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Written by Rick Archer
January, 2010

The Roman Forum is located in a valley located between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill.  It was the central area around which the ancient Roman civilization developed. Citizens referred to the location as the "Forum Magnum" or, as we call it, simply the "Forum".

The Roman Forum was the political center of the Republic and Empire. The oldest and most important structures of the ancient city were located in the Forum, including its ancient former royal residency, the Regia, and the surrounding complex of the Vestal virgins.  The Old Republic had its formal Comitium there where the Senate, as well as the Republican government began. The Forum served as a city square and central hub where the people of Rome gathered for justice, and faith. The Forum also served as the economic hub of the city. 

The Roman Forum of Yesterday.
That is the
Arch of Severus on the right.

Back in the days of Caesar, the architecture of the Roman Forum was something to behold.  Rome was at the peak of its power and its buildings were definitely the most impressive structures in the entire Mediterranean. 

Unfortunately, as you can readily see, the magnificence of the ancient Roman Forum is utterly in ruins today.  This is a shame because all of these structures were built to last.

The Roman Forum was built by slaves from the conquered nations.  Ironically, it was the Catholic Church that caused the greatest damage.  Thanks to the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", as these buildings lost their importance, their materials became fair game for use in building new churches around town.  Many of the stones in today's Vatican once lived in the Roman Forum. 

The Roman Forum of Today.  The structure with the eight columns is the Temple of Saturn.
Directly behind is the
Church San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, the Arch of Severus, as well as the Curia.



As we left the Campidoglio, I couldn't help but notice that amazing statue above the white marble building.  As I studied my map, I determined that the white building in the picture is the Vittorio Emanuele Monument which is located next to the Piazza Campidoglio.  This building served as a useful landmark throughout the day thanks to the distinctive Winged Statue of Victory high above that could be seen from practically every point in Rome. 

The first building we passed was the
Church San Giuseppe dei Falegnami.   Down below the church is a famous prison known as  Mamertino. Also known as Tulliano, this was the oldest prison in Rome. First constructed in the 7th century BC, this was a prison for condemned enemies of the State. According to legend, St Peter was imprisoned here before he was martyred at the Circus of Nero and Caligula at the site of the Piazza San Pietro. Other well known prisoners were Vercingetorix the Gaul and Simon bar Jiora, the Jew who defended Jerusalem against Titus.  Thanks to the tradition of St Peter's imprisonment, his cell has been turned into a chapel dedicated to St Peter.  Legend says that shortly before his death, St Peter brought forth a spring in the cell, and used the water to baptize two of the guards, Processus and Martinianus. 

As we walked past this church, I had no idea of its significance.  Oblivious, I walked past it without giving it even the slightest glance. 

Next Marla and I encountered a set of ruins behind the Vittorio Emanuele building.  As we passed this patch of ruins, I had absolutely no idea this pile of rubble was all that was left from the Forum of Caesar.  There were occasionally signs to be seen, but not for this area.  Otherwise I would have paid more attention.  Instead I simply took a picture and kept walking down the sidewalk looking for the entrance to the Forum.

When we got to the entrance, we made a very dumb decision. After Marla and I paid to enter the Forum area, we noticed there was an audiotape we could rent to guide us around the Forum and give us much-needed information.  This should have been a no-brainer, but the catch was that we would have to return the tape when we were done.

At the time, Marla and I actually believed we would still have enough time and energy to WALK BACK TO ST. PETER'S TRAIN STATION.  Since we would have to go out of our way to return the tapes, we chose not to have the obligation.  Ironically, later in the day we ran out of time and opted to take the subway back to the train station.  This meant we walked right past the ticket office on our way out.  I was furious with myself. 

As we entered the Forum, we soon discovered there was either no description at all or only the barest written description of the areas we viewed.  As we wandered around the Forum, time and again we would stare at broken unidentified rocks that had absolutely no meaning for us.  Thousands of years of history... bloodshed, ambition, power, pain, sacrifice and heartache... were contained in those rocks, but we had no clue as to the stories behind them.  Julius Caesar could have been murdered right where we stood and we would have never known.  Were we stupid or what?

A look at the Winged Statue of Victory

The Vittorio Emanuele Monument with the Winged Statue of Victory.
As you can see, there isn't much to look at in the Forum of Caesar

The Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill overlook the Forum

Palatine Hill served as home to Augustus and many other Emperors.

The picture above provides a marvelous panoramic view of the Roman Forum taken from Wikipedia.  Although I had assumed the Forum extended north and south, I later learned differently.  The Roman Forum stretches on a diagonal from the Campidoglio and the Arch of Severus at the northwest end to the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus at the southeast end. 

