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Part IV – ‘The heart of the entire Roman Empire’

Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls introduce you to the political architecture at the heart of the Roman Empire, the great Forums.
Here we are in the heart of Ancient Rome, the heart, therefore, of the entire Roman Empire. This is the Forum.
Looking behind me you might see that the Forum space is a narrow rectangular trapezoidal, kind of, space sunk down in a depression, a bowl in the hills, the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill. And initially this space was unpromising, wet, marshy bottom land, malarial, swampy, not much good to anybody. And the original settlements of Rome, those iron age villages where it all began way up on the hilltops enjoying the cool breezes.
But this land became the space where they met, they traded, they signed treaties, they did business, they buried their dead, and as those proto-villages grew into a town, into a city that meeting space and zone of interaction became more and more important. So they started to make it usable. They drained out all of those swamp waters through the great drain, the Cloaca Maxima, sending the waters way down to the Tiber river and out of the way. They bought an earth and gravel fill, rammed it down, and made this area buildable solid land, and they started to let the Forum proper take shape.
As Rome grew richer, more powerful, more ambitious, and perhaps, especially, as Rome’s growing empire encountered, especially in the Greek East, states that had grandiose ideas about civic architecture, Rome began to think, well, we’re a world capital. We want some of that. So this forum space took on a grander, more ornamented, more civic and stately function and appearance, and that process of amelioration of growing bigger and smarter carried on and accelerated until first emperor Augustus, in particular. By that date, all of the private functions were gone, and the Forum become an enclosed space. We know that Augustus tried to enforce a dress code even for entering it.
Wheeled traffic was probably gone, we had smart paving, and the buildings all the way around it, ringing in the entire Forum and enclosing it were now dressed up with wonderful colonnades, coloured marbles, towering height and scale, inscriptions on the front. There were honorifics statues and columns everywhere. The temples were rebuilt gleaming new. The whole thing was massively impressive and a fit testament to Rome’s size, importance, and ambition.
Grand, spectacular, impressive as the Roman Forum was, as a Roman Empire grew in size and complexity, it just was not big enough to contain all the business of politics in the state that the Romans had to do down there. They had to expand. If you’re looking for a visionary Roman whose business was expansion, you can’t do better than Julius Caesar. And it was Caesar who began the game that led to the Imperial Forums. He purchased for hundreds of millions of sesterces, a fortune in Roman coin, the land that was full of aristocratic houses that stood down here. And on that land being a man of taste and vision, he could do whatever he wanted.
The Republican Forum, beautiful as it was, historical, ringed with significance had grown up organically over the years, higgledy-piggledy, a bit of a maze and a mess. What Caesar wanted to do was build from scratch in the grand Hellenistic royal style. He wanted marble. He wanted colonnades. He wanted columns like trees reaching up to the sky, and at the end a beautiful temple dedicated to his mother goddess, Venus, reminding everybody that he himself had divine origins. And that’s exactly what he got. This huge piazza, abutting the back of the Senate house reminding everybody that Caesar was now in charge of the state, was a rectangular orderly, symmetrical place, beautifully paved, colonnades down the side, at the end that lovely temple.
Caesar set a pattern that other emperors followed. Chiefly and first of all, his own adopted son and heir, the first emperor, Augustus. Augustus too presided over a growing state. He was proud of his conquests and proud of his deified father. So he built his own forum physically touching, though we don’t quite know how the connection was made– Caesar’s forum. This temple too ringed with columns, and at the end of it a high temple dedicated this time to Mars, the Roman war god. And not just a war god, Mars the war god of revenge. Mars Ultor celebrating Augustus’ revenge over his father’s murderers as he saw it, the assassins of the Ides of March 44 BC.
The physical remains of these Imperial Fora are really spectacular, but there’s only so much they can tell us. If we’re looking to flesh them out, to reconstruct them in the minds eye of what they once looked like, there are other sources of evidence that we can turn to. Coins, but also literary text, Roman descriptions of the buildings. What can we learn from poetry about this forum of Augustus. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in the reign of Augustus himself, so probably at about the time the Forum of Augustus was dedicated gives us a description in his calender poem the Fasti of the Temple of Mars Ultor in Augustus’ forum.
