ROMAN ITINERARIES – CAMPITELLI DISTRICT – ITINERARY 40
CAMPITELLI DISTRICT – ITINERARY 40
The Itinerary 40 of the Campitelli District will lead you to the discovery of the heart of Ancient Rome, the Roman Forum, and will be definitely complex from an archaeological point of view.
Along Via dei Fori Imperiali, at Largo Corrado Ricci, is the main entrance to the archaeological area of the Roman Forum, which is also the entrance to our Itinerary 40. After having purchased the ticket, walk down the short ramp that runs along the right side of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, and observe on your right the rows of columns belonging to the Basilica Aemilia.
At this point, it is necessary to clearly specify how we will approach this itinerary, which is undoubtedly one of the most complicated from an archaeological point of view. Although at first glance it may seem a bit dispersive, it will try to follow the chronological order of events and historical phases, in order to use the archaeological evidence of the Roman Forum as real historical documents, thus allowing you to recognize more clearly every aspect of Ancient Rome, its institutions, its religion, its citizens and all those who passed on the paving stones of its streets.
Via dei Fori Imperiali – Largo Corrado Ricci – Roman Forum – Forum of Caesar – Roman Forum
ROMULUS AND THE LAPIS NIGER
The valley where the Roman Forum stands was formed by the flow of a short tributary of the Tiber, the Velabro, within the volcanic tuff, a typical material of the area of Rome and the hills around it. The lower part of this valley was occupied by a swamp, known as the Velabro Swamp. Here, where this swamp ended, rose many of the monuments related to the history and traditions of the Archaic Rome: the Temple of Vesta, the Regia, the Domus of the Rex Sacrorum, the Sacellum of the Lares, the Sacellum of Acca Larentia, the Temple of Jupiter Statore and that of the Penates, the Lacus Curtius, the Altar of Saturn, the Mundus and the Auguraculum.
On the opposite corner of the Palatine, which in that point was called Germalus, there were on the side of the Circus Maximus the Lupercale and the House of Romulus and, at the opposite extremity of the Velabro, just below the Aventine Hill, the Ara Massima of Hercules.
These buildings of the Roman Forum were concentrated along the Via Sacra, which was always the main axis of the Roman Forum and, in a metaphorical sense, the main axis of Rome’s history. In any case, to follow the history of Rome it is necessary to start from the figure of its first king: the legendary founder Romulus.
THE FIRST KING OF ROME – ROMULUS
According to the legend, Romulus drew the famous furrow of the Squared Rome: this definition means a city divided into four parts by two central orthogonal axes, which will then become the canonical typology of the Roman cities. Romulus threw fruits and vegetables into the furrow created by the plow, while every other man threw a handful of earth from the country he came from. At that point, Romulus fixed the position of the Mundus, that was the sacred pit that connected the earthly and celestial axis and that could therefore put in communication the world of the gods, that of men and that of the underworld.
THE LAPIS NIGER
To conclude the analysis of the life of the first legendary king of Rome, you can go and examine (from the outside of an opaque plexiglass wall) the so-called Lapis Niger, considered by some scholars as the Tomb of Romulus. The Lapis Niger was discovered on January 10th 1889 and is characterized on the surface by a portion of black marble flooring surrounded by slabs of white marble: under the black flooring, archaeologists found a small altar, a trunk of a column that must have served as the base of an honorary statue (perhaps of Romulus) and above all a stone, partially preserved, bearing an inscription that can be summarized as follows: “Whoever will violate this place will be cursed by the gods of the Underworld“.
This sort of archaic curse has made us imagine that the Lapis Niger, datable to a very archaic period between the VII and the VI Century B.C., could be the sanctuary erected on the site of the death of Romulus: according to the legend, he ascended to the sky during a storm, but according to Plutarch he was killed by the senators near the Volcanale.
ROMAN FORUM – THE COMITIUM
The Lapis Niger, together with the Tribunals and the Graecostasis, was part of the ancient circular area that constituted the Comitium, that was the political center of the city. In this area, which had been consecrated by the augurs, every day a public herald announced the hour of noon and sunset. The Comitium, paved for the first time at the end of the VII Century B.C., had several remakes and was equipped with internal terraces at the time of the First Punic War. In this way, the Tribunals had their own space near the adjacent Curia Hostilia (no longer existing and not to be confused with the Curia Iulia, visible today) and the new Graecostasis was the privileged seat of foreign ambassadors who, being mostly Greeks, gave the name to their sector.
A final space was left to the Rostra, that was the tribune of the orators who spoke to the people from here, facing the central area of the Roman Forum. Near the Comitium, since the Republican age, were placed the statues of Pythagoras and Alcibiades, the wisest and the most heroic of the Greeks, who adorned the Comitium together with the Phycus Ruminalis, the Column Menia and the statues of Atto Navio, Camillus and the three Sibyls.
The Comitium was completely revolutionized during the renovation wanted first by Julius Caesar and then by Octavian Augustus, thus seeing profoundly changed its ancient function, that of the meeting of popular assemblies, in which the values of Monarchic Rome and Republican Rome were reflected.
ROMAN FORUM – THE REGIA
The most obvious evidence of the phase of the Kings of Rome is obviously represented by the Regia, whose ruins are visible in front of the current entrance ramp to the Forum. According to tradition, the Regia was founded by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, and served as the official residence of the king who, in the Republican period, was replaced by the only function that retained the memory of the ancient monarchy in its name: the Rex Sacrorum.
