged over the last 1,200 years. The next photo, also taken in 1932, shows the excavated west library ruins in good detail not long after they were covered by a sidewalk and Via Dei Fori Imperiali street.


Ruins of western library in Forum of Trajan seen under roadway and sidewalk area built over the ruins, photo dated 
1932.  You can see an actual Corinthian capital from the interior of the library sitting on the series of 3 steps 
that led up to each alcove that housed the scrolls and codices
West library excavation in 1932, showing ruins now covered by a roadway
Photo (modified) courtesy: Simartweb & Museum of Rome - Educational Use - Recommended by M.G. Conde
Photographer in 1932: Michele Valentino Calderisi (1893 – 1954)

This clear photo shows us the west library's northern wall with its armoria recesses as it extends all along the right side of the photo. Notice, also, the series of three steps leading up to each armaria. Very prominently, two marble corinthian capitals that crowned the interior pavonazzetto columns have been placed on the stairs - the one closest to us is quite detailed and elegant.

Furthermore, all the walls and stairs are made of Roman bricks that were once covered with marble veneers. The floor, which now consists of rough mortar or concrete, has numerous rectangular depressions likely formed by ancient marble floor tiles that were pillaged over the centuries. To see these same ruins today, you have to peer into an arch under the sidewalk and roadway covering the entire west Ulpian library, as shown in this photo. The photo shows part of the west library's northern brick wall (arrow) still standing within the archway.

As far as I know, nothing can be seen of the east library ruins, today. Nevertheless, if you ever visit Rome and stand near the Column of Trajan, think of the two great and beautiful libraries that once stood on either side of the column for hundreds of years until their destruction in the ninth century.





THE INCREDIBLE WHITE MARBLE COURTYARD OF THE FORUM OF TRAJAN




Forum of Trajan wide view recreation drawing featuring the Basilica Ulpia with Trajan's Column in the background and the forum square in the 
  foreground - this is a color and highly detailed recreation of what the forum looked like in the year 200 AD
Church of Panagia Platsani on Greek island of Santorini
Licensed from Dreamstime

If you travel to the beautiful Greek isle of Santorini, you will be amazed by a delightful white church with a front courtyard paved with stunning white marble, as shown in the photo above. Now imagine an even larger courtyard as long as a football field and paved entirely with shining white marble - imagine how that would look like on a sunny day. The effect would be like a sea of glistening white marble, radiant enough to make you feel you were walking in some kind of ethereal realm surrounded by beautiful buildings.

Of all the great Imperial Forums of Rome, only the Forum of Trajan had a vast courtyard - known as an Area Fori - that was actually paved with with over 3,000 massive slabs of beautiful white Carrara marble. My drawing below attempts to show how marvellous the Forum of Trajan courtyard looked, but it likely pales in comparison to the reality.


The white marble courtyard of the Forum of Trajan is recreated in my drawing and it shows the Basilica Ulpia in the background and both
       porticos shown on left and right, on a sunny day in the year 120 AD
The stunning white marble courtyard of the Forum of Trajan in 120 AD
© atouchofrome.com

All the other courtyards of Rome's Imperial Forums were paved with a sedimentary limestone called Travertine because it was cheaper, harder, and readily available nearby. Using luxurious white Carrara marble instead of travertine to pave a Roman forum's vast courtyard was certainly extravagant and very expensive - but it was worth the cost because the difference between white marble and travertine is like silk compared to plain cloth. If your goal is to create a stunning courtyard, you can't go wrong with high quality marble.

If you would like to learn more about the Forum of Trajan's ancient courtyard, I have prepared a special page that includes some great images, including a photo of the only surviving white marble slab. I also look in detail at the overall dimensions of the ancient white marble courtyard and its underlying structure.

Please click here to continue exploring the great marble courtyard of the Forum of Trajan.



FORUM OF TRAJAN - MAIN ENTRANCE IN THE SOUTH



drawing showing whole Forum of Trajan entrance area, including much of the courtyard and left and right porticos, and Forum of Augustus and 
Temple of Peace can be seen in background
Forum of Trajan entrance area facing Basilica Ulpia
Remaster of a drawing by unknown artist

The Forum of Trajan had a grand entrance that was demolished in 1526 AD. The elaborate walled entrance included a triumphal arch for the doorway that commemorated Emperor Trajan's victory over the Dacians. Despite the destruction, we know what the entrance looked like because its image can be seen on an ancient Roman gold coin (shown below). This coin shows a rectangular structure with six columns and one archway in the middle. Between the side columns are wall niches with statues, and five circular clipeus wall reliefs. All along the top were numerous sculptures, with Trajan in the centre with chariot and horses (a quadriga).


