The Roman Forum, Part II – A walking exploration

Ron Current
Ron Current

On our trip to Rome in 2015, visiting the Roman Forum was big on my bucket list. I was really unprepared for what we discovered as we walked the ancient streets of the Roman Forum.

What we found raised a lot of questions about what we saw. Even though the buildings had identifying plaques it didn’t help; we were like most visitors, that if you don’t have a guide, or if you don’t know the buildings history, it would be just another old ruin.

Luckily I had taken a lot of photos. When I got home I researched the history of the temples and the public buildings that we saw, so that I can present them to you now. However, in a few cases my photo wasn’t as good as I would have liked, with those photos I identified where I got them from.

So walk with me now as we explore the fabulous, Forum Romanum.

The Temple of Venus and Rome

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The remaining columns of the Temple of Venus and Rome.
The largest temple in Rome in its time.
Photo by author

At the southern end of the Forum, across from the Colosseum, are a set of columns that rise above the level of the street. These are all that remain of the Temple of Venus and Rome. This temple is believed to have been the largest ever built in the ancient city.

Dedicated to the divine Julian family (the family of Julius Caesar) who believed they were descended from the goddess Venus, and could trace their family to the very founding of Rome.  Construction on the temple began under the Emperor Hadrian in 135 AD, and then completed by his successor Emperor Antonius Pius in 141 AD.

The temple was built on top of the largest man-made podium of its time.  Along its longer sides ran two columned porticos. The temple’s south end faced the Colosseum, while its northern end looked out over the Forum. Both the north and the south end featured long stairways going down to the streets.

Inside the temple was a statue of Venus, which faced the Colosseum. There was also another statue at the north end, which represented the City of Rome, which faced the Forum.

To make room for the temple Hadrian had to first remove what remained of the vestibule of Nero’s Golden House. Also Hadrian had to relocate Nero’s gigantic statue, “The Colossus of Nero.” It was written that it took twenty-four elephants to move the Colossus.

Coupled with the impressive Colosseum, the Colossus of Nero, and the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Colossus Square must have been spectacular to see.

As with many of the buildings in the Forum, the Temple of Venus and Rome suffered from being stripped of its marble and stones. Earthquakes and fire also added to its destruction. It was an earthquake in the ninth century that finally destroyed what was left of this temple.

The first Christian church to be built on the site was in 850 AD. In 1612, the Church Santa Francesca Romana was then constructed on that site, using components of both the earlier church and the temple.  

Today the terrace of the temple has been restored, and is open to the public.

It’s now time to explore the Roman Forum. To get there from its south end you enter off the Great Square of the Colosseum. Next to the remains of the Temple of Venus and Rome, you’ll find the Via Sacra. During the height of the Roman Empire the Via Sacra was the main road of the Forum. Today this mighty Roman road, where its legions marched, seems to be just a wide walkway.

In the distance you’ll see our next stop, the Arch of Titus.

The Arch of Titus

the-arch-of-titus-built-in-81-ad
At the south entryway into the Forum you pass the Arch of Titus
Photo by author

The Arch of Titus is the oldest of the three surviving triumphal arches in Rome. It stands on the highest spot on the Via Sacra, and being over 50 feet in height, it gives a commanding presence to the Roman Forum that stretches out below it.

In 85 AD, the Emperor Domitian had dedicated this triumphal arch in honor of his brother the Emperor Titus, who died in 81 AD. The arch commemorates Titus’s victory in the Jewish Revolt. It was during this war that the revolt by the Jewish nation came to an end, when the City of Jerusalem was captured and Masada fell in 72 AD.

The reliefs on the arch depict the emperor’s triumphal procession into Rome with the spoils of that war. When dedicated all these reliefs were in color. Also the arch was topped with a bronze quadriga.

What helped save the Arch of Titus was that in the eleventh century, the Frangipani family had incorporated it in their fortress. You’ll notice that some of the stones in the arch have differing shades to it. This is due to when architect Giuseppe Valadier was restoring the arch, between 1821 and 1823, he used travertine to replace the missing sections instead of marble. This was to distinguish what was replaced and what was the original marble.

