Guide to the Roman Forum

THERE is one place in Rome that reverberates through the mists of time with an insistent pulse. Where momentous moments in world history occurred as a matter of course. A place that hosted raucous elections and triumphal marches; from where Emperors ruled over vast tracts of land; senators gesticulated from beneath laurel wreaths; demagogues enthralled the crowds; and incisive minds debated the pillars of philosophy…

But it was also a place of the darkest political intrigues, vile assassinations, plebeian unrest, dubious judicial machinations, outright miscarriage of justice and public executions of prominent figures.

I am referring of course to the Forum Romanun – the fulcrum around which the mighty city of Rome developed around 500BC.

Follow this hands-on Guide to the Roman Forum to gain the most of your visit to Rome.

Forum Romanum
Forum Romanum – click to enlarge

Opening Times

The Forum is open daily, excluding Christmas and New Year’s Day, from 8.30am to one hour before sunset, which is:
16 February to 15 March, 5.00pm
16 March to the last Saturday of March 5.30pm
Last Sunday of March to end August, 7.30pm
September, 7.00pm
October, 6.30pm
November to 15 February, 4.30pm

Tickets

The Colosseum ticket grants access to the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. One option is to purchase online from coopculture.com or tickitaly.com and print the entry voucher. The tickets are valid for two days.

Another option is to purchase the ticket at one of the three entrances to the Colosseum, Forum or Palatine Hill.

Entry

Using the Victor Emmanuel Monument as a starting point, keep Trajan’s column on your left and walk south-east on Via dei Fori Imperiali for about 400m until you get to the intersection of Via Cavour on your left. Turn right at this point and you will walk into the entrance.

The Forum

Enter the Forum onto the famous Via Sacra, or Sacred Way, and to your right you will see the…

Basilica Aemilia

Censors Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus built the Basilica in 179BC, which makes it the oldest in the Forum. Augustus rebuilt it after it burnt down in 14BC, but the Goths again destroyed it in the fifth century. The purpose of the Basilica was to provide shelter to open-air businesses in times of bad weather. Banks and money exchanges also settled in the premises. Note the green spots on the floor where copper coins melted into the marble when it burnt down in 410AD. Pliny considered the Basilica as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

Temple of Divus Julius

Italy Rome Temple of Divus Julius
Temple of Divus Julius – cremation site of Julius Caesar

Facing the Arch of Septimius Severus with Basilica Aemelia on your right, the Temple of Divus Julius is on the left. This is the cremation site of Julius Caesar after his assassination at the hands of Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on March 15, 44BC. Al that remains today is the altar with fresh bouquets honouring his memory.

Curia

North-west of the Basilica is the remains of the Curia, or Roman Senate, built by Diocletian in 283AD. The first Roman Senate House was built by Tullus Hostilius, also known as Curia Hostilius. It was destroyed by supporters of Clodius to avenge his murder and replaced by the Curia Cornelia. Caesar moved the Curia to its current location and in 44BC realign it with the surrounding structures.

Rostra

Italy Rome The Rostra
The Rostra – speakers podium

The Rostra is to the left of the Curia as you face the Arch of Septimius Severus. This was where erudite politicians, lawyers and philosophers poured verbal pearls of wisdom over the unwashed masses. It gets its name from the Roman practice of attaching bronze prows of enemy warships to the front of the speaker’s platform as trophies. The Latin word for prow or battering ram is rostra. More gruesome appendices during the late Republic included the decapitated heads of defeated political enemies. Mark Anthony ordered the hands and head of the murdered Cicero – one of the world’s greatest legal minds – be displayed on the Rostra. The tall Corinthian Column of Phocas was built in 608AD to honour Byzantine Emperor Phocas on a visit to Rome.

Arch of Septimius Severus

Italy Rome Arch of Septimius Severus
Arch of Septimius Severus

While built in 203AD to commemorate Septimius Severus’ victory over the Parthians, the Arch came to symbolise the enmity between Severus’ sons Caracalla and Greta. Both participated in the victory over Parthia and all had their names inscribed on the Arch. After Septimus’ death, Caracalla and Greta became joint rulers. Despite public appearances, the brothers hated each other. It came to a murderous end when Caracalla used his mother to lead his brother into a trap and had Greta killed. Caracalla then removed reference to Greta from the Arch inscription.

Mamertine Prison

The prison is at the foot of Capitoline Hill adjacent just north of the Arch. It consists of two rooms, one above the other. The top room, or Carcer, was where prisoners awaited trial. The bottom room, or Tullianum, is where they were executed or strangled. This is where St Peter and St Paul is said to have been imprisoned. Other notable prisoners included Jugurtha, the King of Numidia, the Gracchus brothers, Simon bar Giora (who defendanted Jerusalem against Titus) and the spirited Gaul, Vercingetorix. The Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami was built over the prison in the 16th century.

Temple of Concordia

Passing through the Arch, directly in front, is the Temple of Concordia. A religious structure consecrated to the goddess of concord, Concordia, to symbolise the harmony and goodwill between the patricians and plebeians at a time in 367BC when class conflagrations appeared dangerously imminent.

Temple of Saturn

Italy Rome Temple of Saturn
Temple of Saturn – looking towards the Colosseum

Turning left after proceeding through the Arch brings one to the Temple of Saturn, its eight remaining granite columns an imposing sight! This was one of the preeminent religious centres in ancient Rome. Humble devotees brought their produce to be blessed in the hope of greater wealth. The Temple later became the keeper of the Roman national treasury.