photo of Roman coin showing entrance to Trajan's Forum
Entrance to Trajan's Forum on a gold Roman Coin
Modified Wikipedia Image CC BY-SA-05

The similar wall structures you see on either side of the entrance (in the drawing above) are not shown on the Roman coin - nevertheless, they are probably more-or-less correct. The Romans would not have built plain wall sections on either side of the entrance. Additionally, for reasons of architectural symmetry and splendour, they would want them to match and complement the grand entrance structure. Another interesting aspect of the wall sections on either side of entrance is that fact that the walls were rounded - the Map and Guide diagram, shown earlier, shows the overall structure of the southern end of the forum.


drawing showing the reconstructed entrance to the Forum of Trajan but it is incorrect.  It shows 8 columns, no wall niches,
no clipeus, a too-wide entrance and the entablature structure above the columns is also quite incorrect
Drawing by unknown artist

The drawing above and variations of it are often seen in any discussion about the Forum of Trajan. However, I found it necessary to remaster this drawing simply because it needs to be corrected for so many reasons. Specifically, you can see numerous errors when you compare this drawing to the Roman coin image. Namely, the drawing above shows an entrance with eight columns, no wall niches with clipeus above, a too-wide entrance, and the upper structure above the columns is not what is shown on the actual Roman coin.

Although an image on a coin is not a photograph, it is reasonable to assume the Roman administration made sure the image of something important to their culture was recognizable to the average Roman. The only downside in relying on an image engraved on a coin is how much detail may be missing, in addition to artistic distortion. Nevertheless, ancient coins often provide us with the only view of what something or someone looked like - they are an invaluable tool of both historians and archaeologistgs.

The only problem I really have with the gold coin image of the entrance is how narrow the doorway is. It was undoubtedly broader than that, especially if it was also a triumphal arch doorway. Thus, in my drawing, I compromised and made a doorway that was neither too wide or too narrow. Unfortunately, the entrance was demolished in the early 1500s - otherwise, we certainly would have a much better understanding of the whole entrance area which I am sure was as grand and elaborate as the rest of the Forum of Trajan.



TRAJAN'S MARKET



Entire Trajan's Market seen from a distance
Trajan's Market seen from a distance
Licensed from Dreamstime

In its time, Trajan's Market was almost modern in its architectural design. The wide and circular structure was three-storeys in height and built into the side of the Quirinal Hill that bordered the east side of the Forum of Trajan. In fact, the complex was circular in order to fit around the outside perimeter of a Forum of Trajan semi-circular exedra. While many people seem to think the complex was an ancient Roman shopping complex, many scholars today believe it contained mostly offices used by emperor Trajan's administrators, in addition to possible shops and apartments.

It was 35 metres high (115 ft) and 170 rooms still remain today. The architect was Apollodorus of Damascus, who also designed the forum itself. It was built over a period of three years, from 107 to 100 AD. The ruins of this ancient marketplace were excavated from 1924 to 1936, and structures that had been built over site were removed; for example, a Dominican convent of Saint Catherine of Siena that had been there for three centuries.

In the image below, Trajan's Marketplace is shown still standing in relatively good condition. In the foreground are the remains of the exedra mentioned above.



Trajan's Market in the year 2019 looking north
The front of Trajan's Market with two portico columns in front

The two partial columns in the foreground of the photo above are from the East Portico. The single white column in the rear is from a Forum of Trajan exedra adjacent to the eastern portico. This white column is seen again in the middle of the first photo at the start of this section. The whole structure of Trajan's Market was divided into multiple levels interconnceted with staircases and passageways.


looking down on Trajan's Market from above
Looking down on Trajan's Market
Licensed from Dreamstime

In the the photo above, we are now looking down on the front area of Trajan's Market. You can see how the whole building curves to match the circular exedra that existed along one of the porticos of the Forum of Trajan. The photo below shows a large, arched ceiling made of concrete vaults that provided protection from the Sun and rain. Notice also the many doorways that led to offices and perhaps also shops.


photo of Trajan's Market looking down from a balcony into the central area showing many doorways and concrete ceiling vaults
Looking down from a balcony into the central area under the concrete vault ceiling

Apart from the bold concrete ceiling vaults, the rest of the structure is built from reddish bricks with light-coloured travertine stone framing the doorways. In the past, like many Roman structures, the brick was covered with a combination of stucco, marble panels and marble decoration which have since been removed by pillaging over the centuries. The photo above provides a really great view of the concrete ceiling vaults and the courtyard below. It truly is amazing how well-preserved this ancient market is. The photo below shows the view from the ground floor.


photo of Trajan's Market taken from the ground floor with many of the doorways seen and the concrete vaulted roof above today in the 21st century
Looking at Trajan's Market from the ground floor in 2016
Image courtesy of Darren & Brad - CC BY-NC 2.0

Looking at the photo above, I can imagine many ancient Romans going about their business in this large and complex buildings on a busy day, not unlike similar building complexes today. If one could only travel back in time to see what it was really like. Undoubtedly, the Trajan's Market complex is a unique archaeological structure in Roman history that has evolved with the city of Rome from the classical Roman period, through the Middle Ages, and into the 21st century. From administrave and shopping complex to a fortress and then a convent - until today it is a museum and showcase of Roman engineering at its best.

