Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The Forum Romanum

Jeff Eaton
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction

The history of the Great Roman Forum dates as far back as the history of Rome itself. The area where the Forum lies today was once a marshy valley set between the Palatine and Capitoline where tribes settled on the surrounding hills would come to collect water and to bring their cattle to graze as early as the 9th century BC. Archaeological evidence shows that land around the edges of the Forum area was used as burial grounds around 700 BC, and remnants of about a dozen huts have been found from around 670 BC according to modern dating techniques. According to ancient Roman myth, the Forum was the site where Rome’s founding brothers Romulus and Remus would have met between their two strongholds on the Palatine and Capitoline hills when Rome was founded in 753 BC. This was also the place where the alleged peace agreement between Romulus and Tatius was made, official making the Sabine people a part of Rome.
The Roman Forum Today
Here is a view from the steps decending down behind the Arch of Septimius Severus looking out over the Forum as it appears today.

On account of severe flooding around 620 BC, the Romans began systematic drainage of the Forum area and a constructed the Cloaca Maxima, an underground drain that still functions today. No longer a bog, and without the constant threats of floods, the central location of the Forum amongst the seven hills of Rome lent itself perfectly as a location for local merchants to bring and sell their food and goods and by 550 BC the Forum served exclusively as a marketplace. When Rome transitioned into a Republic in 509 BC, the Forum, as the main market already a place of public assembly and home to the sacred temples to Saturn and Vesta, was of course the natural place for the business of the state to be carried out. From this point growth in the Forum occurred in a somewhat indiscriminate way over the next four hundred plus years of Republic with consuls constructing new monuments to elicit both personal popularity and public pride.

Claridge, Amanda. Rome. pg 64. (see bibliography)
The Late Imperial Forum
Here is an artists interpretation of how the Forum might have looked during the late empire
(We know that it is at least after 285 because the honorary columns are in place).
The size of the people in the Forum can give us some idea of just how huge these buildings once were.

This all changed when Julius Caesar seized the role of solitary consul for life in 48 BC. Caesar, desiring to solidify his power and impress his people, gave the Forum a brand new, much more majestic look, most notably by moving the Rostra to create a strong axis down the center, constructing a brilliant new Curia for the powerless Senate, and building an immense new Basilica Julia as a symbol of Roman judicial power. These transformations were continued by his adopted son and heir Augustus and by the end of Augustus’ reign, the layout of the Forum as we see it today was mostly established.

After this each emperor added his personal touch to the Forum, trying to construct statuaries and temples and other public works in and around the Forum by which he might be remembered. Fire ravaged the Forum in 283 AD, destroying everything made of wood, marble, or any other exotic material that would burn. However, the Forum was quickly rebuilt as a nearly exact replica of what it had been by the emperor Diocletian.

After the sack and eventual fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the pagan monuments of the Forum were largely forgotten by the new Catholic order that oversaw Rome. Certainly lack of general upkeep and a great earthquake in 867 caused dilapidation of the Forum, but the greatest destruction came at the hands of 15th-18th century stone-robbers in search of materials out of which to build new churches. Every piece of usable marble was taken and used directly in one of Rome’s great houses of worship, and that which was not usable was taken to be melted for lime.

Excavations on the Forum began in the early 19th century at the Arch of Septimius Severus and Column of Phocas, but did not get seriously underway until 1870 when the Basilica Julia and central area of the Forum was laid bare. Excavations have proceeded intermittently since then. Large projects of restoration and preservation were undertaken in the 1980s. Today the Forum serves as a site worthy of a visit by everyone from historians and archaeologists to tourists from all corners of the world and college art history classes.

II. Description

Encarta Reference Library 2002. "Forum"
Map of the Forum
Here is a map of the Forum including most of the major sites which are visible today,
but not all. While it is not the most complete map I have seen, it is the easiest
to read and grasp some concept of how the Forum is layed out.

