Roman Forum in Rome
- This article concerns the main forum of ancient Rome. See also Imperial fora and Other fora in Rome for lesser fora and see Forum (Roman) for this type of ancient public square.
The Roman Forum (, ) is a rectangular forum (plaza) surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum. It was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of triumphal processions and elections, venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches, and nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city's great men. The teeming heart of ancient Rome, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history. Located in the small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum today is a sprawling ruin of architectural fragments and intermittent archeological excavations attracting numerous sightseers.
Many of the oldest and most important structures of the ancient city were located on or near the Forum. The Kingdom's earliest shrines and temples were located on the southeastern edge. These included the ancient former royal residence, the Regia (8th century BC), and the Temple of Vesta (7th century BC), as well as the surrounding complex of the Vestal Virgins, all of which were rebuilt after the rise of imperial Rome. Other archaic shrines to the northwest, such as the Umbilicus Urbis and the Vulcanal (Shrine of Vulcan), developed into the Republic's formal Comitium (assembly area). This is where the Senate — as well as Republican government itself — began. The Senate House, government offices, tribunals, temples, memorials and statues gradually cluttered the area. Over time the archaic Comitium was replaced by the larger adjacent Forum and the focus of judicial activity moved to the new Basilica Aemilia (179 BC). Some 130 years later, Julius Caesar built the Basilica Julia, along with the new Curia Julia, refocusing both the judicial offices and the Senate itself. This new Forum, in what proved to be its final form, then served as a revitalized city square where the people of Rome could gather for commercial, political, judicial and religious pursuits in ever greater numbers.
Eventually much economic and judicial business would transfer away from the Forum Romanum to the larger and more extravagant structures (Trajan's Forum and the Basilica Ulpia) to the north. The reign of Constantine the Great, during which the Empire was divided into its Eastern and Western halves, saw the construction of the last major expansion of the Forum complex — the Basilica of Maxentius (312 AD). This returned the political center to the Forum until the fall of the Western Roman Empire almost two centuries later.
The area of the Forum was originally a low-lying, grassy wetland. It was drained in the 7th century BC by building the Cloaca Maxima, a large covered sewer system that emptied into the Tiber River, as more people began to settle between the two hills.
According to tradition, the Forum's beginnings are connected with the alliance between Romulus, the first king of Rome controlling the Palatine Hill, and his rival, Titus Tatius who occupied the Capitoline Hill. Accordingly, an alliance formed after combat had been halted by the prayers and cries of the Sabine women. Because the valley lay between the two settlements, it was the designated place for the two peoples to meet. Since the early Forum area included pools of stagnant water, the most easily accessible area was the northern part of the valley which was designated as the Comitium. It was here at the Vulcanal that, according to the story, the two parties laid down their weapons and formed an alliance.
The Forum was outside the walls of the original Sabine fortress, which was entered through the Porta Saturni. These walls were mostly destroyed when the two hills were joined. The original Forum began as an open air market near the Comitium, but outgrew its day to day shopping and marketplace needs. As politics, judicial matters and trials began to take up more and more space, additional fora throughout the city began to emerge to expand on specific needs of the growing population. Fora for cattle, pork, vegetables and wine specialised in their niche products and the associated deities around them.
Rome's second king, Numa Pompilius (r. 715-673 BC), is said to have begun the cult of Vesta, building its house and temple as well as the Regia as the city's first royal palace. Later Tullus Hostilius (r. 673-642 BC) enclosed the Comitium around the old Etruscan temple where the senate would meet at the site of the Sabine conflict. He is said to have converted that temple into the Curia Hostilia close to where the Senate originally met in an old Etruscan hut. In 600 BC Tarquinius Priscus had the area paved for the first time.
During the Republican period the Comitium continued to be the central location for all judicial and political life in the city. However, in order to create a larger gathering place, the Senate began expanding the open area between the Comitium and the Temple of Vesta by purchasing existing private homes and removing them for public use. Building projects of several consuls repaved and built onto both the Comitium and the adjacent central plaza that was becoming the Forum.
