The emperors Trajan and Hadrian were the two most prolific emperors who constructed buildings during the Nervan-Antonine dynasty.
- Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Middle Empire works
- Define critical terms related to Middle Empire art
- Discuss Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Markets, Hadrian’s Pantheon, and Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli
- Contrast male and female imperial portraiture during this time period from that of the Flavian dynasty
- Describe the monuments dedicated to the reigns of Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius and what they emphasized
Public Building Programs
Public building programs were prevalent under the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine dynasty. During this period of peace, stability, and an expansion of the empire’s borders, many of the emperors sought to cast themselves in the image of the first imperial builder, Augustus. The projects these emperors conducted around the empire included the building and restoration of roads, bridges, and aqueducts. In Rome, these imperial building projects strengthened the image of the emperor and directly addressed the needs of the citizens of the city.
Trajan’s Forum was the last of the imperial fora to be built in the city. The forum’s main entrance was accessed from the south, near to the Forum of Augustus as well as the Forum of Caesar (which Trajan also renovated). The Forum of Augustus might have been the model for the Forum of Trajan, even though the latter was much larger. Both fora were rectangular in shape with a temple at one end. Both appear to have a set of exedra on either side.
Trajan built his forum with the spoils from his conquest of Dacia. The visual elements within the forum speak of his military prowess and Rome’s victory. A triumphal arch mounted with an image of the emperor in a six-horse chariot greeted patrons at the southern entrance.
In the center of the large courtyard stood an equestrian statue of Trajan, and additional bronze statues of him in a quadriga lined the roof of the Basilica Ulpia, which transected the forum in the northern end. This large civic building served as a meeting place for the commerce and law courts. It was lavishly furnished with marble floors, facades, and the hall was filled with tall marble columns.
The Basilica Ulpia also separated the arcaded courtyard from two libraries (one for Greek texts, the other for Latin), the Column of Trajan, and a temple dedicated to the Divine Trajan.
Trajan’s markets were an additional public building that the emperor built at the same time as his forum. The markets were built on top of and into the Quirinal Hill. They consisted of a series of multi-levelled halls lined with rooms for shops, administrative offices, or apartments. The markets follow the shape of Trajan’s forum.
A portion of them are shaped into a large , framing one of the exedra of the forum. Like Trajan’s forum, the markets were elaborately decorated with marble floors and revetment, as well as decorative columns to frame the doorways.
Apollodorus of Damascus
Many of Trajan’s architectural achievements were designed by his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus. Apollodorus was a Greek engineer from Damascus, Syria. He designed Trajan’s forums and markets, the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, and an important bridge across the Danube during the campaigns against the Dacians.
Unfortunately for Apollodorus, Trajan’s heir Hadrian also took an interest in architecture. According to Roman biographers, Apollodorus did not appreciate Hadrian’s interests or architectural drawings and often discredited them. Upon the succession of the new emperor, Apollodorus was dismissed from court.
Hadrian’s most famous contribution to the city of Rome was his rebuilding of the Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, that was first built by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. Agrippa’s Pantheon burned down in the 80s CE, was rebuilt by Domitian, and burned down again in 110 CE.
Hadrian’s Pantheon still remains standing today, a great testament of Roman engineering and ingenuity. The Pantheon was consecrated as a church during the medieval period and was later used as a burial site.
The most unusual aspect of the Pantheon is its magnificent coffered dome, which was originally gilded in bronze. The concrete dome, which provided inspiration to numerous Renaissance and Neoclassical architects, spans over 142 feet and remains the largest unreinforced dome today. It stands due to a series of relieving arches and because the supportive base of the building is nearly twenty feet thick.
The cylindrical drum on which the dome rests consists of hollowed-out brick filled with concrete for extra reinforcement. At the center of the dome is a large oculus that lets in light, fresh air, and even rain. Both the oculus and the coffered ceiling lighten the weight of the dome, allowing it to stand without additional supports.
The Pantheon takes its shape from Greek circular temples, however, it is faced by a Roman rectangular portico and a triangular pediment supported by monolithic granite columns imported from Egypt. The portico, which originally included a flight of stairs to a podium, acts as a visual trick, preparing viewers to enter a typical rectangular temple when they would instead be walking into a circular one.
A dedicatory inscription is carved in the entablature under the pediment. The inscription reads as the original inscription would have read when the Pantheon was first built by Agrippa. Hadrian’s decision to use the original inscription links him to the original imperial builders of Rome.
Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli
Hadrian travelled extensively during his reign and was frequently exposed to a variety of local architectural styles. His villa at Tivoli (built during the second and third decades of the second century CE) reflects the influence of styles found in locations such as Greece and Egypt.
Among the designs he borrowed are caryatids and statues beside them that depict the Egyptian dwarf and fertility god Bes. A Greek Maritime Theater exhibits classical Ionic style, whereas the domes of the main buildings, as well as the Corinthian arches of the Canopus (a pool) and Serapeum (an artificial grotto), clearly show the influence of Roman architecture.
One structure in the villa is the so-called Maritime Theater. It consists of a round portico with a barrel vault supported by pillars. Inside the portico was a ring-shaped pool with a central island. Inside the outer wall and surrounding the moat are a ring of unfluted Ionic columns.
The Maritime Theater includes a lounge, a library, heated baths, three suites with heated floors, a washbasin, an art gallery, and a large fountain. During ancient times, the island was connected to the portico by two wooden drawbridges. On the island sits a small Roman house complete with an atrium, a library, a triclinium, and small baths. The area was probably used by the emperor as a retreat from the busy life at the court.
The villa utilizes numerous architectural styles and innovations. The domes of the steam baths have circular holes on the apex to allow steam to escape. This is reminiscent of the Pantheon. The area has a network of underground tunnels. The tunnels were mostly used to transport servants and goods from one area to another. In total, the villa’s structures demonstrate the emperor’s innovative spirit in the field of architecture.
Imperial Sculpture under the Nervan-Antonines
The imperial portraiture of men and women in the early- to mid-second century reflects an increasing austerity and interest in the Greeks. Imperial portraiture under the Flavians first depicted the emperors as mature, older men. Nerva, who only reigned for two years before his natural death in 98 CE, was declared emperor by the Senate following Domitian’s assassination. Since he had no natural sons of his own, Nerva adopted a young and popular general, Trajan, to be his successor.
Nerva’s portraiture followed the style of imperial portraiture during the Flavian era. The few portraits that remain from the two years of his rule depict a man with a receding hairline and a small mouth. The portraiture of Nerva and later of Trajan display an increasingly militaristic look.
Nerva’s successor and adopted son Trajan was a much more successful emperor who was well-liked by both the Senate and the people of Rome. He reigned for nearly twenty years (98–117 CE), and expanded the empire’s borders while implementing extensive public building and social welfare programs. Trajan’s portraits depict him as ageing, but always with a full head of hair and a typical Roman hairstyle that is reminiscent of, although not identical to, those of Augustus and Alexander the Great.
Hadrian, Trajan’s adopted son and heir, peacefully became emperor in 117 CE. He was a great lover of Greek culture and wore a closely trimmed beard in the style of Classical Greek statesmen, such as the Athenian Pericles. Hadrian set a fashion for beards among Romans, and most emperors after him also wore a beard. Prior to Hadrian, nearly all Roman men were clean-shaven.
Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s adopted heir and successor, mimics his predecessor’s appearance in his official portraits—thick curly hair and a curly, closely-trimmed beard. By having his own portraits copy those of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius forged a visual link between himself and his predecessor.
Antonius Pius’s adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius are also identified by the beards they wore. Both men are depicted with heads of thick, curly hair and long, curly beards. Unlike the closely trimmed beard style of Greek statesmen, this style was more akin to the preferred style of the Greek philosophers. Marcus Aurelius admired the Greeks and was himself a philosopher. This style matched his personality and interests.
Unlike the rest of the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine line, Marcus Aurelius fathered a son who became his heir. Commodus’s portrait style followed that of his father and of preceding emperors. Commodus was egotistical and even had the head of the Colossus of Nero (now an image of the god Sol) recast in his own likeness.
Commodus also believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and claimed power from Hercules’s father, Jupiter. He even commissioned portraits of himself as Hercules. These portraits show him with the now-traditional imperial style of thick, curly hair and a curly beard. Hercules’s lion skin is draped over his head and around his shoulders and he often carries a club and sometimes the apples of the Hesperides.
Imperial Female Portraiture
The women of imperial families set the standards of fashion and beauty during the reigns of their husbands or other male family members. These women also established the hairstyles of the period, which are so distinctive that busts and statues are easily dated to specific decades in accordance with the hairstyle of the woman depicted.
During the Nervan-Antonine period, the portraits of imperial women and their hairstyles kept some Flavian flavour but were simpler than they had been. The fashionable style among women during the reign of the Flavians involved hairpieces and wigs to create a stack of curls on the crown of the head.
Trajan’s wife Pompeia Plotina and his niece Matidia established a new style that was almost an abstraction of the Flavian style. Their hairstyles still involved a vertical element, but the curls were simplified on the crown of the head. Matidia’s natural hair was gathered above the nape of the neck, while Pompeia Plotina wore a braid at the back of her head.