Here the Pontifex Maximus (in imperial age), the Rex Sacrorum (in republican age) and before that the King (when these powers were concentrated in his person) exercised their sacred functions. The building was built at the end of the VII Century B.C. and it was divided into two distinct areas, one of which was intended at least in part to be a sanctuary of Mars: in this place were kept the sacred shields (ancilia), which the Salii Priests carried in procession dancing. The legendary tradition stated that one of these shields had fallen from the sky and that the others were made in his likeness so that it was not possible to recognize the original one and then steal it; together with these shields, in the Regia were also preserved the sacred spears to the god Mars.
ROMAN FORUM – THE LACUS CURTIUS
A further memory of the most archaic age of Rome can be seen in the central area of the Roman Forum, in front of the Basilica Iulia, where the so-called Lacus Curtius can be discerned: according to an ancient tradition, it would have been the last remnant of the ancient Velabro Swamp. According to the history of Ancient Rome, in this place took place the ritual suicide of Marcus Curtius, who threw himself into a chasm opened in the ground as a sign of devotion, to fulfill the prophecy of an oracle that led him to sacrifice his life to give the victory to the Romans over the Sabines. In this place the archaeologists found a marble relief, of which a copy is visible (the original one is in the Capitoline Museums, and you could visit it joining the Museums and Galleries Tour of Rome Guides), which shows Curtius falling into the abyss, while another beautiful marble relief representing this event, partially revised by the baroque sculptor Pietro Bernini, is visible in the entrance hall of the Borghese Gallery.
Next to the Lacus Curtius (near the place where, in imperial times, was placed the gigantic equestrian monument of Domitian) there were the Doliola, a sort of holy sacellum where the Vestal Virgins, fleeing during the attack of the Gauls, hid in some small vases the sacred objects of the cult of the goddess Vesta.
Finally, always near the Lacus Curtius, were planted a fig tree, olive tree and vine, in imperishable memory of the oldest plants sacred to the city, indicated by the great historian Pliny the Elder. Next to these plants there was the elegant statue of Marsyas, also represented in the Plutei of Trajan, which was the symbol of republican freedom.
BETWEEN JANUS AND VENUS
Another temple inextricably linked to the history of Rome since ancient times was the one dedicated to the god Janus, whose doors were closed in times of peace and opened in times of war. Janus is the famous two-faced god, protector of what comes in and what leaves, able to see both in the past and in the future. The Temple was located at the left corner of the Basilica Aemilia, where today you can see the remains of a small brick building: it must have been squared, with arched doors and a bronze cover.
This small temple commemorated the peace ratified in the Comitium between the Romans and the Sabines, who were stopped by a sudden and miraculous gush of hot water. This episode allows to connect the Temple of Janus to another small monument of Ancient Rome, located next to the Via Sacra in front of the Basilica Aemilia: the Sacellum of Venus Cloacina.
The sacellum, of which only a small part of the marble basement remains, consisted of a low open-air enclosure within which the statues of Cloacina and Venus were placed. Here the Roman and Sabine armies would have made peace and purified themselves with branches of myrtle, the plant sacred to Venus; it was also here that Virginia was killed by her father so that she would not be dishonored by Appius Claudius. The myrtle, however, was the plant that also purified from blood spilled in war, and therefore Cloacina was often depicted armed, being also the goddess protector of borders (for this reason, his small sanctuary was adjacent to that of Janus).
ROMAN FORUM – THE SPRING OF JUTURNA
The last stop related to the most archaic Rome takes you in front of the Lacus Iuturnae, or the Spring of Juturna, a water source today contained in a basin between the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of the Dioscuri. At the center of the small basin you can see the pedestal on which stood the marble group of Castor and Pollux, whose fragments, found in 1900, are now on display in the Antiquarium Forense, where it is also preserved the original of a stone of the II Century AD whose plaster cast is visible on the edge of the basin.
Looking at it, you will see carved the Dioscuri with their parents, Jupiter and Leda, and the nymph Juturna. Here, according to legend, appeared the Dioscuri at the beginning of the Republic of Rome, to water their horses giving the Romans the announcement of victory at Lake Regillus.
FROM THE AGE OF KINGS TO THE REPUBLIC
The main change that distinguishes the Republican phase from the previous monarchic era was the restoration of the area of the Comitium, which lost its squared plan to assume a circular plan with steps, thus becoming a sort of sacred circle in which the magistrate orator was placed in a central position with respect to the audience.
In the Republican age, the first buildings were built to reflect the change in political institutions. The Basilica Porcia, which was located between the Mamertine Prison and the Curia Hostilia, offered to the Roman citizens a covered space for the running of business, assemblies and private meetings on rainy days or when the sun was blazing. In addition to this, in the Roman Forum began to appear the statues whose meaning was closely related to the republican freedoms, such as the already living Marsyas, Pythagoras and Alcibiades.
Were finally built, during the middle republican age, the Basilicas Sempronia (which was located where now is the Iulia one) and Aemilia (which will be placed on part of the remains of the Basilica Porcia): in any case, in the Roman Forum there were also private homes, such as the house of Scipio Africanus, identified in excavations of 1960 under the Basilica Iulia.
In any case, as happened in every part of Rome, even the Roman Forum was damaged in the Republican era by serious fires, often being subjected to reconstruction.
ROMAN FORUM – THE TEMPLE OF SATURN
The history of the Republic in the Ancient Rome began, in the Roman Forum, with the construction of the Temple of Saturn, built in front of a more ancient altar dedicated to the same divinity.
