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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
The Roman Forum — Its History and Its Monuments

by Christian Hülsen

published by Ermanno Loescher & Co
Publishers to H. M. the Queen of Italy

Text, maps, and black-and‑white images
are in the public domain.
Color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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 p97  XV. The Marble Balustrades of Trajan
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The two marble balustrades with reliefs (anaglypha) on both sides were found on the site where they are now standing, very roughly set up on blocks of travertine which had been used once before (the base-tables of white marble are a modern addition). Evidently this cannot have been the original arrangement; but they were brought here in very late antiquity to serve as the sides of a foundation like the brick bases opposite the Basilica  p98 Julia. When they were thus set up a second time the reliefs with historical scenes faced the outside, and those with the animals faced inwards. The two balustrades were then connected at the ends by carelessly built walls, and thus a rough square was formed and the inside was filled up with rubbish. Thus it happens that the reliefs with the animals have been preserved with a wonderful degree of freshness, while the reliefs with historical scenes have suffered very much more, since they were exposed for centuries to all the influences of the weather and all the destruction at the hand of man.

On what is now the inner side we see the pig, the sheep, and the steer, the animals offered in the solemn state sacrifice of the Suovetaurilia, adored with sacrificial fillets (vittae) on the horns and around the body. Such Suovetaurilia were offered at the ceremonyº of purification (lustrum) for the people at the close of the census, and for the army at the beginning of a campaign, probably also in connection with the founding of temples and on other solemn occasions. At these times the three sacrificial animals were led around the assembly of the people or the place which was to be purified, and were then sacrificed.

Fig. 44. Marble balustrade from the Rostra.
Fig. 45. Marble balustrade from the Rostra.

 p99  The two reliefs which at present face outwards represent two state acts of Trajan. On the first — the one which faces the arch of Severus — is to be seen the emperor on the Rostra (represented by the beaks of three ships); behind him are his suite and the lictors (with the bundles of rods without axes). The emperor, clad in the toga, is addressing the populace standing in front of the Rostra. The costume of his audience is the garment characteristic of the Roman plebeians, the paenula, a short cloak reaching to the knee. The assembly are raising their hands, apparently to applaud the emperor for what he is announcing. The contents of the speech have been indicated by the artist in a way which would be immediately understood by his contemporaries — namely by a group which is characterized as statuary by being set on a low base. This group represents the emperor seated in a curule chair, while a womanº approaches him carrying one child on her arm and leading another by the hand: it is Italia, who is thanking the emperor for a charitable foundation by means of which he had provided for the support of the children of the land. In A.D. 101 Trajan invested large sums of money in mortgages (on the farms, fundi) in all the towns of Italy, the interest of which should  p100 be used in every parishº for the bringing up of poor children. There are still in existence original documents, large bronze tablets, relating to this benefaction (institutio alimentaria), one from Veleia (now in the museum at Parma) and one from the parish of the Ligures Baebiani not far from Benevento (now in the National Museum at Rome). Both of them bear witness not only to the care which was taken in the investment of the capital but also to the generous character of the sums invested. When to two relatively small parishes like Veleia and the Ligures Baebiani 1,044,000 and 401,800 sesterces (circa 260,000 and 100,500 francs respectively)º were assigned, the expense for the whole of Italy must have run up into many hundred millions. This splendid benefaction not only encouraged marriage, by assisting parents and caring for orphans, but also helped the small property owners by lending them money on their farms at a low rate of interest and for an indefinite period. It is readily intelligible therefore that his action made a deep impression upon contemporaries. The writers of the day speak of it in the highest terms, coins were struck in remembrance of it, and on the Forum Romanum, where the proclamation took place, the event was immortalized not only in this relief on the balustrade, but also by the erection of a group of statuary.

The second relief is incomplete, on account of the loss of the first slab at the right: one sees however that here too the Rostra was represented. The emperor, seated and with his right hand stretched out, is giving a command to a high official. His command relates to the setting fire to a heap of diptycha, that is to say wooden tablets covered with wax, which the Romans used for business papers, statements of indebtedness, etc. The diptycha are being collected together by men in  p101 half-military costume (notice especially the military boot caliga with its complicated leather lacing, and also the sword-girdle, cingulum militiae, with its metal tips): the men are public servants (apparitores or possibly statores), and they are bringing official documents, probably obligations of indebtedness. It is likely therefore that the relief represents the cancelling of arrears of taxes for the provincials (Italy itself was free from taxes under the empire). Accordingly the historical scenes on the two balustrades present a remarkable parallelism: on one of them the emperor is celebrated as the benefactor of Italy, on the other as the benefactor of the provinces.

Just as the historical scenes represented stand in a parallel relation, so the backgrounds of buildings in front of which they take place complement each other. Both of them together give an almost complete panorama of the Forum Romanum, as it was at the beginning of the second century A.D. On the second balustrade we see: the temple of Vespasian (the temple of Concordia was probably on the first slab, which has been lost) with six Corinthian columns; the temple of Saturn with six Ionic columns; between these temples, high up, an arch probably intended to indicate the Tabularium; farther on, a large hall, the Basilica Julia. The figure of a Satyr with a wine-skin on his shoulder closes the scene on the left-hand side: this is Marsyas, whose statue, booty from a Greek city, stood at the lower end of the Forum: beside him is a sacred fig-tree fenced in (not the ficus ruminalis in the Comitium). The same group, Marsyas and the fig-tree, we find at the right end of the first balustrade: then follows a large portico, corresponding to the one on the other balustrade; this is the Basilica Aemilia; then a broad street, the Argiletum (between the Basilica and the Curia); then a temple-like structure with a flight of steps in front of  p102 (the Curia before the reconstruction by Diocletian); finally an arch which has not been identified, and which was probably destroyed in the alterations by Severus, and in front of which the Rostra again. The two monuments which are repeated — the Rostra and Marsyas — show that the two reliefs were intended to be joined together to form a complete circle; and yet of the buildings which surrounded the Forum we miss two, the temple of Caesar and the temple of Castor, that is to say the east side.

What at first sight seems a striking omission is to be explained most easily by the original position of the two balustrades. They stood namely as balustrades on the platform of the Rostra, and in such a position that the historical reliefs were on the inside and the sacrificial animals on the outside. Thus the difference in scale between the two sets of scenes is readily understood: the animal reliefs were visible only from the level of the Forum, that is to say from a distance of 12 or 15 feet, while the historical reliefs were seen close to. If the first balustrade (fig. 44) stood to the left of the speaker, the representation of the north side of the Forum which it contained was in exact agreement with the actual position of the buildings; similarly if the second balustrade (fig. 45) stood to the right of the speaker the monuments which it represented, those of the west and the south side of the Forum, lay actually on the right-hand side and behind the speaker. The east side, that which is not represented, is exactly the side which the speaker on the Rostra had before his eyes. The sacrificial animals, which are represented as passing in solemn procession around the outside of the monument, may be considered as symbolic of a perpetual lustratio, a purification and dedication of the Rostra.

See: Brizio Ann. dell' Ist. 1872, 309; Mon. dell' Ist. IX, tav. 47. 48; Jordan I, 2, 219 ff.; Lanciani 256 f.; C. L. Visconti, Deux actes de Domitien, Roma, 1873; Cantarelli, Bull. comun. 1889, 99 sg. 1900, 145 sg.; Petersen, Festschrift für A. v. Oettingen (1898), 130‑143; Huelsen, R. M. 1902, 21; E. Caetani-Lovatelli, Varia (Roma, 1905) 257 sg.

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