Notice the unusual curve to the picture.  I can assure you the Forum was built on a straight line.  For example, when I saw that green field in the picture, it was straight, not bent.  Maybe they curved the picture to get more structures into one shot or make them easier to see. The byline under this  picture says several different photographs were "stitched" to create this one big picture.  Isn't modern photography amazing?

Now I have a question.  Do you have any idea what are the stories behind all those buildings and all those broken rocks?   Me neither.  The difference is I visited the place, so you would assume I would know at least something.  Guess again.  The structures in this picture were a total mystery to me during my visit.  I cannot begin to say how embarrassed I felt at my total ignorance.   I wish again we had rented those guided tour audiotapes.  Truth be told, I barely learned a thing while I was there.

However, through the miracle of the Internet and some guide books I purchased, at least I was able to do a creditable job of research after the fact.  The area occupied by the Roman Forum was once a marsh in the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline hills.  The marsh was fed by a stream running through headed to the Tiber.  After redirecting the stream into a canal followed by a massive landfill operation, the area quickly became prime real estate.  This occurred in the seventh century BC when the Etruscan kings still ruled the city.

The Palatine Hill had always been the prime residential part of Rome.  Not only did it overlook the beautiful Tiber River on one side, on the other side it hovered over the marsh valley. The leaders of ancient Rome all lived up there.  Once the marsh was filled in, it was convenient for them to make sure this undeveloped area become the focal point of Rome.  They could walk to work!

For a thousand years, the Forum was the center of civic life, commerce, and politics.  Then during the Middle Ages, the area was completely forgotten.   The most disastrous period occurred during the Renaissance. 

Pope Julius II (1503-1513) planned to rebuild Rome.  The Forum seemed to him a convenient source of material so he ordered the Forum pillaged for building supplies.  Despite the protests of Michelangelo and Raphael, the destruction of ancient monuments went on rapidly.  Ancient marbles were ground up for the lime kiln.  Huge buildings that were almost perfectly preserved were suddenly demolished in less than a month's time. The area was then abandoned and reduced to a meadow that was used as a cow pasture.  The message was clear.  The Glory Days were long gone.

About a hundred years ago, the city came to its senses and began to actively preserve what little was left of the Forum.  Better late than never.  Let us now begin a pictorial highlight tour of the important structures that still remain today.

The Arch of Septimus Severus (14) and The Temple of Saturn (19)

The eight columns are all that is left of the Temple of Saturn, circa 500 BC.
Notice the
Arch of Severus in the same picture.  This is the north end of the Forum
facing south.  You can see the Colosseum way off at the south end.

Here is a different angle at the Temple of Saturn. Gradual collapse has left nothing but
the remains of the front portico standing.  The 8 surviving columns and partially intact
pediment represent one of the iconic images of Rome's ancient architectural heritage.

As I stared at the broken rocks and incomplete structures, I had a hard time imagining what these places really looked like. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered that many of the important Roman Forum buildings have been digitally  reconstructed. 

What a miracle!

This picture gives you an idea of the magnificence of the Temple of Saturn.

Yes, there are the eight columns in front. Count them!

The Arch of Septimus Severus (14)

The white marble Arch of Septimius Severus is a triumphal arch dedicated in AD 203
to commemorate the Parthian victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons,
 Caracalla and Geta, in the two campaigns against the Parthians of 194/195 & 197-199.
Parthia, by the way, is now northern Iran.

The Arch of Severus is located at the far northern end of the Forum.  The
Arch of Titus
is at the far southern end of the Forum.  What is remarkable is that both structures are
practically intact.  Together the two structures serve as bookends to the Forum.
They act as handy reference points for every picture taken of the Forum.

In AD 66 Jewish zealots started a revolt against the Roman occupation of Judea.
Vespasian was sent from Rome to crush the revolt. After Vespasian became emperor,
his son
Titus took over. Titus captured Jerusalem in AD 70 with four legions
and the revolt was completely crushed after the fall of the Masada fortress in AD 72.

In AD 79 Titus became emperor of the Roman empire. He died just two years later, in September AD 81. The popular emperor was soon deified by the Roman Senate. Emperor Domitian, Titus's brother and successor, built the Arch of Titus that same year both to honor his brother and to commemorate the victory in the Jewish War.


As Marla and I strode through the Forum, we noticed several places where archeology students were busy excavating and documenting their work. The Roman Forum has been called the greatest and most confusing boneyard in history.  It seems such a shame that the structures in the Forum were not only neglected, but actively destroyed. For example, today nothing remains of the Temple of Jupiter, once considered the greatest Temple of them all.  Thank goodness there are people dedicated to making sense of this huge puzzle.

As I said, you can orient yourself in any Forum picture using one of the two Arches.  Here you can see the Arch of Severus (as well as the Winged Goddess of Victory). Can you spot the Temple of Saturn?  Look for the distinctive 8 columns.  Do you see any signs that might explain the significance of each building?  Marla and I walked through the place all day long without a clue of what we were looking at.  Let me tell you - I wasn't happy about this fact at all.