It was erected in 498 B.C. and was therefore the second oldest temple in Republican Rome after the Temple of Jupiter built on the Capitol. Dedicated to Saturn, the god who had founded his own village on the Capitol, the temple wanted to be linked to a cult that was connected with the mythical origins of the Roman people. This temple was also the fundamental reference for one of the most important feasts of the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia, a magical moment of interruption of every rule and unrestrained abandonment to every freedom with which the passage between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one was celebrated.
Today the Temple of Saturn (inside whose podium was kept the treasure of the Roman State) shows the fragments of the last restorations of the end of the III Century A.D., carried out after the terrible fire occurred during the Empire of Carinus (283 A.D.). You can see eight granite columns with capitals in Ionic style, on which rests the inscription commemorating the restoration, while the podium has an orderly series of holes that served to house a large panel on which were posted the documents of the State.
ROMAN FORUM – THE TEMPLE OF CONCORDIA
After having had a look, at the foot of the Capitol, at the remains of the Portico of the Consenting Gods, placed at an obtuse angle in front of eight rooms dedicated to some important Greek divinities in the Roman religion, pause on the right at the monumental podium on which there are some architectural fragments of the temple that stood on it. This temple, although rebuilt by Emperor Tiberius in the I Century A.D., was founded in 387 B.C. by Furio Camillo to celebrate the end of the struggles between patricians and plebeians thanks to the publication of the Laws Liciniae Sextiae.
With this temple, for the first time, the Romans dedicated a sacred building not to a deity, but to the personification of a civic virtue (the “concordia“). When Tiberius rebuilt it, he furnished it as a real museum bringing there numerous works of art of Greek workmanship, while Seiano, who had conspired with Messalina against the same emperor, was in this temple sentenced to death by the Senate and executed in the nearby Mamertine Prison.
ROMAN FORUM – THE TEMPLE OF DIOSCURI
Return now towards the Spring of Juturna and stop now in front of the grandiose remains of the Temple of the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The introduction in Rome of this cult of Greek tradition is due to the Greek aristocratic models, promoted in Rome by the patrician class. It is true that the Dioscuri appeared miraculously to assure the Romans victory at Lake Regillus, but it is also true that they, qualifying themselves as knights, instantly became the protective deities of the knights of Rome, the aristocrats who proposed themselves as the oligarchic leadership of the city. This temple was restored several times, including a major reconstruction by the Emperor Tiberius, who renovated it in very monumental forms: of the ancient temple remain three majestic columns of Carrara marble with large Corinthian capitals that have been, for centuries, one of the favorite views of Rome for painters.
Inside the temple, in which sporadically met the Roman Senate, there was the Office of the State for Weights and Measures, with some stores of bankers adjacent to it.
ROMAN FORUM – THE HOUSE OF THE VESTALS
Move now to the House of the Vestals and the Temple of Vesta, not far from the Regia.
THE ORIGINAL HOUSE OF THE VESTALS
In its earliest phase, the House of the Vestals consisted of six parallel rooms that faced an enclosed courtyard and were reserved for the Vestal Virgins. The building, oriented according to the cardinal points, was close to the Temple of Vesta, so that the religious function that the priestesses had to perform was very evident. Over the centuries, the House of the Vestal Virgins has undergone profound renovations including an important expansion due to the donation of some surrounding houses, once owned by Pontiff Maximus, which the Emperor Augustus gave to the priestesses of Vesta.
THE ACTUAL RUINS
What you can see today is what remains of the reconstruction ordered by Iulia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, after the fire of 191 A.D.
The circular temple was rebuilt with the use of expensive marble, in order to restore dignity to one of the most important monuments in the religion and history of Rome. This temple had to have a conical roof with a central opening to allow the smoke of the sacred fire to go outside. At the same time, inside the podium, a sacred well was built in which the legendary objects that Aeneas had brought with him from Troy were placed and kept: the statues of the Penates, the Lares and the Palladium. This well, called Penus Vestae, was the Sancta Sanctorum of the temple.
Going up a few steps to the left of the Temple, you can access the interior of the House of the Vestal Virgins, entering the central courtyard that once had a portico that ran on four sides and some fountains in the center. The rooms of the Vestals and the other rooms of the house all opened around the same portico. The plan of this structure was very similar to those of the later Christian monasteries, where the cells of the monks are usually all around a cloister. In the portico were placed, on their pedestals, the statues of the Vestali Massime that the college had had: the current arrangement of these statues (they are mostly modern copies, because the originals are kept in the Antiquarium of the Forum) was decided by archaeologists and does not correspond exactly to the ancient one because the statues were found, all stacked up, along the western side of the courtyard. The same bases do not match the statues, so the pairings have to be considered arbitrary: in any case, you can see that the inscriptions refer to the Vestali Massime who ruled the community from the beginning of the III Century until the last decades of the IV Century A.D., in a now fully Christian age.
In the center of the courtyard are three basins, which have been made functional again and then filled with water and adorned with roses along the edges. Along the southern side of the portico you can see several rooms on two floors, of which part of the communication staircase remains in the right corner, just in front of the current entrance: among these rooms the archaeologists have identified the oven, the mill with the grindstone, the kitchen and the bathrooms with private thermal facilities.
On the eastern side it is possible to see a large room, with on its sides two series of three small rooms: the archaeologists have identified it with a sanctuary dedicated to the Lares, and the small rooms had a ritual role in relation to the presence in the sanctuary of the six vestals. According to some scholars, from this room should come the statue depicting the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilio, traditionally believed to be the founder of the cult of the goddess Vesta (the statue is now on display in the Antiquarium of the Forum).
