I really had no idea how much there was to see at the Roman Forum. And how much of our western traditions and government had begun in that valley. I was really unprepared for what was laid out before me as I walked its ancient streets. Luckily I had taken a lot of photos so that when I got home I was able to read up on the history of what I had seen so that I can now share that with you. However in a few cases I didn’t have a good photo of what I considered an important building or temple, in those cases I’ll identify where the photo I posted came from.So walk with me now as we explore the Forum Romanum.
The Temple of Venus and Rome
At the southern end of the Forum you’ll see a set of columns sitting above street level across from the Colosseum. These are what remain of the Temple of Venus and Rome.
The Temple of Venus and Rome is believed to have been the largest temple in ancient Rome. It was dedicated to the divine Julian family (which traced its legendary beginnings to the goddess Venus) and to the Imperial City of Rome. Construction begun in 135 AD by the emperor Hadrian and completed by his successor, Emperor Antonius Pius in 141 AD.
This temple was constructed on top of the largest man-made podium of its time. On the temple’s two longer sides were two columned porticos running along it. Its southern end faced the Colosseum and the northern the Forum. Both the north and the south ends featured long stairways going down to the streets across from the Colosseum and to the Forum. Inside the temple were a statue of Venus, which faced out toward the Colosseum, and a statue representing Rome facing the Forum.
To build this temple Hadrian had to remove what remained of the vestibule of Nero’s Golden House. Even the gigantic statue “The Colossus of Nero” had to be relocated to make room for it. 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 building in the Forum the Temple of Venus and Rome suffered by being stripped of its marble and stone for use in other buildings. Earthquakes and fire also helped with its destruction. It was an earthquake in the ninth century that finally destroyed what was left of the temple. The first Christian church to be built on the temple’s ruins was in 850 AD, it was then rebuilt in 1612 as the Church Santa Francesca Romana.
Today the terrace of the temple has been restored, and is open to the public.
To get into the Roman Forum proper from the south you enter off the Great Square of the Colosseum and walk up the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra was the main road through the ancient Forum. In the distance as you walk you’ll see our first stop, the Arch of Titus.
The Arch of Titus
The Arch of Titus is the oldest of the tree surviving triumphal arches in Rome. It stands on the highest spot of the Via Sacra, and being over 50 feet in height it gives a commanding presence to the Roman Forum below. Dedicated in 85 AD by Emperor Domitian, in honor to his brother Emperor Titus who died in 81 AD. The arch commemorates Titus’ victory in the Jewish Revolt. In that war the city of Jerusalem was captured and the revolt finally crushed with the fall of the Masada fortress in 72 AD.
The reliefs on the arch depict the emperor’s triumphal procession into Rome with the spoils taken in that war. These reliefs were originally in color and the arch was topped with a bronze quadriga when it was first dedicated.
What helped preserve the Arch of Titus is that it was made part of the fortress of the Frangipani family in the eleventh century. You’ll notice that some of stone of the arch has different shades to it. This is because when Giuseppe Valadier worked on restoring this arch, between 1821 and 1823, he used travertine to replace the missing sections instead of marble to distinguish what was replaced from that of the original marble.
As you pass by the Arch you’ll see ruins on the left going up the side of a hill, and what looks like restored building on its top. This is the Palatine Hill, the legendary birthplace of Rome. Remains of bronze-age huts have been found on the hill, which gives proof that the hill had been inhabited from a very early time. But what’s really historical about these ruins you see are that they are what remain of the palaces of the first Roman emperors.
The first emperor to have his residence on Palatine Hill was Augustus Caesar in 44 AD. But it was his successor, the Emperor Tiberius, who would build a true imperial palace. The following emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero would continue to expand the complex.
Palatine Hills was another area that if I had done a little more researching for our visit I would have made time to explore it. As it was there was a lot more in the Forum itself to see.
The Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina
After you have walked down the dirt incline to the excavated Imperial level of Forum the first impressive structure you see on your right is the remains of the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina. What grabs your attention is that it seems to be two building in one, and you would be a correct in that assumption. This is another example of the medieval usage of a foundation from a ruined Roman temple for a Christian Church.
The church building behind the columns is the twelfth century church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. The building you see today is from when the church was rebuilt in 1601. If you look closely at the temple’s remaining columns you can see grooves where they tried and tear them down to build the church.