We see Mars himself descending from heaven to view, with considerable satisfaction, his new temple in the Forum. And his description of it includes a number of features, which don’t survive as part of the archaeological record. For example, he talks about the statuary of the Augustine forum and the Temple of Mars Ultor. So we know from this description that there was a statue of Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, on his shoulders away from burning Troy. We know that there was a statue of Romulus carrying the spoils of war, and the temple itself was also surrounded by statues of the Alban kings and of Augustus’ ancestors.
These were clearly a notable part of the sculptural programme of the Forum, and these are certainly details that Ovid dwells on in his description. All of these figures that you’ve named for us are founders of Rome or ancestors. Augustus in present is linking himself back to a long history of Roman great leaders and claiming he’s just another one in the line of destined heroes and figures born to lead Rome. Again, towards the end of the passage, we are told that Augustus vowed this particular temple when he took up pious arms to avenge his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. This is presented in such a way as to celebrate Augustus.
It’s presented through the eyes of Mars himself, so that we dwell on the warlike or military aspects of the complex. But nonetheless, it preserves details of this particular building programme, which no longer survive, and yet clearly made an impression on contemporary viewers. So poetry can really help us understand and illuminate the archaeological remains of the city.
So far, so good. We’ve got to Imperial Fora sharing an alignment, sharing a basic design concept, connecting to the old forum and extending its function, its space out in this direction. Later emperors decided to follow suit. The emperor Vespasian, the chap that built the Colosseum, almost next door to it built his own huge Templum Pacis, the Temple or Forum of Peace that contained a shrine to that goddess, also beloved of Augustus. It contained marble columns, it contained gardens and fountains of some sort, and a rich display of statues.
Then Vespasian’s second son, Domitian, who we tend to regard frankly as a rather disastrous emperor, built a long thin forum he squeezed in between the Forum of Vespasian, his father, and the Forum of Augustus, the first emperor. His Forum Transitorium, his forum of passage way, leading down from the slum district of the Suburra through what had been a winding narrow street was now a beautiful marble colonnaded street and down into the old forum. And by now the overall picture’s becoming very clear.
Each emperor is trying to build up close to previous emperors sharing the same alignment, the same overall ground plan of a rectangular actually symmetrical square with a temple in it that becoming like the triumphal arches a, sort of, sequence of monuments through time connecting to each other, echoing, rebounding off each other, and each one getting up physically close to and touching its predecessors. And then the biggest and best of them all built by the man some people considered to be Rome’s most successful emperor Trajan dwarfed all the others. On the far side of Augustus’ forum, but radically bigger in scale. A huge, huge marble piazza ringed by huge colonnades.
Across one end of it a great transverse basilica, the size of a cathedral with a forest of marble columns rising up supporting the roof. Behind that, Trajan’s famous column with its spiral frieze telling the story of his military conquest like a comic book strip. Either side of that, a pair of libraries housing the literary achievements of his reign. And somewhere behind, and we don’t quite know where a huge temple honouring the deified Trajan after his death and his ascent up to join the gods.
But perhaps that new scale and grandeur came something of a price. Perhaps, it began to feel a bit like a sterile dynastic commemorative precinct. No longer the beating heart of the Roman state perhaps, but a true testament to its power, its wealth, and its political ambition.

Last week you looked at the infrastructure of Rome such as the roads, aqueducts and sewers. This week you’ll investigate the political architecture at the heart of the Roman Empire.

Let’s explore ancient Rome’s great forum spaces. The oldest was the main Forum, followed later on by the nearby imperial fora. These started with Julius Caesar’s Forum Iulium, which set a pattern which other emperors followed. First and foremost was Caesar’s adoptive heir Augustus, who built the Forum Augustum, partly to honour Caesar (and Augustus’ revenge on his killers). Caesar’s and Augustus’ lead was followed in Vespasian’s Templum Pacis. Next came Domitian’s Forum Transitorium and then Trajan’s mighty Forum which dwarfed them all. Each emperor built close to his predecessors, cementing their legacies into a long line of Roman leaders.

While you watch this video you may like to think about the following and share your thoughts in the comment area below:

  • How were the imperial fora an effective way for each emperor to promote his importance and ambition?

  • At the end of the video, I raised the possibility that over time the Roman Forum became less of a practical working space and more a commemorative precinct. Do you agree?

I also join my colleague, Dr Luke Houghton, back at the University of Reading to discuss how poetry can tell us more about the architecture of these great buildings. You’ll hear more about how poetry can illuminate the ancient city later this week.

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