THE IMPERIAL FORA OF ROME, PART I: THE FORUMS OF JULIUS AND AUGUSTUS CAESAR

When my wife and I visited Rome we were surprised to learn that there were other forums other than the one we knew of. These forums were separate from the main forum, with each having their own unique histories; they are the Imperial Fora. These Forums were built during Rome’s imperial period by five of ancient Rome’s most famous emperors between 46 BC and 113 AD. To the casual tourist these forums are almost hidden from sight, much of them buried beneath the Via dei Fori Imperial, between the Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum.

Ron Current

After the fall of Rome the Imperial Fora, as with the Roman Forum, fell into disuse; the marble and stone from its temples and buildings stripped off and used elsewhere. During the middle ages the forums were built over, eventually being buried under the medieval and modern city of Rome. Over the centuries the forum’s grand structures slowly faded from view, lost and forgotten.

Many of the sources I used for this post are very critical of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, for his building of the wide avenue Via dei Fori Imperial, which covers almost 84% of the forums of the emperors Nerva and Trajan, and severely divided the others. However, one of my followers, David McCarthy, pointed out other sources that give credit to Mussolini for conducting a massive archaeological excavation of the forums in the 1930s; returning large sections of the fora for the public to see. Excavations continue today, and there is discussion on what to do about the Via dei Fori Imperial.

The Imperial Fora overlaid on the streets of Rome today
Diagram from Wikipedia

 So what is the history of these forums, what did they look like, why were they built, and what remains of them today. I’ll try to answer these questions with this post, and in the next two that follow.

To begin, we need to go back to the end of the Republican era of Rome, at the time of Julius Caesar. So join with me now to rediscover the Imperial Fora, beginning with…

This post was updated April 14, 2020

The Forum of Caesar

The Forum of Caesar as seen today
The Forum’s open plaza is in the foreground, the row of columns to the left are all that remain of the colonnade that surrounded the plaza. The mound of ruin in the background, along with the tall columns, are all that’s left of the Temple of Venus Genetrix
Photo by author

On the west side of the Via dei Fori Imperial, just south of the Via di San Pietro in Carcera, and behind the Curia Julia; there’s an open space with a row of small columns along one side and three taller columns with a capital on top. At first you may think this is still part of the main Roman Forum, but it’s not. This is all that remains of the separate, and the first Imperial Fora; the Forum of Julius Caesar.

The ruins of the Forum of Caesar as seen from above.
Screen shot from Google Maps.

As Rome grew, its original forum became overcrowded with government buildings and temples. Soon the forums purpose as a marketplace and gathering plaza for its citizens was lost. Seeing this, Julius Caesar decided to build a larger forum bearing his name next to the existing forum.

The layout of the Forum of Caesar
Art by Cassius Ahenobarbus

Caesar wanted his forum to be an extension of the original Roman Forum. To accomplish this he selected a site at the base of the Capitoline Hill, behind his Curia Julia. The place he chose was already occupied by a large number of houses, so Caesar had to purchase those. In addition, the area for the plaza and temple was too low, and vast amounts of earth were brought in to raise and level the site. This was all paid for by the spoils from the Galli Wars.

Caesar designed his forum in two parts: an open gathering plaza and a Temple to Venus Genetrix. The large rectangle plaza was flanked by paired colonnades on three of its sides: east, south and west. The three smaller columns you see today are all that remain of this colonnade.  

At the north end of the plaza sat the crown jewel of Caesar’s forum, the Temple to Venus Genetrix. Caesar dedicated his temple to the Roman goddess Venus, because his family believed they were descended from her. Besides a statue of Venus, there were also statues of Julius Caesar, and of his mistress, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. All that’s left of this magnificent temple are the three taller columns with the capital on top.

The three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Venus in the Forum of Caesar.
Photo by author

Construction on the Forum of Caesar began at around 46 BC, two years before he was assassinated. This forum, as well as many of the other projects started by Julius Caesar, had to be completed by his adopted son, Augustus Caesar.