Tabularium

Behind the Temple of Saturn rises the Tabularium. Built by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 78BC, the Tabularium served as administrative centre and contained Rome’s public records. The status of the building took a nosedive in the 16th century when it was used to store salt but has regained its dignity in modern times, serving today as the city town hall.

Temple of Vespasian

Italy Rome Temple of Vespasian
Temple of Vespasian – with Arch of Septimius Severus and the Curia in background

Domitian built the Temple in 81AD to honour his father Vespasian and brother Titus. All that remains is three white Corinthian columns.

Portico of the Consentes Dii

Squeezed between the Temples of Vespasian and Saturn is the Portico, a Roman version of Athens’ Altar of the Twelve Gods. It is thought that the twelve supreme gods may have been Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, Apollo, Juno, Minerva, Venus and Diana.

Basilica Julia

Turning left at the Temple of Saturn is the remains of the Basilica Julia. Julius Caesar began construction of the 101m by 49m colossus on the site of the old Basilica Sempronia in 54BC. While primarily used as civil law courts, it was favoured by Romans as a place to shop and participate in public meetings. Emperor Caligula occasionally amused himself by throwing money from the roof and watching plebeians fight over the proceeds.

Temple of Castor and Pollux

The next building along the Via Sacra, on the right, is the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The quasi-religious building, built in 484BC, had functions beyond the temporal, including military and Senatorial ceremonies. Postumius built the temple in honour of Helen of Troy’s twin brothers Castor and Pollux who, according to legend, appeared at the head of the Roman cavalry and spurred them on to victory against the Tarquins at the battle of Lake Regillus (499BC).

Triumphal Arch of Augustus

Caesar Augustus built his Arch spanning the Via Sacra between the Temples of Caesar and Castor and Pollux in 29BC. Very little remains of the once imposing three-passageway structure which served as model for the Arch of Septimius Severus.

Temple of Vesta and the Regia

Italy Rome Temple of Vesta
Temple of Vesta – home of Rome’s eternal flame

Continuing through the Arch brings one face to face with the Temple of Vesta on the left and the Regia on the right, of which there are hardly any traces left. Both are thought to have been built by Numa who allegedly established the sisterhood known as the Vestal Virgins. The circular Corinthian Temple of Vesta contained the city’s hearth fire and a wooden statue of Pallas Athena and was considered the most sacred building in Rome. It represented the eternal life of Rome. The Regia was home to the Pontifex Maximus who represented the highest religious function in Rome.

Home of the Vestal Virgins

Italy Rome House of Vestal Virgins
House of the Vestal Virgins

Behind the Temple of Vesta is the home of the guardians of the sacred fire, the well respected and politically powerful Vestal Virgins. Only daughters of Patricians were selected to be Vestals. Chosen between the ages of 6 and 10, they had to undergo 10 years of training before commencing Vestal duties for a period of 30 years. All Vestals had to take an oath of chastity, a transgression of which would mean being buried alive – which happened 10 times.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Italy Rome Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Turning left from in front of the Regia and proceeding back to the entry point brings one to the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina built in 141AD by Emperor Antoninus Pius in honour of his deceased and deified wife Faustina. After Pius’ death in 161AD, the temple was re-dedicated to both Antoninus and Faustina. The temple was converted to a Roman Catholic Church, San Lorenzo in Miranda, in the 7th century.

Temple of Divus Romulus

Italy Rome Temple of Romulus
Temple of Romulus

The next building to the right of the 10 Corinthian columns is the Temple of Romulus. Built by emperor Maxentius for his young son Romulus after his death in 309AD, the Temple was Christianised in 527 and dedicated to Sancti Cosma et Damianus. Significantly, the original bronze door finished under Constantine in 312AD has been preserved.

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

Italy Rome Basilica of Maxentius
Basilica of Maxentius

Continuing towards the Colosseum, the next building is the large basilica started by Emperor Maxentius but finished by Constantine, who defeated the former Emperor at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312AD. The basilica, a marvel of Roman engineering, measures a mammoth 100m by 65m and is 35m high, making it the largest in the Forum. The basilica hosted the wrestling events at the 1960 Olympic Games, but was initially intended to provide for court houses, meeting rooms and council chambers.

Arch of Titus

Turning right at the Santa Francesca Romana leads on to another impressive surviving triumphal Arch, that of Titus. Domitian commissioned the Arch after Titus’s death to honour his brother crushing a Jewish revolt in Judea with victory at Masada in 72AD. The Arch stands at 15m on the highest point of the Via Sacra and is the oldest surviving example of a Roman arch.

Temple of Venus and Rome

The Temple of Venus and Rome is situated between the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. It was ancient Rome’s largest religious structure, measuring 100m by 145m. Named after Venus, the mother of Aeneas, assumed father of Romulus and Remus, and Roma, personification of the city, the Temple consisted of two sanctuaries with statues of the goddesses on each side of the Temple.

What to see near the Forum

Make a day of it and also visit Trajan’s Markets, Forum and Column; the Forums of Augustus and Caesar; Antiquarium Forense; the Colosseum, Domus Aurea and Arch of Constantine; Palatine Hill; Capitoline Hill; Santa Maria in Aracoeli and the Victor Emmanual Monument.

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