The Temple of Vesta (09) and the House of the Vestals

The Temple of Vesta.  Not much left of this circular structure.  The Vestals were the virgin holy female priests of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Their primary task was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. The Vestal duty brought great honor and afforded greater privileges to women who served in that role. They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system. The Vestal Virgins became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When the dictator Sulla included the young Julius Caesar on his death list of political opponents the Vestals interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon. Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies.

The Vestal Virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.

Here is the Temple of Vesta digitally reconstructed.   These 30 years were, in turn, divided into three periods of a decade each: ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers. Afterwards, they could marry if they chose to do so.

However, few took the opportunity to leave their respected role in very luxurious surroundings. This would have required them to submit to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law. On the other hand, a marriage to a former Vestal Virgin was highly honored.  

Woe to the priestess who broke her vows.  She was condemned to the cruel punishment of being buried alive since the blood of a Vestal could never be shed.

The Atrium Vestae was a three-story 50-room palace built around an elegant
elongated atrium or court with a double pool.

Those rooms were also part of the House of the Vestals.  Apparently much of the place was destroyed in the huge fire during Nero's reign.

Rome Yesterday and Today/ Temple of Caesar (07)

Here is a computer recreation of the Forum facing north.  This means the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus are behind us.  Do you see the Arch of Severus in the back on the right?  On the left just next to it is the recreated Temple of Jupiter.  Note the long courtyard in front of the Arch of Severus is the same in both pictures. 

If you compare this picture to the one on the right, it becomes painfully obvious just how much of the Forum was destroyed.

Do you see that large circular metallic disk in front of the courtyard?  That plus the huge rocks behind it is what remains of the Temple of Caesar. The tall brown building next to the Arch with the three windows is the Curia.  The Curia is where the Senate met in the Roman Forum.  In the 7th century, it was turned into a church which explains why this structure survived intact.

That long walkway heading the Arch of Severus is part of the legendary
Via Sacra, the road used for all the Roman Triumph marches.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (06) and The Temple of Vespasian and Titus (20)

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is one of the best preserved structures.
The temple was begun in 141 by the Emperor Antoninus Pius. It was initially dedicated to his deceased and deified wife, Faustina the Elder. When Antoninus Pius was deified after his death in 161, at the instigation of his successor, Marcus Aurelius, the temple was re-dedicated jointly to Antoninus and Faustina.

The structure behind the columns is the church of
San Lorenzo in Miranda

The Temple of Vespasian and Titus at the northwestern end of the Roman Forum is located between the Temple of Concordia and the Temple of Saturn. It is dedicated to the deified Vespasian (builder of the Colosseum) and his son, the deified Titus.  The Temple suffered great damage during the Medieval times. Today only these 3 columns remain.

Both emperors are considered among the very best.  Unfortunately Titus was succeeded by his brother Domitian who is considered among the worst.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux (10), Basilica Julia and Church Santa Francesca Romana

Those three columns are all that is left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
In this picture, you are facing south.  That is the
Arch of Titus directly behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux.  Further in back to the left is the Colosseum. That row of rocks at the front are the remains of the Basilica Julia (11)

This picture shows the structures directly in front of the Arch of Titus. That pretty white church plus the impressive bell tower behind it is known as Santa Francesca Romana.  It is part of the Temple of Venus and Rome.  In case you are curious, I don't know what all those rocks in the middle of the field were a part of, but an educated guess says this was part of the House of the Vestals.

The columns on the left are from the Temple of Vesta.  The three columns on the right are from the Temple of Castor and Pollux, also sometimes known as the Dioscuri, which is Latin for Twins.  By the way, the astrological sign Gemini is named for Castor and Pollux.  The Romans believed the twins aided them on the battlefield, which explains why they built a temple in their honor.

Here we have the same picture. Isn't it amazing to compare the modern day ruins with the digital reconstructions?   Once you fill in the blank spots, all those free standing columns and rocks begin to make more sense.  Thanks to this great computer technology, we can see the exact relationship of the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

Temple of Venus and Rome (03)

One of the most impressive structures in the Roman Forum was the
Temple of Venus and Rome.  Constructed was begun by Hadrian in 121 AD. 
Following his death, Hadrian's successor Antoninus finished the project 141 AD.  The picture on the right is a digital reconstruction.  By the way, the structure includes the more modern church of
Santa Francesca Romana

This Temple is located at southeastern end of the Forum.  It stands right beside the Arch of Titus with the Colosseum just a stone's throw away.

There is a fascinating anecdote associated with this structure. Trajan is widely considered one of best Roman Emperors.  Trajan was a prolific builder in Rome and the provinces.  Many of his buildings were erected by the gifted architect Apollodorus of Damascus.

Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian who attempted to create masterful buildings as well.  However, when Hadrian asked the famous Apollodorus what he thought of this temple,  Apollodorus was unimpressed by his new emperor's architectural skills.  Apollodorus made a scornful remark on the cramped spaces of the seated statues, saying the Gods would surely hurt their heads if they tried to stand up from their thrones.  Apollodorus was executed not long after this for his outspokenness.  If you want to live, don't criticize Emperors!

Forum of Trajan (next door to Vittorio Emanuele Monument)

Above you can see what is left of the Forum of Trajan and the recreation of the Forum of Trajan.  Trajan was one of the best Emperors.

After the terrible reign of Domitian and the ineffective Nerva, Trajan was warmly welcomed as the new Emperor in 98 AD.  Born in Spain, Trajan worked his way up in the ranks of the military. He was chosen as Emperor for his competence, not his birthright.  Trajan justified their confidence by governing well and without the bloodiness that had marked Domitian's reign.

He freed many people who had been unjustly imprisoned by Domitian and returned a great deal of private property that Domitian had confiscated; a process begun by Nerva before his death. His popularity was such that the Roman Senate eventually bestowed upon Trajan the honorific of "Optimus", meaning "the best".

Trajan was not only a good politician, he was a terrific warrior.  His best known accomplishment was the conquest of Dacia, modern Romania.  Dacia had long been a very formidable opponent of Rome.  Trajan's Dacian campaigns benefited the Empire's finances through the acquisition of Dacia's gold mines. The victory was celebrated by building Trajan's Column.

Temple of Caesar (07)

The Temple of Caesar is located in the very center of the Roman Forum.  Those columns you see in the front of the picture are the remains of the Temple of Vesta

This area is where the funeral of Caesar was held including the famous speech by Mark Antony ("I come to bury Caesar") that inflamed the mob against the people who had assassinated him.

For the funeral, a life-size image of Caesar had been made of wax.  In a very macabre touch, all 23 of the knife wounds were shown.  As Antony spoke, a mechanical device turned the wax sculpture round and round so that people were able to clearly see the 23 wounds in all parts of the body and on the face.  No wonder the mob was angry!

Marla and I walked right past these rocks several times without any idea whatsoever of their significance.  I could just kick myself!

Via Sacra (22) - Road of the Famous Roman Triumph Marches

The Via Sacra (Sacred Road) is the main street of ancient Rome, leading from the top of the Capitoline Hill, through some of the most important religious sites of the Forum (where it is the widest street), to the Colosseum.

This street was the most famous in ancient Rome. The road was the major part of the Roman Triumph.  It served as the route taken by the triumphal processions of victorious generals through Rome.

The victory march started
on the outskirts of the city, passed by the Colosseum, then proceeded through the Roman Forum first by crossing under the Arch of Titus and then later the Arch of Severus. It finished nearby at the Capitoline Hill to give thanks to Jupiter.

Here is a digital reconstruction of the Via Sacra.   In the fifth century B.C., the road was supported by a substructure to protect it from the rain. Later it was paved and during the reign of Nero it was lined with colonnades.

The road provided the setting for many deeds and misdeeds of Rome's history, the solemn religious festivals, the magnificent triumphs of victorious generals, and the daily throng assembling in the Basilicas to chat, throw dice, engage in business, or secure justice.

The Via Sacra is still with us today. 
The best way for a walk in Roman Forum is descending down the Via Sacra, although to the average person it appears as a mere unimporant path through the Forum.

Rome Yesterday and Today, Column of Phocas, Basilica Julia

Earlier I showed a reconstruction facing north.  This reconstruction faces south.  The Arch of Severus is now on the front left.  That is the Temple of Saturn on the front right.  That structure directly at the end of the courtyard is the Temple of Caesar.  At the back of the picture you can see the Colosseum.  You can barely see the white Arch of Titus peeking over the roofs in back. The small circular structure next to Caesar's temple is the round Temple of Vesta.

That long massive building on the right was the
Basilica Julia.  This ornate public building was used for meetings and other official business during the early Roman Empire. The building was initially dedicated in 46 BC by Julius Caesar, with building costs paid from the spoils of the Gallic War. 

The long building on the left was known as the
Basilica Aemelia

That hill on the right in the background is the
Palatine Hill

All that is left standing is the Arch of Severus and the Temple of Saturn.  That walkway in front of the Arch of Severus is the famous Via Sacra

That column standing all by itself in the middle is called the
Column of Phocas.  You won't see it in the picture on the left because it was the last structure built in the Forum (608 AD).  Emperor Phocas was so unremarkable that history doesn't even record a reason for why the Column was built!

