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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Forum Transitorium

It is late in the reign of Domitian (ruled AD 81-96). The emperor Domitian is about to make a major change in the area of the Imperial Fora. Between the Forum Augusti and Forum Iulium on the one side and his father Vespasian’s Templum Pacis on the other was a very old street, the Argiletum, which ran from the Subura to the center of the city, entering the old Forum between the Basilica Aemilia and the Curia. Like the Subura, the Argiletum was crowded, noisy, smelly, and disreputable, as least in the eyes of authors such as Juvenal and Martial.  A new temple precinct would put an end to all such commercial activity there.

One of Martial's poems (1.117) offers evidence that in AD 85 or 86 the new forum had not yet been built there. This passage is taken as a terminus post quem for Domitian’s intervention.

What Domitian decided to do was to monumentalize the Argiletum where it passed between the Forum Augusti, Forum Iulium, and Templum of Pacis.  He would build a new forum there, with a temple dedicated to Minerva, his patron goddess.  The forum was still under construction at the time of his assassination in AD 96 and was completed by his successor Nerva in AD 97: hence it is also known as the Forum Nervae.  But others call it the Forum Transitorium or Forum Pervium, to emphasize its continued use as the main thoroughfare between the Subura and the old Forum.  Just what name Domitian would have given his new forum will never be known, for the name was erased along with all other public mentions of his existence when the Senate officially condemned his memory in a damnatio memoriae.

The new forum was about 120 meters long but only 45 meters wide.  On its long sides it shared walls with the adjacent Forum Iulium, Forum Augusti, and Templum Pacis, and on each of its crescent-shaped short sides there was a gate, for this forum was to remain a thoroughfare.  Wheel ruts in the paving in front of the gate next to the temple may go back to antiquity.  If it was the smallest of the imperial fora, it was perhaps also the most frequently trodden.  A semicircular portico, the Porticus Absidata, was added behind the temple to serve as a grand entrance into the new forum from the side of the Subura.

At its northeast end stood a small temple to Minerva.  It was still in good shape in the seventeenth century, when it was removed to be reused elsewhere.  But the Marble Plan shows that it was hexastyle prostyle.  There was an apse at the rear of the cella for the cult statue of the goddess.

The narrowness of the space meant that there was no room for covered colonnades.  The Forum Iulium and the Forum Augusti and the Templum Pacis (with the exception of its northwest wall--a point to which we shall return) all had covered colonnades.  No room here for those, so the architect had a problem.  The solution was to set the columns close to the wall, with the entablature and attic projecting out from the wall over each of them.  The colonnade thus created cannot said to be “engaged” in the proper sense, since the column itself is not so attached to the wall that a part of its circumference is cut off by the line of the wall; instead, the column stands free but is attached to the wall by the entablature and the attic acting as a sort of bracket.

This is the first example of this bracketing in the extant remains of Roman architecture.  There is evidence for this development that’s a bit earlier in a painting, in Cubiculum 16 of the Pompeian Villa of the Mysteries, which of course must have been produced before AD 79, shown in the picture above.

Along each long side slender Corinthian columns of Phrygian purple marble created bays.  About eleven meters of the wall and two columns have been preserved.  The photo shows how much lower the ground was two millennia ago.  This ruin is known today rather unflatteringly as Le Colonnacce, “those ugly columns.”

The wall is tufa (peperino), with some of the marble lining still in place.  On the projecting entablatures above the columns and continuing along the wall between the columns is a frieze, poorly preserved, and a cornice.  Above the entablature is an Attic, some 4.4 meters tall, itself topped with a cornice.  In the single surviving bay there is a recess with a large relief panel showing a female figure.  We have to imagine a line of such bracketed columns all along the lateral walls of the forum, perhaps some twenty per side, producing some 38 bays, with recessed relief panels in each.  Holes in the front surfaces of the attic projections and on top of the attic cornices suggest that something was affixed to the front of, and on top of, each projection.  If we add all this up--meters and meters of frieze, relief panels in each bay, objects attached to the front and top of the projections--we end up with, well, a lot.

It was once thought that the attic figure was Minerva, repeated in each bay. That would mean as many as 38 Minervas!

Then in 1996 H. Wiegartz showed that the relief has a parallel in an inscribed stele found at Aphrodisias in Turkey representing the personification of the ethnos of the Piroustae, a people of Pannonia.  Both figures carry a helmet with a plume, a small round shield, a long cinched garment, a cloak secured at the right shoulder, and a broad belt.  The belts are nearly identical, right down to the little spur that is turned downward on the Roman relief, upward on the one from Turkey.  Wiegartz and others since have concluded that the attic figure preserved from the Forum Transitorium is non other than the personification of the ethnic group called the Piroustae.

It may be, then, that the Forum Transitorium featured in each bay a different personified people (ethnos) over whom the Romans claimed to hold sway.  A monument that gathered many ethne was in effect a display of Roman of the breadth of Rome's conquests.  The whole point was to show a great number of peoples.  Servius (ad Aen. 8.721) reports that “Augustus made a portico in which he assembled images of all peoples [simulacra omnium gentium], on which account it is called the Porticus ad Nationes."  This monument is lost, but the Temple of Aphrodite Prometor (i.e., Venus Genetrix) at Aphrodisias, excavated 1979-81, offers an analogue: it  featured the sculpted representations of some 50 conquered peoples in its portico, some of which have been preserved.

If the female attic figures represented were simulacra gentium, then it is possible that the reference was to Domitian’s Dacian campaigns in AD 86-88, for which he celebrated a double triumph in AD 89.  The metal objects affixed to the attic may have included the spoils from that war.  This may be guesswork, but its reasonable guesswork.

So we have a plausible explanation for a part of the sculptural program--the attic reliefs.  But what about the frieze?  And the decoration of the temple?  We hope to return to these questions in a future post.

[For those who cannot not accept the hypothesis that Domitian built the Forum Transitorium to commemorate his Dacian triumph in AD 89, there is always the explanation offered by James Anderson in 1982, which which we began: that Domitian’s aim was to close the Argiletum to commercial traffic.  Anderson argues that to that end Domitian moved the northwest wall of his father’s Templum Pacis, eliminating its covered colonnade to make room for his own project.  This has the advantage of explaining the asymmetrical layout of the Templum Pacis, whose rear wall does not have a covered portico to match that of the other three walls.]

  • Anderson, James.  “Domitian, the Argiletum an the Temple of Peace.”  American Journal of Archaeology 86 (1982) 101-110.
  • Claridge, Amanda.  Rome.  An Oxford Archaeological Guide.  2010.
  • Kleiner, Diana.  Open Yale Courses.  Lecture 13, chapter 6.
  • Kleiner, Diana.  Roman Sculpture.  1992.
  • Sear, Frank.  Roman Architecture.  1982.
  • Ward-Perkins, J. B.  Roman Imperial Architecture.  1981.
  • Wiegartz, H.  “Simulacra gentium auf dem Forum Romanum.”  Boreas 19 (1996) 171-179.

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