Palatine Hill

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The ruins on Palatine Hill are those of the imperial palaces of the Roman emperors. This shot was taken from the Forum.
Photo by author

As you pass by the Arch of Titus look to your left. There you’ll see ruins on the side of a hill, with restored buildings at its top. This is the Palatine Hill, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, and the legendary birthplace of the city.

When archaeologists were excavating Palatine Hill they discovered more than just items from the ancient Roman period. What was uncovered was the remanence of bronze-age huts. This giving proof that the Palatine Hill has been inhabited from a much earlier time than first thought. However, for the tourists who visit this site it’s mostly known for the palaces of the first Roman emperors.

The first emperor to have his residence on Palatine Hill was Augustus Caesar in 44 AD. Although Augustus’s palace was impressive, it would be his successor, the Emperor Tiberius, who would build a true imperial palace. Following Tiberius’s lead, the following emperors: Caligula, Claudius and Nero would continue to expand the complex.

Palatine Hill would have been a site that I would have liked to have explored, if I’d only done a little more research before our trip.

The Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina

the-temple-of-antoninus-and-fausina-2
The columns from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina completely surround the later built Christian church.
Photo by author

As you follow the winding path down through the weeds and dirt, you’re actually descending through time and centuries of buildup. When you reach the bottom of the incline you’ll be standing on the excavated Imperial level of the Roman Forum. The impressive structure on the right is what remains of the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.

This temple was built by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 141 AD, to honor his deceased wife Faustina the Elder. Antoninus had Faustina deified, allowing for a temple to be constructed. Faustina is the only empress to have a temple in the Roman Forum. When Antoninus died in 161 AD, the Roman Senate then deified him, and this temple was then re-dedicated to both of them.

Evidence shows that the temple was originally fenced off from the Via Sacra. In the cella of the temple there was a large statue of a seated Faustina. After his death a statue of Antoninus was then added. Pieces of these two statues have been found around the temple.

closeup-of-the-temple-of-antoninus-and-faustina-showing-how-high-the-church-door-is
Notice how high up the bottom of the church’s green door is. That was ground level before the Forum was excavated.
Photo by author

What you’ll notice about this temple from the others in the forum is that it seems to be two buildings in one, which is correct. This is a perfect example of repurposing by medieval builders. They took the foundation of the ruined Roman temple and used it to support a Christian Church. The building that seems to be enveloped by the ancient temple is that of the twelfth century Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. The building you see now is from 1601, when the church was rebuilt.

The church’s builders retained the cella and portico of the temple, but they couldn’t keep the scavengers from stripping the marble from the ruin. If you look closely at the temple’s columns, you’ll see grooves in the stone. There are two theories for these grooves: it could be evidence that they were attempts to dismantle the pagan temple, or that they could have been used to help attach a roof over the portico.  

Notice how high up the bottom of the church’s door is from where you’re standing. When San Lorenzo in Miranda was first constructed that door was at ground level. After clearing away the centuries of dirt and debris from the temple ruin, there’s now a 20 foot difference.

The Temple of Caster and Pollux

the-temple-of-castor-and-pollux
The remaining three columns of the Temple of Caster and Pollux,
also known as “The Three Sisters”
Photo by author

On the opposite side of the Via Sacra from the Temple of Antonius and Faustina are three columns. These columns are popularly called, “The Three Sisters.

These columns are all that remain of the Temple of Caster and Pollux, one of the first temples to be built on the Forum. The first temple is believed to have been constructed at around 484 BC, by the pre-republic dictator Postumius.

It’s believed that Postumius built the temple in celebration of the victory in the Battle of Lake Regillus of 495 BC. The temple was dedicated to the mythical twins, Caster and Pollux. Caster and Pollux, were the sons of the god Jupiter/Zeus, and Leda of Sparta. When the temple was built there was a large cult devoted to these twins.

During the Republican era the temple was used as a meeting place for the Roman Senate, and its podium served as a speaker’s platform. In the Imperial period it became a government building and the State Treasury.

In 14 BC, a fire raged through the Forum destroying the original temple. The Emperor Tiberius rebuilt the temple in 6 AD, and the ruins you see today are from that temple.

The Basilica Julia

basilica-julie
The vast ruins of the once magnificent Basilica Julia
Photo by author

If you turn around and face north from the Temple of Caster and Pollux, you’ll see a large open area that’s littered with rows of column bases and a large ruined brick wall at its north end. This is all that remains of one of the largest buildings of the ancient Roman Forum, the Basilica Julia.

The Basilica Julia as it may have looked in 42 BC.
This public building stood 331 feet long and 161 feet wide.
Art by 3D computer model maker Lasha Tskhondia

Constructed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, the Basilica Julia was the main government building of the city. During the Imperial period this grand building housed the seat for the Centumviri, the people’s court.

the-ruins-of-the-basilica-julia
What remains of the north wall of the Basilica Julia
Photo by author

The original building was destroyed by fire in 9 BC, and then rebuilt in 2 AD. In its day it measured over 331 feet long and almost 161 feet wide. Today, this once great public building of ancient Rome is but a field of rubble.

The Temple of Saturn

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The Temple of Saturn, one of the most photographed ruins in the Roman Forum
Photo by author

When you see travel brochures of the Roman Forum they’ll most likely feature the columns of the Temple of Saturn. It is by far the most recognizable, and photographed, of all the ruins of the Forum.

It’s believed that the first temple to the Roman god Saturn on this site was begun in the latter part of the Kingdom of Rome, and inaugurated during the first part of the Republican period, around 497 BC. However, it’s thought that the alter, which stood at the front of the temple, is much older than the temple itself.

 In 42 BC, Roman Consul Lucius Munatius Plancus did a complete reconstruction of the entire temple. The ruins you see today are those of another reconstruction that was made after a fire in 360 AD.

The base of the Temple of Saturn was designed to house the State Treasury, or the Aerarium, of the Roman Republic. Also the standards of the Roman legions were kept in this temple.

At the foot of the stairs that led up to the temple you’ll find the ruined base of a column. This is what remains of the Emperor Augustus’s Miliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone. The Miliarium Aureum marked the very center of the City of Rome, and from which all roads lead from.  

The Arch of Septimius Severus

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The well preserved Arch of Septimius Severus at the foot of Capitoline Hill.
Photo by author

In front of the Temple of Saturn stands the magnificent Arch of Septimius Severus. This triumphal arch is the best preserved of the three arches in the Forum. Built by the Roman Senate in 203 AD, to honor the Emperor Septimius Severus,and his sons Caracalla and Geta, on their victories over the Parthians, what is now Romania. You can still read the inscription on the arch that says, “Dedicated to Septimius Severus and his sons.”

The Arch of Septimius Severus stands an impressive 75 feet in height and 82 feet wide. It’s very unique to most triumphal arches because it has three arched passages. The larger, center passage, is a little over 39 feet in height, with the two side passages at around 23 feet. When it was first constructed there was also a flight of stairs going up through its central passage.

The arch is constructed of marble and features four deep reliefs representing scenes of the Parthian war. At the top of the arch, in the center, there’s a large relief of Mars, the god of war. It’s believed that there were also two statues of winged Victory on each side, which are now lost. As with the Arch of Titus it was topped with a bronze quadriga: with statues of Septimius Severus and his two sons. After Emperor Severus’ death his son Caracalla, who didn’t want to share the power, had his brother Geta killed and had his name and image removed.

The arch is in very good condition, due to it being incorporated into a Christian church in the middle ages. Even after the church relocated the congregation continued to protect the arch from being stripped of its stone and marble.

The Arch of Septimius Severus stands at the foot of Capitoline Hill, on the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra was the main route for all the triumphal parades by the victorious generals and emperors. These parades would start at the southern end of the Forum and end near where the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The Rostra

The Rostra from the side.
This is the enlargement I made from my photo of the Arch of Septimius Severus, and where I finally found the Rostra
Photo by author

With all of the wondrous ruined temples and buildings that spread throughout the Roman Forum, it’s easy to miss one that’s rather plain looking. But this often overlooked structure was one of the most important places to the people of ancient Rome. It was called the Rostra; and it was upon this platform that the average Roman citizen could speak their mind.

Originally, this speaker’s platform was known as the “tribunal.” The first tribunal in the Forum was located near the Curia building. The circular open area in front of the tribunal, where listeners stood, was the Comitium.

The named changed from the tribunal to the rostra after the naval battle of Antium in 338 BC. Part of the spoils from that battle was six bronze ramming prows, taken from the enemy ships. These captured prows were attached to the front of the tribunal platform as trophies. So, what does the name change have to do with ships prows? The Latin word for prow is rostra. Because of the attached prows the platform began being referred to as the rostra, and the name stuck.

When fire destroyed the Curia in 52 BC, Julius Caesar began a major restructuring of the Forum. As part of this project Caesar planned on relocating the Rostra and Comitium to the west side of the Via Sarca, across from its original location.

The Rostra that Julius Caesar began constructing, referred to as the Rostra Vetera, is said to have had a curved design. Across its back was a staircase, this allowed speakers to mount the platform. This rostra wasn’t finish when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, but was finally completed by the Emperor Augustus in 42 BC.

Drawing of what the Rostra Augusti might have looked like.
Art from toldinstone

Augustus encased the original Rostra Vetera inside a much larger, rectangular design. This new Rostra was a little over 78 feet in length, constructed of tufa blocks with a marble facing, as well as having a curved staircase on its north side. Adorned not only with ship prows but it was also covered with reliefs, topped with a marble railing, and had statues and columns sitting on its platform. This structure is known as the Rostra Augusti, and its remains are what you see in the Forum today.

There have been many famous speeches in Roman history delivered from this rostrum; one of the most well-known is that of Marc Antony at Julius Caesar’s funeral in 44 BC. I go into more detail on this in my post, “Searching for Caesar’s Grave.”

Front of the Rostra as it is today, with the Temple of Saturn in the background

As I wrote earlier, it’s very easy to miss the Rostra when visiting the Forum. I know this because I missed it myself during our visit in 2015. It wasn’t until we got home, and I was doing research on our trip, that I learned how very close we must have been. I began looking through all my photos to see if I might have caught it unknowingly. Finally, there it was, hidden in plain sight; it appeared in one of the photos I had taken of the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The Curia Julia

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The Curia Julia as seen today.
Photo from Wikipedia

Across the Via Sacra from the Rostra is a building that looks out of place among all the other ruins of the Forum; in fact it almost looks contemporary in its design. Yet this building dates back to Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic, and is considered to be one of the best preserved structures in the Forum.  This is the ancient government building known as the Curia Julia.

The place where the Roman Senate met during its Republic and Imperial periods was called the Curiae. The first Curiae buildings situated on the Forum were located on the east side of the Forum’s main street, the Via Sacra. There were three Curiae built at that location: the Curia Hostillia, followed by the second and larger Curia Cornelia. The third, which was begun by Julius Caesar, is the Curia Julia.

When a fire destroyed the Curia Cornelia in 52 BC, Julius Caesar began a major redesigning of the Forum. Beginning in 44 BC, Caesar started relocating and rebuilding the Forum’s governmental area. As I wrote in the last segment, one of the components to Caesar’s plan was the relocation of the Comitium and Rostra across the Via Sacra.

During its Imperial period the Curia Julia had a raised colonnade porch across its front.
Art by Lasha Tskhondia

As with the Rostra and Comitium, construction on Caesar’s curia wasn’t finished when he was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. In fact, it was because the Curia Julia was still under construction that the Roman Senate had moved their meeting place to the Theatre of Pompey, where the assassination took place. I go into greater detail on Caesar’s assassination in my post, “Searching for the site of Julius Caesar’s Assassination.” As with the new Rostra, Comitium and other projects started by Caesar, the Curia Julia was completed by his successor the Emperor Augustus in 29 BC.  

Between 81 and 96 AD the Emperor Domitian was the first to make restorations to the Curia Julia. After a fire heavily damaged the building in 283 AD, the Emperor Diocletian basically rebuilt the entire structure between the years of 284 and 305 AD; it’s this building that you see today.

Once again a Christian church saved another historic building in the Forum from being destroyed. In 630 AD the Curia Julia was converted into a church. The church left the building mostly unchanged, preserving the structure.

Once again, during my visit to the Forum, I missed the Curia Julia. I saw the building, but had no Idea what I was looking at.

The Temple of Vesta

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These column and foundation are all the remains of the most sacred temple in the Forum, The Temple of Vesta.
Photo by author

As we leave the northern end of the Forum, walking along the Via Sacra back toward the Arch of Titus, you’ll see a set of columns on what was once a semicircle temple. Of all the many temples in the Forum and in Rome, this was by far the most sacred to its people. It was the Temple of Vesta.

The Temple of Vesta housed the eternal Sacred Fire of Rome. The belief was that the mythical Aeneas, a Trojan hero and demi-god, carried this flame to Rome from Troy, without it burning out. This eternal flame represented the timelessness of Rome. On the first day of the New Year Romans would extinguish their home fires. They’d then come to this temple and relight their hearth fires from its sacred flame. This eternal flame was kept by the six Vestals. These Vestals were selected when they were children from the most prominent of Roman families.

The Temple of Vesta is one of the oldest temples on the Forum; the original is believed to have been built during Rome’s kingdom period. Its unique circular design is thought to represent a primitive hut or home. Even though this temple was dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of the household hearth, there were no statues of her in its cella. Instead that place was occupied by the sacred flame. Due to the constantly burning flame the temple roof had a smoke vent hole at its center, just like the Pantheon.

Somewhere between 193 and 211 AD, the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the temple. It’s these remains that stand in the Forum now. There was a partial restoration done on the temple in the 1930s, most likely by the dictator Benito Mussolini.

Historians think that the Temple of Vesta served the people of Rome in their yearly pilgrimage well into the 13th century AD. And it may have had the longest use of any of the temples in the Forum. However, the Temple of Vesta finally succumbed to the same fate of its neighbors, having its marble and stone quarried off for other buildings.

 The House of the Vestal Virgins

the-house-of-the-vestal-virgins-in-the-forum-romanum
The garden of the House of the Vestal Virgins.
All that left of the massive complex where the Vestal Virgins lived.
Photo by author

Next to the Temple of Vesta, toward the foot of Palatine Hill, is the garden of the House of the Vestal Virgins. This beautiful and well-kept garden is all that remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins, the servants who maintained the sacred flame of Rome in the Temple of Vesta. Today only the buildings foundations and the courtyard garden have survived.

Built by Emperor Septimius Severus, the main building had two floors, with a columned portico that completely surrounded the courtyard garden. The private apartments of the Vestal Virgins were on the second floor. The bottom floor was where the kitchen, flour mill, ovens, and servant’s quarters were located. Some think that Severus’s design was the concept used for the modern convent.

The statues of the head Vestals in the garden,
with the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina can be seen
Photo by author

As you walk around the garden, be sure to check out the statues on each side of the grassy area. These statues are of the head vestals of the temple. You can still read the inscriptions that states what the virtues each Vestal had.

The Tullianum, or the Mamertine Prison

The front of the Mamertine Prison on the Via del Tullinano
Photo from Wikipedia

Before we leave the Roman Forum, there’s one more site that I’d like to tell you about. This place is both historical, as well as having a deep Christian connection, it’s the Mamertine Prison. And it goes without saying; we missed it while in Rome. So, what’s the Mamertine Prison, where is it located, and why did we miss it?

After we got back from our trip, our pastor asked if we had visited the Mamertine Prison while in Rome. My wife and I looked at each other with a blank face. We had no idea what the Mamertine Prison was. We knew the story of how Saint Peter and Saint Paul were imprisoned in Rome, before being martyred; but we had no idea it was at a place called Mamertine Prison. Also, with all the walking we did around the city, and all the tours that we took, we never heard of or saw any reference to the Mamertine Prison while in Rome. Now I was really curious; where was this Mamertine Prison, and had we walked past it without knowing? The search was on.

What I found was that the place was originally called the Tullianum. Sources say that it was first constructed as a cistern, to collect water from a spring on the northeast side of the Capitoline Hill, in the 7th century BC. This cistern also had two levels, an upper and lower. Because it wasn’t designed as a cell to hold criminals, prisoners were lowered by rope through an opening to the dungeons below.

One of the dungeons cells of the Tullianum/Mamertine Prison.
Photo from Wikipedia

Although it’s referred to as a prison, it really wasn’t. Roman law in the Republic and Imperial periods did not call for long term imprisonment. What it did allow however was for short term detention. This would apply for those awaiting trial or execution. Some of the executions were conducted within the Tullianum itself.  

As I stated above, some Christian denominations has this as being the location of the imprisonment of Saint’s Peter and Paul. Historically, the exact location of their imprisonment is not mentioned. However, because its location was so near the center of the Roman government, it’s very likely that high level political prisoners, like Saint Paul and Saint Peter, could have been held there.

On the subject of the two saints; even in the Bible, it’s unclear where Paul had spent his last days. In the Book of Acts it has Paul held under guard for two years in his apartment. Historically, that length of time is much too long for how the Mamertine Prison was used. As for Saint Peter, there’s debate as if he was ever even in Rome.

There’s no record as to when the Tullianum stopped being used as a jail, but we do know that that site has been used for Christian worship since the medieval period. Also, it was during that period that the location’s name changed from the Tullianum to Mamertine.

Today the Mamertine Prison is used by two churches: San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, which holds worship in its upper chamber, and San Pietro in Carcere, in its lower cell.

So, when in Rome, where do you find the Mamertine Prison? Mamertine Prison is on the side of the Capitoline Hill, at the northeast end of the Forum, on the Via del Tullinano. The Via del Tullinano is only a few yards passed the Arch of Septimius Severus.

Once again, hidden in plan sight.
The Tullianum/Mamertine Prison is the peach colored building in the background.
Photo by author

What’s interesting, I was just about twenty feet away from its location when I stopped to take a few photos of the Forum of Caesar from the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Also, it’s not hard to recognize where it’s at from the Forum, because the church is painted a bright peach color.

The cells are beneath the Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, and it’s my understanding that you can reach them by going through the church. Also, you can take the stairs down to the cells, instead of being lowered on a rope.  

Why this site isn’t included on most general tours is an unanswered question. I did learn later that it is available with some church group tours.

There are other Forums in Rome

Most tourists, me included, think that the only Roman Forum is the one that runs from the Colosseum, along the Via Sacra, to the Capitoline Hill. And although this was the first of the Forums of Rome, it’s by no means the only one.  

Starting with Julius Caesar, and then followed by other emperors, the Forum was expanded outward. These new Forums were constructed to self-aggrandize the emperors who built them. These are known as the Imperial Forums.

My next series, “The Imperial Fora of Rome” I’ll give the history and location of five of these Imperial Forums.  

THE IMPERIAL FORA OF ROME: JULIUS AND AUGUSTUS CAESAR
THE IMPERIAL FORA OF ROME: EMPERORS VESPASIAN AND NERVA
THE IMPERIAL FORA OF ROME: THE FORUM OF TRAJAN

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