The large and multi-level museum is very worthwhile visiting. Known as the Museo dei Fori Imperiali,or the Museum of the Imperial Forums in English, you can see many of the great sculptures and other artwork excavated from the Forum of Trajan and other forums. The museum contains many attractive and interesting interactive boards as well as audio-video guides. There is a fee to enter the museum, which is not covered by the pass that allows entry to the Colosseum and Forums.




THE FORUM OF TRAJAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY



Basilica Ulpia ruins today in December 2023 showing the basilica being rebuilt and part of second storey is being 
done, also  the portico stairs have been rebuilt
The Basilica Ulpia being rebuilt in December 2023
Licensed from Dreamstime

So far, most of the images you have seen show the Forum of Trajan when it was still a huge and splendid forum in good condition. However, in this section, I will focus on what remains of the forum today and how it looks, thanks to numerous excavations and much restorative work over the last 100 years. I will look at the current state of the Basilica Ulpia, the vast courtyard, and the exedras. However, I will not focus on Trajan's Column or Trajan's Market because they have already been covered earlier.

1. THE BASILICA ULPIA TODAY

The most exciting part of the Forum of Trajan ruins in 2024 is the Basilica Ulpia, shown above, where a four-column-wide section is being restored. The front stairs are new, as are the light-coloured capitals added above the gray granite columns. Additionally, a new entablature and three original columns - probably Cipillino Verde marble - have been placed above the lower four columns to form a second storey. The stairs - which appear to be cement or conrete - are not made of the original expensive giallo antico marble, which is understandable. Furthermore, the rectangular block of black-stained white marble seen on the stairs is ancient - it is a plinth that supported a pavonazzetto marble (white with bluish veins) column.

I have received emails asking why statues of Dacians and high-relief panels are missing from the restored horizontal entablature above the four columns, as imagined in this image (click to view). The answer is the columns being restored are interior gray granite columns of the basilica (third line of columns), and not the exterior courtyard-facing outer Giallo Antico and Pavonazzeto marble columns where the statues and panels were actually located. See the diagram below to view which part of the Basilica Ulpia is being restored, exactly.


diagram of Basilica Ulpia floorplan showing which part is currently being restored, which is just 4 gray granite columns
in the interior of the basilica In 2024, a four-column section of the interior is being restored

Some of the Forum of Trajan's sculptural artwork has survived because it was removed and placed elsewhere. Specifically, part of the Basilica Ulpia's front sculpture decoration created in 112 AD was removed two hundred years later in 312 AD to decorate the Arch of Constantine built next to the Colosseum. Some of these pillaged sculptures are shown in the photo below, and other sculptures taken are seen along both sides of the main central arch. The whole front of the Basilica Ulpia, above the horizontal entablature on top of the columns, was festooned with sculptures like the ones seen in the photo. Someday, perhaps, these sculptures will be replicated and added to a more thorough restoration of the basilica that includes the front columns along the stairs.


Statues of Dacians and relief panels taken from the Basilica Ulpia in 312 AD and used to decorate the 
Arch of Constantine near thet Colosseum
Statues from the Basilica Ulpia reused in the Arch of Constantine
The whole front of the basilica was covered with these sculptures
Licensed from Dreamstime

It would certainly be marvelous if the Basilica Ulpia was completely rebuilt, but it probably will not happen given the fact that an important roadway and buildings would have to be removed. Another reason why the entire basilica will not be rebuilt is the immmense expense, skills, time, and materials that would be required for such a feat. It is reasonable to assume they are rebuilding only a small part of the Basilica Ulpia - just enough to give visitors a better understanding and appreciation of how beautiful the Basilica Ulpia was in the past. Adding a partial second story will give the basilica ruins more of a presence, as was done in the Forum of Vespasian, when just seven columns of a colonnade were raised through the process of anastylosis. This is a very ambitious project, and I wish the people involved great success.


