When I visited the Roman Forum I had no idea that there were other forums separate from the main forum, each with their own unique histories. I couldn’t imagine that there were other magnificent forums buried right under my feet as I walked along the Via dei Fori Imperial from the Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. In fact there are five separate forums built between 46 BC and 113 AD, by ancient Rome’s most famous emperors, that are today almost hidden that make up what is referred to as the Imperial Foras.
Sadly, when the fascist dictator Mussolini built the wide Via dei Fori Imperial he paved over almost 84% of the forums of the emperors Nerva and Trajan and severely dividing the other others to make this road, all so that he’d have a clear view of the Colosseum from his office window.
So what is the history of these forums, what did they look like, why were they built, and what can been seen of them today?
To answer these questions we need to go back to the end of the Republican era of Rome, and the reign of Julius Caesar. So join with me now to rediscover the Imperial Fora, beginning with…
The Forum of Caesar
As you walk along the west side of the Via dei Fora Imperial just south of the Via di San Pietro in Carcera you’ll notice behind the Curia Julia rows of smaller columns and a section of three taller columns connected with a capital. At first you’d think that these are just more of the main Roman Forum, but there not. They are actually what remain of a later and completely separate forum, the Forum of Julius Caesar. This was the first of the Imperial Fora.
As Rome grew its original forum became over crowed with new and larger government buildings and temples. Soon the forums purpose as a marketplace and gathering plaza for its citizens became lost. Seeing this Julius Caesar decided to construct a large forum bearing his name next to the exciting forum.
Caesar meant for his forum to be an extension to the original Roman Forum so he chose its site to be at the base of the Capitol Hill and behind his Curia Julia, the Senate House. Caesar began construction at around 46 BC, purchasing a large number of houses that were located on the proposed site. Also vast amounts of earth had to be moved to level the area for its open plaza and temple. To pay for this Caesar used the spoils from his Galli Wars for its construction.
The design of the Forum of Caesar was a large rectangle with a paired colonnade (these are the smaller columns seen) running along the east, south and west sides of the open plaza. At the north end sat the crown jewel of his forum, the Temple of Venus Genetrix (its remains are the taller columns with the capital) who he believed he was descended from. Within the temple were statues of the goddess Venus, Caesar and also one of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. The temple and forum were inaugurated in September of 46 BC, but was most likely it was not finished when he was assassinated in 44 BC. Completion fell to his adopted son, and the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar.
If you look across the Via dei Fora Imperial from the Forum of Caesar on the north corner where the Via Cavour comes in you’ll see what is left of the Forum of Augustus, the second of the Imperial Fora to be built.
The Forum of Augustus
After completing the building projects started by Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum and also finishing the Form of Caesar August turned to the building of his own forum. After Augustus had defeated Brutus and Cassius, two of the murderers of Caesar, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, he vowed to build a temple to honor the Roman war god Mars. This temple he would make the centerpiece of his own forum.
It would take over forty years for the Forum of Augustus to be completed due to postponements because of Roman politics. The still uncompleted forum and temple was finally inaugurated in 2 BC.
Augustus also built his forum in the traditional rectangle design, and had it run adjacent and at a right angle to the Forum of Caesar. It consisted of an open plaza surrounded by a colonnade that included a most unique feature, two large covered hemicycles on each side with a double columned portico and niches on the back wall. These niches held statues of famous Roman leaders and of Augustus’ ancestors. Some of the inscriptions that were below those statues can still be seen and read.
At the back of the forum was a tall wall that still exists. This wall separated the Forum of Augustus from Rome’s Suburra district, a neighborhood that you wouldn’t want to venture at night. This wall also acted as a firebreak to protect the forum from the all too frequent fires that broke out in the Suburra.
In front of the wall was the location of the temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). This temple was built entirely of Carrara marble, with eight columns along the front and both sides. It is said that one its rooms held Caesar’s sword and his legions standards that had been recovered by Augustus from the Parthians. Standing in front of the temple was a forty-five foot tall statue the Emperor Augustus.
With the additions of the forums of Caesar and Augustus Rome’s city center had expanded nicely to fit its needs then. But soon Rome would need to grow again and there were emperors also ready then to make their marks with their own forums.