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Rome of the Emperors: A Roman Forum Walk

Taking in the famous vista of the Roman Forum from the terraces of the Capitoline Hill, you have probably already cast your eyes down and across two millennia of history in a single glance. Here, in one fabled panorama, are the world's most striking and significant concentrations of historic remains. From this hilltop aerie, however, the erstwhile heart of ancient Rome looks like one gigantic jigsaw puzzle, the last piece being the Colosseum, looming in the distance. Historians soon realized that the Forum's big chunks of weathered marble were the very seeds of our civilization and early-20th-century archaeologists moved in to weed it and reap: in the process, they uncovered the very heart of the ancient Roman Empire. While it is fine to just let your mind contemplate the scattered pieces of the once-impressive whole, it is even better to go exploring to decipher the significance of the Forum's noble fragments. This walk does precisely that.

World's Mightiest Heirloom

To kick things off, we start just south of the Forum at ancient Rome's hallmark monument, the Colosseum (with its handy Colosseo Metro stop). Convincingly austere, the Colosseum is the Eternal City's yardstick of eternity. Weighing in at 100,000 tons, it must be the world's mightiest heirloom. A special road having been built to transport the Travertine stone from nearby Tivoli—these quarries are still there to this day—the building was begun under the emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian) and named the Flavian Amphitheater after his family. His son Titus, according to his father's will, inherited the task of finishing it in AD 80 while his other son, Domitian, built the gladiatorial schools on the adjacent Colle Oppio.

One rationale for the building was that Rome's only previous amphitheater, the Theater of Taurus, had been destroyed in the great fire of AD 64. Another was that the new version would erase memories of wicked Nero, who had privatized a vast swath of land near the public Forum for his private palace, the so-called Domus Aurea. In fact, the Colosseum was positioned directly over a former lake in Nero's gardens, and nearby would have towered the 110-foot-high, colossal statue of Nero himself. In one of history's ironic twists, the term Flavian amphitheater never caught on. Even in its name, the Colosseum serves to publicize the very emperor whose memory it was meant to bury.

A typical day at the Colosseum? The card would usually begin with a wild-beast hunt, then a pause for lunch, during which the sparse crowd was entertained with tamer displays by jugglers, magicians, and acrobats, along with third-tier fights involving "lesser" combatants, such as the Christians. Then, much gorier, would come the main event: the gladiators. The death rates among them have been much debated—30,000 is one estimate.

The building could evidently be filled in as little as 10 minutes, thanks to the 80 entrance archways. Nowadays, you can take one of the elevators upstairs to level one (the uppermost levels are closed for excavation) to spy the extensive subterranean passageways that used to funnel all the unlucky animals and gladiators into the arena.

Ancient Arches Tell the Tale

Leaving the Colosseum behind, admire the Arch of Constantine, standing just to the north of the arena. The largest and best preserved of Rome's triumphal arches, it was erected in AD 315 to celebrate the victory of the emperor Constantine (280–337) over Maxentius—it was shortly after this battle that Constantine converted Rome to Christianity. Something of an amalgam historically, it features carved depictions of the triumphs of emperors Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Hadrian as well, a cost-cutting recycling that indicates the empire was no longer quite what it once was. Now proceed back westward along the black basalt stones leading to the Via Sacra and into the Forum. Albeit minus the traditional four-horse chariot and Jovian costume, you are treading the same route used by the emperors returning in triumph.

Up there on the mighty pedestal of its hillock stretches the Temple of Venus and Roma. In part it was proudly designed by would-be architect Hadrian—at least until the true professional Apollodurus pointed out that with Hadrian's measurements the goddess risked bumping her head on the apse, a piece of advice for which he was repaid with banishment. Off to your left, on the spur of hillside jutting from the Palatine Hill, stands the famed Arch of Titus. Completed by his brother, and successor, Domitian in AD 81, the arch in one frieze shows the Roman soldiery carrying away booty—Moses's candelabra, silver trumpets, an altar table—from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 10 years earlier. On the other side there is Titus on the same Via Sacra, in this case being charioted toward the Capitol after the campaign in Palestine begun by his father Vespasian. Through the arch, photograph the great vista of the entire Forum as it stretches toward the distant Capitoline Hill.