TODAY WE SEE ONLY ONE-THIRD OF THE BASILICA ULPIA

Of course, in the twenty-first century, we are seeing just a small part of the Basilica Ulpia, compared to its original width. As of 2024, we can see twelve columns standing in the front row (one is protruding through the sidewalk on the left), and there are 10 standing columns in the rear, as shown in the series of alternating images below. However, on each side of the basilica, there should be several more columns plus a large exedra-like apse extending the ruins much further. Today, we see only one-third of the Basilica Ulpia's width. Unfortunately, in the early 1930s, a street (Via dei Fori Imperiali) and sidewalks were built on the left side, and another street plus a building occupies the area on the right side, as seen in the current photo below.


Google Earth view of Basilica Ulpia area from above in the year 2024 Floorplan diagram of the whole Basilia Ulpia in the year 112 AD showing how the basilia was 20 columns across but only 
10 columns today are standing

Basilica Ulpia columns in 112 AD versus 2024 AD
12 front columns and 10 rear columns are standing again
Photo produced using Google Earth

The basilica columns we see today are standing tall because most of their structure was added through a process called Anastylosis. In fact, the only "column" in this whole forum that remained standing for over 1,900 years is Trajan's Column, standing close behind the basilica.

Another photo taken from much higher above (with ancient floorplan outline superimposed) makes it very clear how much of the Basilica Ulpia is still hidden. The far right side of the basilica is now located under the Palazzo Roccagiovine building, where the basilica's ancient marble floors can stil be seen, as shown in this video showing both how to find the location and what can be seen. Many thanks to the Alda Fendi Organization in Rome for preserving these floor ruins and making them accessible to the public. However, another organization now runs the museum which also showcases contemporary art.

Ruins and ground area of Forum of Trajan in 2024 showing what remains of the Basilica Ulpia and Column of Trajan 
area in the northern part of the forum
Behind the Basilica Ulpia in 2024

In the photo above, we are standing behind the ruins of the Basilia Ulpia where the restorative construction on the left side can be seen. The basilica walls have long vanished, and several partial columns that were reassembled and raised again mark the basilica's location. Moreover, the ground is rather bare on the whole, covered with grass and some remnants of ancient floor materials - probably mostly just the mortar than supported and held marble and granite floor tiles. Archaeologists have placed some surviving fragments of the basilica - entablature and wall fragments - along the ground. Some stairs descend from the basilica towards Trajan's Column - this is what remains of the Basilica Ulpia's northern rear area after centuries of pillaging and being buried deeply by sediment and debris.



2. THE FORUM OF TRAJAN COURTYARD TODAY


What remains of the Forum of Trajan's vast marble courtyard in 2024
Looking south in the Forum of Trajan courtyard - 2023
A small section view of the once vast courtyard now partly covered with wall sections built in the Middle Ages

When it opened in 112 AD, the Forum of Trajan courtyard, made of 3,000 slabs of gleaming white carrara marble, measured an astounding 9,350 sq metres (100,000 sq ft). And, for seven centuries, this resilient courtyard endured not only the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 AD, but also barbarian invasions, the Gothic Wars, and the pillaging that damaged much of ancient Rome and the other forums.

About 700 years after the courtyard was built, it finally came to an end. A powerful earthquake in 801 AD caused a lot of damage to the forum - consequently, marble pavement slabs were gradually removed and replaced by concrete slabs that you can see today in the photo above. By the time another huge earthquake struck Rome in 847 AD, all the large marble slabs that once paved the vast Forum of Trajan courtyard were gone, and this was also when many of the forum's structures - the basilica, libraries, and colonnades that had not already collapsed in 801 - suffered total or partial collapse. Only Trajan's Column and Trajan's Market survived mostly unscathed.


In the mid-9th century, the marble slabs of the courtyard square were systematically taken for re-use, because of the good quality of the lime. They were replaced with concrete, showing that the courtyard was still in use as a public space. (translated from the Italian)
- Andrea Carradini, Archaeologist, Atlas of Ancient Rome

Something quite interesting about the evolution of the Forum of Trajan courtyard during the ninth century is how people were taking the time to actually replace the marble paving slabs with concrete ones instead of just leaving nothing behind. Why did they do that?

Well, despite considerable earthquake damage to the forum, for various reasons the courtyard was still important to ninth-century Romans, as stated in the quote above. Perhaps the large public square which the courtyard provided was used as a market, or for various ceremonies. Also, maybe nostalgia was a factor because the forum had been part of the history and landscape of Rome for 700 years.

However, after looking at how the Forum of Trajan evolved throug the Middle Ages, it seems like the most logical reason why they repaved the courtyard with concrete slabs was because there was a pressing need to maintain a solid ground surface in order to build new structures within the courtyard - such as homes, farmhouses, etc. Archaeologists know that many structures were built over the courtyard over many centuries, shown by many partial walls occuping much of the former coutyard in the photo above. In the next photo below, I look at what remains of the Forum of Trajan courtyard today when looking north.


looking at what remains of the Forum of Trajan courtyard in 2020, looking north towards the Basilica Ulpia
Looking North in the Forum of Trajan courtyard - 2020
Licensed from Dreamstime

There are no concrete paving slabs seen in the northern part of the courtyard, just grass and marble fragments. This difference is shown clearly in the next photo looking at a large section of the whole Forum of Trajan courtyard from above. In this photo, you can see a walkway that cuts across the courtyard and makes a dividing line between the southern courtyard area where concrete paving slabs are seen, and the northern part where none are visible, as shown in the photo below.

