THE IMPERIAL FORA OF ROME, PART II: THE FORUMS OF EMPERORS NERVA AND VESPASIAN

When my wife and I were enjoying our delicious gelato at the ristorante Angelino Ai Fori Dal 1947, on the corner of the Via Cavour and the Via dei Fori Imperial, we had no idea that we were standing on the plaza of one of ancient Rome’s most beautiful, and unique, of the Imperial Fora, Emperor Vespasian’s fabulous Temple of the Peace. As Rome changed through the centuries, many of its buildings, temples and forums became buried; and to the casual tourist, hidden. This post continues my series of pointing out Rome’s long buried ancient treasures, that when visiting you might just walk by, or could even be standing on.

Me standing on the Via dei Foti Imperial, at the spot where the Forum of Vespasian stood. And I didn’t even know it at the time

In my previous post, I told how when Mussolini built the Via dei Fori Imperial he paved over large portions of four of the Imperial Fora. I also stated that the two forums most impacted were those of the Emperors Vespasian and Nerva.

To find where these two forums were located you need to go to where the Via dei Fori Imperial, the Via Cavour and the Largo Corrado Ricci meet. It’s under this intersection where most of these two forums lay buried. You can still see their partial remains on both sides of this intersection.

My wife Karen, with our gelato
Photo by author

My last post concluded with the Forum of Augustus, so I’ll begin this with the forum that sits right next to it, the Forum of Nerva, the fourth of the imperial fora.

The Forum of Nerva, or the Forum Transitorium

The Forum of Nerva, as it may have looked in its heyday
Art from the Fori-imperiali.info website

Located between the Fora of Caesar, Augustus and Vespasian was a long narrow street, the Via Argiletum. Along this narrow passageway were the shops of booksellers and cobblers. Also, the Via Argiletum was how Roman citizens living in the Suburra district got to the Roman Forum. It was on that street that the Emperor Domitian (51 – 96 AD) chose to construct his forum. 

Domitian began construction in around 85 AD. However, like the Forum of Caesar it would be his successor, the Emperor Nerva (30 – 98 AD), who would complete it in 97 AD. But unlike Caesar’s Forum, which retained his name, Domitian’s forum was officially named the Forum of Nerva, after the emperor who completed it.

The remains of the eastern section of
the Forum of Nerva
Photo from Google maps

The area that Domitian had to work with was a little over 430 feet in length and around 148 feet in width. Being restricted by the four other forums that surrounded it, they had to remove the western hemicycle of the Forum of Augustus just to gain more space. Being so limited the Forum of Nerva is the smallest of the Imperial Fora.

The location of the Forum of Nerva, and the way it was constructed, gave it another advantage over its neighboring forums. There were entryways built throughout, allowing citizens to move easily from one forum to another. This unifying feature led this forum to also be known as the Forum Transitorium.

Today, the Forum of Nerva is split into two sections by the Via dei Fori Imperial; these are the eastern and western ends of the forum. You’ll find the eastern portion next to the Forum of Augustus on the Via Alessandria. There you’ll see what remains of: the Colonnacce, the Temple of Minerva and the Porticus Absidata.

The Colonnacce

The Colommacce
Photo from Wikipedia

Because of the space restrictions this forum had to be designed differently than the others. First, the area was too narrow to allow for traditional porticoes and arcade. Instead they used pairs of protruding columns that ran the lengths of its side walls. Originally there were 50 of these columns in the forum, of which only two remain today. These remaining two columns are known as the Colonnacce, or “bad columns,” because of their terrible condition. Although in ruin, these columns have survived for more than nineteen centuries. In addition, there was a carved frieze that ran above the columns going the entire length of the forum’s perimeter. You can still see a section of this frieze above the Colonnacce.

The frieze about the Colonnacce
Photo from
the Institute of the Study of the Ancient World

The Temple of Minerva

What remains of
the Temple of Minerva
Photo from Google maps

On the forums eastern end was the Temple of Minerva, the guardian goddess of Emperor Domitian. This temple stood on a high podium and had six columns across its façade. The Temple of Minerva remained mostly intact until 1606 AD, when Pope Paul V demolished it. Accounts say that this Pope used the marble and stone as building materials for: the Acqua Paola fountain in Janiculum, the Borghese chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Today, only the temple’s foundation, the right side of the podium of its porch, and the vault in the opus caementicum, which supported the cella, remain.

The Porticus Absidata

Behind the Temple of Minerva was a monumental entrance into the forum. From the Suburra Romans would enter through a two story horseshoe shaped portico, this is known as the Porticus Absidata. Because of the tight space available the forum’s architects had to buttress the portico against the back walls of the Temple of Minerva and the hemicycle of the Forum of Augustus. Today only a small tufa wall remains of this grand structure.

What remains of the Porticus Absidata
Photo from Google maps

mIt’s hard to see the remains of the Porticus Absidata when standing on the Via Alessandria, it’s hidden behind the ruined wall of the Forum of Augustus’s hemicycle. To view what’s left you need to walk to the corner of the Via Cavour and back to the Via Tori dé Conti. This will bring you behind the ruins. There you’ll see the gray tufa wall, as well as the semicircle outline of where the Porticus Absidata stood.

