Ancient history is my passion and the Roman Empire period for me is right up there with that of the ancient Greeks. So when my wife and I were planning our trip to Rome and Italy a visit to the Roman Forum was a must. Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Palatino was a perfect location for our stay, it being only a short four block walk down the Via Cavour to the Forum and the Colosseum.
As we walked along Rome’s Via Dei Fori Imperiali, which borders the Forum, and gazed down at the ruins of what was once the magnificent center of the mighty Roman Empire it was hard to visualize what it must have looked like in its glory days, because of its condition today. But it was at this place that the Roman Republic was born, where the Caesars walked and their legions marched. The Roman Forum was the unquestionable center of the Rome and the world.
What I didn’t know was the fascinating history about the site where the Forum is located long before it became Rome. What I found was that the area is a low-lying valley between the Palatine, Capitoline and Esquiline hills. In prehistoric times this valley was a marshy wetland due to the runoff from its surrounding hills. For those living on those hills it was a place to bury their dead and graze their animals. That changed in the 7th century BC when the last two Etruscan Kings built a drainage canal from the valley to the Tiber River. This canal was named the “Cloaca Maxima.” At first it was an open air canal but the Romans later covered it. This great engineering feat is still in use today.
After the valley was drained it became the central gathering place for the people on the hills. Legend has it that Rome’s first King Romulus, Rome’s legendary namesake, had his fortress city on the Palatine Hill and his rival, King Tatius, had his city on the Capitoline Hill. Legend goes on to tell that the two sides were in constant war with each other. That was until the Sabine women prayed for the fighting to stop. Romulus and Tatius did stopped their fighting and formed an alliance. Whether or not the legend has some truth or not an alliance was indeed formed between the two peoples and that was the start of what would become Rome.
Throughout the time of the Roman Republic the Forum continued to be expanded with government buildings and temples added around the Foro, or public square. One of the earliest temples was the Temple of Saturn in 497 BC.
The foot of Capitoline Hill was set aside for the government of Rome. It was there that the Curia (the meeting place for the Roman Senate) and the Comitium (the place of the people) were located. This was the governmental center of the Roman Republic. We get the name Capital for the center of our governments from Capitoline Hill.
Starting with Julius Caesar, and with the Emperors that followed, the Forum was expanded even more and rebuilt to fit the ego of the Caesar that was in power. For centuries the Forum Romanum was the undisputed the center of the Roman Empire. This is most evident when Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, placed a large column in the Forum that he named Miliarium Aureum, or the Golden Milestone. This was to mark the center of Rome, and then also the center of the Roman Empire. Augustus decreed that that was starting point for all roads leading out of the city out into its empire. It is also where the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” came from.
The Forum was the scene of political upheavals, funerals, triumphant parades, and before the Colosseum was built, gladiatorial battles. As the Roman Empire split and declined so did the importance of Rome the city and the Forum Romanum. At around the 8th century BC the marble from its buildings and temples started to be taken for other building projects. Some of the buildings of the Forum were partly saved when they were converted into Christian churches. As the site further deterated it became a dumping ground and slit from the hills once again covered what was left. The valley took on a new name, Campo Vaccino or cattle field. The once magnificent Roman Forum had gone back to its original use.
In the early 1800’s, during the Napoleonic regime, some efforts were undertaken to unearth portions of the Forum. But even into the 20th century the Roman Forum was neglected. Part of the ancient Forum was destroyed by Benito Mussolini when he paved over a large section by Capitoline Hills for the Via Dei Fori Imperiali.
Today, things are looking better for the Forum Romanum. There is now ongoing excavations and preservation work being done. The area between the Arch of Tito, on the south end by the Colosseum, to the Arch of Septimius Severus, on the north end at the foot of Capitoline Hill, is now open to foot traffic.
On our visit to the archaeological site my wife and I entered at the south end. We walked down through the centuries of dirt and debris to what was the street level during the Imperial age, the time of the Caesars. We now stood on the very stones that the citizens of ancient Rome had walked on. You can’t but be in awe at what history took place around these stones over two millennia ago. For these ruins, even in their broken and fallen condition, were part of the very foundation of the western world that we now live in.
My next posting I will highlight some of the temples and building in the Forum Romanum that you must see when you visit there.