The 5th century BC witnessed the construction of the earliest Forum temples with known dates of construction: the Temple of Saturn (497 BC) and the Temple of Castor and Pollux (484 BC). The Temple of Concord was added in the following century, possibly by the soldier and statesman Marcus Furius Camillus. A long held tradition of speaking from the elevated speakers' Rostra — originally facing north towards the Senate House to the politicians and assembled elite — put the orator's back to the people assembled in the Forum. A tribune known as Caius Licinius (consul in 361 BC) was supposed to have been the first to turn away from the Roman elite towards the people in the Forum, an act symbolically repeated two centuries later by Gaius Gracchus. This began the tradition of locus popularis, in which even young nobles were expected to speak to the people from the Rostra. Gracchus was thus credited with (or accused of) disturbing the mos maiorum ("custom of the fathers/ancestors") in ancient Rome. When Censor in 318 BC, Gaius Maenius provided buildings in the Forum neighborhood with balconies, which were called after him maeniana, in order that the spectators might better view the games put on within the temporary wooden arenas set up there.
The earliest basilicas (large, aisled halls) were introduced to the Forum in 184 BC by Marcus Portius Cato, which began the process of "monumentalizing" the site. The Basilica Fulvia (which underwent several rebuildings and names: Basilica Fulvia et Aemilia, Basilica Paulli, Basilica Aemilia) was dedicated on the north side of the Forum square in 179 BC. It was followed nine years later by the Basilica Sempronia on the south side. Many of the traditions from the Comitium such as the popular assemblies, funerals of the nobility and games were transferred to the Forum as it developed. Especially notable among these was the move of the comitia tributa, then the focus of popular politics, in 145 BC. Particularly important and unprecedented political events took place in 133 BC when, in the midst of riots in and around the Forum, the Tribune Tiberius Gracchus was lynched there by a group of Senators.
In the 80s BC, during the dictatorship of Sulla, major work was done on the Forum including the raising of the plaza level by almost a meter and the laying of permanent marble paving stones. (Remarkably, this level of the paving was maintained more or less intact for over a millennium: at least until the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard and his Normans in 1084, when neglect finally allowed debris to begin to accumulate unabated.) In 78 BC, the immense Tabularium (Records Hall) was built at the Capitoline Hill end of the Forum by order of the consuls for that year, M. Aemilius Lepidus and Q. Lutatius Catulus. In 63 BC, Cicero delivered his famous speech denouncing the companions of the conspirator Catiline at the Forum (in the Temple of Concord, whose spacious hall was sometimes used as a meeting place by the Senators). After the verdict, they were led to their deaths at the Tullianum, the nearby dungeon which was the only known state prison of the ancient Romans.
Over time the Comitium was lost to the ever-growing Curia and to Julius Caesar's rearrangements before his assassination in 44 BC. That year two supremely dramatic events were witnessed by the Forum, perhaps the most famous ever to transpire there: Marc Antony's funeral oration for Caesar (immortalized in Shakespeare's famous play) was delivered from the partially completed speaker's platform known as the New Rostra and the public burning of Caesar's body occurred on a site directly across from the Rostra around which the Temple to the Deified Caesar was subsequently built by his great-nephew Octavius (Augustus). Almost two years later, Marc Antony added to the notoriety of the Rostra by publicly displaying the severed head and right hand of his enemy Cicero there.
The close relationship between the Comitium and the Forum Romanum eventually faded from the writings of the ancients. The former is last mentioned in the reign of Septimus Severus.
After Julius Caesar's death, and the end of the subsequent Civil Wars, Augustus finished his great-uncle's work of giving the Forum its final form. This included defining the southeastern end of the plaza by constructing the Temple of Divus Iulius and the Arch of Augustus there (both in 29 BC). Augustus is said to have stated "I found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble". What is true is that he continued the building projects of his predecessor and began many of his own directly in the Forum.
The Forum was witness to the assassination of a Roman Emperor in 69 AD: Galba had set out from the palace to meet rebels, but was so feeble that he had to be carried in a litter. He was immediately met by a troop of his rival Otho's cavalry near the Lacus Curtius in the Forum and killed there. During these early Imperial times much economic and judicial business transferred away from the Forum to larger and more extravagant structures to the north. After the building of Trajan's Forum (110 AD), these activities transferred to the Basilica Ulpia.
The Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) was the last of the great builders of Rome's city infrastructure and he did not omit the Forum from his program. By his day it had become highly cluttered with honorific memorials. He refurbished and reorganized it, building anew the Temple of Saturn, Temple of Vesta and the Curia. (The last had recently burned and Diocletian's version is the one that can still be visited today.) The reign of Constantine the Great saw the division of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves, as well as the construction of the Basilica of Maxentius (312 AD), the last significant expansion of the Forum complex. This restored much of the political focus to the Forum until the fall of the Western Roman Empire almost two centuries later.
In the 6th century some of the old edifices within the Forum began to be transformed into Christian churches. On August 1, 608, the Column of Phocas, a Roman monumental column, was erected before the Rostra and dedicated or rededicated in honour of the Eastern Roman Emperor Phocas. This proved to be the last monumental addition made to the Forum. By the 8th century the whole space was surrounded by Christian churches taking the place of the abandoned and ruined temples.
An anonymous 8th century traveler from Einsiedeln (now in Switzerland) reported that the Forum was already falling apart in his time. During the Middle Ages, though the memory of the Forum Romanum persisted, its monuments were for the most part buried under debris, and its location was designated the "Campo Vaccino" or "cattle field," located between the Capitoline Hill and the Colosseum.
After the 8th century the structures of the Forum were dismantled, re-arranged and used to build feudal towers and castles within the local area. In the 13th century these rearranged structures were torn down and the site became a dumping ground. This, along with the debris from the dismantled medieval buildings and ancient structures, helped contribute to the rising ground level.
The return of Pope Urban V from Avignon in 1367 led to an increased interest in ancient monuments, partly for their moral lesson and partly as a quarry for new buildings being undertaken in Rome after a long lapse.
Excavation and preservation
Artists from the late 15th century drew the ruins in the Forum, antiquaries copied inscriptions in the 16th century, and a tentative excavation was begun in the late 18th century.
A cardinal took measures to drain it again and built the Alessandrine neighborhood over it. But the excavation by Carlo Fea, who began clearing the debris from the Arch of Septimius Severus in 1803, and archaeologists under the Napoleonic regime marked the beginning of clearing the Forum, which was only fully excavated in the early 20th century.
Remains from several centuries are shown together, due to the Roman practice of building over earlier ruins.
The site today
Today, archeological excavations continue along with constant restoration and preservation. Long a major tourist destination in the city, the Forum is open for foot traffic along the ancient Roman streets which are restored to the late Imperial level. The Forum Museum (Antiquarium Forense) is found at the Colosseum end of a modern road, the Via dei Fori Imperiali. This little museum has a significant collection of sculpture and architectural fragments. There are also reconstructions of the Forum and the nearby Imperial Fora as well as a short video in several languages. It is entered from the Forum by the side of Santa Francesca Romana (No. 53 Piazza S. Maria Nova) and is open from 08:30 to one hour before sunset. Admission is 12 Euros.
In 2008 heavy rains caused structural damage to the modern concrete covering holding the "Black Stone" marble together over the Vulcanal.
Many of the Forum's monuments were originally built in the periods of the Kingdom (753 BC-509 BC) and the Republic (509 BC-27 BC), although most were destroyed and rebuilt several times. The existing ruins generally date from the Imperial period (27 BC - 476 AD).
Existing (or reconstructed) ruins
- Temple of Castor and Pollux (494 BC)
- Temple of Saturn (501 BC)
- Temple of Vesta (7th century BC)
- Temple of Venus and Roma (135)
- Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (141)
- Temple of Caesar (29 BC)
- Temple of Vespasian and Titus (79)
- Temple of Romulus (309)
- Temple of Divus Romulus (309)
- Basilica Aemilia
- Basilica Julia
- Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
- Colossus of Constantine, colossal statue formerly in the west apse of the Basilica of Maxentius
- Arch of Septimius Severus
- Arch of Titus
Government buildings or official residences
- Regia, originally the residence of the kings of Rome or at least their main headquarters, and later the office of the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Roman religion.
- Curia Julia, official meeting place of the Roman Senate (built by Julius Caesar, 44 BC; later reconstruction by Diocletian, 305 AD)
- Tabularium, the records office of Rome.