A possible reason why there are no concrete slabs visible near the basilica is due to ongoing excavations that removed them. The grass on the ground seen in the 2020 photo above is now gone, indicating excavations or perhaps work related to the restoration of part of the Basilica Ulpia.


Forum of Trajan courtyard in year 2024 seen from above, showing how ninth century concrete slabs that 
replaced the original marble paving slabs can still be seen in the southern part but none at all are seen in the 
northern part of the courtyard just below the Basilica Ulpia
Forum of Trajan courtyard in 2024. Ninth Century concrete paving slabs are seen only in the southern part, below the walkway that crosses the courtyard
Photo produced using Google Earth

In the photo above, the courtyard would have extended close to the left edge of the image, showing how wide the courtyard was in the past. Also, the courtyard's bottom extended much further below the bottom edge of the photo - add about 50% height of the area below the walkway - this was a very big courtyard. I wonder what it would cost today to cover such an expanse with thick white Carrara marble? Or even just concrete? This gives you an idea of how rich and powerful the Roman Empire was at its peak.


3. THE EASTERN PORTICO AND EXEDRA NEAR TRAJAN'S MARKET


photo showing what remains of <b>Forum of Trajan</b> floor surfaces of the eastern exedra and colonnade in the year 2024
Forum of Trajan courtyard, portico, and annex floor surfaces in 2023
Two centuries of excavations show the forum's floor surfaces have been greatly damaged over time

Only one of the Forum of Trajan's semicircular exedras can be seen today, shown in the photo above. Amazingly, many of the original yellowish and whitish marble floor tiles surived, though they have cracked and faded greatly. You can easily make out the circular foundation wall that borders the outside of the exedra. Also, one of the interior corinthain columns has been reassembled and raised.

Left of the exedra, parts of the east portico and its original floor can be seen. These floor fragments offer only a small glimpse of the ancient floor. One of the portico columns has been raised also. Actually very little remains of the portico's original giallo antico and pavonazzetto marble floor tiles, unfortunately. The opposite exedra on the other side of the forum may still exist but is buried under several metres (yards) of material and a street.


Forum of Trajan exedra floor tiles shown today and then how they appeared in the past when they were pristine and did not 
have extensive cracking and discolouration
1,900 years has caused extensive cracking and discolouration

The photo above shows a closeup of the east exedra's floor tiles today (on the left) and how they probably looked when new (right side). It is remarkable that even this much remains of the exedra's ancient floors, especially when compared to the portico floor. The colours would have been so much more vibrant, and the textures and shine of the marble so stunning in the ancient past.




COMPARING THE FORUM OF TRAJAN'S APPEARANCE TODAY TO BEFORE


It is understandable how some people today, when viewing the Forum of Trajan, may think there is not really very much remaining. However, not that long ago there was far less to see because most of the forum was still buried under metres (yards) of sediment and debris. Moreover, much of the forum area was covered with Medieval buildings that formed a neighbourhood called the Alessandrino Quarter, which existed from the Middle Ages until its demolition in the early 1930s. Let us look at the Forum of Trajan from three different perspectives - the 1600s, the 1800s, and 2020. You will see a very definite increase in the size of excavation and how much of the ancient forum is visible.


sketch from year 1606 showing the northern part of the Forum of Trajan, and only the Column of Trajan remains,
        with medieval buildings surrounding the area
Forum of Trajan in 1606 AD
In the 1600s most of the forum was still buried
Aegidius Sadeler II, after Etienne DuPérac - The Met

As shown in the 400-year-old sketch above, not much of the forum was visible in the early 1600s. In 1536, a pit was dug around the Column of Trajan, as ordered by Pope Paul III. The purpose of the pit was to fully expose the whole base of the Column of Trajan so that it could be seen. Seventy years later, the sketch above was made. Though the Basilica Ulpia is not shown in the sketch, one can conclude with certainty that very few, if any, of the basilica's columns would have been visible in that era. The pit was too small and not deep enough. In comparison, today, numerous columns are visible and you can see right down to the ancient floor level of the Forum of Trajan. We can now see many details and structures that had been buried for so many centuries.


engraving showing how the Forum of Trajan looked in 1810 ad approximately, showing the Column of Trajan and numerous partial columns poking
out of the ground and marking the location of the Basilica Ulpia
Forum of Trajan in 1810 AD approx
Giovanni Battista Cipriani 1766–1839

Two hundred years later, in the early 1800s, another sketch (shown above) of the Column of Trajan was done, and we can see how the original small pit around the column was greatly expanded and bordered by walls. Additionally, the pit is also much deeper, thus exposing many of the Basilica Ulpia's partial columns that are still standing. However, compared to today, most of the forum was not fully excavated down to the orignal ground level.

