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Apollodorus of Damascus


Bust of Apollodorus of Damascus (?). Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Apollodorus (?) (Glyptothek, Munich)
Apollodorus of Damascus (active first quarter second century CE): Roman architect, courtier of the emperor Trajan.

The Roman architect Apollodorus of Damascus is mentioned in only two ancient sources, but we can also identify several of his buildings. The first source is Cassius Dio:

[The emperor Hadrian] first banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect, who had built the various creations of Trajan in Rome: the forum, the odeum and the gymnasium. The reason assigned was that he had been guilty of some misdemeanor, but the true reason was that once 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 gourds. You don't understand any of these matters." (It chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing.)

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The temple of Venus and Roma, seen from the Colosseum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Hadrian's temple of Venus and Roma, seen from the Colosseum: as you can see, Apollodorus' advise to build it on high ground and to create a basement, were accepted.


When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man's freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the amphitheater without anyone's being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. 


Inscription mentioning Apollodorus of Damascus. Archaeological Museum of Damascus (Syria). Photo Jona Lendering.
Inscription mentioning Apollodorus of Damascus (Archaeological Museum of Damascus)


"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. Indeed, his nature was such that he was jealous not only of the living, but also of the dead; at any rate he abolished Homer and introduced in his stead Antimachus, whose very name had previously been unknown to many.

[Cassius Dio, Roman History, 69.4; tr. Cary]

Inscription mentioning Apollodorus of Damascus. Archaeological Museum of Damascus (Syria). Photo Jona Lendering.
Inscription mentioning Apollodorus of Damascus (Archaeological Museum of Damascus)

Most scholars believe that it is not true that Hadrian ordered the assassination of the architect. Senators could be a serious threat, especially when they commanded an army, but there was no need to kill a mere architect. It must also be noted that Apollodorus' advise was accepted: the temple of Venus and Roma was in fact build on high ground, and still dominates the Sacred Way, and there is a basement that could be used to store machines for the amphitheater (= the Colosseum). There is, consequently, serious reason to doubt the anecdote about Hadrian murdering Apollodorus, and its origin may have been that the architect died - of natural causes - at the beginning of Hadrian's reign, when several senators were executed.

Other information from this anecdote has been generally accepted: that Apollodorus is the architect of the Forum of Trajan (one of the splendid Imperial Fora in Rome), the gymnasium (= baths?) of Trajan, and a hitherto unidentified Odeum.

Coin with a representation of Trajan's bridge across the Danube. Photo Marco Prins.
Coin with a representation of Trajan's bridge across the Danube (Thermenmuseum, Heerlen)

It is likely that Apollodorus started his career in the army, where he met Trajan, who took him to Rome, and asked him to build a bridge across the Danube. This monument is mentioned by Procopius:

The Roman Emperor Trajan, being of an impetuous and active temperament, seemed to be filled with resentment that his realm was not unlimited, but was bounded by the Danube. So he was eager to span it with a bridge that he might be able to cross it and that there might be no obstacle to his going against the barbarians beyond it. How he built this bridge I shall not be at pains to relate, but shall let Apollodorus of Damascus, who was the master-builder of the whole work, describe the operation. However, the Romans derived no profit from it subsequently, because later on the bridge was completely destroyed by the floods of the Danube and by the passage of time.
[Buildings, 4.6.11-14; tr. H.B. Dewing]

Apollodorus' bridge on the Column of Trajan. Cast from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
Apollodorus' bridge on the Column of Trajan (cast from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Scholars have tried to establish Apollodorus' own style and identify other buildings. For instance, it was assumed that the design of the Forum of Trajan, with its presumed sequence of sanctuary - libraries - basilica - square, resembled the principia (HQs) of an army camp: a military influence on Apollodorus' style. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was found on the opposite end of the forum. Attempts to recognize Apollodorus' hand in the Pantheon or buildings in Ostia have been equally unsuccessful.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2010
Revision: 22 May 2010
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