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Matthew’s virtual tour: The Forum

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We’ve heard that the Forum space between Rome’s hills was originally marshy unpromising low lying ground made usable in the sixth century BC through drainage. The Forum space then developed as a long, roughly rectangular area ringed by buildings. Looking at it as we are now in the high imperial period, we see the remains of grand political and religious structures. But originally, the Forum was ringed with commercial and residential buildings. And the transformation into a monumental piazza was particularly achieved under the first emperor Augustus, later amplified by other emperors. The space lost it’s messy commercial bustling character and became a formalised monumentalised space.
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As we walk around it, we can see that down the long sides of that Forum square there were two arcaded buildings. These are basilicas, open, aisled halls used for law courts, for banking functions, for public events. On this side the Basilica Julia, named after Julius Caesar and rebuilt by Augustus, his heir, in AD 12. And on the far side, the Basilica Aemilia. This basilica, though it retains its republican name, was faced in 2 BC by a portico named after Augustus’ adopted grandsons Gaius and Lucius. So in fact, the long sides of the space were now named after Julius Caesar, Augustus’ ancestor, and his appointed heirs, Gaius and Lucius.
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So we’re starting to get the flavour of the dynastic space taking shape. Beyond the end of the Basilica Aemilia is the curia, or senate house. And the version that survives very well today was built after AD 283 by Diocletian and converted into a church. But it’s on the site of another Augustan building, his version of the senate house from 29 BC. The bronze doors from this building are now on the Lateran Cathedral.
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The paved area in the centre of the Forum is also Augustan in date and probably was laid down when the Forum stopped serving as an arena for gladiatorial games when there was a move to purpose built structures elsewhere as we’ll see, and could be paved formally and finally to give it a bit more character and dignity. And the paving enfolds various other sacred or legendary sites. Part of the Forum’s long history, the Lacus Curtius, the Lapis Niger and so on. There were speaker’s platforms, which we call rostra. Although, we now call speaker’s platforms rostro or rostra without really thinking about it, the Latin name comes from a very particular thing. It’s the bronze ram on the front of a warship.
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And the practise in Ancient Rome was that when they won a naval battle they would cut off the beaks of their enemy ships and nail them to the speaker’s platform in the Forum, which is why we call the rostra. Commemorative statues and monuments abound in the Forum, including under the emperor’s triumphal victory arches. The best preserved still standing is that of Septimius Severus from AD 203. But there were others. For example, at least one triple arch of Augustus dating from 29 BC, probably between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and Temple of the deified Caesar– so forming a sort of entry gateway, a barrier through which you had to pass to get into the Forum itself.
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The Forum was also full of religious structures, from small shrines and sacred spring enclosures, to the house and round Temple of the Vestal Virgins, to temples of the great state gods Castor and Pollux– or Saturn, whose temple was restored in the AD 360s in the last flourishing of paganism before Christianity took over. Here, outside the senate house, is the Temple of Concord, or Harmony, put there, tellingly, by the emperor in AD 10 to remind the senators arriving for meetings how harmonious they now had to be in the new order. And the final category of religious building in the Forum is temples dedicated to deified emperors, emperors who died and were now worshipped among the gods.
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Julius Caesar’s temple, put there by Augustus, is first of these. Shoehorned into the far end is a temple to the deified Vespasian. And the best preserved, again through conversion into a church in later ages, is a temple to an imperial couple, Antoninus and his Empress Fastina who ruled in the middle of the second century AD.
Join me on a tour around the grand political and religious structures of the Forum in the high imperial period. You should get the flavour of the dynastic space taking shape and see some of the structures which still stand today.
In this tour, you’ll see the Rostra within the Forum. How do you think speakers would have used this structure?
Look out for the Basilica Julia because in the next Step you’ll be able to explore it in closer detail.
An image of the Forum from the digital model
Figure 1: Digital reconstruction of the Forum. ©Dr Matthew Nicholls, University of Reading, 2017.
1. Forum space, 2. Basilica Iulia, 3. Temple of Castor and Pollux, 4. Arch of Augustus, 5. Temple and of Vesta and House of the Vestal Virgins, 6. Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar, 7. Temple of the Deified Antoninus Pius and Faustina, 8. Basilica Aemilia, 9. Senate House (Curia), 10. Arch of Septimius Severus, 11. Temple of Concord, 12. Temple of the Deified Vespasian, 13. Temple of Saturn, 14. Rostra, 15. Capitoline Hill, 16. Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine.
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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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