ROMAN FORUM – THE BASILICA AEMILIA
Now go back to the Via Sacra and head towards the Basilica Aemilia, which you had already glimpsed on your way down the access ramp. Founded by the Gens Aemilia (from whom it takes its name), it was erected by the censors Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 179 B.C.
At the time of the Republic of Ancient Rome, indeed, the most important noble families had a specific civic duty to provide funding for building works of a public nature, which would ensure benefits in terms of popularity and political image to be used in frequent elections or when aspiring to receive particular positions and magistracy. As can be easily guessed, the Basilica Aemilia was also subjected to numerous restorations: in 159 B.C. Scipio Nasica placed there a water clock, while in 78 B.C. Marcus Aemilius had gilded bronze shields with the faces of his ancestors placed there.
On the side facing the Forum Square, the Basilica Aemilia had a porticoed façade on two orders of pillars: here there was also the Porticus of Gaius and Lucius, as recalled by the fragment of the inscription placed on the right corner of the façade. According to archaeologists, next to the Basilica Aemilia there was an honorary arch, perhaps also erected in memory of the same Gaius Caesar and Lucius, appointed heirs of the empire by Augustus and died prematurely; the arch was adjacent to the Temple of Divus Julius and symmetrical to another very similar arch that was on the opposite side of the Temple.
Under the portico of the Basilica Aemilia there were several tabernae, where the offices of bankers and money changers were located. Entering the Basilica through three entrances on the long side, a visitor could admire the vast interior space divided into four naves, a larger central one, two smaller ones on the north side and a smaller one on the south side. The naves were separated from each other by rows of columns of fine African marble. Go to the north-eastern side to admire the plaster casts (the originals are in the Antiquarium of the Forum) of some fragments of the ancient frieze depicting scenes from the history of Rome that adorned the Basilica Aemilia: you can easily distinguish The Rape of the Sabine Women and The Punishment of Tarpea.
If you take a fleeting glance at the floor of the Basilica Aemilia, also inlaid with precious marbles, you will see, in a sort of amusing treasure hunt, several bronze coins melted on the ancient marble slabs: these coins are the memory of the precipitous escape of those who were in the Basilica Aemilia during the fire of 410 A.D.
ROMAN FORUM – THE CURIA IULIA
The history of the Roman Republic can symbolically be divided into two major phases: the first closes with the end of the Punic Wars, while the second ends with the assassination of Julius Caesar. The Roman Forum was the center of these political events and the construction and renovation of its monuments can only be understood in the light of a historical explanation.
Gaius Julius Caesar was the needle of the scales. With him, Rome was completely transformed from a political and social point of view. Thanks to Caesar, between 54 and 44 B.C., Rome changed radically in the political area of the Forum. The Comitium was modified, while the Curia Hostilia was closed and transformed into the Temple of the goddess Felicitas, personification of the hopes of the new times.
The new Curia (called Iulia from the name of the Gens Iulia, to which Caesar belonged) was erected where you can still see it today, in a new topographical position. Its reconstruction also symbolized the reform of the Senate which, already begun by Sulla, broke the primacy of the oligarchic senatorial class. The statues of Pythagoras and Alcibiades, ideals of republican men, disappeared from the Forum. The rostra were moved, to make room for a new tribune that became a real stage from where politicians no longer had to convince an audience, but simply harangue the crowd, which became an instrument of political power.
The great brick building of the Curia Iulia, although begun by Caesar, was inaugurated by Augustus in 29 B.C. undergoing, over the centuries, numerous and decisive restorations until the last, performed during the reign of Diocletian. The Curia was built according to the canonical measures of Roman construction for buildings, explained in detail by Vitruvius: the height had to be equal to half the sum of the length with the width and in fact the interior of the room is about 22 meters high, 27 long and 18 wide.
The Curia therefore has a rectangular plan and a double-pitched roof, while the outer walls were covered up to half by marble slabs and from here to the top by a stucco coating that imitated the slabs below. In the main façade you can see three large windows and the portal, while in the rear façade there is only one window and another portal. The bronze shutters that close the main door are a modern replica of the older ones from Diocletian’s time that, in the 17th Century, were transferred by Pope Alexander VII to the portal of the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, where they still stand today.
The interior of the great hall, where were the seats of the senators arranged in two rows of three low and wide steps, retains a beautiful marble inlaid floor due to the last restoration of Diocletian. On the base in the background was the statue of Victory, placed here by Augustus, became famous for the clash that took place in the room between the Christian St. Ambrose and the pagan Aurelius Simmacus, with the first who obtained the removal of the pagan statue and the second forced to resign himself to the inevitable decline of paganism: the statue could be preserved today in the Centrale Montemartini Museum (visit it booking the Museums and Galleries Tour by Rome Guides).
THE PLUTEI OF TRAJAN
Inside the Curia Iulia, where for centuries the senators gathered with the toga praetexta striped in red purple, are now preserved the two large Plutei of Trajan, depicting some famous facts of the government of Trajan and once placed in the Roman Forum at the edge of a not yet identified enclosed space. In the pluteus on the left, the Emperor Trajan burns the registers of the debts of the citizens towards the State, thus implementing a sort of fiscal amnesty. In the pluteus on the right, Trajan instituted the so-called alimenta, low-interest agricultural loans, useful for the sustenance of the poor children of Rome.
In addition to being historical documents, these marble reliefs are extremely important for the background scenography in which the represented actions take place, because they show the image of the Roman Forum as it was at the age of Hadrian. Observing them, you can see the statue of Marsyas and the sacred fig tree, the rostrums, the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, the Temple of Saturn, the arches of the Basilica Julia, the Temple of the Dioscuri and one of the Arches of Augustus. On the back, the two plutei depict the animals that were offered in the suovetaurilia, the most solemn sacrifice of the Roman state: a pig, a sheep and a bull.
