The Roman Forum and the adjacent Imperial Forum was very simplistically a set of public squares intended for political governance, meetings, religious functions and mercantile trade. A crucible of Roman social interaction over time.
A small but important distinction is also to be made between the Roman Forum and the Imperial Forums. The two were essentially part of the same area within the city, but the Roman Forum is more closely defined as the historical, first series of monumental squares and buildings developed during the period of Archaic Rome, Roman Kingdom and Roman Republic. It includes additions and modifications made by Julius Caesar like the Curia – Senate.
The Imperial Forum is the adjoining squares added in the imperial age by emperors starting from Augustus through to Trajan (and the well known Trajan’s column).
Public meeting, particular religious ceremonies, legal and political management and shopping all happened at the Forum. The “Via Sacra” road ran through the Forum and apparently the traffic was as busy as central Rome is today. It was also a good place to run a triumphal march through on its way to Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline hill.
Religious ceremonies: An example of the forum’s activities would be the religious processions which preceded the ancient Roman chariot races or the public sacrifices of sheep, bulls and pigs known as the “Suovetaurilia”, or a triumphal march through one of the famous triumphal arches.
An idea of the rituals is found on several monuments. The Forum was also the place to put honorary columns to mark important events, such as the “Base Decennalia” to commemorate 10 years of an Emperor’s rule – One of these is by the arch of Septimus Severus. The column once stood behind the rostra from which Mark Anthony’s famous speech by Shakespeare was delivered: “Romans, Citizens, Countrymen…”. A later column also in the Forum is the column of Emperor Phocas – several hundreds of years later. In essence, the Forum is a layering of Roman civilisation, from the earliest archaic times in the 8th Century BC through to the end of the Empire in the 4-5th Century AD.
So as you can see the Roman Forum was in many ways the centre of Roman culture and everyday life.
Where was the Roman Forum?
The strip of (marshy) land between the hills from the Colosseum to the Capitoline hill. The drawing to the left gives a summary idea. Being very marshy and near the Tiber river the area had to be drained by one of the earliest kings of Rome: Tarquinius Priscus, an Etruscan by birth.
It was at the centre of daily activity in the city and as such constituted a natural meeting point for those living on the surrounding hills.
It should be remembered that the Roman Forum was not the only forum in Rome although it was one of the oldest. For example the ‘Forum Boarium’ by the river was a meat and cattle trading market with easy access to sea commerce and trading. There was also a forum for fruit and vegetables – the ‘Forum Holitorium’ – and another for fish ‘Forum Piscatorium’.
What buildings were there in the Roman Forum?
There were and still are many. The major ones include…
Being a central location between the early hilltop populations it became a natural location for commerce and trade. There is also evidence that there were salt processing facilities along the river – salt was an incredibly valuable product at the time.
The real Roman Forum’s real growth came about during the 2nd Century BC as a consequence of the power, opulence and riches gained following the end of the conquest of Italy, the Punic wars against Carthage and of parts of the orient including Greece. It was at this time that the first Roman Basilicas were built in the forum, replacing earlier “Atria” buildings which had been used for a variety of public services also including legal proceedings for the freeing of slaves or storing the census records.
The state archive, the “Tabularium” still visible today, was added a century later and constituted the beginning of the forum’s architectural transformation completed by Caesar and Augustus. The latter focused on the forum’s use as a centre for his own political propaganda.
The Roman Forum was largely unaltered for a few hundred years. We have the addition of a few triumphal arches and celebratory columns. The last of these additions after the fall of Rome, was the the commemorative column to Emperor Phocas as thanks for having donated the Pantheon to the Pope.
Throughout the middle ages the Forum fell into abandonment until the Renaissance when a love for all things classical generated a great deal of interest in its antiquities and architectural treasures. This also meant it was pillaged for materials to be re-employed throughout the city.
Forums in other Roman cities
Major towns and cities had their own forums. As in forum at Rome, the forum acted as a centre for all aspects of daily life. Religious life was associated with a number of temples, principally to the Capitoline Triad, as well as the emperors and other local divinities (Penates). Public offices such as town councils, law courts, archives were also here, together with the main market places. The image below provides an outline of the Forum at Pompeii: In many ways a scaled-down version of that at Rome.