Describing the Forum in antiquity is a slippery and elusive task, as it varied greatly over its thousand year history. As noted, the architecture of the Forum we see today is the design mainly of Julius Caesar and Augustus, with some monuments erected in their places earlier and some embellishments made later. The actual “forum” area of the Forum was and had always been an open, likely grassy area in the center of the roads which ran through the site. It is a large rectangular area of about 300 feet long oriented lengthwise generally along an east to west axis, although this was skewed slightly to a northwest to southeast axis during the renovations by Julius Caesar. In this area were once hundreds of bronze statues as well as seven honorary columns down the south side installed after the fire of 283. The Column of Phocas, the tallest and most intact of any of the remaining columns in the Forum lies to the eastern end in front of the Augustan and Caesarian Rostra. However, it is important to note that by the time this column was erected in 283 these rostra were no longer in use as the late imperial rostra was constructed at the east end of the central Forum area.

Again to the west behind the rostrae and embedded into the base of the Captoline Hill are the Precinct of Harmonious Gods and Temple of Concordia Augusta with the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, the deified Flavian emperors who ruled around 80 AD, sandwiched neatly in between long after the temples on either sided had been built. Directly to the north of the rostrae is the grand Arch of Septimius Serverus, which is still in very good condition today, showing the original decorative carvings of 203 AD. Immediately after crossing under the arch one finds himself in the Comitium, the meeting site for the public assembly, in the center of which lies the lapis niger or “black stone” where it is rumored Romulus is buried. North of this is Julius Caesar’s Curia a large brick building with the marble flooring remaining intact as one of the best examples of the Romans colorful marble designs and enormous bronze doors opening to the Comitium. Together the Comitium, Rostra, and Curia composed the center of government for the empire.

Directly to the north and south of the main forum area are the Basilica Aemilia and the Basilica Julia. These two level colonnaded structures, modeled after Greek architectural designs of the second century BC, were constructed to serve as judicial centers, but in reality served also as meeting sites, marketplaces, and a location for ever popular dice games, as noted by the game boards carved into the marble floors of the Basilica Julia. In front of the Basilica Aemila lies a small but important shrine to Venus Cloacina, in honor of the Cloaca Maxima, the ancient drain that runs under the Forum.

To the southeast of the Forum lies the sacred center of Rome with the Temple of Vesta, the House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Regia. The Temple of Vesta, said to have been built by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, was originally a simple round wooden and thatched hut. Due to the fact that it housed the sacred flame of Vesta, and the tendency of wood to burn when around flame, the Temple burned down and was reconstructed quite frequently. One feature that was always maintained was the eastern orientation of the entranceway. Eventually the temple was rebuilt with tufa and marble making fires less frequent. The house of the Vestal Virgins was one of the grandest houses in all of Rome, with a peristyle that rivaled those of the emperors’ palaces and would impress the gods. Finally the Regia was the residence of Pontifex Maximus until Augustus combined the role of Pontifex Maximus and emperor and thus moved the residence to the Palatine. The name translating as the greatest bridge maker, the Pontifex Maximus also took on the role of religious icon acting as a bridge between the citizens and the gods.

As far as the architecture of the Forum, it was all centered around grandeur. The Forum was constructed as a symbol of Roman strength and accordingly employed the finest building materials available and the latest building techniques. Especially desirous were the colorful varieties of marble quarried after conquests in the East, Egypt, and Northern Africa, which they used either as the building blocks themselves or as decorative plating on cement structures. Most impressive are the gigantic monolithic columns imported from around the world and erected by a process which is still unknown to modern archaeologists. Most prolific were the festive Corinthian style columns, although several examples of Ionic columns and a few Doric columns can also be found. Nearly all of the structures that we see still today in the Forum were modeled after the architectural styles of the Greeks, whom the Romans admired and respected greatly for their democracy, arts, and philosophy. /safran_slides/roman_art/November_30/ RomanForumAerialView.jpg
Aerial View of the Forum
Here's a nice aerial view of the Forum.

III. Function

In function the Forum developed greatly from its humble beginnings as a water source and grazing ground to local market, to political, commercial, social and religious center during the height of Rome at the end of the republic and first few hundred years of empire. As the political center, the Forum provided the meeting place of the great Roman Senate in the Curia, where the 300 most prolific heads of families met regularly to discuss issues of the state and advised the consuls. /hon111/forum/Curia.jpg
The Curia Julia
Here is an actual picture of the Curia constructed by Julius Caesar.
More accurately it's a reconstruction of Caesar's design for the Curia.
You might notice that the Curia remains incredibly intact, while the rest of the Forum
has fallen into incredible disrepair. This is because it was converted into the Church
of St. Hadrian in 630 by Pope Honorius I and actively used as such until excavations.

Possibly more importantly in the Comitium assembled the active citizenry of the city. Every day during late morning hundreds would gather here to hear the news of the day being spoken from the ornate Rostra. From here they also had the opportunity to hear the greatest orators of their time such as Cicero and Claudian arguing against and for the state, sometimes speaking against the word of the emperors at great risk.

Grant, Michael. The Roman Forum.
The Decorated Rostra
This is a representation of the Rostra with its five decorative colums in place.

The legal center of Rome was housed in the Basilica Julia, where the Centumviri met, a board of 180 men who heard civil suits. They would hear up to four cases at one time inside the basilica, separated only by curtains, and with hundreds of people crowded into the balconies to hear the proceedings, one can imagine the amount of noise and confusion a day at the courthouse could entail. Lawyers were limited in their speaking time by water clocks, however the number of clocks awarded to speak varied depending on the importance of the speaker, in the opinion of the court. Once it was recorded that Pliny the Younger was awarded 16 clocks of water, totaling a speaking time of over five hours! More than a courthouse, the Basilica Julia, and the Basilica Aemilia on the other side of the Forum served as meeting places for people and as a covered marketplace. The Basilica Aemilia actually having built in stalls and the Basilica Julia just having merchants set up their goods along the peristyle. During the Monarchy and a part of the Republic goods sold to the north and south of the Forum (where the Basilicas would not stand for another few hundred years) were mostly food and necessary goods. However, after a decree by Consul Maenius in 338 BC banished all of the butchers and fruit stands from the Forum area, citing the smell, the old shops were replaced with more desirable shops such as bankers, money-lenders, and silver-smiths. Other popular items sold in the Forum were jewelry and gold, clothing, perfumes, bathing oils, and ointments, as well as services such as hair dressers.
Remains of the Basilica Julia
Here is what remains of the of the great Basilica Julia where civil suits of the Roman Empire were once heard.

Claridge, Amanda. Rome. pg 62,
The Basilica Julia
An artistic represenation of the Basilica Julia to give some idea of at least what the front of great building once looked like.

As religious grounds, the Forum held temples and to many important gods, the most sacred and most ancient being the Temple of Vesta. /t.o.vesta.good.jpg
Temple of Vesta Remains
These are the remaing three columns of the circular Temple of Vesta

Here the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred flame of Vesta, associated as the protectress of the Roman state during the Republic, burning at all times. Should the flame be extinguished it was taken very seriously as a prophecy for the fall of the nation. In the very center of the temple was the Penetralia, arguably the most sacred site in the entire Roman Empire. Inside were two clay jars, one empty and one containing the “holy objects” of the Roman state. So secret were the objects that only the Vestal Virgins and Pontifex Maximus knew what was inside, but it is believed that one of the items was the “palladium,” a small figure brought from Troy by Aeneas after the Trojan War. According to ancient legend the city which held the palladium could not be conquered. The second oldest temple in the Forum, and third oldest in Rome, behind the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, was the Temple of Saturn, worshipped as the god of agriculture. Another of ancient religious sites was the Shrine to Venus Cloacina, built to recognize the Cloaca Maxima.
Grant, Michael. The Roman Forum
Temple of Vesta
A black and white version of what the Temple of Vesta once looked like, complete with a plume of smoke out the top.

It is easy to see the logic in what early Romans felt the need to worship: safety in the Temple of Vesta, and sustainability, in the Temple of Saturn and Shrine of Venus Cloacina. Later religious monuments, constructed when the empire was expanding and no longer concerned merely with survival, recognize this change in building monuments to more warlike gods and to peace and harmony (Precinct of Harmonious Gods, Temple of Concordia Augusta). Finally, during the empire, when Rome was confident of its power and felt it had little to fear, it began to deify its own emperors who had constructed this bastion of power with monuments such as the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.

