Before we went into the Forum, we saw the Temple of Venus and Roma, which I briefly mentioned in an earlier post. The temple is located between the Forum and the Colosseum. It was designed by Emperor Hadrian and used to be Rome’s biggest temple. Some of the columns that surrounded it are still remaining on both sides, which gives you an idea of how large the temple was.
A statue of Venus, the goddess of love and multiple other things, sat in that large alcove where newlyweds would go to make a sacrifice to Venus. This temple was a double temple, so there was another statue of the goddess Roma, goddess of Rome, facing the Forum. It has been pointed out that the statues were sitting back to back, and ‘Roma’ spelt backwards is ‘amor’, the Latin word for love, symbolising that Rome and love go together.
There were actually a few forums in Rome, but the main one was the Roman Forum. The area of the Roman Forum itself used to be a marshy wetland before the Cloaca Maxima (greatest sewer) was built to drain the water into the Tiber River. The forum was used as a gathering place, a market place, as well as a place for festivals, funerals, and Triumphs – the famous military processions where the conquering Emperor would parade around with his army in a chariot and display captured barbarians and spoils of war before the people, ending with the Emperor offering sacrifices at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. The triumph would travel down the Via Sacra, the wide main street that goes through the forum, on the way to the Capitoline hill.
The first thing we saw when we entered the Roman Forum was the Arch of Titus. I’m not sure if this is officially part of the Roman Forum itself, since it’s a little distance away, but it is part of the ticketed area, so I’m including it here. This Triumphal Arch was built by Emperor Domitian in around AD 81, after the death of his brother, Emperor Titus. The arch was built to celebrate the victory of his brother Titus and his father Vespasian in the Jewish War that lasted from around AD 66-AD 71. In particular, the siege of Jerusalem, where Titus led a 7 month siege on the city of Jerusalem and eventually broke down the city walls and destroyed the city, including the Temple, taking any survivors into slavery. These slaves were taken back to Rome and paraded in a Triumphal Procession, along with other looted items from the Temple in Jerusalem, and used in the building of the Colosseum. Incidentally, this war ended a few years later with the Siege of Masada, when the Romans finally broke through the walls of that city and discovered that everyone (except a few) had committed suicide. While the Romans viewed this as a moment of triumph and victory, you have to imagine how the Jews viewed this moment in history. A moment when their city and Temple were destroyed, where their sacred places and holy items were desecrated, and when they as a people were enslaved and humiliated before all of Rome. Until the 1900s there was an ancient Jewish prohibition in place banning Jewish people from walking under this arch, and once a Jewish person walked under the arch, they could no longer be called a Jew. Given what the Arch of Titus represents, one can understand why the Jewish people refused to walk underneath it. I believe this ban has now been lifted though, and some choose to view the arch as a monument to the Jewish people, who still survive today throughout the world, while the great nation of Rome is now just rubble and words in a history book, and my blog.
We then went over to the Basilica of Maxentius, or the Basilica of Constantine. If you’ve read my post about the Arch of Constantine, you’ll remember how at one point the Roman Empire was divided into different parts with their own emperors. Well, Maxentius took the power over the part of the Roman Empire that included Italy, and began building this basilica in the Roman Forum. However, after he was defeated at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the basilica was finished by his enemy, Emperor Constantine. Originally, this basilica would have been white, and apparently there was a huge statue of Constantine inside. A basilica was a public space, where business and legal matters could be dealt with, as well as a meeting place.
Next was the Temple of Romulus, possibly built in around AD 307 by Emperor Maxentius and dedicated to his son who died young. The special thing about this temple is that the bronze door is original and the lock still works, so that’s a big deal I guess. Although we weren’t allowed test the lock, so we’ll just have to take their word for it.
Next up was the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. This temple was built by Emperor Antoninus Pius, who was one of the good ones. He was emperor after Hadrian (who you may have heard of because of Hadrian’s Wall), who adopted him as his son and heir, and before Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who Antoninus adopted as his sons and heirs and who later became co-emperors after his death (you may also have heard of Marcus Aurelius because of the Column of Marcus Aurelius). When Antoninus’ wife Faustina died, he asked the Senate to make her into a goddess, so he built this temple and also had her face printed on coins in her honour. He actually got the name Pius after he became emperor. Pius means dutiful, and nobody seems to know exactly why he was given that name, although there are a few different theories, of course. It seems like he was a compassionate and popular emperor, and even made new laws that protected slaves from harsh treatment. After he died, Antoninus was also deified by the senate and the temple he built for his wife was co-dedicated to him, so his name was added and the temple became known as the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
The Temple of Vesta was one of my favourites. Temples to Vesta were round and the entrance faced east to symbolise the connection between Vesta’s fire and the sun as bringers of life. This temple was one of the most important because it held the sacred flame of Vesta. The Vestal Virgins had to make sure the flame, symbolising the soul of Rome, was always burning. Essentially, these Vestals held the fate of Rome in their hands, and were often blamed for not doing their duties properly in the case of military failures.
Men were banned from entering this temple, except for the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest), whose main job was to keep the peace with the gods. Julius Caesar was elected to this position in 63 BC. After Caesar’s death, Lepidus (part of the Triumvirate with Octavian and Antony) was selected, followed by Emperor Augustus (Octavian). From then on, Pontifex Maximus basically became another title that went along with being emperor.
The House of the Vestal Virgins was directly behind the Temple of Vesta.
It seems there were 6 Vestal Virgins at a time. The Vestals were selected by drawing a name from a group of girls aged between 6 and 10 years old and of aristocratic birth. The girls selected had to be physically and mentally flawless, both parents had to be living and Roman citizens. The chosen girls would be led away by the Pontifex Maximus, and would dedicate themselves to serving Vesta for 30 years. During this time they had to remain virgins and were only allowed to marry after their 30 year service was finished. Although, it was still considered bad luck because they had been ‘brides of Vesta’ for most of their lives. Breaking their vow of chastity meant death for a Vestal, but the problem was, it was bad luck and forbidden to harm a Vestal. So, the Romans got around this by burying them alive inside a tomb with a little bit of food and water and then sealing the entrance and leaving them to starve to death.
It wasn’t all bad though. They were not the property of any man (except that they had to answer to the Pontifex Maximus and the Roman people), unlike most other Roman women who belonged to either their father or their husband. They had the best seats at the Colosseum, and were paid money after they retired.
The Temple of Caesar was built over the spot where Julius Caesar’s body was cremated. The temple itself was built on a high platform that used to be a rostra (a place for public speaking). In front of the temple was this niche hidden behind a wall with a little entrance where you can view the remains of the altar built at the site where Caesar’s body was cremated. There are still flowers there and coins, because throwing coins at anything in Rome seems to be a good idea.
Then we arrived at the Arch of Septimius Severus. Emperor Severus was the father of Caracalla and Geta, whose story I told in the post about the Baths of Caracalla. This arch was built during the reign of Severus to commemorate his victory against the Parthians. When Caracalla murdered his brother Geta and became emperor, he did that damnatio memoriae thing the Roman emperors sometimes did, which was an attempt to remove their enemy/predecessor’s name from history. This resulted in all statues or references to the damned being erased. So, Caracalla removed the reference to his brother Geta in the inscription on the arch. Apparently there also used to be a statue of Severus and both of his sons riding a chariot with six horses on top of the arch.
The Temple of Saturn was dedicated to the god of agriculture, and is thought to be one of the earliest temples in the Forum, built during the last years of the kings. It was also used as the state treasury and contained the standards of the legions, as well as public laws engraved on bronze tablets.
The Column of Phocas was the last thing to be built in the Roman Forum, dedicated to the Byzantine Emperor Phocas. The Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, was the surviving part of the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Empire. Phocas was a usurper, meaning that he killed the previous emperor in order to take the throne in around AD 602. Apparently the Pope persuaded Phocas to give the Pantheon to the church. Two years after this column was built, Phocas was beheaded by the next emperor-to-be, Heraclius, and his body was dismembered, paraded around and then burned. The Roman Empire must have been such a lovely place.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux was dedicated to the twin gods who helped the Romans at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Legend has it that two young men appeared riding white horses and led the Romans to victory, and were also seen giving their horses a drink in Rome afterwards. Castor and Pollux were twins who had different fathers. Zeus was the father of Pollux, making him immortal, while Castor’s father was the human king of Sparta, making him mortal. When Castor died in battle, Pollux shared his immortality with his brother. They are both represented in the Gemini constellation. The temple itself housed the standards of weights and measures.
There were lots of other things to see in the Forum, such as the Curia Julia, the place where the senate used to meet, although it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Also interesting were the remains of the Basilica Julia, which would have been impressive. Something that particularly fascinated me was the Umbilicus Urbis, which literally means ‘the navel of the city of Rome’, or ‘the navel of the world’. All that is left is a round brick base that is next to the Arch of Septimius Severus. Every road in Rome led to this spot, so it was considered to be the ‘bellybutton of Rome.’ Apparently there used to be a marker here stating the distance to all the major cities in the Roman Empire.
So what happened to the Forum? In around AD 393, Emperor Theodosius issued a law banning any non-Christian religions, which meant all the temples were shut down and also the ancient Olympic Games. This resulted in the temples in the Roman Forum, such as the Temple of Vesta, being abandoned. The Forum was later plundered both by enemies of Rome and Romans themselves. The monuments and temples were taken apart for building materials, with the metal, stone and marble being used for the construction of other buildings. Eventually the Roman Forum became known as the Campo Vaccino (Cow Field).