Today an impressive, if rather confusing, sprawl of ruins, the Roman Forum was once a gleaming complex of marble-clad temples, proud basilicas and vibrant public spaces: the gleaming heart of an ancient city.
Originally an Etruscan burial ground, it was first developed in the 7th century BC and expanded over subsequent centuries. Its importance declined after the 4th century until eventually it was used as pasture land. In the Middle Ages it was known as the Campo Vaccino (literally ‘Cow Field’) and extensively plundered for its stone and marble. The area was systematically excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and excavations continue to this day.
Entering from Largo della Salara Vecchia (you can also enter directly from the Palatino) you’ll see the Tempio di Antonino e Faustina, ahead to your left. Erected in AD 141 by the Senate and dedicated to the empress Faustina and later to the emperor Antoninus Pius, it was transformed into a church in the 8th century, so the soaring columns now frame the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda. To your right the Basilica Fulvia Aemilia, built in 179 BC, was a 100m-long public hall, with a two-storey porticoed facade lined by shops. Opposite the basilica stands the Tempio di Giulio Cesare (Temple of Julius Caesar) built by Augustus in 29 BC.
At the end of the short path you come to the Via Sacra, which traverses the Forum from northwest to southeast. Head right up Via Sacra and you reach the Curia, the meeting place of the Roman Senate, which was rebuilt by Julius Caesar, Augustus, Domitian and Diocletian, before being converted into a church in the Middle Ages. What you see today is a 1937 reconstruction of Diocletian’s Curia. The bronze doors are copies – the originals were used by Borromini for the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.
In front of the Curia, and hidden by scaffolding, is the Lapis Niger, a large piece of black marble that covered a sacred area said to be the tomb of Romulus.
At the end of Via Sacra stands the 23m-high Arco di Settimio Severo (Arch of Septimius Severus). Dedicated to the eponymous emperor and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, it was built in AD 203 to celebrate the Roman victory over the Parthians. Nearby, at the foot of the Tempio di Saturno, is the Millarium Aureum, which marked the centre of ancient Rome, from where distances to the city were measured.
On your left are the remains of the Rostrum, an elaborate podium where Shakespeare had Mark Antony make his famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’ speech. In front of this, the Colonna di Foca (Column of Phocus) marks the centre of the Piazza del Foro, the Forum’s main market and meeting place. The last monument erected in the Roman Forum, it was built in honour of the Eastern Roman Emperor Phocus.
The eight granite columns that rise up behind the Colonna are all that remain of the 5th-century Tempio di Saturno (Temple of Saturn), one of Rome’s most important temples and home to the state treasury. Behind the temple, backing onto the Capitoline Hill, are (north to south) the ruins of Tempio della Concordia (Temple of Concord), the remaining columns of Tempio di Vespasiano (Temple of Vespasian and Titus) and the Portico degli Dei Consenti.
Passing over to the path that runs parallel to Via Sacra, you’ll see the stubby ruins of the Basilica Giulia, which was begun by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus. At the end of the basilica are the three Corinthian columns of the Tempio di Castore e Polluce (Temple of Castor and Pollux), built at the beginning of the 5th century BC to mark the defeat of the Etruscan Tarquins in 489 BC. South of the temple is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua, the oldest Christian church in the Forum.
Back towards Via Sacra is the Casa delle Vestali (House of the Vestal Virgins), home of the virgins who tended the sacred flame in the adjoining Tempio di Vesta. The six priestesses were selected from patrician families when aged between six and 10 to serve in the temple for 30 years. If the flame in the temple went out the priestess responsible would be flogged, and if she lost her virginity she would be buried alive, since her blood couldn’t be spilled. The offending man would be flogged to death.
Continuing up Via Sacra, past the Tempio di Romolo (Temple of Romulus), you come to the Basilica di Massenzio, the largest building on the forum. Started by the Emperor Maxentius and finished by Constantine in 315 (it’s also known as the Basilica di Costantino), it originally covered an area of approximately 100m by 65m. A colossal statue of Constantine, pieces of which are on display at the Capitoline Museums, was unearthed at the site in 1487.
Beyond the basilica, you come to the Arco di Tito (Arch of Titus), built in AD 81 to celebrate Vespasian and Titus’ victories against Jerusalem. In the past, Roman Jews would avoid passing under this arch, the historical symbol of the beginning of the Diaspora.