In the centre of almost every Roman city was an expansive open space known as the forum. The city’s inhabitants met in the forum to perform their business to buy and sell goods and foodstuffs, to meet up with friends, gossip a bit, get the latest news from around town or abroad, and for some, even attend school.
Temples, Basilicas and More
There are fora (plural form) in every large city throughout the Roman Empire. Each one is usually well paved in stone or marble and surrounding the central open space were temples, basilicas, and more elaborate shops. Many permitted, and even encouraged, public speaking. Some provided special platforms for speakers to be elevated for better projection of their voice. It differed from the agora in that the city forum was not so much a marketplace but a meeting place.
The Forum at Rome
Ancient Rome, in its Imperial prominence, was too large and too spread out to have only one forum. However, the main forum in the ancient capital’s centre was by far the biggest and most important. Romans began meeting in this forum as early as 500 BC. Its correct Latin name is Il Foro Romano. During the time of the Republic of Rome the senate would meet here. Slowly, as its popularity spread across the wealthy classes, temples, statues and basilicas began to be added. At the time when Julius Caesar ruled Rome, the forum was a crowded, bustling, brew-pot of power-hungry politicians, nobles, elite classes and eccentrics.
Like many Caesars, who desire for their name to be immortalised, Julius decided to build a new forum, as a side shoot to the first, and called it the Forum of Julius Caesar – what else could he call it? It was beautifully paved in massive limestone blocks and had a temple at one end.
The Emperor, Augustus, added his own ‘Forum of Augustus’ near to that of Julius’ convincing the Roman population that there still wasn’t sufficient room and that they should pay for it via Roman taxes. This forum also had a new temple and Romans could gather in the open spaces around it.
All Manner of Business
The Romans knew that their forum was the greatest in the Empire and it quickly became known as the Forum Magnum. It developed into the central heart and business hub of the ancient city. From this communal gathering area all manner of life and livelihood accumulated. Those in commerce, trade, and general business to those in politics, plays, and prostitution all gathered in the Roman Forum where religious cult practices and the administration of justice were dispensed side by side.
Il Foro Romano is snugly located in an ancient river valley that lies between the hill Palatine and the hill Capitoline. The area was originally marshland but the early Romans diligently drained the soil and converted the insect ridden bog into Rome’s centre of political and social activity.
When the grand Roman Empire collapsed, the forum slowly filled with wind blown dirt until, completely covered, it was forgotten. Cattle used it as pasture and wild pigs rooted the shrubs during the Middle Ages when nothing was remembered of Rome’s former glory.
The Forum and Archaeology
As archaeologists uncover the old fora they find that much of them has been destroyed. Not surprisingly, considering the slow abandonment of ancient Rome, much is missing, taken by recyclers to build new projects elsewhere.
The Forum was an opencast mine of marble, limestone blocks, enormous columns, statues, and lithic reliefs to those with the means to remove them. It is very possible that the extant churches and palaces near to the ancient forum are constructed from the materials of the forum itself.
Two Great Arches
Although much of the forum’s grandeur has been pillaged for other ancient building projects, two very spectacular arches still remain in near perfect condition. The Arch of Titus and the Arch of Septimius Severus are fine archaeological artefacts. The Arch of Titus is at the extreme entrance to the forum lying between the forum and the Colosseum.
Inside the Titus arch are two well-preserved reliefs carved in the stone supports. One side shows the triumphant capture of Jerusalem in AD 70 where Titus, as General of the Roman Legion, destroyed the Jewish temple. Among other things depicted in the relief is the lost golden menorah.
Rich in Ruins
Today’s Roman ruins are a rich treasure of archaeological architecture that has been partly rebuilt to display the once glorious majesty of the Empire’s capital. Among the temple ruins are those of Castor and Pollux, Saturn, Vesta, Venus and Roma, Romulus, Vespasian and Titus, and Concord, while three basilicas remain, that of Aemilia, Julia, and Maxentius and Constantine.
The Via Sacra or sacred way is the processional route linking the Forum with the Colosseum. The forum began to be seriously archaeologically excavated under the Napoleonic regime but not until the 20th century could it be seen as it is today.