Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Roman Forum

Ashish Gupta
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

As far and wide as the mighty Roman Empire stretched, both the symbolic and functional center of Rome was the Forum. For centuries, political assemblies, rallies and speeches, lawsuits and meetings, state funerals, and public feasts took place here, and great temples and monuments were built to pay homage to Gods and to commemorate emperors. Over its history, the space took on many forms; it was damaged and rebuilt, improved upon, and in the later years, neglected and ravaged. The history of the Roman Forum is intimately tied to that of the Roman Empire as a whole, and its conditions throughout history mirrored the state of Rome and its people. In the end, it is possible to examine the history of the Forum’s existence and its downfall as a means to better understand our own society and its future.

Situated between hills favorable for defense, Rome was strategically founded. About eighteen miles from the Tiber River, the settlement was far enough from the sea to avoid water-based attacks from pirates, which were prevalent in the period of Rome’s founding (753 BC), and close enough to use nearby rivers that fed the Tiber for transportation and trade. Thus, despite its eventual central role in the functions of the Empire, the area that held the Forum began as a marshy wetland, as described in Ovid’s Fasti:

'Where now the Forum lies, were pools of water and marshland, Streams for the Tiber's flood swelled high the banks of the brook…’
(Ovid's Fasti VI, 401 ff.)

Temple of Vesta of 179 AD

Recent archaeological findings have uncovered tombs under the area of the Forum, leading experts to believe that up to the 6th Century BC, there was a necropolis, or burial site, resting here. However, it is generally thought the area was used little. In 616 BC, the Tarquin King, Pricius, in an effort to improve the city and acquire honor and power for himself, built a massive covered sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, which drained the waters from this area and emptied into the Tiber River. This “Great Drain” was massive, said to be large enough to sail a boat through, and was made of stone built with the Etruscan-style arches that became so widely used in bridges and aqueducts throughout the history of Rome. The land, now a dry, open plain, was ripe for development.

With the founding of the Republic in the 5th Century BC, the Forum began to serve its role as the functional center of the city’s economic, religious, and political life, a role that would remain consistent until the 2nd Century BC.
The Forum was, in its founding, a vast marketplace. It is thought, in fact, that the word forum derives from the root ferre, or to carry, as vendors were forced to do with their goods to bring them to the market. Aristocratic houses and long wooden booths, in which dealers sold food and other goods, surrounded the space. During festivals and games, the upper class would watch from wooden seats or stand on the roofs of these booths while the lower class watched from the marketplace.

The Forum represented a religious center for the city as well. Festivals and holidays were numerous, coinciding with significant religious dates, and included parades, games, and prayers in the Forum area. Prayers asking for favors from the Gods were accompanied by vows and offerings, such as milk, honey, wine, and animals. In commemoration of Mars, the God of War, the New Year began with war festivals in March. Festivals were also dedicated to the sowing of the seed and the new harvest. While this was the main square in which people actively practiced their religion, it was also the symbolic center of the Pagan Roman tradition. The area in which the Cloaca Maxima entered the Forum contained a small sanctuary to Cloacina, the goddess of fertility. The Temple of Jupiter, which when created in the 6th Century BC was to be the largest in the Italo-Etruscan world, The Temple of Saturn (497 BC), The Temple of Castor (484 BC), The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestal Virgins (early 3rd Century BC), the Regia, home of the chief priest, and the Temple of Divus Romulus (4th Century BC), all stood in the Forum to celebrate and honor the various gods. A black stone that rested just outside the Curia, believed to be the ‘navel of the world’, contained early Latin writing that is thought by experts today to have carried regulations for a religious rite of some sort. The Forum was overrun by sacred spaces; as a result, it was itself revered by the Roman people as a sacred space. Over time, the Forum accrued more monuments and temples and continued to serve as a hub for the Roman religion until the rise of Christianity.

In addition to its economic and religious importance, the Forum also served as a political center. It was in this area that political assemblies formed, lawsuits were heard, and speeches were given. In the 3rd Century BC, a large circular arena was built, surrounded by Grecian-influenced steps to provide citizens a formal area to sit and listen to speeches.

This area was referred to as the Comitum, or meeting place, and would be the future sites of the Curia, 
the Roman Senate House, and the Rostra, the speaker’s platform.

The last 2 Centuries BC saw major changes in Rome as a whole, as well as in the Forum. While the functionality of the Forum remained, the area came to serve more and more as a symbolic home of national pride. Military victories occurred to extend the Empire to far-reaching locales, and translated into massive monuments to commemorate victories, honor kings, and display the wealth of Rome. New temples were constructed to honor gods thought important to protecting the Roman people in times of war. It was common for triumphant generals to be paraded around the Forum streets with their armies and captured booty, a practice thought by the Roman people to allow the Empire to ‘absorb’ the good qualities of captured civilizations. Furthermore, wealthy patrons built massive, multi-purpose halls called Basilicas, which served as showpieces for any and all to come see the splendor and prestige of Rome.

It was Julius Caesar (48-44 BC), with his ambitions for greatness, who set off a flurry of changes to the Forum that would indeed change it forever. While overcrowding was a major problem in Rome at this time, Caesar aimed to expand the city to provide more room for its inhabitants. His plan was called De Urbe Augend, and included far-reaching measures like re-routing the Tiber River to provide more usable land. His plans included expanding and increasing the grandiosity of the Forum as well. He destroyed and rebuilt the Curia in another location, making room for a large colonnaded plaza that would eventually hold the Temple of Divius Julius, built by Augustus in devotion to the

Basilica Julia

deified Julius Caesar. In addition, he renovated the Rostra and constructed the Basilica Julia, which would serve as a grand hall for courts, commerce, and leisure. Caesar would never see his prized works, as he was murdered before their completion. Thus, his successor, Augustus (31 BC-14 AD), carried out the final renovations. Besides finishing the projects that Caesar had started, Augustus also remodeled several buildings in the Forum by adding massive amounts marble. In fact, it was said of Augustus that he, “found the Forum of brick, and left it of marble.” Thus, by the end of Augustus’ reign, the centuries-old space that had served the Roman people so well was born again. The Roman Forum was at its peak in pomposity and importance, and over the next centuries, remained relatively consistent.

