A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
To the tourist, the ruins of Trajan's Forum, 16 feet below modern street level in the heart of Rome, resemble pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. These are the ruins of an exceptional monument, begun during Trajan's principate (A.D. 98-117) and finished by his successor, Hadrian, in A.D. 128. Though the forum was described by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (A.D. 330-395) as "a gigantic complex...beggaring description and never again to be imitated by mortal men," today's battered remains convey little of its past glory.
Over the past two and one-half decades, I have studied excavation records and depictions of the forum on Roman coins and the Forma Urbis, an ancient plan of the city. Between 1985 and 1987, architect Kevin Lee Sarring and I documented the surviving stone fragments and produced a new map of the forum. East and west of the forum's central plaza stood Corinthian colonnades, behind each of which was a hemicycle (semicircular hall). At the north end of the plaza was the Basilica Ulpia, a law court. Beyond that were two identical libraries flanking the Column of Trajan, decorated with a continuous spiral relief that chronicles the emperor's conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) between A.D. 101 and 106.
Trajan's Forum was intended as a visual realization of its builder's political propaganda. The extensive use of expensive, imported colored marble emphasized imperial power and wealth. The forum's ornamentation combined symbols of Trajan's Dacian victories with those of deification and worship of the emperors. The simplicity of its forms constituted a powerful visual link with the Forum of Augustus, the empire's founder. And the entire forum was a biography in stone, revealing one after another the stages in the life of the heroic Trajan as he progressed from mortality to divinity.
Over the past two years, a UCLA group has cooperated with me and Sarring in the construction of a virtual-reality model of the forum. At the same time, the Roman computer firm Infobyte is producing a second three-dimensional model of the Basilica Ulpia, part of a larger undertaking called the Imperial Forums in Virtual Reality. New excavations are under way, directed by the Italian archaeologist Roberto Meneghini, at several key points in the forum; to be finished by 2000, they will form part of a new Museum of the Imperial Forums.
James E. Packer is a professor of classics at Northwestern University and author of The Forum of Trajan in Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Research Institute, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and Northwestern University.