ROMAN FORUM – THE BASILICA IULIA
The most important operation among those carried out by Julius Caesar for the reorganization of the Roman Forum was undoubtedly the construction of a second monumental basilica: the Basilica Iulia.
This Basilica, begun by Caesar in 54 B.C. and completed by Augustus in 14 B.C., underwent numerous restorations, until the last one by Diocletian. Caesar added it to the Forum in order to double the space of the Basilica Aemilia, now insufficient to meet the new civic needs. With the construction of the Basilica Iulia, Caesar closed the central area of the Forum on the western side and to build it demolished the previous Basilica Sempronia, built in the same area by the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. To build his basilica, Caesar occupied not only the entire area of the Basilica Sempronia, but also the space occupied by the tabernae that extended from the Basilica to the square of the Roman Forum. The Basilica Iulia was therefore strongly monumental, between the Temple of the Dioscuri, the Temple of Saturn, the Vicus Iugarius and the Vicus Tuscus (whose name recalled the ancient presence of the Etruscans in Rome).
The large building, 101 meters long and 49 wide, was divided into five naves, the central one with three floors and the smaller ones with two floors. Wooden partitions that could be dismantled and modular or simple sliding curtains on rings could, depending on the needs, divide the central hall into smaller spaces, even if in the most important events the crowd flocked to the upper galleries.
The Basilica Iulia, now reduced to a sun-drenched ruin, was usually crowded and noisy: the historian Quintilian said that a lawyer or an orator with a particularly stentorian voice was enough to make it very difficult to carry out the other procedural debates. Walk around the large podium of the Basilica Iulia, surrounded by steps and the stumps of some pillars; on the steps of the Basilica you may find some tabulae lusoriae engraved on the stone (the board games of the time), used mainly by boys who, according to Roman traditions, were forced to follow their fathers in the performance of their profession.
THE FORUM OF CAESAR
Although it is formally part of the Imperial Forums and not of the Roman Forum in its strict sense, the Forum of Caesar can be reached by a special path that borders the Curia Iulia, and therefore it is appropriate to treat it in this “chronological” Itinerary.
It was the first among the Imperial Forums to be built, even if Julius Caesar was never formally declared Emperor. The Forum measured 160×75 meters and had porticoes on three sides because on the fourth back side there was the Temple of Venus Genetrix. At the center of the square was placed the equestrian monument of Julius Caesar, whose horse was famous because at the end of the front legs had human feet instead of hooves.
THE BASILICA ARGENTARIA
Under the arcades there were some tabernae while next to the temple, in Trajan’s age, the so-called Basilica Argentaria was built: here, on the walls, there are still visible graffiti inscriptions among which we can still read verses of the Aeneid, a detail that made the archaeologists imagine that in this basilica the teachers met with their students to hold lessons in the open air (as it was usual in Ancient Rome). The presence of the verses of the Aeneid is however not accidental: Caesar had indeed built his Forum following a very precise operation of ideological propaganda, dedicating the temple to Venus, mother of Aeneas, founder of the Gens Iulia. In this way, Caesar received a natural sort of primogeniture and legitimacy to his political role as the only head of the Roman state.
THE TEMPLE OF VENUS GENITRIX
In front of the podium of the temple remain two fountain bases. The temple was ascended by two lateral staircases inserted in the podium. The temple had eight marble columns on the front and nine on the long sides, with Corinthian capitals: three of them have been partially raised, integrating the missing parts. The statue of Venus Genetrix was placed in the apse, whose vault was frescoed as if it were a sky: the historian Suetonius says that Caesar loved to receive the Senators sitting inside the cell, under the sky, assuming the iconography of a god on earth. In the temple, Caesar placed several works of art including a gilded bronze statue of Cleopatra and paintings by Timomaco.
To build this gigantic Forum, Julius Caesar used the mediation of the famous orator Cicero, spending the insane amount of one hundred million sesterces. The work was completed by Augustus, and deep restorations were then carried out by Trajan who, to build in his Forum the Basilica Ulpia, moved the ancient Atrium Libertatis that stood behind the temple of Venus Genetrix: in this place, symbolically fundamental to the history of Ancient Rome, took place the ceremony of Manumissio, with which the slaves lost their condition of slavery by becoming freedmen.
ROMAN FORUM – THE TEMPLE OF DIVUS JULIUS
The Caesarian Age of the Roman Forum can be considered closed with the death of the dictator. In 29 B.C., Julius Caesar was the first Roman to be deified, inaugurating that tradition derived from oriental prototypes which was one of the keystones of the system of legitimation of personal and dynastic political power conceived by Octavian Augustus.
The Temple of Divus Julius, built and inaugurated by Augustus, ideally and topographically put the seal on the project of transformation of the Forum itself. Of the temple remain some large cores of the podium in cement, in whose hemicycle was preserved a circular altar, erected on the exact spot where the pyre of the great dictator burned. Inside the cell of the temple was the statue of Caesar, whose head was surmounted by a star (Sidus Iulii), as a symbol of Caesar’s apotheosis, his deification and his inscription among the celestial gods. The temple was surrounded on the three secondary sides by a portico (Porticus Iulia), while in front of it was built another tribune (Rostra Divi Iulii) decorated with bronze rostrums of the ships of the fleet of Antony and Cleopatra captured at Actium by Octavian thanks to the strategic ability of his admiral and son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa.
