‘I need no ivory temple for my delight,’ wrote Propertius in Augustus’ day, ‘enough that I can see the Roman Forum.’ Here, from immemorial times, had been the meeting place of a civilization that was always positive. This Forum, so quiet in its ruins now, was filled with activity from the dawn of recorded history. Around its edges butchers, fruit-sellers, and money-lenders had their stands; in its centre were held public meetings and religious ceremonies closely bound up with the city’s practical life. If the past haunts the Forum, it is a past filled with less sinister figures than those which linger in the shadows of the Palatine above.
Nowhere in Rome has more human drama been crowded into so little space. Here, according to tradition, the men of Romulus had snatched as brides the maidens of the Sabine tribes. Here, too, was set the tragic, stirring tale of the centurion Virginius, and his daughter, Virginia, whom he stabbed with a knife from a nearby butcher’s shop to save her from a tyrant’s claim.
Here legend placed the ancient story of Marcus Curtius’ leap into the unfathomable gulf yawning below the Capitol. Here Antony showed the Romans the body of the murdered Caesar and read them his will. Here, too, roused to fury by this sight and by the dead Caesar’s generosity, the people burned his body in their most honoured spot as a final tribute to his memory. And along the Forum’s Sacred Way, from the Arch of Titus up the Capitol hill, passed the triumphal processions of emperors and generals, returning victorious from the wars.
The Forum’s activities probably took place at first entirely in the open air. Later shops and temples were built and the great basilicas along the edges, which combined halls for courts and assemblies with space for shops. Throngs too large for these basilicas were addressed from the rostra, special platforms built for this purpose, or from the steps of the Forum’s temples. The Senate met in these temples, as well as in others throughout Rome, but its special home was in the Forum, in the Senate House, consecrated to Victory.
Julius Caesar, city planner as well as warrior and statesman, gave the Forum the general shape it preserves today. One of the most arresting spots in its whole area is the altar before the temple dedicated there by the Senate to mark the place where his body was burned in 44 B.C.
As power grew more and more concentrated in the hands of the emperors and their officials, public activities in the Forum became less important. But the place remained as unique in Roman memory as when Cicero had called it ‘the Forum in which all justice is preserved’. The emperors built larger and more elaborate forums for business and amusement, but this remained ‘the Forum’ or ‘the Forum of the Romans’, by virtue of its age and associations.
As Christianity gradually conquered paganism, the temples of the Forum were closed by imperial edicts, though these edicts were disregarded from time to time. For a while some of the temples were safeguarded as public monuments or kept for various uses. But the Gothic wars of the sixth century so drained the city’s resources that it would have been impossible to keep the old buildings in good repair, even had any considerable group wanted to preserve the remnants of paganism. The temples which survived did so largely because they were transformed into churches or because they were too massive to be pulled down easily for building material. The earthquake of 847, which damaged the Colosseum, probably hastened their destruction.
During the centuries of slow decay and active pillage, the ground-level of the Forum rose with the debris of fallen structures and the washing down of earth and ruin from the surrounding hills, until traffic was almost completely blocked, and papal processions had to find other ways than the old triumphal road. The few remaining columns of the ancient temples were buried, sometimes half their height; the crumbling ruins were robbed of stone and brick to be burnt for lime or re-used in humbler buildings.
Such was the Forum’s state in the first years of the fifteenth century, when interest in antiquity was reviving with the early Renaissance. Some time before 1431 Poggio Bracciolini the humanist, wrote wistfully: ‘The Roman Forum, the most celebrated place in the city, where the people assembled and laws were made, and the nearby Comitium, where magistrates were chosen, are now deserted through the malignance of Fortune. The one is given over to swine and cattle; the other is enclosed as a vegetable garden.’
In 1536 the Forum was partially cleared to provide a triumphal way for the Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V, in celebration of his victory over the Turks in Tunisia the year before. Unfortunately, the preparation of this triumphal road gave a fresh impetus to the plundering of the ruins, against which Raphael had already protested. After this clearing, the Forum, once more passable for traffic, was drawn again into the active life of Rome. When the excavators of the sixteenth century had finished their search for antiques, quiet settled once more about the Forum, but it was no longer a quiet of death. The lowing of cattle and the shouts of drovers now filled the air, for the Forum was again used as a market.
Indeed, its classic name was almost forgotten and it was known then, and for long afterward, as the Campo Vaccino, or Cow Pasture, from the animals herded and sold there. Its very site, questioned by Ligorio in the sixteenth century, long remained a subject of antiquarian argument. Fortunately there were always men of plain common sense who, refusing to be drawn into fine-spun argument, kept to the old site while accepting the new name, and said with the seventeenth-century Englishman, John Raymond: ‘The Campo Vaccino was heretofore the Forum Romanum.’
The eighteenth century saw a revival of interest in antiquity unequalled since the early Renaissance, which stimulated the desire for scholarly excavations. Late in the century such excavations were begun in the Forum, and for a hundred and fifty years its ruins were laid bare, down even to graves of the eighth century B.C. or earlier, below its ancient paving stones. During the last century and a half more has been learned of the Forum’s buildings than was known during the thousand years before; yet even today scholars feel certain of less than many a Roman boy of ancient times.
Throughout the centuries three groups of columns and one lone shaft have been landmarks of the Forum. Most of these, at the western end, close below the Capitol, mark the sites of the temples of Saturn and of Vespasian. The eight grey and red granite columns of the portico of Saturn’s temple stand almost at right angles to the Senator’s Palace. This was one of the Forum’s oldest temples, although the columns which stand today are late.
An inscription above them states that the temple was restored by vote of the Senate after a fire, probably that of A.D. 284, which swept the Forum. The Senate had a special interest in this temple, where the steep Clivus Capitolinus wound up the Capitol, for it had its treasury here. The writer of the Mirabilia had these facts clearly in mind when he referred to the ‘public Treasury, that was the temple of Saturn’, beside the ‘Triumphal Arch, whence was the ascent into the Capitol’. Later generations which had lost the tradition called it by many names, such as the ‘Temple of Concord’ and the ‘Temple of Fortune.’
Close by the Temple of Saturn stand the three corner columns of the Temple of Vespasian. Called for centuries ‘Temple of Jupiter Tonans’, this temple’s columns, with their sharp flutings, their rich Corinthian capitals, and their elaborately carved frieze above, were the delight of artists. Titus and Domitian built the temple late in the first century A.D. and dedicated it to Vespasian, their father. Titus died and was deified before it was completed; he may have shared the dedication.
The anonymous monk of the eighth century who copied the inscriptions preserved at Einsiedeln left the clue which finally solved the temple’s identity. Much more of the temple was evidently standing then, for the inscription stated clearly that the building had been dedicated to Vespasian and restored by the emperors Severus and Caracalla.
Between Vespasian’s temple and the Arch of Severus rises the Column of Phocas which has stood erect ever since it was set up in A.D. 608, the last monument erected in the Forum in what might still be considered ancient times. Its identity was completely lost until the excavations of the early nineteenth century uncovered its base with a dedication to ‘… our lord, Phocas, the eternal emperor’. It was a sign of the fallen fortunes of Rome that the citizens set up no new column to honour this upstart Byzantine Emperor of the East, but one carved long before and put to a new use.
By one of the world’s pleasant ironies this column is best known throughout the English-speaking world through two lines of poetry far from accurate. Its base had been uncovered and the inscription read in 1813; Charlotte Eaton referred to its identity in 1817 as common knowledge among visitors. But Byron, who was in Rome the same year as Mrs. Eaton, was not noted for close attention to specific facts; even when he knew them, he often preferred the suggestion of mystery. The sober facts are cold beside his apostrophe:
‘Tully was not so eloquent as thou,
Thou nameless column with the buried base!’
The third group of columns is midway between the Capitol and the Arch of Titus. These three parallel fluted shafts of the Temple of Castor which appear in the foreground of Marten van Heemskerck’s drawing, in that of Claude Lorrain, and in Canaletto’s painting, are perhaps the most outstanding of the three groups. They rise in comparative isolation near the end of the old Republican Forum, and the richness of their Corinthian capitals and carved entablature has made them, like the three of Vespasian’s temple, a favourite subject for artists. These columns do not belong to the first temple there, or even to the one Cicero called ‘that famous and glorious memorial of the past… which stands where the nation may see it daily’.