- Portico Dii Consentes ("Portico of the Harmonious Gods")
- Atrium Vestae, the house of the Vestal Virgins.
- Tullianum, the prison used to hold various foreign leaders and generals.
- Rostra (New Rostra, Rostra Augusti), platform from which politicians made their speeches to the Roman citizens
- Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the designated centre ("navel") of the city from which, and to which, all distances in Rome and the Roman Empire were measured (probably identical with the Mundus Cereris)
- Milliarium Aureum After Augustus erected this monument, all roads were considered to begin here and all distances in the Roman Empire were measured relative to that point.
- Column of Phocas, the last monument built within the Forum.
- Lapis Niger ("Black Stone"), a very ancient shrine which was obscure even to the Romans.
- Plutei of Trajan (Plutei Traiani), now in the Curia Julia
- The Lacus Curtius, the site of a mysterious pool venerated by Romans even after they had forgotten what it signified.
- The Lacus Iuturnae ("Spring of Juturna"), a healing pool where Castor and Pollux were said to have watered their horses
Roads, streets, staircases
- Gemonian stairssteps situated in the central part of Rome, leading from the Arx of the Capitoline Hill down to the Roman Forum.
- Clivus Capitolinus was the street that started at the Arch of Tiberius, wound around the Temple of Saturn, and ended at Capitoline Hill.
- Via Sacra, the famous processional street of Roman Triumphs; linked the Atrium Vestae with the Colosseum.
- Vicus Jugarius ("Street of the Yoke-Makers")
The Roman Forum has been a source of inspiration for visual artists for centuries. Especially notable is Giambattista Piranesi who created (1748–76) a set of 135 etchings — the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) — in which the Forum figured significantly. (Many of the features documented in Piranesi's views have now vanished.)
Notable artists of the Forum include Maerten van Heemskerck, Pirro Ligorio, Canaletto, Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Hubert Robert, J.M.W. Turner and many others.
Other fora in Rome
Other fora existed in other areas of the city; remains of most of them, sometimes substantial, still exist. The most important of these are a number of large imperial fora forming a complex with the Forum Romanum: the Forum Iulium, Forum Augustum, the Forum Transitorium (also: Forum Nerva), and Trajan's Forum. The planners of the Mussolini era removed most of the Medieval and Baroque strata and built the Via dei Fori Imperiali road between the Imperial Fora and the Forum. There is also:
- The Forum Boarium, dedicated to the commerce of cattle, between the Palatine Hill and the river Tiber,
- The Forum Holitorium, dedicated to the commerce of herbs and vegetables, between the Capitoline Hill and the Servian walls,
- The Forum Piscarium, dedicated to the commerce of fish, between the Capitoline hill and the Tiber, in the area of the current Roman Ghetto,
- The Forum Suarium, dedicated to the commerce of pork, near the barracks of the cohortes urbanae in the northern part of the campus Martius,
- The Forum Vinarium, dedicated to the commerce of wine, in the area now of the "quartiere" Testaccio, between Aventine Hill and the Tiber.
Other markets were known but remain unidentifiable due to a lack of precise information on the function of the sites. Among these, the Forum cuppedinis, was known as a general market for many goods.
- Tarpeian Rock, a traditional execution site overlooking the Forum
- Farnese Gardens (1550), immediately overlooking the Forum
- Colossus of Constantine, colossal statue formerly in the west apse of the Basilica of Maxentius
- Digital Roman Forum, 3D reconstructions of the Roman Forum in ca. 400
- Christian Hülsen: The Roman Forum (at LacusCurtius; Hülsen was one of the principal excavators of the Forum)
- Rome Reborn − A Video Tour through Ancient Rome based on a digital model
- A two-part documentary offering a virtual tour of the north side of the Forum
- QTVR fullscreen of Roman Forum by Tolomeus
- Forum Romanum (photo archive)
- Images of the Forum Romanum
- Map of the Forum in AD 100, blank or labelled
- The Roman Forum from the Campidoglio
- 3D reconstructions movie of the Roman Forum in 5th century A.D.
- The Roman Forum of 179 AD