The following photo below shows a broad view of the forum in the 21st Century. The photographer is looking directly west at Trajan's Column in the top center. Along the bottom, you can see what is left of the East Portico and its exedra which Trajan's Market surrounds.


Trajan's Forum ruins in year 2020 compared to the forum in 120 AD (image in top right corner), looking west at remains of Basilica Ulpia, east portico, 
Trajan's column, and part of Trajan's Market
Forum ruins in 2020 compared to same view in 120 AD view
Part of the Via Alessandrina roadway has been removed, and rebuilding of the Basilica Ulpia has begun
Main image produced using Google Earth

In the 21st century, the level of excavation in the Forum of Trajan is remarkable. The only unfortunate part is that the far sides of the forum are still buried under roadways and buildings - but, the main centre length of the forum is exposed. You see many columns standing in the Basilica Ulpia, and a part of the basilica is being rebuilt. As seen earlier, sections of the original floors are seen here and there. On the far left, you can see the elevated roadway (Via dei Fori Imperiali) leading into the Piazza Venezia and the recently completed (1935) Altare della Patria. At bottom right, you can see the red brick walls of Trajan's Market. The guide in the top right corner compares the current to the ancient view. For some reason, they left a lot of walls from Medieval structures standing in the lower courtyard. Also, a walkway crosses the courtyard, dividing into an upper and lower section.

The Forum of Trajan's journey from submerged under dirt to liberated was a long process that started when the French controlled Rome in the early 1800s. French leader Napoleon order excavations in the forums of Rome, the results of which are seen in the 1810 photo above.

During the years 1928-1934, under the direction of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, the Forum of Trajan - and many other forums - underwent a very high level of excavation. For example, this was when the two Ulpian libraries on either side of the Column of Trajan were exposed, as well as the east portico and exedra, as well as a considerable part of the courtyard. Structures that covered parts of the forum and Trajan's Market were demolished.

Much of what we see today is due to that intense period of excavations from 1928 to 1934. Between that period and today, there have numerous excavations, large and small, in various areas of the Forum of Trajan. The forum you see today is the result of centuries of hard work and study. Many thanks to all the people who have worked so hard to preserve the forum and make it viewable to us in the twenty-first century.




THE SLOW DECLINE OF THE FORUM OF TRAJAN


In this section, I look at the main reasons why the Forum of Trajan, despite being one of the most iconic areas of ancient Rome, nevertheless began to decline and fall apart. The decline started very slowly, five centuries before the earthquakes in the 800s that devestated the forum and much of Rome.

1. PARTS OF THE FORUM WERE REMOVED

Just two hundred years after the Forum of Trajan opened in 112 AD, inuries to the great forum started in the year 315 AD, when large panels filled with carved reliefs and eight statues of Dacians were removed from the front area of the Basilica Ulpia. These pillaged materials were used to construct the Arch of Constantine that can still be seen near the Colosseum, shown below.


Arch of Constantine in 2023 showing whole arch and sculptural details on front, showing 4 statues of Dacians and 
sculptured relief panels taken from the Forum of Trajan in 315 Ad
Arch of Constantine in 2023
Most of the arch sculptures and panels were removed from the Basilica Ulpia front

The arch shown above is the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch standing an impressive 21 metres high (70 ft) and 25 metres wide (82 ft). The large central arch has sculptures along its inner walls, which you can see in the photo above. These sculptures were part of the frieze that ran along the upper part of the Basilica Ulpia. Because this huge triumphal arch was dedicated to emperor Constantine I, any sculpture showing Trajan was physically altered. Many other features of this arch - such as the columns and circular sculpture reliefs - were taken from other Roman monuments in Rome.

Stripping the Forum of Trajan of its sculptures and reliefs to use in the Arch of Constantine, was just the start of violations to this beautiful forum. For example, in 663 AD, a huge number of bronze sculptures and other parts of the forum were removed by the infamous Constans II, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the "Byzantine" empire today, a term not used at that time).


