September 18: The Great Syrian Architect and his Great Roman Patron

2016/09/18 § Leave a comment

On this day in 53 Trajan was born.

Trajan reigned as Emperor of Rome from 98 to 117, during which time he waged war and took over a ton of land for the Empire and all that kind of emperorish stuff.  And, in the tradition of Augustus before him, he decided to build stuff.  And man oh man did he build.

In the far-flung colonies and vanquished lands Trajan directed the construction of fantastic bridges and whole new cities.  Back home in the capital he celebrated his reign over the most extensive parcel of land collected by a Roman by building the most extensive imperial fora, ever. Trajan’s Forum is particularly significant, and in its design he was of course dependent on a great architect, Apollodorus of Damascus.  He followed the model of Roman precedents for such large, open-air spaces defined by buildings for public use, and expanded on them in a bold and dramatic fashion.  The open forum space was focused on a temple, according to tradition, and bore the architectural emblems that had been established at least by Augustus’ time.  But Apollodorus amped up the model by bisecting the area with a humongous new basilica that measured 200 x 560 feet.  Adjacent to it stood two fireproof libraries, flanking the innovative honorific marker, the Column of Trajan (where the Emperor’s ashes were eventually laid).  The basilica and forum area open into great hemicycles, one of which thrusts into a neighboring hillside, over which rambles the collection of 150 shops collectively known as Trajan’s Market.  Among them stands a stunning vaulted hall with a thirty-foot span.  It now suffers comparison by the glorious and tidy vaults of later emperors, but this first time out for such a structure–lumpy though it is–is pretty extraordinary.

In a city that was used to bigger and better everything, the Forum of Trajan was really grandior et melior.  A broad and vast forum, lined by marble and other materials imported from across the Empire, a huge basilica, glorious temple, new libraries, unprecedented monument, all laid out in fabulously axial Roman fashion, juxtaposed against the commercial development that was all curves and vaults rambling up the hillside and offering picturesque views all over the place.  Although each of the Imperial Fora is ultimately informed by Classical Greek aesthetics, it took a Greek-trained architect to stretch the tradition, then adopt the brick-faced concrete construction of the Romans and push that along to its next step of development.

The Forum of Trajan is much more than another pile of rocks left from the collapse of the Empire.  It’s evidence of one of the greatest architects to have walked the globe, period.  While Apollodorus deserves significant props for his achievement, one must remember he couldn’t have done it alone; Trajan was there with deep pockets and enthused support, not to mention the great smarts to hire the Syrian in the first place.  Surely the emperor’s spectacular building projects contributed to his (unusually, for an emperor) strong and positive reputation and legacy.  After Trajan’s death, the Senate addressed each new emperor with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (“be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”).  Few patrons have been.

Image: overlooking the Markets of Trajan; Trajan’s Column to the far left (Clio’s)


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