When you come to Rome you will no doubt want to visit the Colosseum and see the buildings that remain from Ancient Rome. Many guided tours offer the Colosseum and Roman Forum together but what does that mean? What IS or WAS the Roman Forum? Simply put it was the city centre or the central town square in Ancient Rome. The Forum was the centre of commerce, business and the political heart of the ancient city – many of the buildings we have in our city centres today (records offices, law courts, town hall, banks, restaurants, shops and markets) were in the forum.
All Roman towns and cities had a forum. As Rome expanded and new towns were planned and built or existing towns were Romanised the Forum was a central square placed at the crossroads of two main roads of the town – the Decumanus (East/West) and the Cardo (North/South). The Forum usually had at least one grand temple at one end, a Basilica (law courts and public assembly), civic and government buildings as well as shops and markets. The Forum was the epicentre of daily life as can be seen from many Roman sites today from Ostia and Pompeii to Ephesus in Turkey. In modern Mediterranean cities, often the central piazzas are where the ancient forums would have been.
Legend VS Archaeology
You have probably heard the famous legendary story of the foundation of Rome which starts with two babies Romulus and Remus washing up in a basket and being found and suckled by a she-wolf (lupa), fed by a woodpecker and brought up by a shepherd and his wife (there are many versions of the story!). This is the legend the Roman’s told themselves about their beginnings, the archaeology tells a more complex story.
The dominant theory (confirmed by written sources and archaeological remains) suggest that Rome’s most central hills were inhabited by different tribes from the surrounding areas as early as the 800s BC (recent excavations suggest earlier). By the 500s BC these different tribes had made friends, drained the swampy valley nestled between the hills and began using it as a meeting place and market place; this is the origins of the Roman Forum – a rectangular area nestled between the Capitoline and Palatine hills.
At first, the Forum essentially served as a marketplace for day-to-day shopping and public meetings, over time, it became much more versatile and functional, as public affairs were held in the area and buildings were built around the area to satisfy the various functions.
When Rome became a republic in 509 BC civic and political activity started to take place with a meeting place for the senators and politicians to discuss policies (the comitium) and a voting house (the curia). Eventually a records office was built (Tabularium) and law courts and public assembly halls (Basilicas). The Capitoline hill was the sacred space of Rome but the forum also had temples. Temples in Rome were multifunctional and not used solely for honouring the gods. One of the oldest on the Forum, the temple of Saturn is a great example – Rome’s treasury was kept here and according to the bible the Jewish population offered money lending and changing services here.
Rome wasn’t built in a day so they say….. The Forum developed gradually as buildings of wood and terracotta were constructed to accommodate the gatherings. In time, individual senators, politicians, generals and later Emperors added grander buildings like basilicas, temples and arches covered in marble to the area.
The Forum was considered the heart of Rome and as such was used for everyday life. It was the commercial, civic, political and religious centre of the city and for many, daily life revolved around the Forum. The most important state events took place here from religious sacrifices and processions to state funerals and triumphal processions. Public speeches, meetings and criminal trials were held here as well as business and legal dealings. It was also the commercial heart of the city where people from far-flung places bought, sold and traded anything and everything from foodstuffs to luxury imported goods and like our city centres today there were bars and restaurants as well as brothels. The Forum was a place for social gatherings too and before the Colosseum, games and gladiatorial combat were hosted in the square with temporary seating.
Over time the area became overcrowded and was disorganised, unlike other forums in new towns. When Caesar came to vote at the Curia one day, he found the area surrounding the senate house littered with fish heads and scales from a nearby fishmonger, he decided to take action. The Forum did not reflect the might and power that Rome had become and so he planned a new extension to the forum with paved areas, a temple and another Basilica. This would be the beginning of a major restructuring of the wider area and started a competition for later rulers to build bigger and grander public spaces – these are called the Imperial Forums today (across the road from the original forum). Although these new forums took much of the business and commercial activities away from the original Forum (now called the Great Forum) it remained the focal and ideological heart of the city and the Empire. The last addition to the Forum can still be seen today – a fluted column called the column of Phocas which recalls the last emperor in the east formally giving the pantheon to the Christian church.
Decline of the Forum
Rome’s decline had already begun in the 4th century. When Constantine moved East in the 330s (to Constantinople) the city was no longer the administrative and ruling centre of the empire. Waves of Barbarians in the 400s left the city in tatters and the population diminished. When the Goths destroyed the aqueducts in 537 people moved from their ancient residential neighbourhoods towards the river as the fountains, baths and sewers were no longer working. By the 800s AD the Roman Forum was severely dilapidated and was finally finished off by an earthquake; vegetation took over, the land level raised due to floods and the cattle moved in; the bustling heart of ancient Rome was now known as the Campo Vaccino – the cow field.
What we see today hardly conjures up the grand city centre filled with temples, basilicas and arches glittering in marble and statues. Thanks to plundering from the 1400s onwards very little remains of the glorious buildings, just the odd stump of brick and abandoned blocks of broken columns. The Forum or cow-field was systematically pillaged for masonry and materials for the building projects of the Renaissance popes, the worst being Pope Paul III who famously began the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica using travertine from the Colosseum and marbles from the forum. To top it all off he built himself a garden pavilion on the Palatine overlooking the cow field.
The decline of the area has been rather romantically preserved by the artists of the 1700s and 1800s who sketched and painted pastoral scenes among the Roman remains. Giovanni Battista Piranesi spent over 30 years etching the architectural remains of Rome.
For a thousand years the Roman Forum was the buzzing epicentre of the Roman Empire. Today it is the largest inner-city archaeological area in Europe. Over 4.5 million visitors each year come to marvel at the sparse remains of the prestige, glory and magnificent architecture of ancient Rome.