As a whole during the height of the Empire, while maintaining all of the above stated day to day functions, the Forum became the symbol of imperial power. New monuments were constructed to celebrate military victories and statues were erected to honor and accolade emperors. Such decoration actually began during the Republic with the ornamentation of the Rostra with the prows of defeated enemy ships and some of the most elaborate monuments we see today were constructed solely for this purpose of commemorating Rome’s strength and power, such as the Arch of Titus. The importation of new building materials, such as colorful and exotic shades of marble from Africa and the East, signified to Roman citizens just how far the expansive arms of the Empire now reached.

VI. Patron

Over its history there were literally hundreds of patrons of the Forum, but more than others, a few shaped the Forum into the way we see it today. The first patrons, who’s contributions are likely more mythological than not, were the first three kings of Rome. The great Romulus is credited with building the very first Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. The second king, Numa Pompilius, known for bringing religion to the kingdom, is said to have built the Temple of Vesta and the Regia, which was the holy residence of the kings and later in the Republic of the Pontifex Maximus. Tullus Hostilius, third king of Rome, known as the warlike king, brought order to the kingdom by establishing the Curia and the Comitium, sites from where the kingdom could be justly and methodically ruled. Even through these tales of ancient kings we can see how each patron tailored his buildings towards the development of the Rome and catered his building plans toward necessities for growth and organization of the kingdom during his reign.

Through the Republic, with consulships changing hands annually, there was not much time for large scale building plans, and thus during the Republic we see no outstanding patrons, nor specific architectural directions. Instead small uncoordinated monuments seem to spring up everywhere in the Forum, though not in a very permanent fashion. What we do see however is the first episodes of large scale civil engineering undertaken by the state since the Cloaca Maxima with the Via Appia providing paved road from Rome to Brundisium and the construction of aqueducts to give the city running water. While these were not specific to the Forum, they still today attest to the abilities of cooperative Republican power. Built out of necessity, such public works projects remind us of the first projects undertaken during the colonization of Africa during the 1800s and the urbanization of nearly any other rural area.

Photo taken by Jeff Eaton
Julius Caesar
Here is a statue of Julius Caesar which stands on the sidewalk along Fori Imperialli, the main road running to the north of the Forum

At the rise of the Empire under Julius Caesar Rome was now a solidified power controlling the Mediterranean, and there was a need for a single, unparalleled testament to the centralized dictatorship which Caesar secretly envisioned Rome to become. With this in mind, he completely remodeled the Forum to display much more grandeur than before. He constructed a new and impressive Curia, the enormous Basilica Julia, and rebuilt the Rostra to be more daunting than before. Now instead of coming to the Forum and simply seeing a political and commercial center where citizenry met to attend to the day’s business, one found a place like none they had seen before, demanding the respect owed to the colossal empire. Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian Augustus, continued the aggrandizement of the Forum, and built a temple deifying Julius Caesar in honor of what he had done for the Republic (as the empire was still living under the guise of a republic). Furthermore he made a point of constructing an overly lavish palace for himself along with a temple for his favorite god Apollo on the Palatine hill. This made the Forum area not only a sign of Imperial power, but also of a sign of the might of the emperor himself.

Photo taken by Jeff Eaton
An ancient statue of the Emperor Augustus housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano

Each subsequent emperor naturally had the goal of enhancing the Forum in order to capture the hearts and minds of the people. Some succeeded in their works, and some did not, but it is likely that we can tell how a particular emperor fared by studying how well his works fared and if they were in good favor, as this is how closely tied together the two phenomena are. Many of the better off emperors even built their own fora by which they could be personally remembered, example Trajan, whose forum you can read about in another article on this site. The later emperor with the greatest opportunity to shape the Roman Forum was Diocletian who came to power in 284 after the great fire of 283 that demolished nearly the entire Forum. Diocletian used this opportunity to rebuild the Forum as nearly an exact replica of what had stood before, adding only a set of honorary columns, thus showing stability and continuity of the empire along with its growing power, signified by rebuilding what had once stood, but even grander than before.
A bust of the emperor Diocletian who rebuilt the Forum after the great fire in 283.

