Tag Archive: Roman Forum


This is the third of 3 postings on features of the Roman Forum, attempting to make some sense of the massive ruin at the heart of Rome. Click here to read PART 1 and PART 2.

The Temple of Romulus

The next building west of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina is the Temple of Divus Romulus, which was built by the Emperor Maxentius not to the legendary founder of Rome Romulus, but in honor of his young son who died. It was dedicated in 309 AD, and like most buildings that are still standing or partially standing today, was converted to a Christian church in the middle ages. It’s one of the most unusual temple structures. Most temples share a similar shape, but this one consists of a small central round structure with 2 side niches. Originally, it had a rounded front facade with areas for statues. Today, the central rotunda remains, as does the original bronze door and columns. The columns are unique, made of a a bright purple rock called porphyry. It’s rare- the columns have been valued at 20 million euros each in todays money. Maxentius apparently wanted only the best to remember his son.

Basilica of Constantine

Emperor Maxentius also began work on the largest building in the Forum in 308, but died before it was done. Emperor Constantine finished the enormous building, which is called the Basilica of Constantine. The interior was vast  and open, supported by 3 towering barrel vaults on either side. Today, the southern half is gone (collapsed in an earthquake in 847), as is the central nave, but the foundation and the northern half remain to show how huge the place was.

When it was built, it was the most advanced Roman architectural achievement.Today, it’s still one of the most impressive ancient structures.The basilica housed the colossal statue of Constantine at one end. Parts of it were found buried under rubble in the Forum, and can be seen at the Capitoline Museum on the Capitoline Hill. The statue was 40 feet high, and was probably taken apart for parts of the statue made of bronze. Today his head, hand, foot, upper arm and kneecap can be seen at the museum. The Basilica with its 3 giant vaults continues to impress. At the Rome olympic games in 1960, they held the wrestling competitions here, quite possibly the coolest venue for a sporting event ever. The space is still used for events, including musical concerts. Attempts are underway to keep what is left of the structure standing, including scaffolding, supports, and a giant cable tied around the back designed to keep it from tipping inward.

The Temple of Venus and Rome

Between the temple of Constantine and the Colosseum on the west end of the forum is what’s left of the biggest Roman temple, the Temple of Venus and Rome. It was huge, 348 by 156 feet and 97 feet tall, with huge columns supporting a large open interior. It was built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century on top of what was once Nero’s villa. It’s difficult today to tell exactly what you’re looking at when you see the ruins. 1 row of columns remain on the south side, and the rounded decorative niche that once stood in the rear center of the inside can still be seen. Since the ruin is right across from the Colosseum, it has often been neglected and used as a convenient open space in the area. It was used as a car park until the 1980s. Recently, it has reopened after 20 years of restoration. Today, the grounds are used on good Friday by the Pope as part of the stations of the cross.

There are many smaller buildings that made up the forum and the surrounding area. Perhaps we’ll come back to them later, but for now, here’s a fantastic video with a computer generated recreation of the Forum. The video highlights many of the specific buildings referred to in the last 3 postings. Enjoy-

The Roman Forum was the center of ancient Rome, and today is one of most complex ruins in the world. In this post I’ll continue to highlight selected important buildings in the Forum. Read part 1 on the Forum here.

Just across the way from the ruins of the temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals are 3 huge columns rising into space, seen in the picture above. They are all that is left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. It was an important structure for centuries. It was originally built in 484 BC, but reconstructed a few times. These columns are from the rebuilding by Tiberius in 6 AD. In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus. Though it was dedicated a Temple, it served many other functions. It was an important meeting place for senators throughout the centuries. There was also a podium in front of the imposing temple where decrees were read aloud.

The Basilica Julia

Across from the Temple of Castor and Pollux are the foundational remains of one of the largest buildings in the Forum, the Basilica Julia. It was built by Julius Caesar on top of another huge basilica, burned to the ground shortly after in a  great fire and eventually re-dedicated by his successor Augustus 20 years later. The Basilica Julia housed the courts of law and was a space for banking and government offices. It was also a favorite meeting place for ancient Romans, with shops and gathering spaces. It was as big as a football field, 3 stories high with an enormous open space in the center. Ancient accounts describe it as a place bustling with people and noise. The entire outside was built with roman arches and decorated with statues facing the center of the Forum. It’s the place where Emperor Caligula allegedly had money thrown off the roof to the people below because he loved to watch them fight for it.

The Curia Julia

Across the open plaza from the Basilica Julia was the most important government building, the Curia or the Curia Julia, the house meeting space for Roman senators. The Curia burned down and was rebuilt many times throughout Rome’s history. Today, it is one of the only roman buildings still standing in Rome. Last rebuilt in 283 AD, it survives because it was converted into a church in the seventh century.The Curia Julia also bares the name of Julius Caesar, who commissioned its reconstruction but was assassinated before its completion. Augustus also completed the Curia. The building is an example of Roman dimensional precision in architecture, exactly 2/3 as wide as it is long with a hight equal to 1/2 of the combined length and width. The front portico is gone today, and long ago the marble facing was removed from the walls, but the intricate floor survives and is still visible. The Curia has recently been restored, and is fascinating to see.

The Arch of Septimius Severus

Directly in between the Curia and the Basilica Julia stands another well preserved distinct feature of the Forum. The Arch of Septimius Severus was built, as arches often were (see the article on the arch of Titus here), to commemorate the military victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and was dedicated in 203 AD. It’s a huge gateway into the Forum close to the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Saturn, and remains in good shape today because it was largely buried underground throughout the middle ages when dirt filled the forum. Impressive carvings are seen all the way around it, as well as an inscription on the top. Originally, it was gilded with bronze letters along the inscription and large bronze statues on the top. When Septimius Severus died, his sons Caracalla and Geta became joint emperors. Caracalla eventually had his brother killed and erased his name and image from the arch.