After going through the portico citizens would enter the forums plaza through an arch on the south side of the Temple of Minerva. This arch remained standing into the middle ages and was known as the Arco di Noé (Arch of Noah), but many scholars believe that name was a missed use of the Arcus Nervae, or Arch of Nerva.

Now, to view the western end of the Forum of Nerva you’ll need to cross back over the Via dei Fori Imperial. There, just to the left of the Curia Julia and in front of the ruins of the Basilica Aemilia, you’ll see a rock covered open space. This section of the forum has no standing ruins that survived.

The ruins of western end of the Forum of Nerva. The eastern end is in the background across the street
Photo from Google maps

Archaeologists in the 1930s only found scatterings of marble slabs at this site; these are believed to have been the paving stones of the forum’s plaza. They also think that some of those slabs may have been from the 5th century and not part of the forum during its heyday.

However, there were a couple of interesting discoveries made here during an archaeological dig in the latter part of the 20th century. What they found was the foundation of a never completed temple. This may have been the first location for the Temple of Minerva, and for some unknown reason the forum’s builders decided to relocate it to the forums eastern end.

Another interesting discovery made during this dig, was the foundations of two houses believed to be those of noble families during the high middle ages. The excavations of the 1930s also unearthed foundations of buildings from that period at the eastern section. In addition, they found ruts from wagon wheels, which could suggest that the forum reverted back to being a road.

As the Forum of Nerva may have looked in the middle ages, with buildings and road
Art from Fori-imperiali.info website

As the Roman Empire declined, the history of the Forum of Nerva gets a little sketchy. We do know that the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 AD) did use the forum to display statues of the deified emperors. There are also records that show that the City of Rome gave out contracts for the removal of the forum’s stone between 1425 and 1527. In 1520, there was a movement to preserve a small section of the forum, but this was rejected by the Roman courts.

To see what remains of our next forum we’ll walk just a few yards south, toward the Colosseum. Next to the western portion of Nerva’s forum, you’ll see a row of seven ruined columns. This is what remains of the third imperial fora.

The Forum of the Peace, or the Forum of Vespasian

The Forum of the Peace, or Forum of Vespasian
Art from Fori-imperiali.info website

The Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian (9-79 AD) had already begun massive construction projects in Rome, one being the Colosseum, when he decided to build what we know as the Forum of Vespasian in 75 AD; the third of the imperial fora.

However, Vespasian wasn’t building a forum in the traditional sense; he never designed it to have any civic functions as other forums. In fact Vespasian never referred to his complex as a forum, but rather a Temple, “the Templum Pacia” (Latin for Temple of the Peace). It wouldn’t be until the 4th century AD that it would be called “the Forum of the Peace,” and then much later “the Forum of Vespasian.”

For the site of his temple, Vespasian selected the large open area just south of the forums of Caesar and Augustus. This area was bordered by the Roman Forum, a small ridge known as Velian Hill, and the street Via Argiletum. As I stated above, the Via Argiletum would later become the Forum of Nerva.

The design of the Temple of the Peace was almost square, measuring 361 feet by 344 ½ feet. On three of its sides were sets of columns on raised porticoes; these columns were of pink granite quarried in Aswan Egypt. On the side that bordered the Via Argiletum was a long continuous wall, with widely spaced columns protruding back into the plaza. This wall had openings along its façade; these were the entryways into the temple grounds.

Another major difference of the Temple of the Peace from other forums was its central plaza. Where the others were paved with marble, Vespasian’s was packed earth. Vespasian envisioned his to be a garden area with fountains.

All that’s left of the Forum of Vespasian is this small section along the Via dei Fori Imperiali
Photo from Google maps

Even its fountains were very unique. They consisted of six low brick platforms, in a long and narrow rectangle shape. The fountains ran the length of the plaza, north to south. They were laid out with three on each side of a center walkway. Over the surface of the fountains ran a constant thin layer of water. Planted along and around each of the fountains edges was a row of flowering hedges.

Vespasian actually built this as a monument to celebrate the end of the Jewish revolt of 71 AD, and also the ending of the civil unrest, that over took Rome after the death of Nero(37- 68 AD). With major conflicts now over, and peace settling over the empire, Vespasian dedicated his temple to be a shrine to the Roman goddess “Pax” (Peace), but it became one of the most heralded museums and libraries in the ancient world.  

Within the Temple of Peace were collections of statues and art from all the corners of the Roman Empire. Also it hosted an extensive library of works in: philosophy, literature and medicine; in both Latin and Greek. This library was known as the Bibliotheca Pacis.

But the crowning exhibit within the complex was the vast display of spoils taken in the Jewish War. Besides gold and other precious items removed from the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, one of the most outstanding pieces was the temple’s magnificent Menorah. The sacking of the Jerusalem temple, with the Menorah depicted, can be seen on one of the panels on the Arch of Titus; that’s located at the southern end of the Roman Forum.

Since Vespasian considered his entire forum a temple, what would have been its temple was now referred to as “the Hall of Worship.” This Hall of Worship was located in the middle of the colonnade, opposite from the forum’s entrance. Across its facade were six colossal columns, standing higher than its portico. These columns supported the tympanum.

