Roman Forum Travel Guide
These days, it may be a bit challenging to appreciate the Roman Forum for what it is, as it currently appears as nothing more than a dilapidated ruin. Unfortunately, the Foro Romano has fared worse than its contemporaries such as the Colosseum, mostly due to the fact that it was looted for materials such as stone and marble during the Middle Ages which left very little of the structure intact. In fact, the complex was so gutted, that at one point after the looting, it was known as Campo Vaccino or literally “Cow Field” and was used as a pasture.
However, it is still well worth the time and effort to pay a visit to the Forum, especially with the historical knowledge that it was once the heart of the biggest empire in the world, making it a venue of immense significance. Once nothing but humble marshland, the area was reclaimed, and blossomed into the hub of ancient Roman political and social life. It was the seat of the government and religion, and within these five acres that legal and military systems were discussed, debated, developed, and decided upon, and most of these enacted practices would continue to influence our own laws and systems in this modern age.
Originally designed by the architect Vitruvius, the Forum was once a showcase of the Roman Empire. Its columns were once complemented by beautiful statues, and its arches had intricate reliefs which told the stories of many of Rome’s victories over the Oriental tribes, and was once also decorated with the prows of captured warships. The Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, also passes right through the Forum, and it was on this road that the ceremony of the Roman Triumph was held to celebrate and sanctify the military successes of leaders and commanders after returning from a victorious campaign.
What to See
Arch of Septimius Severus
Though hardly anything remains of the arches, these three triumphal arches were built on the forum by Augustus in 29 BC and were used by the ruling emperors to commemorate their victories. There’s also the Arch of Titus built in 81 AD that commemorates the Roman victory in the Jewish War, and it is located on the eastern side of the forum at the Via Sacra. Meanwhile, at the other end of the forum, stands the Arch of Septimius Severus which was built in 203 AD to commemorate the victory over the Parthians.
The Curia was the exact location with the Forum where the senate assembled. It is a rectangular brick building that could seat up to two hundred members of the senate, where they would proceed to discuss and ratify matters of the State. The current location of the Curia was the doing of Caesar in 53 BC, after the original Curia burned down, and the building itself was constructed in 283 AD under the rule of Diocletian. By the seventh century, it was turned into a church, and fortunately the building was mostly kept intact.
The Rostra is a speaker’s platform that was originally at another location, but once again, thanks to Caesar, it is now found in the Forum. The name means “battering rams”, and this pertains to the iron-clad battering rams of captured war vessels which decorated the platform at one point. Upon Caesar’s rule, however, other than moving its location, it was also rebuilt in marble instead. The new podium measured 24 meters wide and 12 meters deep, and had a height of three meters, so that orators who stood on the podium wound up high up above the crowds and easily heard. The most famous speech that was given at the Rostra was delivered in 44 BC by Marcus Antonius as he addressed the crowd at the funeral of Julius Caesar. It is the famous speech which begins, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”
Temple of Saturn
The original Temple of Saturn was inaugurated at the beginning of the republic in 497 BC, but the current ruins date from 42 BC. Because of Saturn’s association with wealth and plenty, this temple was also used as the state treasury, or Aerarium, throughout the duration of the Roman Empire, and it also housed the banners of the legions and the senatorial decrees. In 20 BC a tall column, the Miliarium Aureum, was placed in front of the temple by Augustus, and it was from this column that all distances to Rome were measured.
Temple of Vespasian and Titus
This was a temple that was built in 1 AD by the emperor Titus to honor his deified father, Vespasian. Unfortunately, the temple was not completed in time and the rest of its construction fell to Titus’ successor and brother, Domitian who then dedicated the temple to both his brother and father instead. The structure had a hexagonal floor area with a large cella, or sanctuary, in which stood the statues of the two former emperors.
