The Imperial Forums, i.e. How Ancient Rome Discovered Urban Sprawl!

Daniella loves joking about ancient Rome and its imperial Forums. “You know, ancient Romans invented a lot of things we think were only discovered in the modern age. For example, urban sprawl!” But Daniella is only partially joking. After all, ancient Romans outgrow their old downtown. After which, they started buying private property to develop more and larger Fora (Forums or downtowns).

To better understand Rome’s town planning and its imperial Forums, we’ll explore them in chronological order. So, we’ll discuss Julius Caesar and how he came up with the idea of building a new forum. Darn, a new forum? That was ambitious! Why? Because no one had thought of building a new one. And that was insane, since the old one had been in use for over 500 hundred years! What a political and architectural genius! When Caesar had the Forum Iulium built, he doubled the size of Rome’s downtown, creating more space for shops and administration. When you think about, Julius Caesar also deserves the credit for inventing the “forum trend.” After all, he came up with the idea that all self-respecting emperors then followed.

Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (later known as Augustus), built the next imperial Forum. It was crowned with a Temple to Mars, the god of war. (Its four surviving columns can be seen in the photo.) But why Mars? What was the message? Wasn’t Octavian the harbinger of a Golden Age? Well… Yes and no. So, we’ll discuss how Octavian’s Forum reflects his early politics, and how those politics changed. After that, we’ll tackle Vespasian’s Forum. It is known as the Templum Pacis (the Temple of Peace). And it served principally as a museum, where Emperor Vespasian displayed the trophies of his war in Judea.

ancient Rome imperial Forum of Augustus

Ancient Rome, the Imperial Forums, and Town Planning Continued

Then we’ll pay homage to elderly Emperor Nerva. He immortalized himself by abdicating in favor of his adopted son General Trajan. (Or rather, he didn’t immortalize himself, because everyone has heard of Trajan and no one has heard of him.) In his two-year reign, Nerva inaugurated the Forum Transitorium. This was the pencil-thin forum that his architects squeezed between two preexisting ones. In fact, it looks more like a corridor or a long passageway. And that’s what transitorium literally means in Latin! For fear of seeming disrespectful toward Nerva, I’ll stop here. And I won’t point out that his predecessor, Emperor Domitian, had the Transitorium started and perhaps nearly completed.

“Trajan’s Markets” or “Trajan’s Complex”

ancient Rome imperial Forum of Trajan

Scholars talk about “Trajan’s Markets,” using a conventional modern name. The so-called Markets include a basilica, a forum, a triumphal column, and libraries. So, Emperor Trajan wins hands down the prize for having sponsored the largest, most multi-functional complex of them all. To make space for it, his construction workers moved over 61 million cubic meters of dirt. They also remodeled parts of the Quirinal Hill. So, we have to discuss these early 2nd century A.D. engineering feats. And we’ll do so as imaginary administrators, store owners, and shoppers bustling around us in the space seen in the photo here.

But who built Trajan’s Complex? Meet Trajan’s court architect, Apollodorus of Damascus! Indeed, while ancient Romans said nihil novi sub sole (there’s nothing new under the sun), Apollodorus of Damascus proved them wrong at least twice. First, as Trajan’s military engineer, when he designed what was then the longest bridge in Europe. In just over a kilometer, it spanned the Danube River. Second, as Trajan’s civil engineer, he invented a new type of commemorative monument, i.e. Trajan’s Column, which still towers in Trajan’s Complex today. There is no known prototype for this 100 ancient Roman foot tall column with battle scenes and military campaigns sculpted into its marble. The coolest thing? Apollodorus of Damascus had his Guinness Book of World Records bridge over the Danube River depicted it!

Practical Advice about Visiting Rome’s Imperial Forums

Generally speaking, the only forum accessible to the public is Trajan’s Complex (the Basilica, Forum, and Markets) and the museum that it houses. When it is used to host exhibits, the entrance fee changes. But luckily, children are eligible for discounts. For more information about Trajan’s Complex, click on Rome’s official website’s description, which is only in Italian. Sorry! Ditto for more information about its ticket prices.

At times, the Forums of Caesar and Augustus are accessible by special request. For more information regarding Daniella’s reservation surcharge, please see “the Costs” section of this webpage. Meanwhile, the Imperial Forums pair up with other visits that focus on ancient Rome, like the Forum. If you’d like to explore imperial politics and architecture in greater depth, consider pairing them up with the nearby Colosseum or the Pantheon (in the nearby Campus Martius area). After focusing on Trajan’s Column, visitors may also want to visit Marcus Aurelius’s Column, which (like the Pantheon) stands nearby in the Campus Martius area.

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