With these transformations, the rostrums of Caesar and those of Augustus faced each other on the short sides of the Roman Forum, closed on the long sides by the Basilica Aemilia, the Curia and the Basilica Iulia: the era of Imperial Rome had begun.
AUGUSTUS IN THE ROMAN FORUM
The seizure of power by Augustus marked a new phase in the construction of the Roman Forum.
Through the completion of the works begun by Julius Caesar, Augustus took over his legacy, emphasizing through the construction of monuments the new and definitive role that the first Emperor was about to play in the history of Rome. The construction of the so-called Forum of Augustus completed the project of expansion of public spaces begun by Julius Caesar, grafting itself onto the side of the Forum of Caesar itself.
Augustus built the new marble pavement of the Roman Forum (near the Column of Phocas there is an inscription naming the praetor Nevius Surdino, who took care of that floor), the Temple of Divus Julius and two arches, which flanked the Temple of Divus Julius and constituted a double monumental entrance to the central area of the Roman Forum. Every political initiative needed a project, an objective and a historical and moral justification: for this reason, Augustus turned his building activity into an opportunity for a monumentalization of the historical and political reasons that allowed him to take all the power in his hands.
Having reduced the powers of the Senate in favor of the Emperor, he showed himself to the Roman people as a father concerned with the collective welfare, a preserver of social and family ethics and a protector of the borders of the Empire.
During his restoration of the Roman Forum, Augustus sealed the trapdoors of Caesar’s age, which led into a system of tunnels and which had the remains of counterweighted hoists, which brought gladiators into the open space of the Forum for those bloody shows that were held by adapting the Forum to a kind of amphitheater. Augustus abolished the gladiatorial spectacles in the Forum in order to remove from this area the dangerous aggregations of citizens, erecting in the Campus Martius the Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus, which was the first in Rome and which is now lost.
THE TWO AUGUSTUS’ ARCHES
In addition to this, in 29 B.C. Augustus erected on the left side of the Temple of Divus Julius an arch celebrating the victory at Actium; ten years later, in 19 B.C., the Emperor added another more monumental arch, in honor of the negotiations initiated by Augustus with the Parthians and concluded with the restitution to Rome of the insignia captured by the Parthians from the legions of Crassus in the Battle of Carrhae (55 B.C.). Inside these arches, as mentioned earlier in this Itinerary, were placed the lists of consuls and triumphs from the Rome of the Kings to the age of Augustus, now preserved in the Capitoline Museums.
With these arches Augustus celebrated himself as the winner of Mark Anthony in the final civil war and in the same way exalted the return of the insignia from the Parthians by proposing himself as the official representative of Rome and its history, the avenger of the defeats and offenses suffered by the Romans, indicating that his Empire was the natural evolution of the Republic.
FROM TIBERIUS TO NERO
Tiberius, successor of Augustus and second Emperor of Rome, merely made some important restorations such as the Temple of Concordia and the Temple of the Dioscuri, which was later transformed by his successor Caligula in a sort of large vestibule of the domus built on the Palatine Hill.
The empire of Claudius was not marked by important buildings, while much more important was the work of the infamous Emperor Nero, which is connected to the event that made it unforgettable: the fire of Rome. The violent and memorable fire of Rome in 64 A.D., which destroyed almost 80% of the city, was for centuries erroneously attributed to Nero, who accused the Christian community of Rome of being responsible for it: this fire, however, was the trigger for the grandiose architectural reconstruction that took the name of Domus Aurea.
Luckily, the area of the Roman Forum was spared from Nero’s reconstructions, although the immense Domus Aurea had an atrium that reached almost to the House of the Vestals. Not far from the area where the Basilica of Maxentius was built (it will be examined in the next paragraphs of this Itinerary), was the place where the bronze Colossus of Nero was originally placed, over thirty meters high and therefore visible from any point of the Roman Forum. The apparent megalomania of Nero was explained by the full awareness of representing the Empire of Rome, now the undisputed reign of a great monarch, loved by his subjects and marked by a religious sacredness.
ROMAN FORUM – THE GENS FLAVIA
The Flavian dynasty gave Rome a new era of peace, marked by a great building emphasis, of which the Roman Forum preserves precious and monumental testimonies.
THE TEMPLE OF VESPASIAN AND TITUS
The first memory is located just in front of the Tabularium, where you can admire the three corner columns with Corinthian style capitals, supporting a section of the entablature, whose frieze is decorated with the representation of the tools used by Roman priests during religious sacrifices. This is the Temple dedicated to Vespasian and Titus, completed by Emperor Domitian. Restored later under Septimius Severus and Caracalla, the temple stands on a podium 33 meters long and 22 wide, and had six columns on the front plus two on the sides.
THE ARCH OF TITUS
The second monument linked to the Flavian dynasty is the Arch of Titus, which is located exactly on the opposite side of the Roman Forum, on the slopes of the Palatine. The arch was dedicated to Titus by his brother Domitian, and presents in the keystones of the arches the personifications of Rome and the Genius of the Roman people, flanked by winged Victories bearing insignia. At the center of the eastern front remains part of a bas-relief depicting the triumphal procession granted to Vespasian and Titus after the victory in the Judaic War and the reconquest of Jerusalem.
To this same military campaign refer the two wonderful monumental reliefs placed on the inner walls of the arch. On one side you can see the bearers of the fercula, sedan chairs on which were placed the most important objects of the prey of war, including the holy candelabrum with seven arms and the silver trumpets that were played by Joshua to collapse the walls of Jericho; on the opposite side you can admire the Emperor Titus on the triumphal quadriga, preceded by the lictors who hold up the fasces and approached from behind by a winged Victory who crowns him, while in front of the horses the personifications of the Senate (in toga) and of the Roman people (a bare-chested young man) are preceding him.