In the close-up photo notice how high the church’s door is from the temple’s base. That was the level of the ground before the Forum was excavated.
The Temple of Caster and Pollux
Not too far from the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, on the opposite side of the Forum, are the three remaining columns of the Temple of Caster and Pollux. This temple was one of the first to be built in the Forum. The first temple is believed to have been constructed in 484 BC by the pre-republic dictator Postumius, to honor the mythological twin brothers that legend says helped Roman to defect the Tarquin Kings. The ruins seen today are of the temple rebuilt by Emperor Tiberius in the first century AD. These three columns are popularly known as “The Three Sisters.”
The Basilica Julia
If you turn around and face north from the Temple of Caster and Pollux you’ll see a large open area with the stumps of column bases in rows, and ruined brick walls at its north end. This is what remains of the large Basilica Julia. Constructed by Julius Caesar in 54 AD, it was the main government building that housed the seat of the Centumviri. This was the people’s court in the time of Imperial Roman. 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 it is but a field of rubble.
The Temple of Saturn
When you see travel brochures and photos of the Roman Forum they most likely will feature the columns of the Temple of Saturn. The Temple of Saturn was the first temple built on the Forum. Although there is some question as to the exact date that it was constructed it is thought to be at around 497 BC. This temple was also used as the treasury for the Roman Republic, and where the standards of its legions were kept.
As with most of the temples and building of the Forum this one was also rebuilt. The ruins today are those of the temple of 42 BC. It was in front of this temple that you’ll find the base of Augustus’ column Miliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone, which marked the center of Rome, and from were all roads lead from.
The Arch of Septimius Severus 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. Constructed 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.
This arch stands 75 feet high and 82 feet wide, and is unique in that 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 high. When it was first constructed there was a flight of stairs going through the central passage. Made of marble it features four deep reliefs representing scenes of the Parthian war. At the top in the center of the arch is a large relief of Mars, the god of war. There were two statues of winged Victory on each side that are now lost to history. You can still read the inscription on the arch that says, “Dedicated to Septimius Severus and his sons.” As with the Arch of Titus this was also topped with a bronze quadriga, this one with statues of the Septimius and his two sons. However after Emperor Severus death Caracalla, who didn’t want to share the power with his brother, had Geta killed and removed his name and image from the arch.
The arch is in very good condition because it was incorporated into a Christian Church in the middle ages. Even after the church moved it continued to protect the arch from being stripped of its stone and marble.
The Via Sacra was the main route of the triumphant parades of the victorious generals and emperors. They would start at the southern end of the Forum with the procession ending at the foot of Capitoline Hill, near where the Arch of Septimius Severus stands.
It’s not hard to miss what remains of one of the most important structures for Roman citizens. This was the one place where they could stand and speak their mind, the Rostra.
The Rostra was the name given to the platform from which orators would stand when addressing the crowds in the public assembly area, the Comitium. This platform was originally called the tribunal until after Roman’s first major sea victory at Antium in 338 BC. Some of the spoils taken from that battle were six bronze ramming prows from the enemy’s ships. These prows were attached to the front of the tribunal as trophies. The Latin word for prow is rostra; from then on the platform became known as the Rostra.
In 52 BC Julies Caesar rebuilt the government area after it was destroyed by fire. He detached the Rostra from the Comitium and moved it to its present location on the west side of the Via Sacra. The project wasn’t completed by the time of Caesar assassination so it was completed by his successor Emperor Augustus in 42 AD. The back of the Rostra had curved steps for the speakers to walk up. Besides the ships rostra’s the Rostra was also covered with reliefs and topped with a marble railing.
Many of the famous speeches from Roman history were made from this Rostra. In 44 AD Marc Antony made his famous speech to the Roman Citizens at Julius Caesar’s funeral.
Today we call a speaker’s podium a “Rostrum” which comes directly from the Roman Rostra.
You can see the ruins of the Rostra near the Arch of Septimius Severus and across the Via Sacra from the Curia Julia. Since I missed knowing about the Rostra when we were there I needed to go through in my photos and find an image I could use. The photo of the side of the Rostra is mine that is blown up from the photo of the arch and temple of Saturn. The front view photo comes from penelope.uchicgo.edu/grout/emclopaedia_romana/romanforum.