V. Conclusion

For me personally, visiting the Roman Forum for the first time was one of the most chilling experiences of my life. It is amazing to see the complexity that people were able to accomplish two thousand years ago in light of all the troubles we have organizing society today. While the site does not look like much now, with a bit of imagination and knowledge regarding for what the collective monuments stood—knowledge which was hopefully conveyed in the paper—the Forum comes alive and impresses on a modern traveler the same sense of force and power that it would have impressed on a vistor from a faraway part of the Empire during the Augustan Era.
Artistic Roman Forum
An painting of the Forum by modern Italian artist Silvana Brunotti.

Also through careful study of the Forum we realize that development and life of ancient Roman society is not all that different from ours today. In the United States we still build sacred sights, and feel the pain as a nation when they are struck, we have a monumental Capitol, and presidential residence. We put great efforts into our malls and courthouses to make them impressive and construct monuments for our great leaders such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Just recently was opened in Washington DC a brand new memorial commemorating the sacrifices made for victory in WWII. /Roman%20Holiday/images/roman-forum-11_gif.jpg
Sunrise in the Forum
The sun rises giving a gorgeous picture of the Temple of Saturn.

Finally, in the Forum we are able see first handedly the 1000 year evolution of one of the worlds greatest societies. To look down into the tomb of Romulus, to walk a few steps and stand where Julius Caesar was assassinated, and to view from the same vantage point where a Roman citizen may have heard Constantine decree Rome to be a Christian empire gives a unique view into the developments of human society. It is easy to see how the Romans incorporated the wisdom of the great Greek society before them into their own idealistic dreams, much as renaissance scholars looked to the Romans for guidance and we studied Renaissance designs to conceive our own interpretations of freedom. As noted above it is a very fine line that separates us from the great Roman culture of antiquity. updates/week9_10/1124for6Web.JPG
Another Day Brings Another Night
Somehow the Forum looks even a bit more majestic at night.

VI. Personal Observations

A realization that struck me rather hard midway through my research was that the Forum as we see it today is not actually a depiction of the living breathing Forum, but rather a jagged, pillaged slice of the Forum near the time of the downfall of the Empire. For the sake of truly understanding the functions of the Forum it is necessary to view it as an evolutionary entity and try to see how changes in the Forum were brought about naturally. Buildings were not simply plunked in the place where they are now, but rather new constructions were fit in between and around the old and fires were coveted as opportunities for makeovers. Also I feel that even many authors specializing in the subject make the mistake of lumping the places of interest in Forum together architecturally, functionally, and historically. However, in actuality comparing the Temple of Saturn, the Curia Julia, and the Arch of Septimius Severus as contemporaries to each other would be like comparing Westminster Palace in London to the brand new British Library; it is simply not correct without recognizing all that intervened during the interim. Conveying this evolution of the Forum was something I tried to portray in this paper, however had a very hard time with. I think this greatly has to do with a lack of knowledge as to what lied below and around what we see today. Hopefully such information will be gained as excavations continue and we put pieces together to form a more precise picture of how the Romans actually lived.

VII. Bibliography

1. Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaelogical Guide. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.

2. Grant, Michael. The Roman Forum. London: Spring Books. 1970

3. Huelsen, Christian; transl. Tanzer, Helen H. The Forum and the Palatine. New York: A. Bruderhausen. 1928.

4. Lovell, Isabell. Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum. New York: The MacMillan Company. 1902.

5. Magoffin, Ralph Van Deman. The Roman forum, the greatest small spot on earth. New York: American Classical League. 1927.

6. Nahmad, Ezra. The Roman Forum. New York: Harper and Row. 1982

7. Rome: Echoes of Imperial Glory. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books. 1994


Encarta Reference Library 2002. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation. 2002

Articles used:
Roman Forum
Vestal Virgin