Above, at the top of the ceiling, you can see the apotheosis of the deified Emperor Titus, whose soul rises to heaven among the gods carried by an eagle (symbol of Juppiter). The Arch of Titus is still today a sign and a reference of the desire for independence of the Jewish nation, which saw in the arch the symbol of its tragic diaspora and which gave birth in Rome to the oldest Jewish community in Europe: consider that for centuries the Jews of Rome refused to walk through the arch.
THE TEMPLE OF VENUS AND ROME
After the end of the Flavian dynasty, the Emperor Nerva (96-98 A.D.) rose to the throne and completed the construction of the so-called Transitory Forum, which had actually been started by Domitian.
It is now time to enter the II Century A.D., which is considered the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, thanks to the wisdom and foresight of Emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.
If all the building activity of Trajan concentrated on the construction of his Forum, leaving as a memory in the Roman Forum only the two Plutei preserved in the Curia that have been examined in previous paragraphs, the Emperor Hadrian devoted himself to a specific construction, which radically changed the appearance of the Roman Forum in its upper part. With a titanic feat, Hadrian ordered to move Nero’s Colossus close to the Flavian Amphitheater (which, due to the proximity of this statue, was nicknamed Colosseum): on the freed space of land, Hadrian built the gigantic Temple of Venus and Rome. The temple stood on a gigantic podium, 145 meters long and 100 meters wide, entirely porticoed on the long sides with large granite columns, with two short angular staircases on the side of the Colosseum and a large staircase towards the area of the Roman Forum: this temple was the second largest sacred building in Rome, after the Temple of Serapis built on the Quirinal.
The temple had two cells facing each other, each of which was decorated inside with porphyry columns: if the one facing the Colosseum is considerably ruined, the cell facing the Forum is better preserved, and has been annexed by the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome to the Antiquarium of the Forum.
THE TEMPLE OF ANTONINUS AND FAUSTINA
After Hadrian, who died in Baia during his voluntary exile from Rome, accompanied by grief for the loss of his beloved Antinous, Antoninus Pius ascended the throne. He was an elderly senator and a man of great interior balance, respected by the Romans more than Hadrian.
In memory of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina the Elder, a monumental temple was erected on the north-eastern side of the Roman Forum, next to the modern access ramp. Although the main part of the temple has been transformed into the Church of St. Lawrence in Miranda, in the middle of the modern staircase there is still the brick nucleus of the ancient altar, where the religious rites took place, and the Temple still preserves all its ten high marble columns, six on the front and two on each of the long sides; among the columns there are still fragments of the statues that probably decorated the ancient temple, and the same columns preserve some graffiti depicting for example Hercules fighting with the Nemean Lion. The majestic cell, made of peperino, is decorated with marble friezes representing griffins (mythical animals sacred to Apollo) opposed to vegetable candelabra.
With this temple, the cult of divinity and imperial majesty was definitely affirmed, being reflected in the cult of the State, which had its first identification in the person of the Emperor.
The major curiosity of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is given by the presence of some grooves dug obliquely in the upper part of the columns: according to the traditional thesis, they were destined to the housing of the ropes with which, in the Middle Ages, it was attempted to make the temple collapse in order to re-use the building materials (this merciless fate happened to almost all the monuments of the ancient Rome).
THE ARCH OF SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS
Also Septimius Severus wanted to affirm his divine quality, in order to try to stop the devaluation that the figure of the emperor suffered for two decades for the continuous struggles for succession to the throne with consequent conspiracies. Septimius Severus was an African general, husband of Julia Domna, an ambitious and skillful woman, and father of Caracalla, a son too exalted by his imperial power to the point of having his brother Geta assassinated. Elected Emperor, he wanted to impose the memory of his military exploits and received triumphs with the construction, along the route of the Via Sacra in the Roman Forum, of a grandiose triumphal arch 21 meters high and having on top of the bronze quadriga with the statues of Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla.
Perhaps on the arch there was also the statue of his other son Geta, who was killed by his brother Caracalla at the death of his father in order to remain the only heir to the throne. The inscription on the arch, indeed, has been studied by archaeologists, who noticed how one of the lines was erased following the Damnatio Memoriae and rewritten: originally, on it there was the name of Geta too, but it was then voluntarily chiseled away.
The arch is entirely covered with marble and has three fornices, a larger one in the center and two smaller ones on the sides: on the keystone of the central fornix you can see the figure of the god Mars flanked by winged Victories with trophies. The decorations of the Arch of Septimius Severus depict the triumph of Septimius Severus and Caracalla, while on the bases of the columns are carved Roman soldiers leading Parthians as prisoners: the most important decorative part, however, is represented by the stories of the military campaigns led by Septimius Severus against the Parthians, which represents another grandiose narrative cycle of historical relief, following the other examples of the Trajan and Aurelian Columns.
THE DECORATIONS OF THE ARCH
If you look at the Arch of Septimius Severus on the side facing the Roman Forum, you can see on the left the beginning of the narration: the departure of the Roman army from Carrhae, the battle, the adlocutio of Septimius Severus to the army and finally the liberation of the city of Nisibis that was besieged by the Parthians.