The Curia Julia
The Curia was where the Roman Senate met during the Republic and Imperial ages. It was the third important piece of Roman government, along with the Comitium and Rostra. The Comitium, with its Rostra, was originally located in front of the Curia. Before and during the time of Julius Caesar this senate meeting place was called the Curia Cornelia.
In 44 BC Julius Caesar began redesigning, relocating and rebuilding the Forum’s governmental area. He replaced the Curia Cornelia with his, the third Curia, Curia Julia. However, like the Rostra, work had not been completed when Caesar was assassinated. As he had done with the Rostra Augustus completed the Curia Julia’s construction. During the Imperial period the Curia Julia had a raised colonnaded porch across its front.
Emperor Domitian made restorations to the building between 81 AD and 96 AD. After fire heavily damaged it in 283 AD it was rebuilt by Emperor Diocletian between 284 and 305 AD; it’s this building that you see today. The building was saved from being destroyed when it to was converted to a Church in 630 AD, and because of this it’s one of the best preserved buildings of the Forum.
During my visit to the Forum I didn’t take any photos of the Curia Julia because I thought it was a contemporary building, because it looked so good. I didn’t find out its significance until I was doing research for this post. The photo posted here is from Wikipedia.
The Mamertine Prison
Our pastor knew that we had been to Roman, so after the service where his sermon was on Saint Paul’s imprisonment he asked if we had been to the Mamrtine Prison. My wife and I looked at each other having never heard about this place while in Rome.
It was in this ancient Roman prison were tradition has that both Saint Paul and Saint Peter were kept before being martyred by Emperor Nero. The history of Christianity is also an interest to me and I felt bad that I had missed an opportunity to visit this site.
So I wondered: where was the Mamertine prison, had we walked past it without knowing? So the search was on. My finding told told me that it was at the foot of Capitoline Hill, which we had walked around many time during our visit. I checked all the maps and brochures we had brought back and found nothing of its location. Finally in working on this post I found a map that showed its where it was.
Mamertine prison is at the north end of the Forum; just a few yards pass the Arch of Septimius on the Via del Tullinano. Today the Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami sits over its ruins. I understand that you can reach the cells where the Saints were supposed to have been imprisoned by going through the church.
There’s a funny part to this story; when I was on the Via dei Fori Imperiali taking photos of the Forum of Caesar I was standing only twenty yard from it. This is another reason to make sure to do your research before going on a trip. The photos posted here is a blowup of the one I took of the Arch of Septimius, the Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami is in the background, and the one showing the front is from Wikipedia.
The Temple of Vesta
As we left the northern end of the Forum walking along the Via Sacra back toward the Arch of Titus, we stopped to view a temple ruin that was a semicircle with a wall behind its columns. In its time this was the most sacred of all the temples in the Rome Forum, it was the Temple of Vesta. It housed the eternal Sacred Fire of Rome. This fire was kept lit by the six Vestals, who were selected as children from the most prominent of the Roman families.
On the first day of the New Year all Romans would extinguish the fires in their homes and come to this temple to relight them from its sacred flame. There was a hole in the center of the temple’s roof, as with the Pantheon, to allow the smoke to escape.
The remains that you see today date from the time of Emperor Septimius Severus, between 193 and 211 AD. It is thought that this temple served well into the 13th century before also succumbing to the fate of having its marble and stone quarried. This reconstructed portion of the temple is from the 1930’s.
The House of the Vestal Virgins
Next to the Temple of Vesta, toward the foot of Palatine Hill, we can walk around a well maintained garden surrounded by ruins and statues. This is what remains of where the Vestal Virgins lived.
The ruins you see are from the complex built by Emperor Septimius Severus. It featured a two floor columned portico which completely surrounded the courtyard garden, that is still well maintained today. The second floor contained the private rooms of the Vestals while the lower rooms held the kitchen, flour mill, ovens and the servant’s quarters. It is believed that this building became the proto-type for our modern convents.
Today only the foundations remain and the courtyard garden. Along each side of the courtyard stand the statures of what were the head vestals. You can still read the inscriptions of what each’s virtues were.
This post only features a fraction of the many temples and buildings in the main Forum Romanum. Starting with Julius Caesar, and then with some of the emperors that followed, the Forum was expanded to other Imperial Forums.
Next posting- Beyond the Roman Forum: The Imperial Fora