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The Forum Romanum, often referred to simply as the Forum, was the principal civic space in ancient Rome.

Geography

Map of the principal buildings in the Forum Romanum at the time of Constantine, approximately AD 337.

Other prominent builidings, such as the Temple of the deified Augustus, graced the Forum Romanum at other times in history. No single map can contain all of the important buildings that existed on the site in ancient times. The map below contains those which survived to the end of Rome's pre-eminence in the Empire.

              North
                  \                Imperial Fora

                              /\ 
                              \1\  _______   _
                    _          \/ /   2   | |3|
              ___  |4'--.  ||5   /________| |_|
Capitoline   |   | |_---'  ''      Via Sacra (15)
Hill         |_ 6|  _  _    ||7         __   _
               |_| |8||9|   ''         |10| |/11     -> to the Colosseum
                      |_|  ________   __     _______
                          |   12   | |13|  O| 14    |
                          |________| |__|  \________|

                          Palatine Hill
  1. Curia (Actually a rectangular building set at an angle. Hard to depict in ASCII.)
    The Senate house, site of legal debates and the murder of Gaius Iulius Caesar. Some sort of debating chamber sat at the northwest corner of the Forum Romanum for centuries, but the current location and shape date back to Caesar's reconstruction in 46 BC. Caesar moved it out of the main body of the Forum - a graphic reflection of the reduced role the Senate played in ruling Rome.
    During the Republic, there was a citizens' voting area outside the Curia, called the Comitium. As the people's voice became less important in Rome, that voting was moved outside of the Forum Romanum.
    The Curia is still in a remarkably good state of repair, having spent the Middle Ages as a church.

  2. Basilica Aemelia
    During the Roman Republic, this was the principal law court. Cases were argued and decided here; Cicero's most famous speeches were probably delivered in this space.
    It was also used by the moneychangers. The imprints of Roman coins can still be seen in the ruins, set in the marble by one of the city's many disastrous fires.

  3. Temple of Faustina and Antoninus
    Built originally by the emperor Antoninus Pius to his wife Faustina after her death in AD 141, this temple was rededicated to both of them when he died twenty years later.
    The inscription dedicating the temple is still visible, although the building has been used as the Church of St Lawrance in Miranda since the baroque period. It is notable for the rope marks on its columns, where horses were used to try to bring them down. The horses failed, but the ropes left furrows in the stone.

  4. Temple of Concord
    Built in the 360's BC by Lucius Furius Camillus, an early Roman general, this temple celebrated the peaceful settlement between the two main factions of Roman society, the patricians and the plebians. (The conflict between patricians and plebs would flare up repeatedly throughout Roman history.)
    There is virtually nothing left of this temple in the present day.

  5. Arch of Septimius Severus
    This was erected in AD 203, and remains one of the most dramatic elements of the Forum Romanum. It is also a fine example of sibling rivalry taken to extremes; Caracalla, the next emperor, scraped his brother's Geta's name off of the inscription and appropriated his adjectives for himself.

  6. Tabularium
    Although not properly part of the Forum Romanum, the Tabularium contributed to its visual impact. It was the record hall for the city, built during the time of Sulla. It consisted of two stories of tall arcades over a lower, plain-walled level. Each arch was framed by half-columns, giving it a dignified Greek air.
    The building's position at the extreme northwest of the Forum Romanum, up against the Capitoline hill, helped define the limits of the Roman civic space.
    Only the brick foundations, and some of the deeper vaults, are still visible.

  7. Rostra
    In Latin, a rostrum is the "beak" mounted on the very front of a ship. The Rostra (plural of rostrum) was a platform where the prows of captured ships were mounted. It served as the stage for orators to address the people. The heads of prominent executed Romans were also mounted there; Cicero's head and hands graced the Rostra after his death.
    There is no trace of the Rostra in the Forum today.

  8. Temple of the deified Vespasian
    Begun by Vespasian's son Titus in his brief reign (AD 79 - 81). and completed by Domitian thereafter. Only three of its columns remain, defining a single corner of the ancient building.

  9. Temple of Saturn
    We do not know how long a temple to Saturn stood in the Forum Romanum. It was rebuilt numerous times, most notably by Augustus during his extensive refurbishment of the Forum. It served as Rome's treasury, storing the state's funds (This was before money was primarily a bookkeeping entry. The temple held the actual coins that had been collected in tax, and which the Roman officials would spend.)
    Eight of this temple's columns, defining the temple's porch, are still standing.

  10. Temple of the deified Julius Caesar
    Built by Augustus on the site where the Roman mob burned his body, this temple was intended to underline Caesar's contributions to Rome and to celebrate the punishment of his murderers. It also linked Augustus to his uncle's deeds and to the cult of his personality.
    Caesar was the first of the Roman rulers to be declared a god after hs death. In later generations, deification was a sign of the approval of the Roman Senate and people.
    Only its foundations remain today.

  11. Regia
    In English, the "king's house", this building served as a repository for sacred implements dating back to the earliest days of Rome.
    There is no trace of the Regia in the Forum any more.