On the right, that row of rocks is where the
Basilica Julia once stood.  The three column structure just past the Basilica Julia site is all that is left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

On the left, the
Basilica Aemelia is long gone.  The building past where Basilica Aemelia stood is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina as well as the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Forum of Augustus (32) and the Temple of Mars Ultor (29)

That reconstruction is the Temple of Mars Ultor.  It is located in Forum of Augustus.  As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the bureaucracy needed to run it.  The Roman Forum literally ran out of room for more buildings. 

So Augustus Caesar built a second forum across the street.  The Forum of Augustus was built to both house a temple honoring Mars, the Roman God of War, as well as to provide another space for legal proceedings, as the Roman Forum was very crowded.

Before battle, military generals set off their departure from Rome at the Temple of Mars, after attending a commencement ceremony.

Other ceremonies took place in the temple including the assumption of the toga virilis by young men. The Senate met at the Temple when discussing war and the victorious generals dedicated their spoils from their triumphs to Mars at the altar. Arms and other stolen goods from the enemy, or booty, recovered from battle were often stored in the Forum as well.

Temple of Romulus (05) and the Basilica Maxentius (02)

This is the Temple of Romulus.

The Basilica of Maxentius

As you can see, the Temple of Romulus and Basilica of Maxentius stand side by side in the Forum.

The Temple of Romulus was dedicated by Emperor Maxentius to his son Valerius Romulus, who died in 309 and was rendered divine honors. 

The Basilica of Maxentius is a massive structure.   It was the largest building in the Forum.  This Basilica had several purposes.  One was to serve as a huge warehouse. It was used as storage for spices and peppers, valuable items of the day.

The Temple of Romulus and the Basilica of Maxentius occupy the middle part of the Forum about halfway between the Arch of Severus and the Arch of Titus.  What is interesting to me about this picture are all those unnamed structures out in the field in the middle of  Forum.  I don't know their exact purpose, but I assume they were part of the House of the Vestals which was very large and contained two courtyards.

That walkway is all part of the Via Sacra.  That white church is Santa Francesca Romana located behind the Temple of Venus and Rome.

The Forum of Caesar and the Temple of Venus Genatrix (25)

The most unsatisfying part of the Roman Forum for me had to be the Forum of Caesar.  That bare area in the picture above is all that remains of the Forum of Caesar.  Everything is gone!

When the Roman Forum had become too full of structures, Caesar decided to build his own Forum right next door to the Roman Forum. That large square brown building is the
Curia where the Senate met.  The Arch of Severus is peeking out at the side of the Curia. You can also see the Temple of Saturn in the background. 

Caesar attempted to build a temple inside his Forum. Those three columns are all that is left of the
Temple of Venus Genetrix, goddess of motherhood.  Sad to say, he never saw its completion thanks to his assassination.  The Roman Senate had to finish the project for him.

Caesar's Forum was situated along the
Imperial Highway which went straight from the Vatican to the Colosseum (look for it in the top right picture).  In the picture on the right, you can see that the Imperial Highway of today is still a busy thoroughfare.  As you walk the sidewalk, you can't help but look down and see that the Forum of Caesar of today is nothing more than broken rocks and blocks.   But then I guess you can say that about all the structures here at the Roman Forum.  It is very sad to see so much greatness in such a terrible state of disarray. 

This picture shows just how little remains of Caesar's Forum

When Caesar decided to construct a forum bearing his name in the northeast section of the Forum, he purchased a very expensive, select amount of parcels of land in that area. Forum construction began in 54 BC.  It was dedicated to Caesar and his deeds in 46 BC upon completion (probably with the help of his nephew Augustus). Considering the staggering cost and the personal interest that Caesar had invested in the project, it is a shame he didn't live to see its completion.

This look at the Forum of Caesar from another angle shows convincingly it is nothing more than rubble today.  Someone completely demolished his buildings!

My day in Rome was marked by one frustration and disappointment after another.  However I have to say the absolute low point of the day was starting at the Forum of Caesar trying to comprehend what on earth had happened to this place.  Little did I know it at the time, but I would get my answer. 

Forums Forums and More Forums

There weren't very many signs in the Roman Forum.  However here is one that I found helpful so I took a picture of it.  It lists the various different Forums. 

I didn't understand what this sign meant when I took its picture.  I had assumed there was only "one" Forum.  After I did my research, I realized that there were at least five extra Forums. One was created by Julius Caesar, one by Augustus Caesar, and later Trajan added another.  In addition Vespasian created Templum Pacis ("Temple of Peace") plus another emperor named Nerva created a Forum of his own next to Caesar's Forum. 

As you can see from the map, all of these Forums line the Imperial Highway which leads straight beside the Roman Forum on its way to the Colosseum.

That massive white building is the Vittorio Emanuele Monument at the edge of Capolitine Hill.  Across the street in blue is the Forum of Trajan and his famous Column of Trajan.  Next door to Trajan in green was the Forum of Augustus.  Across the street from Augustus was the Forum of Caesar in gold.

