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  • Gareth Harney

Apollodorus of Damascus: Architect of Empire

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

“But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a creation which in my view has no like under the cope of heaven and which even the gods themselves must agree to admire, he stood transfixed with astonishment, surveying the giant fabric around him; its grandeur defies description and can never again be approached by mortal men.”Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.10.15)

The ascendancy of the Roman Empire is strikingly represented through the architectural wonders conceived during the Pax Romana. The importance of civic and military buildings as both symbols of authority and essential tools in the proliferation of Romanity cannot be overstated. These towns and temples, forums and baths are usually synonymous with the emperor that ordered their construction. The Forum of Caesar, Nero’s Golden House, the Baths of Caracalla; all so deeply associated with the names of their patrons it is as though they laid the bricks single-handedly.  Indeed, many edifices from the Roman world seem to modern eyes, so inspired, so eternal, that it is almost as if they sprang into existence themselves or were perhaps gifted to the world by the pantheon of gods they honoured. It is easy to forget the fact that, just like today, every construction was designed by a human hand, and behind the bronze emblazoned names of the emperors, is the name of an architect, all too often forgotten to history.

Architecture, a pursuit much respected today, lacked the same gleam of recognition in the ancient world. In much the same way as the term “artist” would not have been understood by the ancients, the gift of these individuals was in bringing something essential into existence; the finished product was to be celebrated, not so much the author. Sculpture, frescoes and temples were seen more as an expression of the divine than of the creativity of the designer. Furthermore, the whole business of “bricks and concrete” was seen as being beneath the dignity of most emperors.

This is not to say that architects never gained recognition in their own lifetimes, especially those who enjoyed imperial patronage. Vitruvius, author of the multi-volumed 'On Architecture', began his career as an artilleryman in the forces of Julius Caesar, his design genius eventually gaining him a place in the imperial circle; his epic treatise is dedicated to Augustus and Agrippa. Yet his modern fame is largely due to the fortunate rediscovery of his works in the 15th century and to this day, only a handful of Roman architects are even known by name.

One such name that has crossed the abyss of history is that of Apollodorus of Damascus, chief architect and engineer of the “impetuous and active” Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD), who “resenting that his realm was unlimited”, brought the empire to its greatest ever extent. Indeed, the scale and prolificacy of Apollodorus’ constructions as well as the fact some of them are still standing, has ensured his name defied oblivion.

Apollodorus was born in the Decapolis city of Damascus, part of the Nabatean controlled province of Syria, sometime in the mid 1st Century (he would live to see his homeland fully reclaimed by the Romans in 106 AD). This culturally distinct, semi-autonomous region was a trade crossroad of the ancient world, where hellenism melded with eastern influences, affording the young Apollodorus access to diverse and exotic ideas that would inform his later work.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek

Bust commonly identified as Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek

Similarly to Vitruvius, it is theorised that Apollodorus cut his teeth in the Roman army, designing war machines and siege engines. This is reinforced by surviving extracts from his treatise Poliorcetica (c.100 AD) which, in true Da Vinci fashion, proposes a range of sometimes fantastical battle hardware; from siege ladders and battering rams all the way to armoured rafts and fire hoses made of animal intestines.

His genius soon caught the attention of the popular new Emperor Trajan and when he embarked on his war of conquest in Dacia (modern day Romania), Apollodorus was appointed chief engineer for the campaign. The need for quick passage across the Danube into enemy territory led to one of Apollodorus’ most famous architectural feats. In the words of Cassius Dio:

“Trajan constructed over the Ister a stone bridge for which I cannot sufficiently admire him. Brilliant, indeed, as are his other achievements, yet this surpasses them. For it has twenty piers of squared stone one hundred and fifty feet in height above the foundations and sixty in width, and these, standing at a distance of one hundred and seventy feet from one another, are connected by arches. How, then, could one fail to be astonished at the expenditure made upon them, or at the way in which each of them was placed in a river so deep.” 

Detail from Trajan's Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Detail from Trajan’s Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Apollodorus’ bridge over the Danube was a mighty 1,135m in length – to give you a sense of scale, two One World Trade Center skyscrapers end-to-end would not meet its length. It was secured at each end by fortified castra affectionately named Theodora and Pontes. The whole project was completed in just 2 years. Though it was only in active use for a few decades, the piers of the bridge were certainly built to last and were still a hazard to shipping well into the 20th century. Trajan no doubt utilised Apollodorus’s military inventions in the battles of his Dacian campaigns too, with chariot drawn artillery and hand-held Roman crossbows known to have been deployed.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

With the victorious culmination of the Dacian Wars, Apollodorus likely had a hand in the design of the Tropaeum Traiani (c.109 AD); a grand, victory monument that also commemorates the fallen in its tomb-like design, intentionally echoing the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Tropeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

The Tropaeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

Returning to Rome, Apollodorus essentially became not just Rome’s, but the Roman Empire’s chief civic architect.  With the imperial coffers overflowing with Dacian gold, a slew of ambitious building projects were ordered that must have given Apollodorus the busiest working years of his life. The biggest of these was certainly Trajan’s Forum, likely commissioned soon after the Dacian victory in 106 AD.

This mother of all forums, was more accurately a collection of individual and varied projects that combined to make one of the most impressive complexes of the ancient world; Latin and Greek libraries, a triumphal arch, an equestrian statue, a shopping centre, Apollodorus was tasked with the design and construction of them all.