Massive Maxentius

After carrying on for some hundred yards down the Via Sacra, take a small detour, doubling back to take in the massive Basilica of Maxentius, or the third of it left standing. Heavily damaged during Alaric's sack of Rome in 410, it had been founded by Maxentius in 306–310, then completed by Constantine the Great, Maxentius's archenemy at the battle of the Milvian Bridge. The three remaining side vaults give an idea of the building's scale; also to how, through their use of brick and barrel vaulting, the Romans had freed themselves from the tyranny of gravity. Here once stood—or sat rather—the surrealistically large head and other body fragments of Constantine (now in the outside courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori), the first Christian emperor. Rome's first Christian basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano, originated many of the features used in the basilica here. Not surprisingly this most majestic of ruins was much admired and studied by the great Renaissance architects and painters alike—in Raphael's School of Athens the background edifice is surely a depiction of what you are seeing here. Today, the basilica is the site of wonderful concerts in summer and the occasional dramatized trial of this or that emperor (i.e., Nero and Tiberius).

Temples Still Standing Tall

Resuming your walk back toward the Capitoline Hill, the next building is the Temple of Romulus. The Romulus here is not Rome's founder but the son of Emperor Maxentius. Apart from the Pantheon, this is the only Roman temple to remain entirely intact—so intact even the lock in the original bronze doors is said to still function. This is due to its having subsequently been used, at least until the late 19th century, as the atrium of a Christian church above. The stonework across the lintel is as perfect as when it was made, as are the two porphyry pillars. For an inside view of the same temple and, until a century ago, the attached church atrium, enter the Church of Cosma and Damiano from the Via dei Fori Inperiali side and peer through the glass at the end of the main chapel.

Proof of how deeply buried the Forum was throughout Medieval times can be seen in the wonderful pillars of the next building down, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, his wife. Those stains reaching halfway up are in fact centuries-old soil marks. Further evidence of the sinking Forum are the doors of the 13th-century church above—note how they seem to hang almost in midair. Now a full 30 feet above the temple's rebuilt steps, originally they would, of course, have been at ground level. Here we see an example of the Christian world not so much supplanting the pagan world as growing out of it. Meanwhile, there against the blue, read the words "Divo Antonino" and "Diva Faustina," proclaiming the couple's self-ordained "divination."

A Caesar among Caesars

Continue your walk toward the Capitoline Hill by strolling by the largely vanished Basilica Emilia. To the left, however, is the Temple of Caesar, sometimes referred to as Caesar's Altar, where, after his assassination from 23 knife wounds, Caesar's body was brought hotfoot for cremation. Peep behind the low wall and now in Caesar's honor there are flowers instead of flames. Now look up and head over, just across the road known as the Vicus Tuscus, to the three wonderfully white pillars of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. This was reconstructed by Augustus to pay homage to the twin sons of Jupiter and Leda who helped the Roman army to victory back in the 5th century BC. The emperor Caligula, says Suetonius, "had part of the temple incorporated into his palace as his own vestibule. Often he would stand between the divine brothers displaying himself for worship by those visiting the temple."

To this temple's right sits the Basilica Julia. After the death of Julius Caesar, all chaos broke loose in Rome, but a prelude to another long bout of civil war. This ended with the victory of Augustus who, ever the dutiful stepson, had this massive basilica completed in his father's honor. Pitted with column marks, the rectangular piece of ground remains. As with other Roman basilicas, the place was more judicial in nature, swarming, according to Pliny, with 180 judges and a plague of lawyers. Look carefully at the flooring and you might still spy a chessboard carved into the marble, perhaps by a bored litigant.

Haunt of the Vestal Virgins

Backtrack a bit along the Via Sacra past the Temple of Castor and Pollux to the circular Temple of Vesta. In a tradition going back to an age when fire was a precious commodity, the famous vestal virgins kept the fire of Rome burning here. Of the original 20 columns only three remain, behind which stretch the vast remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins. Privileged in many ways—they had front-row seats in the Colosseum and rights of deciding life and death for poor gladiators, for example—they were also under a 30-year-long vow of chastity. As everyone knows, the notorious punishment for breaking their vow was being buried alive. But it is time to turn back and press on with our walk. Crossing the central square and walking back toward the towering Capitoline Hill, you are now entering the midsection of the open area of the Forum proper; you can see to your left the Pillar of Phocas. The last monument to be built on the by now largely abandoned Forum was this column, erected by an otherwise forgotten Byzantine emperor. In 1813, on the orders of Pope Pius VII, the area was excavated, with the assumption that the column belonged to the Temple of Jove Custode. Then, at the base, surfaced the inscription, describing how it had been erected in 608 to the Christian emperor from the east on his bequeathing the Pantheon to the Roman Church.

A Burial Too Soon

The long stone platform presiding over this area is the famous Rostra. Forum coming from an old Latin word meaning "to meet," from here Rome's political elite would address the people. Indeed, this is where, with some help from Shakespeare, Mark Antony would have pronounced his rabble-rousing "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." The name Rostra dates to the custom of adorning the platform with prows of captured ships following an early naval victory off Antium/Anzio in 338 BC.

Going back even farther is, on the other side of the Via Sacra, the so-called Lapis Niger, or Black Stone, which marks the site of a Temple to Romulus. The small sanctuary underneath goes back to the 6th century BC as does a strange column with the oldest Latin inscription yet known, cursing all those who profaned the place—irreverent archaeologists take note!

Altogether mightier in scale is the Curia —the Senate house of ancient Rome—nearby. Not the building of the earlier republican period, this is a version rebuilt by Diocletian and in turn rebuilt in 1937. Here sat the 300 members of Senate, then rendered largely powerless by Diocletian. Originally decorating the nearby rostra, the two friezes show the much earlier emperor Trajan. Meanwhile the porphyry statue without a head has been attributed to Trajan also. But there is a neater theory: With the turnover in emperors reaching to as many as six per year and porphyry being almost priceless, the head was replaceable by whatever emperor happened to be in power.

Heads and Tales

Continue back down the Via Sacra, where towers one of the Forum's extant spectaculars, the Arch of Septimus Severus. Built by his sons, it celebrates Septimus's campaign against the Parthians and the ensuing influx into Rome of booty and slaves. A number of these, their hands tied behind them, are depicted. Also on view is the murderous Caracalla, son number two, though the head of his elder brother Gaeta has, Stalin-fashion, been erased. Sadly, many other heads have also had a Caracalla done on them by the erosive fumes of Roman traffic.

Continuing left and up the Via Sacra, you reach the base of the celebrated Temple of Saturn. Now the name of a planet, Saturn was then as close to the earth as you can get, the word originating from sero—“to sow.” Saturn was originally a corn god, first worshipped in Magna Grecia, then allowed, so goest the patriotic myth, to settle in Rome by the city's presiding deity, Janus. That Saturn was the God of Plenty in more than an agricultural sense is also attested to by the fact that beneath the floor was kept the wealth of the Roman treasury.

Position yourself below the easternmost two of the eight columns of Egyptian marble and peer upward as they reach higher than a rocket at Cape Canaveral and are every bit as majestic.

Hail and Farewell

Meanwhile, up ahead ascends the last stretch of the Via Sacra—the so-called Clivus Capitolinus. On the left is the Temple of Vespasian.

Bowing to the powerful nature of time, now only three splendid columns remain. Next door once stood the Temple of Concord.

Built back in Republican times, it celebrated the peace between the often warring patricians and plebs, the two cardinal elements in the winning formula of SPQR—in other words the patrician Senate (S) and the people (PQ). A few stones mark the spot—and the last piece in the Forum's monumental jigsaw.

For a better sense of the whole—a sort of archaeological gestalt—take the steps alongside to ascend to the Campidoglio, the Capitoline Hill, where vistas from the piazza balconies will put your two or three past hours of walking into panoramic context.

You cannot help but ponder on the truth of sic transit Gloria (“glory passes away”)—a similar view by moonlight inspired Edward Gibbon to embark on his epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Updated: 10-2013

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