Etruscan kings ruled Rome until 509 BC, when it became a republic. These kings were given over to engineering pursuits in their own right. One such endeavor was the Roman Forum.
In the valley found between Capitoline, Palatine, and Esquiline Hills, there was a marsh. To drain this, and cause run-off to flow to the Tiber River, a channel or sewer was constructed. This was called the “Cloaca Maxima” (meaning the “Greatest Sewer”).
With the area now cleared, it became the center of public life. Triumphal processions were held here, elections occurred here, and eventually the Senate would meet here.
Today, some of the greatest collections of ruins in the world can be seen here:
Three different triumphal arches were built in the Roman Forum to commemorate their victories:
Augustus Arch was built in 29 BC to commemorate Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BC). Almost none of it remains today, although coins have been found that depict what it looked like.
Titus Arch was built in 81 AD to commemorate the Roman victory in the Jewish War and the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Septimius Severus Arch was built in 203 AD to commemorate the Roman victory over Parthia. This is one of the best-preserved arches since it was eventually acquired by the Roman Catholic Church and incorporated into one of its buildings. The church was eventually moved, but the RCC retained ownership for the arch.
One of the most important buildings of ancient Rome was the Curia Julia. This is where the Roman Senate met. The original building on this site was constructed in 53 BC under Julius Caesar. The current structure dates to 283 AD and the reign of Diocletian.
The name “Rostra” means “Battering Ram”. This hearkens back to the iron clad battering rams that were captured from the Volscians (another Italic people) at the Battle of Antium in 338 BC. In short, the Rostra was a speakers platform that was adorned with these battering rams. Caesar built this here while modifying the overall Forum.
William Shakespeare uses the Rostra as the setting for Marc Antony’s famous speech in the play Julius Caesar. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…”
The initial Temple to Saturn was built in 497 BC. The present ruins date to 42 BC. This was more than just a religious monument. It served as the Treasury (i.e., the “Aerarium”), it housed senatorial decrees, and kept the legionary banners.
Incidentally, Augustus situated a column in the front of the Temple in 20 BC. Referred to as the “Milliarum Aureum”, all distances along the Roman road network were measured to Rome from thus column.
Titus began to build this in honor of father Vespasian – who the Roman had deified. However, Titus died shortly into his reign. His brother Domitian completed the Temple and dedicated it to both Vespasian and Titus.
A Roman ruler by the name of Postumius had this Temple built in 484 BC. It was constructed in honor of the mythological twin brothers who were believed to have aided Rome against the Tarquin kings who previously ruled Rome. The three pillars left standing date to a reconstruction from 6 AD.
Emperor Antoninus built this Temple as a memorial to his deceased wife Faustina in 141 AD. When the emperor died twenty years later, the Temple was rededicated to both the emperor and his wife. In the 7th Century, the Temple was converted into the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda.
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar dedicated a jurisdictional court with the spoils of the Gallic Wars. It would not be completed for another couple of decades until finally Augustus was able to complete it. This large building housed magistrates who would adjudicate civil matters. Several fires and invaders have taken their toll such that only the footings of the structure remain today.
The oldest basilica in the Forum is one that originally was set up by consuls Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Flavius Nobilor @ 179 BC. Its purpose was straightforward – to allow for business and administrative matters to carry on even if the weather were to take a turn for the worse. Last modified in 22 AD, the building was ransacked and destroyed by the Visigoths in 410 AD.
A circular Temple was built in the 4th Century BC. It was dedicated to the Vesta – the protectress of the Roman family and state. Vestal virgins were to guard the flame within the Temple – this was to be kept eternally lit, representing the eternal life of Rome.
Rome’s Pontifex Maximus, the supreme religious authority of Rome, selected the girls who would serve. They had to be aristocrats and agree to serve for 30 years as perpetual virgins. Such ladies were highly regarded. If they lost their virginity however, they would be buried alive (unfortunately 10 were put to death in this way).
Once a girl was chosen (around the age of 6), she was moved to the nearby House of the Vestal Virgins. The estate features 50 rooms spread over 3 floors. Six girls would serve at one time.
Across from the House of the Vestal Virgins is a circular Temple dedicated to someone named Romulus. It is uncertain as to who this is, but it may be the son of Emperor Maxentius. It was built during the 4th Century AD.
Most of the building is intact as it was eventually incorporated into the Church of Saint Cosma of Damiano. The bronze doors and their locks are original.
The last large basilica in the Roman Forum began to be built by Emperor Maxentius in 308 AD. However, Constantine defeated Maxentius in the famous Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. He in turn finished the construction.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, 312 AD. It involved the armies of Constantine I against the armies of Maxentius and centered on a bridge that crossed the Tiber. During the engagement, Maxentius drowned in the Tiber. Constantine would eventually become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Historians Eusebius and Lactantius recount that it was this battle that led to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. They allege that Constantine and his armies had a vision whereby God promised victory in the battle if they would dub their shields with the sign of the Cross.
Constantine would later erect the Arch that would bear his name between the Coliseum and Palatine Hill to commemorate this victory. Interestingly enough, the emperor attributes the victory to divine intervention.
“The main inscription would originally have been of bronze letters. It can still be read easily; only the recesses in which the letters sat, and their attachment holes, remain. It reads thus, identically on both sides:
IMP · CAES · FL · CONSTANTINO · MAXIMO · P · F · AVGUSTO · S · P · Q · R · QVOD · INSTINCTV · DIVINITATIS · MENTIS · MAGNITVDINE · CVM · EXERCITV · SVO · TAM · DE · TYRANNO · QVAM · DE · OMNI · EIVS · FACTIONE · VNO · TEMPORE · IVSTIS · REM-PVBLICAM · VLTVS · EST · ARMIS · ARCVM · TRIVMPHIS · INSIGNEM · DICAVIT
To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.
The words instinctu divinitatis (“inspired by the divine”) have been greatly commented on. They are usually read as sign of Constantine’s shifting religious affiliation: the Christian tradition, most notably Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea, relate the story of a vision of God to Constantine during the campaign, and that he was victorious in the sign of the cross at Milvian Bridge. The official documents (esp. coins) still prominently display the Sun god until 324, while Constantine started to support the Christian church from 312 on. In this situation, the vague wording of the inscription can be seen as the attempt to please all possible readers, being deliberately ambiguous, and acceptable to both pagans and Christians. As was customary, the vanquished enemy is not mentioned by name, but only referred to as “the tyrant”, drawing on the notion of the rightful killing of a tyrannical ruler; together with the image of the “just war”, it serves as justification of Constantine’s civil war against his co-emperor Maxentius.”
Whether or not Constantine’s conversion was real or a matter of political expediency is a debate left to history. It did signal the end of widespread persecution of the Church.
Emperor Hadrian designed the largest religious structure of ancient Rome in 135 AD. It was dedicated to a personification of the Empire called “Roma”. It was also dedicated to the goddess Venus – who was presumed to be the mother or Aeneas, and therefore, the grandmother of Remus and Romulus. The Temple is 348 feet long, 156 feet wide, and 97 feet tall.
All told, the Roman Forum was the center of so many important events political and cultural events of the ancient empire.