2. THE FORUM BECAME FLOODED AND SLOWLY FILLED WITH SEDIMENT

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, things continued functioning normally for another 60 years until the Gothic Wars in the 530s, when terrible destruction and turmoil hit Rome. For example, several of the great aqueducts bringing huge amounts of clean water into the city were destroyed, making all the Roman baths, fountains, and latrines useless. Furthermore, battles killed many people and devestated parts of the city. As a consequence, it is estimated the population of Rome quickly declined from 500 thousand to 30,000 or less - more than ninety percent. The result was a huge ghost town that started to fall apart, including the all-important sewer systems.


flooded Roman ruins near Naples showing parts of columns and walls sticking up out of the floodwaters
Flooded Roman ruins south of Rome, near Naples
Nearly all the Roman Forums looked like this eventually
Licensed from Dreamstime

In Rome's earliest days, several parts of the city, such as the Campus Martius, were swampy and prone to regular flooding by the river Tiber. But as the Romans become more organized and skilled, the swampy areas were drained, large sewer networks and embankments along the river were built, bringing things under control.

But after Rome went into serious decline after the Gothic Wars mentioned earlier, the physical well-being of Rome was badly impacted. Specifically, in relation to the Forum of Trajan, the sewers and other anti-flooding measures were no longer maintained due to a lack of money, organization, and people. Anyone still living in Rome at that time was struggling to survive - finding food, water, shelter - they were not concerned with city administration or maintaining the glories of the past.

Therefore, the ground surface in the Roman forums began to change. This did not happen quickly, but after a hundred years or more, flooding in Rome's great forums created layers of sediment that slowly filled in the forums. In fact, the nearby Forum of Augustus, became so swampy that one of its main gates became known as the Arco dei Pantani - the Arch of the Swamps.

All of the Forum of Trajan's ground surfaces seen today were buried under several metres (yards) of sediment, dirt, rubbish, and rubble. By the early 1500s, and quite possibly much earlier, except for the Column of Trajan and Trajan's Market, the entire forum was buried - all you would have seen back then was a huge column, minus most of its base, sticking out of a muddy, grass field.


3. EARTHQUAKES CAUSED SEVERE DAMAGE TO THE FORUM OF TRAJAN

By the year 800 AD, the Forum of Trajan was now almost 700 years old, much of its sculpture and precious stone surfaces had been removed, and it was surely experiencing regular flooding by the river Tiber that deposited layers of sediment. And then the severe earthquake of 801 AD hit the forum, followed by a worse one in 847 AD. The forum was devestated, and reduced to piles of collapsed columns lying over parts of the courtyard, basilica, and colonnades, in addition to huge amounts of rubble.


Roman city destroyed by earthquakes leaving nothing but rubble and felled columns
Roman city destroyed by earthquakes in 746 AD

The photo above of a Roman city destroyed by earthquakes a hundred years earlier, very possibly resembled what much of the Forum of Trajan - specifically the Basilica Ulpia, libraries, and colonnades looked like by the mid-800s.

Fortunately, the Column of Trajan and Trajan's Market were not destroyed by earthquakes. It is perhaps possible some of the Forum of Trajan other structures, though greatly damaged and partially collapsed by earlier earthquakes, still stood until the monster earthquake of 1349 AD, that collapsed the Colosseum's southern wall. The bottom line is, by the late Middle Ages, the Basilica Ulpia, the colonnades, and libraries, were a heap of broken columns and stonework that became the ruins we see today. In fact, recent archaeological excavations point to such a scenario of terrible devestation, as expressed by three Italian archaeologists in the quote below.



When referring to the 9th century, we have to mention the impressive evidence of widespread collapse that was uncovered during excavation of the Basilica Ulpia in 1932 ... many fallen columns, capitals and large fragments of the vaults ... a sort of "cemetery" of columns ...
Archaeoseismological evidence of past earthquakes in Rome (5th-9th century AD) - June 2018 - F. Galadini, G. Ricci, E. Falcucci, C. Panzieri

For more information, this online pdf document ("Earthquakes in Rome 5th to 9th Centuries AD") provides excellent data on the earthquakes that affected Rome. Specifically, Section 4.7 of the document focuses exclusively on the Basilica Ulpia, and it cites research by earthquake geologists Paolo Galli and Diego Mollin in 2014, in addition to work by archaeologists Elisabetta Beneghini and Roberto Meneghini in 2010, that strongly suggest the basilica was indeed destroyed by earthquakes in the ninth century, and it was probably the 847 AD event that delivered the crushing blow to the Forum of Trajan, creating the "cemetery of columns."

Nevertheless, compared to the very rapid decline of the Forum of Augustus, next door, the Forum of Trajan fared far better. Incredibly, even in the sixth, seventh, and eigth centuries, the forum was being used. For example, a Roman by the name of Venantius Fortunatus wrote that the classical Roman poet Virgil was still being recited in the Forum of Trajan in the year 576 AD, 100 years after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, and the Gothic Wars of the 530s that devestated parts of Rome. That shows the "staying power" of Trajan's great forum.

