There are very few complete buildings left at the Roman Forum. Much of what is there is drab, gray rubble, broken statues, and the stubby remains of columns. But with some imagination and a good guide (human or audio), you can re-create what was once the bustling, gleaming, prosperous and decadent center of the Roman Empire–the civilized world back two thousand years or so.
My husband, daughter and I had Rick Steves’ free audio guide (available at RickSteves.comor on iTunes) to make sense of the rubble. After getting a bird’s-eye view of The Forum from atop Palatine Hill, we began our tour at The Arch of Titus.
This arch commemorates Rome overthrowing Judaea (Israel) in A.D. 70, where Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and 50,000 Jewish slaves were brought back and forced to build this arch and the Colosseum. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Next, we came to the massive Basilica of Constantine, the most prominent remains in the Forum, and yet, they are only 1/3 of the original structure. Take a look at the detail in the coffered ceiling (once gilded in bronze) of this huge hall of justice, and you get a feel for the grand opulence of ancient Rome.
Stroll a little farther and you come to the Main Square, an open area where crowds congregated in the city center. Nearby is the Temple of Julius Caesar. There isn’t much to see here–a metal roof covers the spot where Caesar’s body was burned following his assassination.
The Temple of Antoninus Pius (emperor) and Faustina (his wife) is one of the more well-preserved buildings, but when we were there (April ’11), it was covered in scaffolding. We could not go in or really even get a good look at it. Guess I’ll have to catch it next time I go, along with the Basilica Aemilia and Caligula’s Palace, which I missed somehow.
The next ruin of note (I’m skipping some things from the guide because, frankly, I don’t remember seeing them) was the Temple of Vesta, a circular temple said to be one of the most sacred places to Romans. Inside, a fire was kept burning continuously by the Vestal Virgins (we’ll get to them later). As long as the fire was burning, Romans believed that their city would not fall.
Behind the Temple of Vesta lie the remains of the courtyard of the House of the Vestal Virgins (house is gone). This is interesting not really because of what is left here, but because of the story of the Vestal Virgins. Six young women were chosen from noble families to serve 30 years as celibate priestesses in Rome. If they served their terms faithfully, they were then given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Any Virgin who broke her vows was publicly humiliated and then buried alive in a crypt. Many suffered this fate. But hey, in exchange for the “honor” of giving up the prime years of their lives, these women were given some of the best seats in the house at the Colosseum–right across from the Emperor. Good trade? I think not!
As we made our way to the end of the Forum, we visited The Curia (Senate House), the most important political building here, and viewed the remains of the Temple of Saturn (only 8 columns are still standing).
The oldest temple in the Forum, it once housed a statue of Saturn, and was the place where the spoils of war were deposited upon the return of the victorious soldiers.
It’s amazing to me that so little remains of the political, religious and economic center of the once flourishing Roman Empire. But when I think of all the time and wars and natural disasters that have occurred in the past 2 thousand years, maybe I should be amazed that so MUCH remains!