In ancient Rome, a forum was a public space in the center of a city that served as a marketplace, a place for entertainment, and the center of religious and political life. The most famous forum was the Roman Forum in the city of Rome. At its height, the Roman Forum was the setting for the most important political, social, commercial, legal, and religious affairs of the Roman Empire.
THE RUINS OF THE FORUM
Over the centuries, the buildings of the Roman Forum were destroyed repeatedly by fires, earthquakes, and attacks from hostile armies. By the A.D. 1800s, the forum was covered by 50 feet of dirt and debris. Since then, most of the forum has been unearthed. Unfortunately, for many centuries the forum was used as a quarry for building materials, and now only about 50 of the thousands of columns that once stood in the forum remain standing. The forum has become overgrown with trees and shrubs, and it is now the home for hundreds of stray cats.
The Roman Forum emerged as the city’s main public square early in Rome’s history. The area was originally a swampy plain lying between several of Rome’s hills. Since the flatland was unsuitable for construction, early residents settled on the hills and buried their dead at the edges of the marsh. During the 600s B.C., the Romans drained the flat marshland and filled it in with earth and stones. The main drainage sewer they built there is still in operation today. This former swamp soon became the city’s primary marketplace.
The Romans built temples around the edges of the forum. The earliest temple, built in the 600s B.C., honored Vesta, the goddess of the home and family. Temples built in the early 400s B.C. honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, and Castor and Pollux, twin brothers who were thought to have miraculously saved Rome. The Regia, a building on the east side of the forum, housed the records of Rome’s chief priest.
The forum became the center of Rome’s political life. The curia, where the Roman Senate met, was located in the forum, as was the comitium, which was a place of assembly. Politicians and lawmakers often made speeches to the public in the forum. The Roman Forum also became a place of public entertainment. Gladiatorial shows—combats between two fighters or teams of fighters—sometimes took place there, and spectators watched from balconies built over the shops that surrounded the central plaza.
As time passed, the forum became more crowded as Rome’s leaders built more temples and large public buildings around the square. Butchers, fish sellers, and other vendors were forced to move to other marketplaces. In the first century B.C., several Roman rulers reshaped the Roman Forum. When the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla enlarged the Roman Senate to 600 members, he rebuilt the curia in the forum to house it. Gaius Julius Caesar and Caesar Octavianus Augustus, who was the first Roman emperor, restored some of the forum’s ancient temples and monuments and built new ones as well.
By this time, since there was little room for new construction in the Roman Forum, Roman leaders built new forums nearby. These forums are known as imperial* forums. Caesar started this trend in 46 B.C., when he dedicated a new forum on land he had donated to the city. His forum was rectangular in shape with colonnades* along the two long sides, a building for government meetings at one end, and a temple dedicated to the mythical founder of Caesar’s family.
Caesar’s heir, the emperor Augustus, vowed to build a temple to Mars, the god of war, if he won a crucial battle. Augustus won and commissioned the construction of a new forum for the temple. Statues and artwork in the temple celebrated Roman history and the history of the Julians, the family to which Caesar and Augustus belonged. Another imperial forum, completed in A.D. 97, was the work of the emperors Domitian and Nerva. It contained a temple to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
The forum of the emperor Trajan, completed in A.D. 112, was the largest and grandest of the imperial forums. Its central plaza was bordered by colonnades, libraries, and halls. The emperor Hadrian later added a temple dedicated to Trajan. In a reminder that forums had originally been public marketplaces, the Forum of Trajan had a six-level structure filled with shops and a large open market. The Forum of Trajan was one of Rome’s most impressive architectural achievements, combining the ancient tradition of a central public space with the finest materials and workmanship of the imperial age. (See also Architecture, Roman; Churches and Basilicas; Construction Materials and Techniques; Markets; Senate, Roman.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* colonnade series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof