Walking the Foro Romano

While the Pantheon is my favorite Roman structure, the Foro Romano is my favorite place to hang around. At first glance, maybe even second and third glances as well, it really isn’t much. Basically you can walk among the ruins of several Roman structures along a walkway in a small valley between the Palatine Hill and a busy roadway. But it is the story behind the pieces, what actually took place in the forum, that make it so worthwhile.

The forum is the Roman equivalent of the Greek agora. Religious processions, grand funerals, public speeches, and shopping sprees took place here. While Julius Caesar was in leadership he sponsored a gladiator show in the main square with more than 320 pairs of fighting warriors (this was before the Coliseum was built). In 45 BC he celebrated a banquet in the Foro Romano that lasted several days and served over 22,000 guests. Plautus, a Roman writer from the times of the Republic, wrote about the kinds of people that hung out in the forum. Alongside the consuls, senators, judges, lawyers, bankers, salesmen, butchers, and bakers could be found the drunkards, criminals, prostitutes, fortunetellers, gamblers, liars and gossips. It was the place to be in Rome.

This location for Rome’s forum began as just a collection of huts back in the 7th century BC. There is even a small monument believed to commemorate the grave of Romulus dating back to the 6th century BC. This east-west rectangular valley became know as the Sacred Way. And while many of the temples and shrines were originally constructed back in the 5th through 1st centuries BC they have all undergone numerous reconstructions. Every time there was a fire or a new emperor there was a new opportunity for remodeling.

Here are a few of my favorite places. They may not look like much, but they all have a story and that’s enough for me.

At the west end were two temples that now only sport a few beautiful columns reaching for the sky. The Temple of Saturn was begun the year that Rome kicked out the last of the Etruscan Kings and became a Republic around 498 BC. The base of this temple functioned as a “bank” and stored the treasury of Rome. Next to it are a few columns from the Temple of Concord. This temple was constructed in 367 BC to commemorate the equal rights agreement between the upper class patricians and middle class plebeians.

In ancient Rome a basilica was nothing more than an indoor courtroom and marketplace. Toward the western end was the Basilica Aemilia, the only basilica that remained in Rome from its Republican roots. At the eastern end is the Basilica Maxentius/Constantine. Emperor Maxentius began the construction of this humungous structure, but it was Emperor Constantine, who defeated him in AD 312, that finished it. At more than 300 feet by 200 feet, it was Rome’s largest and last great basilica. The ceiling was constructed with cross vaults from the tops of the columns that allowed for an even higher, airier inside feel to the great building (over 100 feet tall). It was the architectural design of these gems that inspired later architects in the construction of Christian churches.

The Temple of Vesta (Hestia in Greece) is one of the oldest and most important temples in all of Rome. This simple hut-shaped structure, with a smoke vent hole in the roof, housed an eternal fire and a wooden statue of Athena Pallas that according to legend was brought to Rome by Aeneas. The six Vestal Virgins who tended the flame lived next door in the House of the Vestal Virgins. They began their duties in the temple at age 10 and served for 30 years. It was an incredible honor to be chosen for this work, and the state provided them with a rich dowry and other privileges only granted the consuls. But, if they broke their vows of chastity or let the flame go out, they were sentenced to be buried alive in a small underground chamber just outside the city walls called the “Field of the Wicked” with only a loaf of bread and a lamp. Great honor required great responsibility.

This place is one of the least impressive pieces to look at but says so much more. The Temple of Julius Caesar is little more than a brick wall with a mound of dirt in the middle. This is the place where Caesar’s body was burned after his assassination on March 15, 44 BC. It was here also that Mark Antony made his famous speech decrying the dictatorial deeds of Caesar before the body was burned and buried. Mark Antony was later defeated by Caesar’s adopted son Augustus, who built the temple here that made Caesar the first emperor to be deified. This marked the beginning of emperor worship in Rome with succeeding emperors also claiming deification. To this day people still place flowers on his grave.

And then of course there are the arches. At the western end there is the six-story tall Arch of Septimus Severus. Arches were typically built to commemorate victories in battle. This one celebrated the African born Emperor Septimus’ victories in Mesopotamia around AD 203. Unfortunately this victory did little to ebb Rome’s weakening and eventual fall. At the opposite end of the Via Sacra is the Arch of Titus. This arch commemorates the victory over the province of Judea (Israel) around AD 70. Jewish religious freedom was at stake so Israel staged a revolt against Rome and Jerusalem was leveled. Emperor Titus brought back around 50,000 Jewish slaves and had them build this arch.

Across the busy street to the north and alongside the sacred way of the Foro Romano lies the Foro Imperiali. These were forums added under the guidance of Emperors Julius, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan. They continue the tradition of marketplaces, public speaking arenas, and legal buildings and were built out of a need for more space. The old Foro Romano was still the heart of Roman life; the Foro Imperiali only added a larger body.

The Foro Romano and Imperiali

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