Moving your eyes to the right panel, you can see the siege of the city of Edessa by the Roman army, the submission of King Abgar to Septimius Severus, and finally the Emperor Septimius Severus holding a war council and leading the military campaign. Now move to the other side of the Arch and look at the top left panel: the Roman army assaulting the city of Seleucia on the Tigris River, Seleucia surrendering, and the Parthians submitting to Septimius Severus. On the right panel, the last one of the Arch, you can observe the Roman army besieging the city of Ctesiphon with its war machines and finally Septimius Severus making his victory speech in front of the conquered Ctesiphon.
MAXENTIUS IN THE ROMAN FORUM
After Septimius Severus, during the III Century A.D., the Roman Forum was subject only to restoration works.
The first new construction was built by the Emperor Maxentius who, by destroying the Horrea Piperitaria (the spice warehouses) which were on the Velia, built a gigantic Basilica (the only central hall was 80 meters long, 25 meters wide and 35 meters high) divided into three naves by four colossal pillars and covered by mighty vaults decorated with coffers. The magnificent nave was covered by three cross vaults, resting on eight marble columns 14.50 meters high: the last of these columns, still existing in the 17th Century, was transported by Pope Paul V to the St. Mary Major Square to support a statue of the Virgin Mary.
The nave was closed on the north side by an apse framed by a pair of columns, while the western side facing the Roman Forum had a monumental entrance, with a short staircase and four large porphyry columns. The floor inlaid with polychrome marble must have been wonderful.
However, Maxentius never saw the conclusion of all this work, which was finished by his rival Constantine. For this reason, during the excavations carried out in 1487, the archaeologists found the remains of the acrolithus of the same Constantine: the head, the right hand and the fragments of the marble arms and legs that constituted the carved extremities of a colossal statue, for the rest built with great slabs of gilded bronze. The head of the emperor is 2.60 meters high and, together with the other fragments, is kept in the courtyard of the Conservators’ Palace in the Capitoline Museums.
THE TEMPLE OF ROMULUS
Along the Via Sacra, however, there is another building that indirectly preserves the memory of Maxentius, through the name linked to his son Romulus, who died when he was still a child and was deified by his father: it is the so-called Temple of Romulus. It is a circular building, with a dome roof, decorated on the façade with niches for statues, while next to the splendid bronze portal you can see two porphyry columns with marble capitals.
The attribution to Romulus, the son of Maxentius, could however be only the result of a misunderstanding, due to the misinterpretation of a coin of Maxentius, which shows a circular building related to the little Romulus, but that would actually indicate the mausoleum built by Maxentius on the Appian Way in memory of his son.
CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN FORUM
The building history of the Roman Forum in the Pagan Rome ended with the rise to power of Constantine, who brought with him to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Palladium of Aeneas and all the other sacred objects in memory of the origins of the city.
In the central area of the Forum there are still memories of the last phases of the Empire, related to the successors of Constantine. Next to the Arch of Septimius Severus you can admire the base of an equestrian statue dedicated to Constantius II, a second base with an inscription dedicated to Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius for the victory against Alaric in 403 A.D. and finally seven large pedestals that supported as many columns, belonging to the age of the Tetrarchy.
THE COLUMN OF FOCA
The last monument of the Pagan Rome erected in the Forum and still existing is the Column of Foca, raised in honor of the emperor of Byzantium Foca, whose statue has been lost. Foca rose to power in 602 A.D., assassinating in a conspiracy the reigning emperor Maurice and his five sons, but the bishop of Rome had to accept the situation for the maintenance of peace that depended on the stability of political relations between Rome and Byzantium. Foca then, as a sign of obvious gratitude, donated to the Pontiff the most sacred temple of Rome, the Pantheon, which as you already know (we have talked about it in a previous Itinerary) was transformed into the Church of St. Mary ad Martyres.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY ANTIQUA
The Roman Forum changed its function, transforming itself from a place of temples and triumphal arches to a place of Christian churches. In the Roman Forum were founded the Churches of Saints Cosmas and Damian, St. Maria Nova and St. Lawrence in Miranda, of which we have already spoken in previous Itineraries. But if you want to admire a really special place, you have to go to the Church of St. Mary Antiqua, adapted inside the hall that the Emperor Domitian built at the base of the Temple of the Dioscuri, dedicating it to Minerva. The Church was decorated with beautiful frescoes in the 8th Century, but it was abandoned two centuries later due to the damages suffered by a series of earthquakes. In the 13th Century the church of St. Mary Antiqua was rebuilt with the title of St. Mary Liberator, in memory of the liberation from a legendary dragon that would have plagued the area of the Roman Forum and was driven out by Pope Sylvester: this church was restored several times between the 16th and 17th Century, before being demolished in 1900 to excavate the most ancient archaeological levels of the Roman Forum. Today, the memory of the church is reflected in the homonymous structure built in the Testaccio District, while some minor works are now preserved in the Monastery of Tor de’ Specchi.
THE ORATORY OF THE FORTY MARTYRS
Near the Church of St. Mary Antiqua, archaeologists discovered in 1901 the remains of the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, killed during the persecutions by Diocletian: they were soldiers of the Legion called Fulminante, who were drowned in a frozen pond in Cappadocia.
THE CHURCH OF ST. HADRIAN
A last Christian memory, no longer existing, was that of the church dedicated to St. Hadrian and built in the 7th Century inside the Curia, where the medieval city senate continued to meet before moving on to the Capitol in 1143. The church was rebuilt in the 17th Century by the architect Martino Longhi the Younger, but as already specified today the church no longer exists, having been demolished to bring to light the ancient Curia: inside the Curia, however, you can still see fragments of religious frescoes, dating back to the 9th Century.