But Augustus wasn’t satisfied in just finishing Julius Caesar’s forum; he wanted one of his own. To find the Forum of Augustus, look across the Via dei Fori Imperial from the Forum of Caesar. There, where the main road meets the Via Cavour, you’ll find what remains of the Forum of Augustus, the second of the Imperial Fora.

The Forum of Augustus

Forum_of_Augustus_drawing
The Forum of Augustus and its Temple of Mars as it might have looked.
Art from Wikipedia

The assassination of Julius Caesar caused a major power struggle for the control of Rome. After the battles of Philippi and Actium Augustus was able to consolidate his power, and was eventually named the first emperor of the Roman Empire.

Before the Battle of Philippi, Augustus vowed to the Roman god Mars, that if he was victorious he’d build a grand temple to honor him. Augustus would make this temple to Mars the centerpiece of his forum.

Diagram of the Forum of Augustus.
Art by Cassius Ahenobarbus

Due to the politics in Roman government, the building of his forum had many postponements. In fact it would take over forty years before the Forum of Augustus would be completed. The inauguration of the still unfinished forum and temple took place in 2 BC.

The location Augustus chose for his forum was adjacent to, and at a right angle, of that of Caesar’s. Augustus followed the traditional rectangular design for the plaza of his forum. This plaza was surrounded by a colonnade, as that of Caesar’s. However, his colonnade had a most unique feature. On each side were two large double columned, covered, hemicycle porticos with niches on their back walls. It’s believed that these niches held the busts of some of Rome’s most famous leaders, who were also members of Augustus’s family. It’s thought that there were around 108 busts displayed in these porticos. Today, some of the inscriptions below the niches can still be read.

All that remains of the Temple of Mars in the Forum of Augustus.
Photo from Wikipedia

Located just behind the forum was one of ancient Rome’s most undesirable districts, the Suburra. To separate the forum from this district they built a high wall, which is still standing today. This wall also acted as a firebreak, which help protect the forum from the all too frequent fires that broke out in the Suburra.

It was in front of this wall that the Temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) was located. This temple featured eight columns along its front and sides. One of the treasures said to have been stored there were Julius Caesar’s sword and his legion’s standards, which had been recovered by Augustus from the Parthians.

In the center of the plaza was a statue of Augustus standing in a triumphal chariot. There was also another statue of the emperor. It was located in a hall at the end of the portico, to the left of the temple. This statue stood forty-five feet tall.

The construction materials used in the temple and forum was also very interesting. While the enclosing walls of the forum were made of local stone, the temple and colonnade were composed of a mixture of: finely dressed Peperino volcanic tufa, Carrara marble, Giallo Antico granite, Africano and Pavonazzette. All of these materials came from all over the empire; which visually symbolized that the Roman Empire was made up of many nations, but all governed by Rome.

The ruins of the Forum of Augustus
as seen from above.
Screen shot from Google Maps

In 19 AD, Augustus’s successor, Emperor Tiberius, added two triumphal arches on either side of the temple. These were to honor Drusus the Younger and Germanicus for their victories in Germania.

All that remains today of the Forum of Augustus is: the steps that went up to the temple, the temple’s floor, a set of temple columns, the walls of two of the hemicycle porticos, and the large wall that was at the back. Sadly, most of the forum itself is lost beneath the Via Alessandrina and Via dei Fori Imperial.

To see what remains of the Forum of Augustus, simply cross over the Via dei Fori from the Roman Forum side, and walk a few yards up the Via Alessandrina.

While we’re still in the area, my next post will explore the Forums of the Emperors Vespasian and Nerva.

Sources used:

“Imperial Forums.” a view on cities, a view on cities, http://www.aviewoncities.com/rome/imperialforums.htm. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.

Staccioli, Romolo Augusto . “The Imperial Fora.” Rome: Past & Present, 2015, Vision Roma, 2015, pp. 54-57.

Wikipedia. “Imperial fora.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_fora. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

.Wikipedia . “Forum of Augustus .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 6 Apr. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forum_of_Augustus.

Wikipedia. “Forum of Caesar.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forum_of_Caesar.

“Imperial fora .” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/ancient-mediterranean-ap/ap-ancient-rome/a/imperial-fora. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.

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