Just as Hadrian chose to wear his hair and beard in a Greek style, his wife Sabina also chose a Greek hairstyle, helping to promote Hadrian’s Panhellenic agenda. Sabina is depicted with simplified facial features, and her style is comparable to that worn by Praxitiles’s sculpture Aphrodite of Knidos. Her hair is held back by a band and carefully woven around the back of the head. A similar style was promoted by Marcus Aurelius’s wife, Faustina the Younger, who is depicted with carefully crimped hair worn close to the head.
Victory Columns under the Nervan-Antonines
The monuments dedicated to the reigns of Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius emphasize their military achievements, divinity, and public works.
Trajan was born in Spain and rose to prominence in the Roman army during the reign of Domitian. He was a popular general who was adopted by Emperor Nerva as his son and heir after Nerva realized he needed to choose a successor who was liked by the people.
During Trajan’s reign of nearly twenty years, from 98 CE to 117 CE, the Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial range. Trajan established large building programs both in Rome and throughout the empire.
Column of Trajan
Trajan and his architect Apollodorus of Damascus designed and built a large forum complex in the center of Rome. Standing between the libraries of the Forum of Trajan is a 128-foot tall victory column, known as the Column of Trajan. It stands on top of a large pedestal carved with a relief of the spoils of war.
The pedestal later served as a tomb for Trajan’s ashes upon his death and deification. He is the first emperor to be buried inside the pomerium, the religious boundary around the city of Rome. A 625-foot frieze that depicts Trajan’s two military campaigns against the Dacians is sculpted in a spiral relief that wraps around the column, from its bottom to its top.
The frieze depicts over 150 episodes with more than 2,500 figures. The scenes show the Roman army preparing for war, including scenes of moving the army, building fortifications, Emperor Trajan addressing the troops, battles, and the eventual surrender by the Dacians.
Only one-quarter of the narration depicts battles, while the remaining panels depict scenes of preparation and other activities. The heavy emphasis on preparation, instead of battle, emphasizes the Romans’ organization and the power behind the army.
The visual narration is depicted in low relief (bas relief) and relies little on naturalistic detail, preferring to show some scenes in multiple perspectives and with figures on different ground lines. Important characters, such as Trajan, reappear throughout the frieze and are easily identified.
Trajan himself appears 59 times, leading his troops as the head of the army and the empire. With the exception of the appearance of a few Victory figures and a river god, the Romans and Trajan are shown conquering the Dacians under their own power, through their own superiority over their enemy, without the help of divine intervention.
Trajan’s victory column was originally topped by an eagle and later with a statue of Trajan. The statue of Trajan eventually disappeared and was replaced in the sixteenth century by a bronze statue of St. Peter.
Scholars have recently called the legibility of the figures into question. Because of the column’s location, nestled between the libraries and the basilica of the Trajan’s Forum, the scenes, which are carved in low relief, are small and hard to read. It is uncertain how much of the column’s relief Romans would have been able to see. There is some speculation about whether knowledge of the idea of the narrative was more important than being physically able to read the narrative.
The Column of Antoninus Pius
Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161 CE), the first of the Antonine emperors, was the adopted son of Hadrian. His heirs, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. had a column erected to him on the Campus Martius, the base of which survives today.
On two of its sides is an identical scene of a military decision depicting cavalry men parading around soldiers, two of whom hold standards. The relief carvings are high enough to protrude from the sides and be visible when viewing the non-decursio side of the pedestal. It depicts each figure from a ground-level perspective while showing the circular parade from a bird’s eye view.
On one of the other two sides is a dedicatory inscription. On the opposite panel is a scene of the apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina. The scene depicts a large winged figure named Aion (Eternity) carrying the couple, surrounded by two eagles, to heaven.
Two figures look on from the ground. One is a personification of the Campus Martius, lounging on the ground with an arm around Augustus’ sundial obelisk, the location where the ritual of deification occurred. The other is a personification of Rome, who appears as a woman wearing armour. She salutes the emperor and empress during their apotheosis while leaning on a shield depicting the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.
The Column of Marcus Aurelius
A victory column was also erected for Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 CE). This column is modelled on Trajan’s column and was originally erected on the Campus Martius between the Temple of Divine Hadrian and the Temple of Divine Marcus Aurelius. A relief frieze encircles the column and depicts Marcus Aurelius’s military campaigns at the end of his life in Germania.
Despite the similar military scenes, the artistic style of the Column of Marcus Aurelius differs greatly from the Column of Trajan. The figures in this column are stockier and their proportions are distorted. The extra-large heads and deep relief carving were utilized so that the figures were easier to see from the ground than those on Trajan’s column.
