Goethe, if he were to stand atop the column of Trajan today, would wonder what number of calamities had occurred to disfigure Rome since he first scanned the skyline 232 years ago.

In the evening I climbed Trajan’s column in order to enjoy the inestimable view. From there, as the sun is setting, the Coliseum looks quite magnificent, the Capitol quite near, the Palatine behind it, with the city adjoining. Not until late did I walk back through the streets. Piazza Monte Cavallo with the obelisk is a remarkable sight.

Goethe diary monday July 23, 1787

The Column of Trajan is a monument that celebrates the emperor Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians, a people living in what is now Romania. Dedicated in the year 113, the column is the only remaining intact component of the Forum of Trajan, which included a variety of buildings such as law courts and libraries. This forum was one of several such spaces developed first by Julius Caesar and later by his successors. The height of the column and its pedestal is approximately 115 feet. It’s famous for the spiral bas-relief sculpture that depicts the wars between the Romans and Dacians.

Demolition in the vicinity of the Column of Trajan began in the early years of the 1800s when the buildings closest to the column were eliminated. The city, as Goethe saw it, no longer adjoins the monument. More aggressive demolition of the neighborhood, called Quartiere Alessandrino, part of the Monti region of the city, began in the 1920s and 1930s.

There were two parts to this project. One was to liberate the Forum of Trajan and other ancient monuments from the houses, churches and other buildings that developed around them.

The other was to build the via dell’Impero (Empire Street), a boulevard/parade ground that ran between the Palazzo Venezia, which housed the office of Mussolini, and the Colosseum. This design used the Column of Trajan as a symbol of conquest and empire in an urban development scheme in the center of Rome.

The work had disastrous consequences. Residents of the neighborhood, approximately 4,000, were moved to housing developments on the periphery of the city. Similar projects in other neighborhoods forced thousands of others to join them there.

Beyond the human tragedy, the breakneck speed of the work created many lost opportunities for archeological study in the monumental and residential heart of the ancient and medieval city, which was turned to rubble by mobs wielding pick-axes without proper examination and recording of finds.

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