Rome: commerce, business and the imperial fora

Rome’s imperial fora – dazzling in their grotesque monumentality – are often primarily thought of as symbols of imperial power and political legitimation. Obviously, this is not without reason. The language used, the stories told and the symbols visualized can easily be linked with the continuous discourse through which Roman emperors managed their public image – a discourse with which the archaeologists and historians writing about these places are thoroughly familiar: especially since Zanker’s work on Augustus and the power of images, it is tempting to look at the material remains of these fora simply as political monuments, built primarily to convey a message that we might even consider ‘propagandistic’.

Why were these fora actually built?

Indeed, this is the picture that dominates the handbooks and archaeological guides, and it is the message that is conveyed, on an everyday basis, to tourists and students as they gaze at the podium of the temple of Mars Ultor or at the Column of Trajan. It is, however, a very partial and reductionist view of the imperial fora, and one that suggests a misleading answer to the key question to be asked about these monuments: why on earth did several Roman emperors, often at politically rather sensitive moments, decide to buy up and tear down entire blocks right in the heart of the imperial capital and use the vacated area to build these hugely monumental fora? I mean, it does not a priori seem a hugely promising propaganda strategy to deprive several hundreds of people of their homes or shops and turn the core of the city into a major building yard for several years just to tell the people and the senate that you are a the best possible ruler. It is unlikely that ‘conveying an imperial message’ was enough to legitimize these major urbanistic interventions. Indeed, it is much more likely that these fora were conceived to satisfy practical needs of the city, and that their builders simply seized the opportunity and used the platform provided by these building projects to tell the world their story of imperial virtues: the message was epiphenomenal to the structure.

This is also what the few sources we have about the rationale behind these fora suggests. The mid-second-century AD historian Appian (BC 2.102), when talking about the construction of the Forum Iulium, emphasizes how Caesar wanted it to be a place where people came to seek justice and learn the laws (rather than to buy and sell things); Suetonius, writing in the early second century AD, argues (Aug. 22) that Augustus built a forum because the capacity of the other two to host trials were exhausted because of an increase in the urban population. Apparently, the situation was so serious that the forum was opened for uses even before the temple of Mars Ultor was finished, and Augustus explicitly specified which cases were to be held where. Suetonius’ account is credible: in the last centuries of the Republic, the growth of Rome was visibly matched by an increasing spatial pressure on the Roman forum, and it was no more than logical that there would come a moment when this pressure had to be relieved through the construction of additional plazas. Augustus simply completed a job the city had been waiting for for several decades. While we lack explicit textual information about the reasons behind the Forum of Trajan, it is not impossible that, after 120 years of imperial peace and prosperity, there was a comparable need for forum space in the heart of the city centre, and a comparable spatial pressure on the existing facilities. The central position of the basilica ulpia and its enormous dimensions certainly do not argue against such a scenario.

The imperial fora in Rome’s commercial landscape

Redefining the rationale behind the construction of the imperial fora also means rethinking their actual everyday use, and particularly the role played by business and commerce. While the imperial fora have sometimes been thought of as symbolizing the decommercialization of fora, and their increasingly ceremonial role – to the extent that many plans of the imperial fora even simply fail to show (!) the row of tabernae along the south side of the Forum Iulium (see above) – reality is likely to have been considerably more nuanced. Despite Caesar’s intention not to build a forum for buying and selling, the tabernae belong to the original phase of the Forum Iulium, and there is little evidence suggesting that they were used fundamentally differently than the huge quantities of tabernae that were constructed around so many other fora throughout the Roman world.

Scene from the forum at Pompeii
Scene from the forum at Pompeii found in the atrium of the Praedia Iuliae Felicis at Pompeii, now in the museum at Naples

Moreover, as the fora seem to have been freely accessible throughout the day, they were, like so many other fora, low-threshold meeting points for people wanting to meet for business purposes. Indeed, several wax-tablets found in Herculaneum refer to business deals made in front of the temple of Mars Ultor in Rome (e.g. AE 1951, 213 and 216). Furthermore, it has to be imagined that many of the juridical cases that were dealt with in the imperial fora actually were related to problems that had arisen in business and trade. Some of the legal texts put up on the forum of Trajan reflect that. Finally, there is no direct evidence that street-vendors were using the plaza’s and the portico’s to sell their wares to the public, it is neither clear that it was forbidden, and the forum scenes from the Praedia Iuliae Felicis at Pompeii suggest that we should hesitate to exclude the possibility: if such activities could take place at the highly monumentalized forum at Pompeii, then why not in the imperial fora in Rome? There were not that many locations available for itinerant commerce in Rome’s monumental city centre, and demand is likely to have been considerable. If clothes-sellers could not sell their wares at the imperial fora, where could they go? There is no doubt that the imperial fora, in more than one way, were essential to Rome’s commercial landscape.

Looking beyond the imperial message

In sum, while we may tend to see the imperial fora as platforms of imperial storytelling that in everyday life also had a practical function, it is essential to turn this around: the fora were defined by their practical function, and could – particularly around the time of their construction and for a limited number of years afterwards – also serve to convey the message of their builder. For that message to be effective two conditions were essential: the construction of a forum needed to be more or less uncontroversial because they served a need, and the plazas and their surrounding porticoes subsequently needed to be intensively used by the target audience on an everyday basis: images may be extremely powerful, but only, of course, if they are actually being seen. In other words: if the imperial fora simply had and were built to have ceremonial functions, the imperial message could never have thrived. They were, therefore, first and foremost, an essential and vital part of Rome’s metropolitan infrastructure.