Temple of Castor and Pollux
Though not much remains of the temple itself, the ruins come with many colorful stories. Castor and Pollux are mythical twin brothers that were highly revered in ancient Rome. They are known to be legendary horsemen, and are believed to have fought at the head of the Roman army in many battles, and then returned to Rome to deliver the news of the victory. Since then, many major victories have been attributed to the assistance and intervention on the battlefield by the twins, and every year, up to 1800 horsemen in full military attire and decorations would parade through the streets of Rome in their honor. Due to this immense militaristic influence, in 484 BC, the Roman dictator Postumius vowed that he would build a temple in the twins’ honor if his army could defeat the Tarquin Kings. The battle that ensued became known as the legendary Battle of Lake Regillus, and according to legend, the brothers were reportedly seen fighting on horseback, and then later seen at the Forum watering their horses, thereby announcing the victory.
Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
This temple was built in 141 AD by Emperor Antoninus Pius to honor his deceased wife Faustina. After his own death twenty years later, the temple was rededicated to the royal couple. Later on, in 7 AD, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, and was then rebuilt in 1601.
The construction of the Basilica began in 54 BC under the rule of Julius Caesar. A huge building that measures approximately 101 x 49 meters the Basilica was the main meeting hall for the centumviri which was a court that presided over civil jurisdiction cases and inheritance disputes, and sometimes, it was also where magistrates held their tribunals. Unfortunately, the basilica was sacked after the fall of Rome, and not much remains of it today, though the general floor plan can still be distinctly seen.
The Basilica Aemilia is the oldest basilica at the forum, dating back to 179 BC. It was originally built as a place of shelter for people and businesses can still carry on their activities indoors in case of bad weather. In 22 AD, it was renovated into a marble hall with four aisles which housed stores, money exchanges, and public banks. It was destroyed during the sack of Rome in 410 AD.
Temple of Vesta
The small, circular temple of Vesta was one of Rome’s most important temples, as it was dedicated to the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family, who was also deemed as protectress of the State. In the temple is a sacred flame which was never allowed to go out and was tended to at all times by the priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins. These priestesses were selected by the highest religious authority of Rome, the Pontifex Maximus, at the age of six to ten. These girls normally came from aristocratic families, and once chosen were then bound to serve as priestesses for 30 years. The position enjoyed many perks for the priestesses as they were revered within the society, but Vestals who broke the rules were also severely punished. For example, It was important that the flame was kept burning as the ancient Romans believed that it symbolized the eternal life of Rome, and any Vestal who allowed the flame to grow cold was flogged as punishment. Moreover, a Vestal who lost her virginity while in service to the goddess would be buried alive, and her partner flogged to death.
House of the Vestal Virgins
Near the Temple of Vesta were the living quarters of the Vestal Virgins, the Casa delle Vestali. It is a large house with fifty rooms distributed over three floors that opened into galleries that surround a courtyard, and was meant to be occupied by six girls plus their servants.
Temple of Divus Romulus
Another circular temple can be found near the Casa delle Vestali, and it is generally known as the Temple of Romulus. It was built in 4 AD, but it is still disputed who the temple is actually dedicated to, and it is just assumed that it was for the son of Maxentius who died young. The temple is mostly intact, including its large, well-preserved bronze doors that date back to its time of construction, mostly due to its incorporation into the church Santi Cosma e Damiano.
There are many, many other features to see within the Roman Forum, just some of which are:
Pool of Curtius
Shrine of Janus Geminus
Temple of Concord
Shrine of Joturna
Porticus – Gaius and Lucius
Temple of Julius Caesar
Portico of the Consenting Gods
Basilica of Maxentius
Temple of Venus and Rome
Column of Phocas
Sacellum of Venus Cloacina
Temple of Divus Julius
The Actian Arch
Tips and Advice
- For those with special needs, injuries, or disabilities, touring the Forum may be a bit of a challenge, and it can be particularly difficult for those who require the use of wheelchairs. While there is an access ramp, it only goes in a few meters down the center of the archaeological area. The surrounding areas and the immediate vicinities of smaller temples and ruins tend to have rough and uneven terrain, or bumpy ground with gaps between stones that one has to watch out for.