At the time, I photographed this picture because it made me curious. 

According to the picture, the different forums stretched right across the Imperial Highway.  That made no sense.  For some reason, I assumed the highway of today had simply been built over the same route as the highway of yesterday.  So why would the Forum be bisected by today's highway?

I got my answer in various articles I ran across. 

This excerpt provided my first clue.  It gives some insight into the fate of the Roman Forum in the years after the Fall of the Roman Empire. 

The Forum Romanum

The Forum Romanum, the old forum of republican Rome, was big enough for the first seven hundred years or so of Roman History. But in the Empire stage, Rome's need for public space as the capital of a vast empire grew rapidly. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, Domitian (and Nerva), and Trajan all built their own forums to satisfy that need for administrative space. Not incidentally, the additions to the forums were meant to show the wealth, power, and generosity of the donors.

The halls and basilicas of these expansive new constructions served many functions. Rome had no permanent courthouses, commercial and legal offices or university lecture halls. Instead, tables, lecterns and seats were set up as necessary in the broad halls of the basilicas and porticoes, and curtains and temporary partitions were used to separate the different sections from each other. Here, contracts were drawn up, and court sessions were held. Commercial agents traveled from all over the empire to meet here, as did professional orators, philosophers, and poets who wanted recognition for their talents. Exedras, open recesses at the edges of the forums equipped with seats, served as lecture halls, as they had previously in Greek gymnasia. All forum activities were open to the public to a greater extent than in any modern administrative state. Such openness was simply taken for granted. (Sessions of the Senate, normally held in the nearby Curia, were also Public. The doors were literally open whenever the Senate met.)

Large parts of the Roman forum district were revealed to modern eyes in the 1920s and 1930s, when the dictator Benito Mussolini drove his own imperial road, the Via dell'Impero (now the Via dei Fori Imperiali), through a lower class neighborhood from the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia. Until recently, however, the areas fronting on this road, beneath which were the imperial forums, were occupied by streets, parks and parking lots. Since 1996, archaeologists have excavated below these green areas and parking spaces. The imperial forums dig is one of the largest and most complicated urban archeological excavations ever undertaken. In contrast to Mussolini's bulldozer approach, which simply destroyed anything from later antiquity or the post-Roman period, the new excavations have tried to rescue everything that could possibly be saved. And now the work is nearly completed: today tourist walkways above and through the Imperial Forums are beginning to open.

The excavations revealed that the central areas of the forums were subjected to systematic plundering as early as the 6th century AD. Very little remains of the stone that paved the open-air plaza of the Forum of Trajan or of the base of a colossal equestrian statue of Trajan, which was nearly twice as large as the Marcus Aurelius statue in the center of Piazza Campidoglio. The statue itself is, of course, long gone. Even the massive walls at the southwest end of Trajan's Forum can be seen only by the empty trenches where the foundations once stood: Romans have always been very efficient about recycling construction materials.

Decline and fall of the imperial forums: There was a dramatic decline in the fortunes and population of Rome after Constantine established a new capital at Constantinople. Life in the area of the former imperial forums came to a standstill. As early as the first half of the 6th century and after the Gothic Wars, one part of the imperial forums was already being used as a burial ground for the poor, perhaps in connection with the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano.

In the Carolingian period, there began a general recovery of Rome, but, instead of reviving the forums, it led to their literal dilapidation -- their stones (lapidi in Latin) were taken away.
The forums of Trajan and Julius Caesar were systematically dismantled and plundered. The extent and consistency of the destruction suggest an organized effort, probably related to the many construction activities of the Popes Leo III and Leo IV. The few still-standing antique structures in the forums were subdivided and reused.

The small early medieval city of Rome was away from the forums, in the Campus Martius and Borgo districts, and the ruined areas outside, including the forums, now assumed the semi-rural character they retained until the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 9th century, wine, fruits and vegetables were cultivated on the plundered open spaces of the Caesar forum. Archaeobotanists have found evidence of fig, cherry, plum and nut trees growing between grape-vines and vegetable plots. The owners of these gardens were probably wealthy families who had residences in the city and defensive towers overlooking the old forums. By the 10th century, the former Caesar Forum was crossed by roads lined by primitive, one-story houses measuring about five meters by five meters. Since this terrain quickly turned muddy because of the lack of a sewage system, the houses were rebuilt fairly often at short intervals.

Beginning in the 11th century, the former imperial forums seem to have been gradually urbanized during the next eight centuries. A new, rudimentary network of streets eventually arose to snake through the piles of ruins and newer, often reproduced hovels in patterns that remained unchanged until Mussolini's radical interventions of the 1930s.

More Information on the destruction of the Forum
Submitted by Bija Knowles on Thursday, 07/23/2009

The Road Through the Forum  - An exhibition opening today at the Musei Capitolini in Rome shows the building of the city's infamous via dei Fori Imperiali (previously via dell' Impero), which also tore through the forums of Nerva, Augustus and Trajan, with little regard for the ancient Roman constructions that lay beneath.

Via Dell' Impero - Nascita di una Strada (Birth of a Road) will feature photos, paintings and sketches by professional Roman photographers and artists, including Filippo Reale, Cesare Faraglia and Odoardo Ferretti. The exhibition runs until 20 September, documenting the demolition of buildings and the excavations which took place before the via dell'Impero was constructed.

In the 1930s, Italy was under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party. The Fascists took some inspiration from the Roman empire and to a certain extent modelled their large, colonnaded constructions and expansionist ideologies on the civilisation they saw as their political and cultural predecessors. In fact, by 1936 Mussolini was using the title 'Founder of the Empire' as part of his official name. It is surprising then, that during the 1930s a strip of land 30 metres wide, between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum in Rome, was stripped of its buildings (some medieval, many residential) in order to make way for a grand road: one that was worthy of a grand triumph in true Roman style.

Also on show are some of the objects found during the excavation work, including marble statues and fragments of painted Roman plaster. While care was taken during the excavation to preserve thousands of these objects, most were stored in crates in the Capitoline Museums and were labelled simply as 'Via dell' Impero', so little further information is available about their exact location of discovery.

Among the more surprising finds during the road's construction was a prehistoric elephant's tusk, proving that the Romans, or even the Etruscans (or should that be 'Etuskans'?) were certainly not the first inhabitants of the Roman Forum.

Sixty photos go on display, documenting the demolition of buildings and the excavations which took place before the via delll'Impero was constructed.

While Mussolini is usually the sole object of blame when lamenting the parts of the Roman Forum lost forever beneath Rome's busy four-lane road, it is worth pointing out that Il Duce's desire to 'improve' Rome, while giving what we would call insufficient regard to its heritage, was part of a wider movement that started when Italy was unified in around 1871.

At yesterday's press preview, the museum's superintendent, Umberto Broccoli, urged the gathering of assorted Italian journalists to see the creation of via dell' Impero as a continuation of the siege of Rome in 1870, after which Rome and Lazio were annexed to the Italian state. During this siege, the Aurelian walls were bombarded and badly damaged – showing that swathes of modern history will inevitably sweep over the remains of the past and leave their own marks. Following the unification, troops from Piedmont occupied Rome and, once again, the face of the city was changed, with many old buildings being painted in Piedmont's colours.

That the politicians, archaeologists and architects of the past century had a different attitude to conserving Rome's heritage is beyond doubt but, according to Broccoli, the via dell' Impero was not simply a product of Mussolini's crass desire to build a grand capital for his very own empire. Rather, it is set in the historical context of about 80 years (from 1870 to the end of the second World War), during which Italy as a nation was establishing its new political identity. This exhibition gives an insight into the construction and excavations of the 1930s, which changed the face of the Roman Forum, as well as modern Rome, forever.

As many readers will know, Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini carved an imperial procession route through the heart of the ancient Roman city center, laying a wide road, now called the Via dei Fori Imperiali, that stretches from the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia.

In creating the road that he called Via dell’Impero or Street of the Empire (the name was changed in 1945), Mussolini and his archaeologist, Corrado Ricci, destroyed a great number of renaissance and medieval buildings and quickly plowed through any number of ancient archaeological deposits as well as important ancient buildings and their surroundings.

Starting tomorrow, 23 July, the Capitoline Museums will be hosting an exhibition documenting the vast process of demolition and excavation by which the road was created and Mussolini’s excavation of parts of the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, the Forum of Nerva, and the Forum and Markets of Trajan.

140 works — among them photos, paintings, frescoes, and ancient sculptures — will be on exhibit.  The exhibition is titled “L’invenzione dei Fori Imperali. Demolizioni e scavi: 1924-1940,” and it will remain on view until 23 November.

Rick Archer's Note:  Well, I guess now we all know what really destroyed the Forum of Caesar and many other sites as well.  It wasn't completely the fault of the Catholic Church after all.  Oddly enough, the controversial highway did some good as well.  First the destruction stirred up so much anger that people began to demand preservation of what was left.  Second, there will many accidental discoveries that created new curiosity.  Third, the highway reopened a virtually abandoned part of Rome to tourism.  This brought world-wide scrutiny to the lost area, which in turn convinced Rome to protect its remaining heritage from further damage plus find ways to display it. 

The Palatine Hill

By the time Marla and I made it to the top of the Palatine Hill, we were ready to drop.  For much of the time, Marla found a shady spot and sat quietly while I wandered around taking pictures of one set of ruins after another. 