The decline of the Roman Forum, in both its functional importance to the daily lives of the people and its symbolic role in representing the might of the Empire, came gradually. In 283 AD, a great fire decimated Rome, including the Forum, forcing Emperor Diocletian to rebuild. In 394 AD, non-Christian groups were banned in Rome, leading to the abandonment of many pagan temples. In the 4th Century, the center of the Empire moved away from Rome. As a result, the city’s population dwindled, and there were limited resources to maintain the upkeep necessary to prevent the Forum from becoming ruins. In 410 AD, Ostrogoth raiders ransacked the Forum, destroying many buildings. Some buildings, like the Curia, were spared when they were converted into churches. Many however, were not, and much of the Forum was left to shepherds. In fact, the area became known as Campo Vaccino, or the cattle field. Over time, monuments and temples were plundered for materials to be used in Papal buildings. In 608 AD, almost 1,200 years since the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, the last addition was made to the Forum; the Column of Phocas. As time progressed, the Forum’s historical legacy was as forgotten as its physical structures; it was said that in Renaissance Times, people had little knowledge of what several of the Forum’s buildings even were, let alone what they once represented. It was not until renewed interest in the 1930s, and ensuing excavations, that the

Temple of Vesta

Forum’s legacy has been more fully unearthed. However, the space today, serving as one of the most historically significant sites in all of Rome, bears little resemblance to the magnificent city center it once was.

In some ways, American society resembles ancient Rome; we are the political giant, economic engine, and social trendsetter for much of the world. However, inherent differences between our society and Rome make it hard to imagine a construct like the Forum, where the major economic, political, and religious institutions of a society, as well as the symbols of national pride, all collided in one centralized space. It would be as if Wall Street held the Lincoln Memorial and the Houses of Congress, and was furthermore inundated by magnificent temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues. While public spaces today can and do serve the dual roles of being functional and symbolic, their purpose is much more narrowly focused than that of the Forum. The American political center, for example, is a sprawling complex, the National Mall, that holds the White House, the Houses of Congress, and various monuments. This space successfully serves as the functional hub of politics in the U.S., as well as a symbolic home of national pride. There are not, however, any churches on the Mall. It is also not home to any major corporations or centers of commerce. Those are in other locations, and to American society, would seem to undermine the integrity of the political system if present on the Mall. Thought in this way, the Forum as an idea, the ‘center’ of a civilization, is wholly alien to the way in which we view society.

First, the idea that religion and politics should regulate separate spheres is expressed in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion…” By excluding the possibility of a “national religion”, the Constitution eliminates the possibility that there be an institutionalized link between church and state. Thus, it seems only natural that they occupy different physical spaces as well. Furthermore, while the links between party politics and religion are becoming much stronger, especially in recent elections, it seems wholly unlikely that any segment of American society would accept the concept of a deified George Bush the way Romans did of Julius Caesar.

Roman Forum of 179 AD

Second, with the rapid invasion of technology into every facet of our lives, the
existence of a physical space wherein all of our important business is conducted seems cumbersome and unnecessary. Today it is possible for someone rant on a political blog, buy groceries online, and listen to a podcast of a sermon all at the same time. The speed and quality of such services make it inevitable that in the future, the various functions that the Forum served in Roman society will for our society become more accessible to us from home and with increased personalization. As a result, the future holds more dissipation, not concentration, of the political, economic, and religious centers.

Finally, it seems that public spaces in today’s world cannot and will not suffer the type of decline that the Forum suffered. The Forum declined for two reasons. First, as Christianity grew, its symbolic importance as a sacred Pagan ground diminished. Second, as economic conditions of the times evolved, the Forum lost its functional importance as a market. On the first count, American society, and really all societies in general, are susceptible. Ideals that are prominent enough in a society to motivate the construction of a monument or temple many times do not endure the test of time. When the Romans built their temples, their religious devotion was absolute; however, as their fervor was dissipated and eventually eliminated throughout the course of history, it was these very temples that were targeted as symbols of the past, deemed unimportant or dangerous, and destroyed. Who knows if in hundreds of years, the passion with which American society celebrates the ideals of Abraham Lincoln will disappear, and the Lincoln Memorial will bear the brunt of the ideological shift? On the second count, however, the movement of corporations and other private enterprises into public spaces makes it seem like we might avoid the fate of the Forum. As it became harder and harder for vendors to make a living selling their goods in the Forum, its functionality declined. However, businesses today have the power to invest and reinvest in public spaces to attract and re-attract consumers. For example, Time’s Square, one central point of American commerce, fell into disrepair in the 1980s. As profits tumbled, businesses teamed with the government to clean up the area, and by the 1990s, the Square was once again a vibrant part of American society. It is the influence of those with massive amounts of money, namely corporations, motivated by the prospect of turning large profits, that will work to make public spaces more and more relevant to the lives of consumers, the way ancient Romans could never do with the Forum.

In the end, the historical significance of the Roman Forum cannot be matched. It was the center of the most glorious civilization the world has ever known. As America slowly accumulates more power and wealth, the story of the Forum’s rise and fall provides lessons on our own society, and serves as an important reminder of what once was.

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