The Roman Forum, Part I- The center of an empire

Ron Current
Ron Current

Ancient history is my passion and the Roman Empire period for me is right up there with that of the ancient Greeks. So when my wife and I were planning our trip to Rome and Italy, a visit to the Roman Forum was a must.

Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Palatino was a perfect location for our stay, it being only a short four block walk down the Via Cavour to the Forum and the Colosseum.

As my wife and I walked along Rome’s Via Dei Fori Imperiali (which divides the old Forum from the Imperial Forums) we gazed down at the ruins of the birthplace of the Roman Republic and the center of the mighty Roman Empire. It was hard for us to visualize, with its ruined temples and weed choked streets, that this was once the most magnificent city center in the ancient world. Yet this was indeed the spot where the Roman Senators spoke, where the Caesars walked and their legions marched. During its heyday Roman Forum was the unquestionable center of the world.

Besides its Roman history, this site also has a fascinating pre-Roman Republic history as well. Long before it became the Forum, in its prehistoric period, this valley was a low-lying swampy wetland at the base of the Palatine, Capitoline and Esquiline hills. This area was a continual bog, due to the runoff from the surrounding hills with no streams to carry the water away. For the ancient inhabitants living on those hills, that valley was only good for burying their dead and to graze their animals.

That changed in the 7th century BC, when the last two Etruscan Kings constructed a drainage canal that ran from the valley to the nearby Tiber River. This canal was called “Cloaca Maxima.” At first it was an open air canal, but later covered by the Romans to gain more space in the forum. This canal, a great engineering feat, is still in use today.

The Forum Romanum at the Imperial Age level along it original street, The Via Sacra. This is looking north toward Capitoline Hill.

After the valley was drained it became the central gathering place for the people living on the hills. Legend has it that Rome’s King Romulus, the city’s legendary namesake, had built his fortress city on the Palatine Hill, just across from his rival King Tatius’s, that was on the Capitoline Hill. The legend goes on to tell how the two sides were in a constant state of war. The fighting, it’s told, continued until the Sabine women prayed for it to stop. The warring finally did end, with Romulus and Tatius forming an alliance. Whether this legend has some truth or not, an alliance was indeed formed between the two peoples, and this would be the very beginnings of Rome.

The marble Arch of Septimius Severus built in 203 AD to commemorate the Emperor’s victory over the Partians. It stands at the northern end of the Forum. In the background is the church Santi Luca e Martina.

Throughout the Roman Republic the Forum would continue to expand: with government buildings and temples being added around the Foro, or the public square. One of the earliest temples to be built in the Forum was the Temple of Saturn in 497 BC.

The foot of Capitoline Hill was set aside for the government of Rome. It was there that the Curia (the meeting place for the Roman Senate) and the Comitium (the place of the people) were located. This was the governmental center of the Roman Republic. We get the name Capital, for the center of our governments, from Capitoline Hill.

Starting with Julius Caesar, and with all the Emperors that followed, the Forum was expanded even more, and built to fit the egos of whatever Caesar was in power. For centuries the Forum Romanum was the undisputed center of not only the city, but also the entire Roman Empire.

The Forum, as the center of the Roman world, is most evidently shown when Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, placed a large column there that he named Miliarium Aureum, or the Golden Milestone. This column was to mark the center of Rome, and the center of the Empire. It was Augustus’s decreed that the Miliarium Aureum would be the starting point of all roads leading out of the city, and out into his empire. It is also where the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” came from.

Visitors stroll along the Forum’s Via Sacra, where the citizens of ancient Rome walked. In the background on the right are the three columns of what remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. On the left side of the Via Sacra are the row of columns to the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The large column on the right in the foreground is the Column of Phocas. Off in the distance you can see the Arch of Titus, which stands at the south end of the Forum.

The Forum was the scene of: political upheavals, funerals, triumphant parades, and before the Colosseum was built, even gladiatorial battles. But as the Roman Empire split and declined, so did the importance of Rome, the city and its Forum Romanum. At around the 8th century BC, the marble from its buildings and temples started to be removed, and used for other building projects. Some of the buildings of the Forum were partly saved, when they were converted into Christian churches.

As the site further deteriorated, it became a dumping ground for the city’s trash. And silt from the hills, once again, began washing into the ruined Forum, covering what was left. The forum valley took on a new name, Campo Vaccino or cattle field, and so the once magnificent Roman Forum had gone back to its original use.

The remains of the north walls of the Basilica Julia at the foot of Capitoline Hil

In the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic regime, some efforts were undertaken to unearth portions of the ruined Forum, with little success. Even into the 20th century the Roman Forum stayed neglected, weed choked and buried. Before World War II, the dictator Benito Mussolini started a program to restore the ancient Forum. However, he destroyed and paved over a large section of the Forum when he built the Via Dei Fori Imperiali.

Today, things are looking better for the Forum Romanum. There is now ongoing excavations and preservation work being done. The area between the Arch of Tito, on the south end by the Colosseum, to the Arch of Septimius Severus, on the north end at the foot of Capitoline Hill, is now open to foot traffic.

On our visit my wife and I entered at the south end of the site, by the Colosseum. This area has yet to be completely excavated. As you walk down through the centuries of dirt and debris, it’s like you’re going back in time.

Finally, we were at the street level during the Imperial age, the time of the Caesars. There we stood, on the very stones that the citizens of ancient Rome had walked and that the legions had marched on.  You can’t but be in awe of the history that took place there over two millennia ago. For these ruins, even in their broken and fallen condition, was the very foundation of our western civilization.

Standing on the original paving stones of the Forum Street.



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