The military strength of the empire is emphasized more so than on the Column of Trajan, where the majority of the scenes depict the preparation for battle, instead of the battles themselves. The new style, high relief, and military emphasis demonstrate the changing priorities and social-political attitudes of the period.
Architecture under Hadrian
Hadrian was a great lover of architecture and the buildings he designed reflect attributes of his character. Like Trajan before him, the emperor Hadrian had a long and successful career as an emperor of Rome, reigning from 117 to 138 CE.
Hadrian’s time as emperor was marked with peace and relative stability throughout the empire. He was an active general in the military, both before and after becoming emperor, despite a lull in military conflicts during his reign. He worked to strengthen Rome’s borders by building fortifications, outposts, and walls.
The most famous of these is Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia that marked the northern boundary of the empire on the isle. Hadrian also travelled extensively, enjoying new cultures, inspecting troops, and promoting military readiness.
During Hadrian’s reign, the port city of Ostia grew significantly, reaching over 75,000 inhabitants by the third century CE. Located at the mouth of the Tiber on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ostia was the main port city of Rome. The city was first founded during the third century BCE, as one of Rome’s earliest colonies.
The ruins of Ostia are from the city’s imperial period when it was at the height of its prosperity. Since Rome was settled inland, Ostia was always an important component of the capital city, especially as the empire expanded and relied on its provinces for survival. Merchant vessels and large ships filled with grains, building materials, and other goods to sell in Rome docked at Ostia, where the goods were eventually transferred upriver.
Ostia was a typical Roman city, including a large central forum, bathhouses, temples, a theatre, barracks for firemen, and apartment buildings. The two central streets of the city, the cardo and decumanus, ran north-south and east-west through the city, intersecting at the forum—the center of the city’s civic and religious activities.
The citizens of Ostia lived in apartment houses or insulae, which stood six or seven stories high. The insulae of Ostia demonstrate the cramped and noisy living style that was common in Roman cities. Shops, known as tabernae, occupied the ground level of the insulae, while the upper stories housed apartments.
Roman apartments varied in size from larger homes located on the lower floors with private dining and cooking areas, as well as private toilets, to small, cramped rooms with communal cooking areas and toilets on the upper floors.
Excavations at Ostia reveal a variety of temples and meeting sites for cults and rituals. This reflects the relative religious diversity within the Roman Empire. Common features throughout the Empire include the Capitolium, the temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, in the forum at the center of the city.
Across from the Capitolium in the forum stands a temple dedicated to Augustus and Roma. Within close proximity is the Temple to Hercules, and throughout the city are temples dedicated to gods related to shipping and commerce, as well temples built by guilds such as the shipbuilders or the rope makers for their patron gods.
On the city’s outskirts, there is also a large sanctuary to the goddess Cybele or Magna Mater, attesting to her popularity in the city. The god Mithras was also popular among the Ostians and worshiped solely by men in the form of a mystery cult. Over 15 mithraea have been discovered in the city. These mithraea are nearly all built underground to replicate the cave central to the myths of Mithras. Hadrian’s general religious tolerance is reflected in this religious diversity, including the presence of a Jewish synagogue.
The Arch of Trajan at Benevento
The Arch of Trajan in Benevento draws visual cues from the Arch of Titus at Rome. This arch, built between 114 and 117 CE, was erected over the Via Appia, one of Rome’s most ancient roads through southern Italy, as the road entered Beneventum.
Like the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Trajan is ornately decorated with scenes of conquest and the deeds completed by Trajan. On both sides of the arch is a dedicatory inscription. The exterior is decorated with engaged columns and reliefs of Trajan’s military conquest of Dacia, the extent of the Roman empire, and allegorical scenes of imperial power, as well as Trajan’s good deeds as both a builder of public works and as the founder of a charitable institution for children in Roman Italy.
The two interior relief panels depict the religious activity of Trajan. One shows him making a sacrifice in one of Rome’s oldest fora, the Forum Boarium, which was home to some of the city’s oldest temples. The other panel depicts Trajan being welcomed after his apotheosis by the Capitoline Triad. These two scenes depict Trajan’s piety as well as the approval given to him by the three most important gods in the Roman pantheon.
Hadrian also built a large mausoleum for himself and his family on the right bank of the Tiber River in Rome. Its original design seems to have purposely recalled the Mausoleum of Augustus, located across the river on the Campus Martius. The Mausoleum of Hadrian was a large cylinder topped by a garden and quadriga statue. A central room housed the ashes of Hadrian and his family, as well as several of the emperors who succeeded him. While Hadrian’s Mausoleum still stands today, it was later converted into a residence and fortress under the Roman popes and now serves as a museum.