Inside was a long apse, at the back was a large seated statue of the goddess Pax. The hall’s floor was paved with sections of marble disks set in marble squares, each of a different color. On each side of the Hall of Worship were rooms that held the art treasures and the Bibliotheca Pacis. But more importantly, one of these rooms held the Forma Urbis Romae.

The Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan

As the Forma Urbis Romae may have looked
Art from Fori-imperiali.info website

Although not part of Vespasian’s original forum, the Forma Urbis Romae was added by the Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211 AD) between the years 205 and 208 AD. The Forma Urbis Romae, also known as the Severan Marble Plan, was a much heralded, massive, and incredibly detailed map of ancient Rome. Measuring 60 feet by 43 feet, it was made up of 150 carved marble sections that showed the locations of every: temple, bath, public building, shop, street, and private home located in central Rome. The Forma Urbis Romae was hung on the wall in the room on the right side of the Hall of Worship.

One of the fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae
Photo from Wikipedia

During the middle ages, pieces of the Forma Urbis Romae were removed and reused in other buildings or crushed for lime. In 1562, fragments of the map were found near the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Over the centuries 1,186 fragments have been recovered, but it’s estimated that this is only 10-15% of what the map really was.

Archaeologists are painstakingly piecing together these fragments, calling it the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. One thing is for sure about the Forma Urbis Romae, from what is seen already assembled, that it will help immensely in locating buildings from ancient Rome, long hidden under the modern city.

At around 191 AD, the forum was destroyed in a fire that raged through Rome. It was rebuilt, most likely by Emperor Severus, and according to writings at the time, it must have been restored to its former glory because it’s referred to as, “the most magnificent structure in Rome.” But by the 400s AD, ether earthquakes, lightning, sackings, or all of them, again destroyed the Forum of the Peace, never to be rebuilt.

The seven reconstructed columns of pink Aswan granite
Photo from Wikipedia

The seven reddish columns you see today are reconstructions; made from fragments of the pink Aswan granite found at the site during the 1998-2000 archaeological dig. These columns help to give a visual representation of what would have been the western side of the forum.

To see something really fantastic you need to walk a little farther south. Stop when you reach the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Were you’re now standing would have been inside the room that held the Forma Urbis Romae. The section of the Basilica’s wall on the left of the door is the actual wall where the map hung. The visible holes are where the metal clamps were anchored that held the map’s sections.

On this wall hung the Froma Urbis Romae
Now the wall of the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian
Photo from Wikipedia

Except for that small section with the columns, the wall of the Basilica, and portions of the medieval Torre dei Conti (which is back on the east side of the street) the rest of the Forum of the Peace lies beneath the intersection.

However, there have been increased archaeological diggings at the site, and there’s talk of doing something with the Via dei Fori Imperial; to protect the ruins and bring more of these forums to light. Perhaps one day soon, we can only hope, we’ll again be able to experience their wonder.

In my next post: the fifth imperial forum, the Forum of Trajan.

Sources used:

“ANASTYLOSIS OF A SECTION OF THE COLONADE OF THE WESTERN PORTICO.” fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info/en/003-2/003-4. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.

“THE ARCHITECTURE AND THE “FORMA URBIS ROMAE”.” fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info/en/003-2/003-3. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

Fori-imperiali.info. “FORUM OF THE PEACE.” fori-imperiali.info, fori-imeriali.info, fori-imperiali.info/en/003-2. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

“FORUM OF NERVA.” fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info/en/004-2/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

“Forum of Vespasian .” Roma: Essays on Roman Architecture , University of Chicago , penelope.uchicago.edu/-grout/encyclopaedia_romana/imperialfora/vespasian/forumvespasiani.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

“FORUM VESPASIAN & TEMPLUM PACIS (FORUM OF VESPASIAN & TEMPLE OF PEACE).” ANCIENT ROME LIVE, ANCIENT ROME LIVE, anicentromelive.org/forum-vespasian-templum-pacis-forum-of-vespasian-of-peace/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2020.

“The Imperial Fora.” ROMA: Essays on Roman Architecture, University of Chicago , penelope.uchicago.org/-grout/encyclopaedia_romana/imperialfora/imperialfora.html. Accessed 21 Mar. 2020.

“THE SEVERN MARBLE PLAN OF ROME (Forma Urbis Romae.” Standford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, Standford University , formaurbis.standford.edu/docs/FURmap.hyml. Accessed 18 Apr. 2020.

“TEMPLE OF MINERVA AND SO-CALLED “COLONNACCE”.” fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info, fori-imperiali.info/en/004-2/2-2/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

“Temple of Peace, Rome.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Dec. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Peace_Rome.

Urbanus , Jason. “Piecing Together a Plan of Ancient Rome.” ARCHAEOLOGY, Archaeological Institute of America, Sept. 2016, http://www.archaeology.org/issues/227-1609/trenches/4744-trenches-rome-forma-urbis-romae.

Wikipedia. “Forma Urbis Romae.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , Feb. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forma_Urbis_Romae#.

“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.

“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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