More to come…

 

 

In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.

Antoninus Pius was the adoptive son of the Emperor Hadrian, and became emperor himself after Hadrian finally died after a long drawn-out illness in AD 138. He would be remembered as one of the 5 good emperors, and he would reign longer than any previous emperor other than Augustus, 23 years.

His first act was to request that the senate deify Hadrian. One could say that Antoninus’ reign was all a continuation of what Hadrian put in place. Hadrian disliked war and unlike his predecessors, did not see the need to use it as a political tool. He felt that Rome’s borders were spread far enough, and he concentrated his efforts on making things better within the empire and along it’s borders. He even built a huge wall across Britain to keep northern invaders out and secure the border. All of this meant that Antoninus inherited an empire that was in pretty good shape. Like Hadrian, he resisted expanding the empire through waging war. This resulted in the longest period of peace that Rome had ever seen. Antoninus never traveled to Rome’s borders, and never led an army. In fact, he hardly ever left Rome in 23 years.

Very little is known about his biography from ancient writings, but evidence remains of his actions as emperor. We know from statues that he was bearded, a look made popular and passed down by Hadrian. By all accounts he was tall and handsome, calm and kind hearted. He was a perfect fit for what many Romans wanted in an Emperor. He was a good speaker, and he was not easily tempted (as many other Emperors were) with power and money. Instead, he seemed to understand that he was a custodian of the empire, and his only role was to keep things afloat and in good shape. He was not an overly ambitious emperor, and unlike others he was not consumed with leaving his mark on Rome. He died at the ripe-old age of 74, a hugely popular figure in Rome and was unanimously deified by the senate. His ashes were placed in Hadrian’s mausoleum, known today as the Castel St. Angelo. Today there is still a debate about Antoninus: Was he really a truly good emperor, or was his reign a lucky result of the peace brought about by Hadrian? There seems to be evidence of both- either way, Rome prospered.

Antoninus Pius was not the greatest of Roman builders, but a very important structure of his exists today in the Roman Forum. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is a partial ruin that has been turned into a church, but you can still make out the impressive front steps and portico today.  At one time, it looked like this model in the picture to the right. It was built in 141 by the Emperor and dedicated to his wife Faustina, who had died in 140 after 31 years of marriage. She was the niece of Hadrian and Antoninus’ link to the throne. After Antoninus died, his successor, Marcus Aurelius added his name to that of his wife in an inscription across the front. In the middle ages the temple ruin was converted to the Catholic Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. Today, it is one of the strangest churches anywhere. On the forum side, the steps and columns are still visible, as is the inscription to Antoninus and Faustina, with a church roof and entry on the opposite side. During the middle ages, the forum was all under 10-20 feet of earth, so today with the ground excavated you can see the church and what remains of the original structure undernieth and behind it. It’s a weird one.

In recent news, a giant head of Antoninus Pius’ wife Faustina was found in Turkey in 2008, along with a huge bust of Hadrian, evidence that she was perhaps remembered and celebrated there as well. Here’s a link to that story with photos.

 

The second century in Ancient Rome saw a period of prosperity. After the disasters of the early Roman Emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, Rome had some sorting out to do. Eventually, a new line of Emperors came to rule. They would be called much later in a term coined my Machivelli, “The Good Emperors”. One of the greatest of all Emperors was Trajan, who ruled from 98 to his death from a stroke in 117. Trajan was a wise ruler and military commander who extended the boundaries of Rome to their furthest regions (into modern-day Iraq and eastern Turkey).

Trajan’s enduring legacy is his construction of much of ancient Rome. He was an ambitious builder who altered much of the city for the better. He worked with his chief architect Apollodorus to design Trajan’s Forum, a huge temple complex made of gleaming marble in the center of Rome. It housed libraries, fountains, an enormous piazza with a marble floor and a 125 ft. tall column commemorating Trajan’s military victories. Many of the Emperors created Forums as part of the greater Roman forum, and Trajan’s was probably the most impressive. Today, the main road crossing the ancient Roman ruins covers half of what was Trajan’s forum, built by Mussolini in the years before WWII. The rest of the forum is in ruin, with the floor long since removed and relocated and only partial columns and sections of foundation remaining.

Directly behind Trajan’s Forum was Trajan’s Market, still in pretty good shape. Built into the hillside, this enormous complex was the world’s first shopping mall. It contains many shops that sold pretty much anything that you wanted to find in ancient Rome. Here’s a picture of the rounded market portico and what’s left of the forum in the foreground:

Trajan’s other big project was a partial renovation of the Circus Maximus, the enormous chariot racing track just south of the Palatine Hill. THe Romans loved chariot racing, and a racetrack had been on the site for hundreds of years. The Circus Maximus for a longtime was made of wood and was the starting point of the great Roman fire under Nero that destroyed most of the city. Later emperors has it rebuilt, and Trajan added lots of extra seats and gave it a facelift in marble. At 3 stories high, it held hundred of thousands of people who came to watch gladiators do battle and chariot races, which often ended in death for the racers. To the Romans, humans battling to the death was a sport. Today, the Circus Maximus is no more, but it’s imprint is still clearly visible. The site is a large park, and the center of the track is still clearly visible and a huge tree stands where an Egyptian obelisk did. The banks of seats were long ago stripped of marble, but the embankment is still there on wither size. It’s an absolutely enormous site. It must have been awe-inspiring with all of Rome in attendance. Here’s a view of what it looked like then and looks like now-

Here’s a great youtube video from a Discovery Chanel show that covers the Circus Maximus and Trajan’s building projects: