Few sites are so filled with a sense of history as the Roman Forum (Foro Romano), where, for many centuries, the fate of Europe was decided. Although the surviving remains give only a hint of the grandeur and splendor of the Forum in ancient times, this area, with its columns still standing tall or lying tumbled on the ground, its triumphal arches, and its remains of once-important buildings, are still impressive even to 21st-century visitors.
The Forum is so vast, and often crowded, that it’s difficult to make sense of it or know what happened where. That’s why a tour using a headset with an expert guide is helpful, so you can listen as you snap photos and appreciate the grandeur of one of Rome’s most popular and important tourist attractions.
For more than a thousand years, the might of Rome, the magnificence of Roman art, and Roman law and religion found expression here and radiated throughout Europe and beyond. The first buildings here were temples, followed by public buildings.
This combination soon made the area the political center of the city–the meeting place of the courts and the assemblies that directed the affairs of the republic. Commerce soon joined religion and government, with the building of market halls that made the Forum the center of all public activity, not just for Rome, but for an increasingly large part of the continent.
By the end of the Imperial Period, the Forum was a densely built-up complex in which “modern” buildings rubbed shoulders with ancient ones, making it difficult today to identify individual buildings. This is further complicated by layers of later churches and fortresses that were built amid the ancient remains. The area served as a quarry of building stone and a cow pasture until 18th- and 19th-century excavations uncovered the Forum from a layer of dirt and rubble as deep as 15 meters.
Arch of Titus
Standing at the end of the Forum farthest from the Capitol, the Arch of Titus is the oldest of the Roman triumphal arches, erected after the death of Titus by his successor Domitian. The reliefs on the arch show scenes from the victorious general’s triumphal procession to the Capitol after Titus captured Jerusalem in the year 70 and thus put the final seal on the defeat of the Jewish people in Palestine.
Titus, who became Emperor in 79 AD, is shown in his chariot accompanied by the goddess of Victory holding a laurel wreath and by the booty brought back from the war – the Menorah, the table with the shewbread, and trumpets from the treasury of the Temple.
Basilica of Constantine
Only three soaring vaulted arches remain of what was the largest building in the Forum, but the Basilica of Constantine is still an imposing structure that towers over its surroundings. Finished by the Emperor Constantine in 303, it was begun by his predecessor, Maxentius.
The huge arched vaults still cover the remaining structure without support, an indication of the remarkable building skills of the Romans. A basilica in Ancient Rome was a courthouse and a place to make business and other transactions, with large central spaces flanked by apses, an architectural style later carried into Christian churches.
The meeting-place of the Roman Senate is one of the best preserved ancient buildings in the Forum, protected from further destruction when it was converted into a church in the seventh century. The first Curia was erected in the time of the kings and rebuilt frequently as a result of fires and other damage.
A plain and unornamented building, both inside and outside, it could seat 300 senators. Borromini adapted its bronze doors to serve as the main doorway of St. John Lateran, and the changes made to it over the centuries were stripped off between 1931 and 1937. It is now sometimes used for special exhibitions and preserves its inlaid marble floor from the third century, along with fragments of friezes.
The Anaglyphs of Trajan, two travertine slabs with reliefs depicting the emperor and the people of Rome, are displayed here. Outside the Curia and protected by a low roof is a block of black marble under which, according to legend, is the tomb of Romulus, founder of Rome. Opposite the Curia is the “newest” remnant from ancient times, the Column of Phocas, erected in 608.
The Temple of Romulus
Among the best-preserved buildings in the Forum, the temple was dedicated by the emperor Maxentius to his son Valerius Romulus in 309 CE. The temple was later converted into a church, the Basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano, which accounts for its state of preservation.
The bronze doors are the originals, and some of the 13th-century wall paintings inside imitate the draperies that covered the walls when it was a temple. Other wall paintings are religious in nature and also date to the 1300s.
Temple of Vesta
One of the most holy and important buildings in ancient Rome, the Temple of Vesta contained the Sacred Fire. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, six priestesses selected as children from the best families in Rome. This eternal fire was of great importance in Rome. On the first day of the new year, they put out the fires in their houses and lit new ones from the flame in the temple of Vesta.
The present remains, dating from the time of Septimius Severus, between AD 193 and 211, indicate that the temple was circular with 20 slender columns supporting the roof. An opening in the center of the roof let out the smoke from the sacred flame. The temple was mostly intact until the mid-16th century, when it was torn down and its marble used to build papal palaces and churches. What you see today was reconstructed in the 1930s during Mussolini’s drive to reclaim Italy’s ancient grandeur.
Adjoining the Temple of Vesta was the house of the Vestal Virgins, also built by Septimius Severus. You can still easily make out the plan of the building from the remains of its foundations. In the courtyard are the statues of the head vestals with inscriptions of their virtues on the pedestals. The sacred Palladium, an image of Pallas Athene brought by Aeneas from Troy, was kept in the House of the Vestals.
Arch of Septimius Severus
The Roman Senate and populace traditionally constructed triumphal arches honoring victorious emperors and generals, and in AD 203, this 23-meter arch was erected opposite the church of Santi Martina e Luca, to Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta after their victories over the Parthians. On the arch, four deep marble reliefs represent episodes from these wars. Goddesses of victory hold trophies, and a large inscription proclaims the glory of the emperor and his sons (though the name of Geta was later removed).
The arch also features the base of a column commemorating the 10th anniversary of Diocletian’s accession and the remains of the Rostra, the ancient orators’ platform originally decorated with the prows of captured enemy ships. The arch was considered the spot of the Umbilicus Urbis, the navel or symbolic center of Rome.
Temple of Saturn
Built about 497 BC, the Temple of Saturn was one of the most important and venerated of the Republic. The first temple in the Forum, it was dedicated to the god that was probably of Etruscan origin but adopted by the Romans as the supreme god. It was destroyed by fire several times, the last in the fourth century AD, but was repeatedly rebuilt.
Under the Republic, the state treasury was kept in this temple, and annual celebrations of the Saturnalia started from here. You can recognize the Temple of Saturn by its eight weathered Ionic columns.
Adjoining the temple is a fragment of the Miliarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone, which was the starting point of the Via Sacra and all the Roman consular roads. On the stone, in golden figures, were inscribed the distance from Rome to the various provinces of the Empire.
Temple of Castor and Pollux
Three 12-meter Corinthian columns are all that survive from the Temple of Castor and Pollux, rebuilt in the reign of Tiberius in the first century AD to replace the original, built in 484 BC by the son of the dictator Aulus Postumius in thanks for the defeat of the Tarquins.
This victory was attributed to the help of the Dioscuri – Castor and Pollux, who were the subject of numerous myths, partly of Greek and partly of Etruscan origin. A legend held that after the victory, Castor and Pollux rode to Rome and watered their horses at a spring in the Forum. The three remaining columns are known popularly as The Three Sisters.
Temple of Antoninus Pius
From the Via Sacra, steps leads up to the Temple of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina, built in AD 141 to honor the deified empress, and after his death, co-dedicated to him. Six columns with Corinthian capitals survive from the front, along with a number of columns along the side.
In the 12th century, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, but when the Emperor Charles V visited Rome in 1536, the columns were disengaged from the medieval masonry.
Passing under the Arch of Titus and through the Forum, the Via Sacra was ancient Rome’s main street, along which triumphal processions marched between Capitoline Hill and the Colosseum. Some of the most important religious sites lay along it, and it was used daily by Romans engaging in business or socializing at the basilicas.
The Via Sacra was paved and lined by columns, and in places, you can still see the grooves made by wheels that passed over it centuries ago.
Traveler walking to a hotel in Rome
The lively, hip Monti neighborhood, north of the Forum, is a good place to look for a hotel, close to the ancient sights and within easy reach of Termini rail station. We recommend these hotels:
The Colosseum at sunset
Not surprisingly, the Forum sat at the heart of ancient Rome, so many of that era’s most important sights are all around it: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Nero’s recently excavated Domus Aurea (Golden House). It’s only a short distance to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and the Basilica of San Clemente is not far beyond the Colosseum.
At the Colosseo Metro stop, the Oppio Caffe serves pizza and antipasto plates, and is a good stop for coffee. Right above it, on Via Nicola Salvi, is La Biga Ristoracaffe, with outdoor and indoor tables.
Or follow Via degli Annibaldi or Via Colesseo to Via Cavour, in the heart of the Monti neighborhood, where you’ll find a concentration of restaurants. Trattoria Da Valentino, at #293 serves home-style Roman dishes. Even closer, opposite the Domus Aurea, Hostaria da Nerone also serves Roman comfort foods.
Handbags for sale in Rome
Via Cavour and its surrounding streets are filled with small shops and boutiques. For leather goods look for verypel, and for original designs in handmade clothing, stop at designer-owned Abito.
Momte is especially known for its vintage clothing shops. Among them are Pifebo on Via dei Serpenti, and Humana Vintage Roma on Via Cavour. For designer fashions, handcrafts, and art, don’t miss the weekend Mercato Monti on Via Leonina, where young and emerging designers and artists display their works.