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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Trajan’s Forum in Rome

What is Trajan’s Forum?

Trajan’s Forum is the last and most splendid of the imperial fora, built by the Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century AD to commemorate his military success in Dacia (modern-day Romania).

Trajan’s Forum

Trajan’s Forum History

Dacia was an ancient kingdom west of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania, and for hundreds of years it was a formidable opponent of the Romans. In the 1st century AD, the kingdom became a strategic threat to Emperor Trajan, due to its sophisticated military technology and growing political unity. In AD 101, he decided enough was enough; it was time to wage war.

After several testing years of brutal conflict, the Dacian army was finally unable to withstand the power of the Romans. The Dacian king, Decebalus, resigned to the fact that victory was a distant hope, decided to change tack. Rather than defeat the Romans on the battlefield, he plotted to assassinate the emperor, however his plan backfired spectacularly when Decebalus himself was hunted down and cornered by Roman soldiers. Rather than be captured and humiliated in a parade through the streets of Rome, the Dacian king took a knife to his throat and died by suicide.

With the Dacians finally defeated, Trajan did what all victorious emperors do: he built. Now styled as Dacicus, or the ‘conqueror of Dacia’, the emperor constructed the last and arguably the greatest of the imperial fora. Sadly much of it lies beneath your feet, under Mussolini’s via dei Fori Imperiali. Nevertheless, both in sheer scale and architectural brilliance, the forum and basilica surpassed all others. In fact, the Roman historian Suetonius said the emperor had built so many and such large vaulted passages and arches, each decked with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of its walls someone had scrawled, ‘It’s enough’.

The forum included a large public square flanked by a number of striking columns, a gleaming marble basilica, and a pair of libraries boasting thousands of scrolls. To the east of the forum stood Trajan’s markets, a large complex of offices and shops, often considered, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to be the world’s first shopping mall.

However, the pièce de résistance was the vast column which remarkably still stands to this day. Visible from across the city, the column depicts a continuous frieze of Trajan’s Dacian campaigns that winds 23 times from base to peak. The column also features the emperor an impressive 58 times and, in its most famous scene, depicts Decebalus taking his own life after being tracked down by Roman soldiers.

The column was originally topped with a bronze eagle, which was replaced by a statue of Trajan after the emperor’s death. In the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V crowned it with a bronze figure of Saint Peter, which still stands there to this day.

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