There is absolutely nothing else up on this hill except the various ruins you see in the picture.  The entire area is now devoted to archeology.

These structures were all once palaces.  Flanked by the Roman Forum on one side, Circus Maximus on the other, and the Colosseum on the southeast end, the Palatine Hill was pretty choice real estate.  It served as the luxury home center of the city.   The area is enormous, so there was plenty of room for at least two dozen different palaces, maybe more.  As I walked around, I was feeling pretty irritated because none of these houses had any sort of identification or a hint as to the story behind them. I frowned because I knew full well there had to be incredible tales hidden in those rocks.  For example, you have no idea who Livia is, do you?  One of these days I am going to tell you a story about Livia that is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

The Palatine Hill and its counterpart the Capolitine Hill were always the twin towers of Rome.  These two hills marked the original geographical center of the ancient.  The other five hills of Rome created a perimeter around the two center hills and were on the outskirts of the city.

The first people of Rome lived up on Palatine Hill.  When Augustus Caesar, the famous first Emperor of Rome, built his palace up here, his excavators kept running across one artifact after another.  They would bring the relics to show Augustus.  He was so impressed at all the history located up here that Augustus formed an archeological team of his own to preserve various structures as they were uncovered.  

Circus Maximus
As I was wandering around what I believed to be the palace of Augustus Caesar, I walked over to the edge of a rock wall and peered over. 

Down in the valley below, I saw an enormous field (not the immediate field, but the dusty one further down).  Big deal.  Clueless as usual, I was about to walk away when a small voice suggested I turn back around.

I took a glance at the Forum map and was stunned to realize that field was where the ancient Circus Maximus was located.  Crowds the size of 250,000 people would gather there to see the chariot races. 

Surely you remember the incredible chariot race in the movie Ben Hur.  In the book version, Ben Hur was a Judean prince who was captured and sent to Rome as a slave.  A wealthy Roman Senator purchased him and put him to work racing chariots at... you guessed it... Circus Maximus. 

In the book, Ben Hur won so many races that he became a local hero.  The Senator gave him back his freedom as a reward.  When Ben Hur returned to Judea, he used the skills he had acquired in Rome to defeat Messala, once his friend and now his most bitter enemy, in the amazing chariot race (easily the most incredible pre-CGI spectacle ever filmed). 

In the digital recreation, you can see the Palace of Augustus overlooking Circus Maximus.  The building on Capolitine Hill in the background was the Temple of Jupiter that no longer exists today.

Thinking about the chariot race in the move Ben Hur still gives me goosebumps.  There is no doubt I am drawn to Rome in a big way.  There is so much history in this place.

Parting Thoughts

After I woke up from my Circus Maximus daydreams, I went back to fetch Marla.  We were both fighting exhaustion from the heat and all the walking.  Neither of us said it, but we were both thinking what a shame it was we didn't take the subway over here so we would have had more energy to explore the Roman Forum. 

Slowly but surely, together we trudged over to a much prettier part of the Palatine Hill complete with gardens and lovely trees.  We ended up at a lookout point on the edge of the Palatine which gives a wonderful view of the Forum down below.  While I was up there, I took advantage of the spot to snap many of the pictures used in this story. 

By chance, I overheard a tour guide sharing an anecdote about the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina which was in full view across the way from this lookout point.  A group of twenty people were hanging on every word the tour guide had to say.  Curious, I ambled over so I could hear better.  The guide told of some scandal related to the building of that Temple.  Obviously this guy was privy to some pretty fascinating inside information The crowd roared with laughter and approval.  They were having a great time!  (Unfortunately, I could not hear well enough to be sure what he said nor was I able to find the story on the Internet.  Believe me, I looked).

As I heard the peels of laughter, I wished more than anything else that I could join this group and have some of the mysteries of this incredible place unveiled.  Thanks to this talented man, these people had a walking talking history book right in front of them. This man was able to give voice to the incredible stories enclosed within these forgotten and neglected stones.  I was so envious of these people that they had this guide who could make all this rubble and deterioration come back to life before their very eyes.   Meanwhile I seethed with bitterness.  Their joy aggravated me because they brought all the disappointment I had encountered so far on my self-proclaimed "do-it-yourself" day into sharp focus. 

As I peered out from my vantage point, I could see the well-preserved Arch of Titus.  I smiled as I noticed the space next to it where a giant statue of Nero known as the Colossus had once stood.  In fact, the nearby Colosseum got its name from that statue.  Nero wasn't the most popular guy in Rome, so his statue didn't last very long.  There sure are a lot of places in Rome that have been destroyed.  It sure made me sad to think of all the destruction of these amazing structures. 

It was time now to head home.  Little did I know that before the day was over, there were yet two more incomprehensible humiliations waiting for me just around the corner. 

You won't see the Colossus of Nero any time soon




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