Considered as the first shopping mall in history, Trajan’s Market is a huge semicircular mass of brick, part of which remains buried under modern buildings and paradoxically may have had very little to do with commerce, according to the opinion of many historians who consider it more of an administrative center built in support of the emperor’s grand objective: the new imperial forum.

It was the year 106 AD when Trajan, freshly returned from his victorious conquest of Dacia after a hard-fought five-year war, celebrated a grand triumph through the streets of Rome. In it, he displayed half a million prisoners and a fabulous booty that included the treasure of Decebalus (the defeated enemy king) and provided him with substantial funds (including the wealth from the Dacian mines). He offered the people gladiator games in the Colosseum and chariot races in the Circus Maximus, but also used the funds to finance new facilities for the city.

It was another forum, the largest one yet, thanks to the total amount obtained reaching around two billion seven hundred million sesterces, a sum greater than what Augustus invested in his forum a century earlier.

What would go down in history as the Forum Traiani (although some later sources refer to it as the Forum Ulpio, due to the basilica erected at its northern end), consisted of a large porticoed square, two hundred meters long by one hundred twenty wide, located at the foot of the Quirinal.

This location, combined with the enormous planned dimensions, led to pharaonic excavation work, removing the hill that connected this hill with the Capitol and closed the valley of the imperial forums towards the Campus Martius. To prevent the Quirinal slope from collapsing, it was inevitable to carry out consolidation work on it.

In reality, this task had already begun during the previous Flavian dynasty, in the time of Domitian, as evidenced by the existence of a brick wall; but, in any case, the definitive architect was a Syrian-Roman of Greek descent named Apollodorus of Damascus.

Apollodorus was the emperor’s engineer, for whom he had already designed a bridge over the Danube and the new baths (and is credited with the design of the Pantheon of Agrippa).

To solve the problem of the expected instability of the Quirinal, he decided to strengthen it by placing another infrastructure at its feet, as a support: a market. In this way, the Romans would enjoy a grand public complex that, in addition to the square and its porticoes, also included the aforementioned basilica, a small temple, two libraries (one for Latin texts and another for those in Greek), and the famous Trajan’s Column (which narrates the Dacian campaign with reliefs).

Why was a market chosen to complete the monumental complex? There is some controversy about this, as we will see later. In principle, some historians believe it was because it was intended to be the culmination of Trajan’s policy to ensure a supply of provisions to Rome that would prevent famines, embodied in his Alimenta program. In that sense, it was the icing on the cake initiated in 100 AD with the construction of the port that bears his name, Portus Traiani, in what is now Fiumicino: it had large warehouses to store grain and preserve it in suitable conditions, and its location was safer for ships than Claudius’s, more exposed to storms.

The construction of the Trajan’s Forum required complementary interventions, from the restoration of Caesar’s forum and the temple of Venus Genetrix to the demolitions of the Atrium Libertatis (headquarters of the censor’s archive) and a section of the Servian Walls. That’s why it took several years, starting in 107 AD and progressively finishing between 110 and 112 AD.

In that last year, the Forum was officially inaugurated, and the following year the Column was inaugurated; before that, in 110 AD, the market was completed, started a decade earlier for the mentioned reason of consolidating the Quirinal slope.

Despite its name, the buildings were mainly intended to serve as offices for the administration of the Imperial Forums; only a smaller part was allocated to commercial activity, probably in the open spaces of the internal streets and not all of them.

The main avenue, adapting to the exedra plan of the architectural complex, curved from the slope to the imperial forums, separating the lower area (the Grand Hemicycle, which was excavated into the rock) from the upper area (the Grand Hall and the Central Body, home to the current museum), connected by two staircases, one at each end.

Later called Via Biberatica, it was connected to the network of streets, creating a series of small interspersed spaces, vaulted and overlooking the outside, intended for tabernae, as was typical in ancient Rome; the entrances to these, square with original white travertine jambs, are still preserved.

It should be clarified that the word ‘tabernae‘ did not only refer to hospitality activity but also to retail shops in general (mainly food), very common in the same spaces that the insulae had (the classic Roman housing blocks).

Now, if it was a public building, the tabernae could also be used as offices. It seems that this was most likely the case with Trajan’s Market since the stairs of Via Biberatica prevented the use of carts for the transport of goods.

Therefore, despite its incorrect name having endured, and without it being an obstacle for some tabernae to engage in commerce, it would basically be a bureaucratic center where officials worked under the orders, as indicated by a recently discovered inscription, of a procurator Fori Divi Traiani (that is, a procurator in charge of managing the new forum).

Trajan’s Market was built using the technique called opus latericium, that is, concrete with exposed brick; this served as decoration, especially in the pediments and pilasters of the facade.

The roofs had simple barrel vaults or semidomes, depending on the importance of each room; in the case of the Grand Hall, it was covered by ribbed vaults supported by pillars with corbels. As for the floors, in outdoor areas, they were made of opus spicatum (bricks laid in a herringbone pattern), sometimes waterproofed by covering them with monochromatic mosaics made of flint tesserae.

As happened with other great works of Roman architecture (the Colosseum, for example, converted over the centuries into a cemetery, housing, factory, monastery, fortress, quarry, and sanctuary), the Trajan’s Market underwent a considerable transformation during the Middle Ages: floors were added, and the Tower of the Militias was built adjacent to it, a defensive bastion that would be the keep of the Castellum Miliciae and from which tradition says that Nero watched the city’s fire (impossible because it is from the late 12th-early 13th century) and which still stands despite being tilted by an earthquake.

Right next to it stands the church of Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli (Saint Catherine of Siena), which belonged to a convent founded there by twenty-seven noble-born nuns in 1574 (the current church is later, Baroque, from 1628, the work of Giovanni Battista Soria), occupying the upper part of the market and the Small Hemicycle.

As a considerable portion of Via Bibaratica was filled, raising its level, the tabernae were used as basements; also, the rooms of the central section were repaved for use as stables.

The convent remained until 1885 when it was converted into the Goffredo Mameli barracks, finally demolished to proceed with the restoration of the archaeological site at the beginning of the 20th century.

All the effort to recover that space was completed in 2007 with the inauguration of the Museum of the Imperial Forums, where the original pieces found are preserved and exhibited, as well as models of the buildings and digital reconstructions.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 4, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Mercado de Trajano, el “primer centro comercial cubierto del mundo” que probablemente no era un mercado


Corrado Ricci, Il Mercato di Traiano | Lynne Lancaster, Building Trajan’s Market (en American Journal of Archaeology) | James E. Packer, The Forum of Trajan in Rome. A study of the monuments in brief | Mercati di Traiano Museo dei Fori Imperiali | Marvin Trachtenberg e Isabelle Hyman, Arquitectura | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Discover more from LBV Magazine English Edition

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.