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Roman Forum

Roman Forum (5)

In its time the Roman Forum was the social, political and economic centre of Rome, where the people went to either shop or for information or just to gossip. 

If you start your walk round the Forum after going down the Campidoglio, you will enter by the Temple of Saturn. The only remaining parts of this temple, one of the oldest in Rome, are the 8 Ionic columns that you see. The temple was also the State Treasury in ancient times. If you look, it still preserves an inscription that says “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, which means “The people and the Senate of Rome”. You can still see the initials of the inscription on many buses or manholes in the city.

Further on you will reach a slightly curved platform, usually surrounded by an iron railing. This is the Rostra, and is where the political speeches were given from. The most famous one, thanks to Shakespeare, was that of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” pronounced by Mark Antony after the assassination of Caesar. Also the head and hands of Cicero were exhibited here after he had been sentenced to death. And it is said that Julia, the daughter of Augustus, worked as a prostitute here, in one of the many events that would lead to her exile. 

Alongside the Rostra stands the Arco di Settimio Severo, one of the most stunning and best-preserved monuments. This triumphal arch was built in 203 AD to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Septimius Severus as emperor, and is considered a fine example of the genre due to the balance of its proportions. It is believed that during the Middle Ages, half buried in the central arch there had been a barber’s.

Nearby you will come across the Lapis Niger or black stone, which marks the spot of an important ancient tomb. It is said that it may even be of Romulus himself. 

A little further on, along the Via Sacra, you will reach the Curia, the old Roman Senate. The original building was commissioned by Julius Caesar and rebuilt by Diocletian after a fire. This construction is in an excellent state of conservation due to the fact that the Christians turned it into a church in the 7th century. Inside there are three marble benches on which the 300 senators sat. To cast their vote, those in favour sat on one side and those against on the other. 

Alongside the Curia is the Basilica Aemilia. The basilicas were not places of worship but meeting centres for politicians, moneylenders and traders. This basilica was built in 179 BC, and after several reconstructions, ended up burnt down when the Visigoths pillaged Rome in 410 AD. You can look on the ground for the marks made by the coins which melted when the fire destroyed it. 

On the other side of the Forum you will see the Basilica Giulia, another court building. After numerous sackings and robberies, only the steps, pavement and fragments of columns remain standing. This basilica was the centre for the 180 magistrates who concerned themselves with civil cases. If you observe the entrance steps, you will see that there are some engraved game boards. It seems that each lawyer would hire crowds of fans to applaud their interventions and boo those of the others. It is thought that these fans entertained themselves playing the games during the long waiting times.

On the east side of the Basilica is the Temple of Castor and Pollux. You will recognise it for the three slender Corinthian columns that are conserved. According to the legend, the twins Castor and Pollux helped the Romans defeat the Latins in the battle of Lake Regillus.

Another key construction in the Roman Forum is the Temple of Caesar. This temple was built by Augustus in 29 BC, on the spot where Julius Caesar’s body was burnt. Not much remains today, but if you stand in front you will get a lovely view of the western area of the Forum.

Continuing along the tour, you will reach the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated originally by the emperor Antoninus Pius to his deceased wife Faustina. When he died, twenty years later, the temple was also consecrated in his honour. Later on, in the 11th century, it was turned into a Christian church. 

On the right you will see the Temple of Vesta. This circular building was the home of the vestals, 6 priestesses whose duty was to keep alight the sacred fire of Vesta, goddess of the home. Worship of the vestal virgins was one of the oldest in Rome. The vestals were the most important women in Roman society, were chosen while they were still practically children and had to serve for 30 years. These priestesses lived with all types of privileges, but in Exchange they had to remain as virgins. Otherwise, they were buried alive and the men responsible would be whipped to death.

The next large building you will see is the enormous Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. Its construction was ordered by Emperor Maxentius, but before it was completed he was murdered by Constantine, who occupied his throne. Like other basilicas of the period, the building was used as a business centre and for administering justice.

Alongside this basilica is the Antiquarium Forense. What was once the convent of Santa Francesca Romana today houses the offices from where the excavations of the Forum are organised. In the cloister, moreover, there is a small museum showing funerary urns, tombs and skeletons. 

Continuing along the Via Sacra, you will reach the end of the Forum, where the Arch of Titus stands. Domitian ordered this triumphal arch to be built in honour of his brother Titus, after his victories in Judea. Special attention should be given to the relief work on the inside of the arch, which describes the triumphal return of the soldiers after the battles.

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