But all things come to an end, and, by the Middle Ages, except for Trajan's Column and Trajan's Market, the once huge and thriving Forum of Trajan had been transformed into a haunting disaster zone. The air was thick with the remnants of collapsed buildings, shattered walls, and toppled colonnades. As the years went by, the ruins became buried deeply until all the excavations in the 1800s and 1900s that revealed much of the forum. Today, we witness a landscape of broken marble columns, concrete, and bricks hinting at a former glory gone with the ages. But, in the next and final section, I look at a very famous visit to the Forum of Trajan that shows how glorious it still was even after 245 years.



A ROMAN EMPEROR VISITS THE FORUM OF TRAJAN 250 YEARS AFTER IT OPENED



My color drawing showing Roman Emperor Constamtois II in 357 AD when he visited the Forum of 
Trajan in Rome for the first time
Roman Emperor Constantius II visits the Forum of Trajan in 357 AD
By every measure, the Forum of Trajan was a great success

The Forum of Trajan impressed ancient visitors for almost 700 years after it opened in 112 AD. But, nothing lasts forever, and even the huge Forum of Trajan, which was so elaborate in design and filled with splendid marble surfaces and statues, eventually fell into a slow decline starting in the early 300s AD. That was when Roman emperors began removing sculptures and relief panels from the forum's buildings. Nevertheless, despite violations to the Forum of Trajan in the fourth century, it still had the power to impress people, and continued to do so for hundreds of more years before it all collapsed during ninth century earthquakes.


EMPEROR CONSTANTIUS II VISITS THE FORUM OF TRAJAN IN 357 AD FOR THE FIRST TIME

The most famous example of an ancient visitor who was amazed by the sheer size and beauty of the Forum of Trajan almost 250 years after it had opened was Roman Emperor Constantius II (317 - 361 AD), grandson of the famous Emperor Constantine I who made Christianity "Religio Licita" - a legal religion in the Roman empire.

Emperor Constantius II, who lived in the eastern Roman empire, visited Rome for the first time in 357 AD. A Roman army officer and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (330 - 395 AD), was with the Roman emperor when he visited the Forum of Trajan, and he recorded the emperor's reaction to the forum, shown below.


"When he came to the Forum of Trajan, a unique structure under all heaven, marvelous even to the gods, he was stunned by the gigantic scale of everything that is indescribable. Without hope of ever being able to attempt building something so grand, he could hope to imitate only Trajan's horse statue in the middle of the courtyard."
- Ammianus Marcellinus - Rerum gestarum libri

As far as Constantius II was concerned, the only part of the whole Forum of Trajan he thought could be replicated was the great statue of Trajan riding a horse - all the rest of the forum was too overwhelming to even consider copying. This is a great attestation to the former glory and scale of Trajan's forum, even when it was getting quite old and a bit worn down.

For us, 250 years ago would be the 1770s - and that's how old the forum was when the young emperor visited it. The forum then went on for almost another 500 years. Of course, by the year 800, the Forum of Trajan was certainly missing a lot of statues and some fine marbles. Perhaps the roof was falling apart, and all the gilded bronze tiles were missing. And another possibility is that renewed flooding by the river Tiber in the area was causing problems for the forum.

Nevertheless, many of the structures were probably still standing, especially the Column of Trajan. How great it would be to see a drawing of the forum from the year 800 AD, the year before the first major earthquake caused serious damage in 801 AD. I wonder what the forum really looked like in its last good year - I guess we will never know, but it is fun to imagine. Someday, if I can find enough information, I would like to attempt a drawing of what the Forum of Trajan looked like when it was almost 700 years old in 800 AD.


This ends my discussion of the Forum of Trajan - thank you for reading all this. It is indeed unfortunate that time and ruthless pillaging of many ancient ruins in Rome has not been kind to this forum, having reduced much of it into rubble. So little has been left to us, and that is a shame - but perhaps we should be grateful there is anything left at all after almost 2,000 years. It is a testament to the former glory of these forums that what remains can still inspire and delight one's imagination of what once was. If you have any comments, please email me. I really enjoy receiving the wonderful emails from people who send me their perspectives, comments, and questions. I always respect everyone's email privacy. The only emails I send to people are replies to emails they send me.

If you would like to explore another of the six great forums of ancient Rome, please touch or click one of the buttons below in the Forum Guide.




SEE ALSO:

The links below offer additonal information about the FORUM OF TRAJAN, including entrance fees, hours, how to get there, etc.

A Tourist in Rome - Trajan's Forum, part of the great "A Tourist in Rome" section at JEFFBONDONO.com.


ContactAboutSite MapPrivacy PolicyDisclaimer