  12. Basilica Iulia
    This building was started by Gaius Iulius Caesar and completed by his nephew Augustus. As Rome grew, the sheer volume of prominent cases made a second central law court necessary. The Basilica Iulia served that purpose.
    The Basilica Iulia is now marked by its foundations, ground floor, steps, and rows of broken columns. Although they give an idea of the floorspace of the basilica, we can only guess at the height of the builidng.

  13. Temple of Castor
    Originally constructed in the fifth century BC by Aulus Postumius, this temple marks the spot of one of the earliest miracles in Roman historical legend. According to the story, Castor and Pollux appeared beside the Lacus Iuturnae after the battle of Lake Regillus in 495 BC, signifying that they had aided the fledgeling city to victory. The temple marked the spot of their appearance.
    Only 3 Corinthian columns are still visible.

  14. Atrium and Temple of the Vestal Virgins
    The round Temple of the Vestal Virgins was the symbolic hearth of Rome, where the communal hearth fire was maintained by six daughters of the first families of the city.
    The Atrium housed the Vestal Virgins while they held office.
    About half of the temple is still in the Forum, and the courtyard of the Atrium can be seen (but not visited).

  15. The Via Sacra
    This was not a building, but a road (the "Sacred Road"), leading through the Forum Romanum and up the Capitoline Hill. Triumphant generals would ride along it, parading the spoils of their victories, on their way to the great Temple of Jupiter.

NB: There were other things besides buildings in the Forum Romanum, such as:

  • the Lacus Curtius, into which Marcus Curtius rode his horse to save Rome (no longer present)
  • the Lacus Iugurthae, next to the Temple of Castor, where Castor and Pollux watered their horses (gone now)
  • the Lapis Niger, a black-paved area which was probably a monument to Romulus (still visible under cover)
  • a tree reputed to be older than the city itself (long dead and gone)
  • A ceremonial grouping of a fig tree, an olive tree, and a grape vine. Such a grouping is still kept growing in the Forum today.
  • several columns, one of which (the Column of Phocis, erected in AD 608) is still standing
  • too many statues for even the Romans (there are records of at least one massive clear-out). Only fragments remain.
No comprehensive list of these monuments exists.

History

The area which would become the Forum Romanum was originally a patch of low, swampy ground encircled by hills. Had it not been right next to the last crossing point on the River Tiber before the sea, it would have been dismissed as a pestilential swamp.

Archaeological evidence shows that there were small settlements on the hilltops around the Forum Romanum by the eighth century BC (this actually accords well with the traditional date of the foundation of Rome, 753 BC). The villagers buried their dead in the swampy ground, and excavations reveal at least two cultural groups, one which cremated its dead and buried the ashes, and another which buried the bodies in graves.

As the communities on the scattered hills came together into one city, the Forum Romanum evolved into the main shared space. It was the logical cantidate, since it was between the various settlements but claimed by none of them. The drainage and paving of the Forum Romanum was probably the earliest civc project of the early Romans, taking place sometime between 650 and 575 BC. The area rendered usable by that project was probably used as a market, legislative space and law court.

The construction of the Temple of Castor (13 on the map above) introduced a new purpose to the Forum Romanum - communal worship. It commemorated a shared victory for the consolidated population.

With the expulsion of kings in Rome, the community as a whole took on many of the religious functions that the royal family had performed for the city. The civic hearth, previously located in the king's household and tended by his eldest daughter, was set up in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (14). The king's other religious duties (sacrifices, etc.) were carried out by citizens, using ceremonial regalia stored in the Regia (11).

As the central space, the Forum Romanum was the ideal location for Senators to meet, debate and make laws. They had their own space - the Curia (1) - for doing this. Decisions would be announced to the assembled citizenry in the Comitia, an amphitheatre-like space that was built over by Gaius Iulius Caesar. Citizens could also listen to the speakers who would address them from the Rostra (7), watch law cases in the basilicas, enjoy gladiatorial contests, mourn at public funerals, and share in feasts endowed by wealthy citizens.

Throughout the Republican era, the Forum Romanum served not only as a civic space, but also a commercial one. Merchants and moneychangers plied their trades in the Forum Romanum until the late Republic, when they were slowly displaced by all of the people needed to govern and administer the far-flung Roman colonies.

It became the custom in the late Republic and into the Imperial period to use the Forum Romanum as architectural propoganda. Sulla, Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Antoninus Pius, Septimius Severus and Diocletian all reconstructed areas of the Forum Romanum to emphasise their own importance, usually by diminishing the symbols of democratic or Senatorial rule. The use of triumphal arches to frame the entrances to the Forum Romanum was particularly favored.

After Constantine moved the administration of the Empire to Constatninople in 324 AD, the Forum Romanum began to fall into disuse. By the Middle Ages, cattle grazed among the fallen columns and ruined buildings; only those buildings converted into churches were still in use. The marble from the ruins was carted off to be used for fertiliser.

What's left of the Forum Romanum has now been excavated and preserved, along with a long run of buildings between the old Forum and the Colusseum. The site is a must-see when visiting Rome. Entry is free, but the signs are not hugely informative; a good guidebook will enhance the experience.


Sources:
  • Course notes from "The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome", taught at UC Berkeley by Professor Stephen Millar
  • The Ancient Roman City, by John Stambaugh (course text)
  • The Mute Stones Speak: the Story of Architecture in Italy by Paul MacKendrick (course text)

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