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"But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a creation which in my view has no like under the cope of heaven and which even the gods themselves must agree to admire, he stood transfixed with astonishment, surveying the giant fabric around him; its grandeur defies description and can never again be approached by mortal men."
Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.10.15)
The wonderment of the emperor Constantius II when he first visited Rome in AD 357 is understandable. The last and most magnificent of the imperial fora, the Forum of Trajan (or later, Forum Ulpium, from Ulpius, Trajan's family name) was constructed under the direction of the architect Apollodorus, who sought to surpass all that had gone before—the plan and scale (and lines of trees) from the Temple of Peace, its colonnades and hemicycles improving upon the Forum of Augustus; the curved ends taken from the Forum Transitorium; and the Basilica Ulpia larger and more fine than those of Aemilia and Julia. So the past, both architecturally and politically, was continued and commemorated. By the time Constantius visited, the Forum Trajani had existed for almost two-and-a-half centuries and the capitol of the empire had shifted to Constantinople. And yet, however faded, its visual effect still was a profound expression of Rome's former grandeur.
Initiated by Domitian (Aurelius Victor, XIII.5), who began to clear the area as part of a larger plan to integrate the forum with its predecessors (which included the Forum Transitorium that subsequently was dedicated by Nerva), work halted with the emperor's assassination and damnatio in AD 96. Construction was renewed after Trajan's victorious return from Dacia (Romania) in AD 106-107, funded by the spoils of that war (and perhaps to coincide with his decennalia). Too, Domitian's own building projects may have depleted the treasury. Indeed, says Suetonius (Life, XIII.2), "He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: 'It is enough.'"
The forum comprises two parts: a large public square or piazza (Area Fori), flanked by colonnades and closed at one end by a perimeter wall and at the other by the Basilica Ulpia, which effectively divided this part of the forum (which was dedicated on January 1, AD 112), from the Column of Trajan and libraries that were hidden behind it and from the Temple of Divine Trajan, all of which may have been a later creation of Hadrian, himself.
The forum constantly revealed itself to the visitor, the colonnades hiding the hemicycles behind them, as well as the apses of the basilica, which, in turn, hid the libraries and most of the column. The temple, itself, could only be seen only after one had come to the peristyle around the column. With each perspective revealing something new, there was a sense of unfolding revelations.
Curved around the eastern hemicycle (exedra) of the forum was Trajan's Markets, a complex of offices or possibly shops displaced by construction of the forum.
References: Trajan Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times (1997) by Julian Bennett; The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire (2005) by John W. Stamper; Ammianus Marcellinus: The Later Roman Empire (1986) translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin Classics); Pausanius: Description of Greece (1926) translated by W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library).
The Forum of Trajan in Rome: A Study of the Monuments in Brief (2001) by James E. Packer is an abridgement of the author's original three-volume study, which was published in 1997 and costs $675. The paperback edition has allowed for some revisions of the original restorations, including three-dimensional models, and at almost a fourteen of the price, surely must be one of the great bargains in book publishing.
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