Celebrating Trajan: Rome fetes emperor’s anniversary with an impressive exhibition

Anniversaries are fitting occasions to review a life, and Rome is doing exactly that with a meticulously documented and attractively displayed show to mark 1,900 years since the death of Emperor Trajan in 117 A.D.. “Trajan, Constructing the Empire, Creating Europe,” opened in late fall 2017 and runs until Sept. 16, 2018 in a most logical setting — the cavernous, restored Markets of Trajan, perched on the lower slopes of the Quirinal Hill.

The exhibit explores the accomplishments and legacy of the emperor who was considered by his contemporaries to be an “Optimus princeps,” Latin, roughly, for the best among emperors. As the show’s title implies, Trajan was intent upon expanding the ancient Roman Empire, under his rule, which began in 98 A.D., reached its maximum expansion. The empire spanned across northern Africa, and, in Europe, from the Black Sea in the east to the Irish Sea in the west. Curiously, Trajan was the first non-Roman to be Rome’s empire. His roots were in what is now referred to as Iberia.

There are some eye-catching sculpted antiquities on display. Among them is a colossal hand and a head depicting Trajan — both items originate from Trajan’s Forum, but more recently were brought to the exhibit from museum storehouses. Rome’s antiquities are so abundant not all are on regular display.

Delightful to view is another sculpture, depicting the emperor’s wife, Plotina. Her wavy hair, culminating in a point atop her hand, was apparently so admired by the citizens of her day than many women copied her style. Among the aspects of Trajan’s legacy that the show highlights is his apparent high esteem for women. His wife and some of Trajan’s relatives were active in civic work such as charities, and their activity is sometimes linked to First Wives in more recent times.

Many tourists in Rome don’t even notice Trajan’s Markets, whose entrance is along a sidewalk on a street they take to reach Termini Station. But it’s just atop a tall staircase behind Trajan’s Column. The ancient tribute to Trajan is so tall — some 30 meters or roughly 100 feet high — most folks don’t crane their necks that much to admire it. A good view of it can be had from the upper part of the staircase leading from the street to nearby bustling Piazza Venezia. The column itself is decorated with an amazingly detailed marble frieze of scenes, oft likened to comic book scenes, that tell the story, in part likely exaggerated, of many of Trajan’s feats. The monument is dedicated to his conquest of a people in what is now modern-day Romania.

After wandering through the second floor of the exhibit, stroll out on to the terrace. It commands a wonderful view of Trajan’s Forum beneath it, the Roman Forum across the street, and of several medieval-era apartment buildings crowded together on the edge of Monti, a quaint neighborhood of narrow, steep streets.

The show’s exhibit space is unique in itself. The ancient markets form a semicircle of rows of shops. When it flourished, the markets featured some 150 shops, and a large covered hall believed to have functioned as a kind of bazaar.