Rome – Trajan’s Forum and Column

This Forum, which measured about three hundred feet in length and about three hundred and eighty feet in width, was designed by Apollodorus, the celebrated architect of Damascus, in A. D. 114. It contained a group of buildings famous for their architectural splendor, and while not as historic as the Roman Forum, it became the most magnificent forum in Rome. Its construction was part of a great scheme for relieving the overcrowding of the old Forum, a movement which caused the erection of the Fora of Julius, Augustus and Nerva, all of which were needed to accommodate the ever-increasing political, judicial and commercial transactions during the early years of the Empire.

It will repay us to give that Column of Trajan our undivided attention and even our closest study, for, when we look upon it, we have the satisfaction of knowing that in all the world there does not exist a column of its kind that rivals it. So perfect are the figures carved upon it, representing as they do the campaigns of Trajan, that artists from Michelangelo to the present day have found them a source of education and inspiration. Here are illustrated the weapons, the engines of war and the dwellings of the barbarians ; besides ships, horses, women, priests, and a battle which is being waged with deadly effect.

The column, which rests upon a sculptured pedestal, is of purest Carrara marble, and is one hundred and twenty-eight feet from the pavement. The pedestal itself is eighteen feet high. The shaft measures twelve feet in diameter at the bottom, but is only ten feet at the capital. It is not, as you may well imagine, a single block of stone, but it is composed of thirty-four separate blocks, each of which is hollow and so accurately executed and placed, that a spiral staircase, consisting of one hundred and eighty-four steps, is cut in the shaft itself, and runs from the base to the summit. You can see the entrance door to this staircase in the pedestal. On the outside, running parallel with these stairs, is a broad marble band, three feet wide at the bottom and nearly four at the top, showing more than two thousand five hundred figures sculptured in bas-reliefs.

The whole of this column was originally covered with gold and brilliant colors – crimson, blue, and yellow – and each of the carved figures was colored in realistic fashion. The noble shaft, gleaming with gold and gorgeous colors, must have dazzled the eyes of the beholders with its more than oriental splendor. When erected, a statue of Trajan stood upon its summit, but at such a height above the ground it was almost lost to sight. Trajan was the only one of the emperors who was buried within the city, his ashes, it has been said, being placed in a golden urn and interred beneath this column. The statue which we see now on its summit is that of St. Peter, placed there by Sixtus V.

The following extract from an ancient writer is interesting :

“Having now entered the Forum of Trajan, the most marvelous invention of human genius – singularum sub omni coelo substructum-he (the Emperor Constantine) was struck with admiration, and looked round in amazement, without being able to utter a word, wondering at the gigantic structures – giganteos contest us – which no pen can de-scribe, and which mankind can create and see only once in the course of centuries. Having consequently given up any hope of building himself anything which would approach, even at a respectful distance, the work of Trajan, he turned his attention to the equestrian statue placed in the center of the forum, and said to his attendants that he would have one like it in Constantinople. These words having been heard by Hermisdos, a young Persian prince attached to his court, he turned quickly to the emperor, and said : “If your majesty wants to secure and keep such a horse, you must first provide him with a stable like this.”-Ammianus Marcellinus (xvi., to).

It is said that one day, Gregory the Great, while contemplating the splendor of this forum, was so saddened by the thought that so gifted a man as Trajan should be in torment, he succeeded by prayers in securing the release of the soul of the Emperor from purgatory ; but, as a penalty for so doing, he himself was afflicted with suffering and disease for all the remaining years of his life.

This stately pillar, which, with all our boasted progress, could not possibly be reproduced today, stands near the northwestern end of the forum, and these broken columns, a ” grove of stone,” which you see in this hollow square, are the remains of the elaborate and beautiful Basilica Ulpia whose rich and lavish decorations baffle all description.

It was in this Ulpian Basilica, in A. D. 312, according to ancient authority, that, the lords of the empire having been here assembled, Constantine arose and proclaimed the abjuration of polytheism in favor of Christianity; and hence, it was on this very spot that he closed the long ages of antiquity and ushered in the dawn of modern civilization. The senators listened to the words of the Emperor in sullen silence, for the patricians were attached to the old order of things and feared that any change would be for their disadvantage; but the people, a mighty throng, who had crowded into the Basilica when the Emperor began speaking, listened with rapt faces, and when he concluded, announcing that the religion of the Crucified should henceforth and forever be that of the Roman Empire, the multitude burst into tumultuous shouts of joy, which, we are told, “continued for the space of two hours.” But when the people caught sight of the bitter and contemptuous faces of the patricians, their joy turned to frenzied rage, and a terrible outburst of passion and revolution was only averted by Constantine, who beckoned the people to silence and then spoke as follows : “To be a Christian,” he said, “one must desire to be one ; and to refuse admission to such an one, seeking it, would be a grave offense; to impose it upon any would also be blame-worthy; this is the rule of truth. Those who do not imitate us, shall not lose our good graces, while those who become Christians with us shall be our friends.” And thus on that day, in this historic place, the great and wise Constantine had the wisdom of a sage and the tolerance of a saint. In one breath he proclaimed Christianity as the religion of the State, and the right and liberty of every man to workship God according to the dictates of his own conscience; and the world, after these fifteen hundred years, is only now coming into the full heritage of this latter truth. And so, while geographically an ocean’s breadth and half a continent separate Trajan’s Forum from Plymouth Rock, yet in thought and feeling they lie close together, for they both stand for that eternal truth, the right and freedom of worship.

As an example of how quickly, in the course of centuries, structures become buried by the action of the elements, it may be stated that, if not swept once a week as it is now, Trajan’s Forum would be covered with four inches of dust in a year, at the rate of thirty-three and one-third feet in a century. Considerable of the Forum area is still buried beneath the modern streets and buildings, but enough has been excavated to reveal something of the remarkable beauty of the original buildings, proving that the sculptors of Imperial Rome were not inferior to those of Imperial Greece.

“All that yet is fair Seems only spared to tell how much had perished there.”

Ruskin says that the people who dwell among the Alps are the most insensible to their glories, and you will notice that, of all the persons whom you see about this Forum with its majestic column – persons bent on pleasure or on business, some hurrying by and others lingering for a morning chat – but one, or at most two, seem at all conscious of the presence of these monuments, for the seeing of which, a man might well go to great labor and expense. And yet, notwithstanding their apparent indifference to this priceless heritage, the poorest child in Rome catches some inspiration which is denied to the children of other lands, for it is generally found that it feels itself related, in some real and yet mystical manner, to the great ones who lived here long ago. An American, referring to United Italy, spoke of it in the presence of a Roman nobleman as a ” young nation.” The prince, without lifting his eyes, while drawing and replacing his scarf-pin, replied languidly, ” Ah, yes, very young, with many centuries upon its shoulders.”

The church on the right is that of the Nome di Maria, built to commemorate the liberation of Vienna from the Turks in 1683, and the one on the left is that of S. Maria di Loreto. The three-story house with blinds, between the two, is a police station. We could soon become as familiar with some of these streets and buildings in Rome as with those we pass every morning when at home on our way to business. The Colosseum is nearly half a mile directly behind us here, the Capitoline Hill and the Island of the Tiber lie sharply to our left.

But we are to move on now to our right, and look upon some of the modern glories of Rome. Only a block away to the right of the Nome di Maria Church is the Palace of Colonna, the home of one of the oldest Roman families, which played an important part in Italy during the time of the Papacy. On the map it is found just north of the Forum of Trajan.