His designs paid sympathetic tribute to the long-established republican and imperial archetypes on display in the city, most notably the Theatre of Pompey and Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. But more than this, the complex was consciously conceived as the “triumphant climax in the series of imperial fora, which would complete and unify the total design” of the imperial city.

The project offered Apollodorus the opportunity to utilise his geometrical genius in the creation of a truly harmonious structures. The length and width of the plaza, 400 Roman feet, was used as the sacred measurement, divisions of which defined all the structures in the complex.  1½ times gave the length of the Basilica Ulpia and 3/4 gave the width. 1/8 gave the width of the forum’s colonnades and libararies. 1/4 of the basilica’s length gave the height of Trajan’s Column (150 feet) and so on. There was nothing haphazard about the divinely ordered dimensions of the space.

Trajan's Forum

Trajan’s Forum

In the creation of Trajan’s Column, Apollodorus clearly set out to create a new and artistically sophisticated method of spreading propaganda. One can see the inspiration of Persian relief carving and even Mesopotamian cylindrical seals in the presentation of the narrative.

Comparison of the base of Trajan's Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

Comparison of the base of Trajan’s Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

It almost seems unbelievable but simultaneously to the design and construction of the forum, Apollodorus was spearheading the construction of other major projects in and around the city. The mighty Baths of Trajan took shape on the Oppian Hill, over the last remnants of Nero’s Golden House. The Circus Maximus was rebuilt in stone, the Aqua Traiana brought evermore water into the city and the Via Traiana sped travel from Rome to the eastern coast of Italy. The harbour of Portus was redesigned with a revolutionary hexagonal harbour and canal route to the city, improving the efficiency of Imperial trade. How did one man simultaneously oversee such a range of complex and eclectic projects? Surely, Apollodorus led a team of understudies, perhaps taking on an advisory role with some projects whilst he was consumed in others?

When we begin to consider the sheer scale and number of building projects undertaken in the provinces, it seems increasingly implausible that Apollodorus authored them all, but as the emperor’s creative partner he was surely on hand to advise. Here are just a few of the other architectural wonders that sprang up around the empire in the years of Trajan’s reign (98-117 AD)

  1. Triumphal Arches at Ancona and Benevento

  2. Alcántara Bridge, Spain

  3. Baalbek Hexagonal Court, Lebanon

  4. Colonia Ulpia Traiana (Sarmizegetusa Regia) capital city of Roman Dacia, Romania

  5. Timgad, Algeria

  6. Petra, Jordan

  7. Sanctuary of Trajan, Pergamum

  8. Fountain of Trajan, Ephesus

This is not to mention the vast number of restorations and reconstructions of temples, theatres and alike, constantly ongoing around the empire in Trajan’s reign.

Works completed during Trajan's reign. Top Row: Arch at benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Works completed during Trajan’s reign. Top Row: Arch at Benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge, Spain Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Apollodorus’ emperor, patron and friend, died of natural causes in 117 AD. Unfortunately, he would not enjoy such a successful relationship with his successor, Hadrian. Whereas Trajan respected and trusted Apollodorus’ expertise, Hadrian, an amateur architect himself, saw him as a rival and threat to his own reputation. The two had butted heads in the past – Dio recounts an amusing anecdote –

“When Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your pumpkins. You don’t understand any of these matters.” When Hadrian became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech.”

When Hadrian, now the most powerful man in the known world, proudly presented his own plans for the Temple of Venus and Roma, Apollodorus didn’t mince his words. He stated:

“that it ought to have been built on high ground so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position.. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.” When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.” Cassius Dio 69.4

It seems remarkable that Hadrian would put to death one of the great minds of the age due to such petulant, intellectual jealousy but as Dio further states, he even attempted to ban the works of Homer as he was “jealous of the living and the dead.” We are therefore left unsure as to Apollodorus’ contribution to perhaps the most famous Roman building of them all: the Pantheon. Some recent dating evidence actually suggests that construction of the Pantheon began during the reign of Trajan, in which case Apollodorus would surely have drawn up the plans. Others believe that the overreaching architecture, especially that of the portico which had to be reduced in height in the middle of construction, speaks of a more amateur architectural mind like Hadrian’s – and yet, the Pantheon’s dome was an unqualified success. Perhaps Hadrian threw Apollodorus off the project part way through and attempted to complete the building himself? For now, the designer of the building remains a mystery. Either way, like Socrates or Galileo, Apollodorus’ own brilliance seems to have been his undoing.

Overall, Apollodorus of Damascus is not just the most prolific architect we know from the Roman world but one whose constructions redefined the capabilities of human creativity. Whether it was carving away a 30m hillside to make room for a forum or spanning the 800m wide Danube, Apollodorus’ designs embodied the Roman dominance, of both her enemies and even Nature itself.

Apollodorus initiated a quiet revolution in his designs, which were on the surface a natural extension of previous architectural norms but were in fact thoroughly state-of-the-art, radical and experimental. His cities, forums, temples, ports and roads all paid tribute to a world empire of peoples and cultures, united as never before or since under one cultural banner. His buildings are certainly manifestations of the Vitruvian laws of architecture: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty), but even these universal qualities seem to fall short. Perhaps if Apollodorus’ own treatise had survived, he would have added principles of his own, ambition, harmony and most of all, ingenuity.

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