The Roman Forum

Once an uninviting marshland, much of the site of Rome first became habitable only in the late seventh century B.C., when the Etruscan kings Tarquin I and Servius Tullias (c. 616–535 B.C.) drained the swamp. The valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills then became the central marketplace of the city. The main square—located in the southwestern section of the current Forum—was home to numerous shops, temples and public entertainments (like the wrestling matches depicted in this Etruscan fresco from the Tomb of the Augurs). Several of the oldest extant structures in the modern Forum, including the Curia, the Regia, the Temple of Vesta, the Temple of Janus, the Lapis Niger and the Vulcanal, date from Etruscan times.

With the overthrow of the Etruscan kings and the emergence of the Roman republic (c. 509 B.C.), the Forum began to assume greater importance as a civic and cultural center. Most of the republic’s important religious and political ceremonies were held there. Two impressive new temples with strong patriotic associations—the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of Castor and Pollux (above)—were constructed in the early years of the republic, and a new senate house and orator’s platform (the Rostra) were added in the fourth century B.C. Many of the Forum’s earlier commercial activities were relocated to other markets around Rome, such as the Forum Boarium (the cattle market) and the Forum Holitorium (the vegetable market).

During this period, Rome established itself as the dominant power in the Mediterranean world. The Romans consolidated their control over the rest of Italy in 275 B.C., conquered Sicily, Spain and Sardinia in the last decades of the third century B.C., and eventually—after centuries of bloody warfare—defeated Carthage in 146 B.C. While foreign wars helped lay the foundation of the Roman Empire, they also drained the republic’s coffers and slowed the pace of improvement in Rome itself. The most important additions to the Forum in this period were three relatively plain but extremely large basilicas (spacious auditoriums) used for judicial hearings and public assemblies.

In 46 B.C., after successful campaigns in Gaul, Egypt and Asia Minor, Julius Caesar was appointed dictator of Rome. Although Caesar was assassinated only two years later, his brief, but popular, reign weakened the authority of the Roman senate and threw the republic into a state of turmoil. In 31 B.C., after more than a decade of political disorder and civil war, Caesar’s nephew Augustus defeated the last of his rivals and assumed control of the Roman Empire. With the fall of the republic and the establishment of an imperial dynasty, the Forum lost many of its political and civic functions and became principally an official monument to the glory of Rome. Julius Caesar had begun this transformation with an ambitious program to restore and expand the Forum’s central square; he had laid out plans to rebuild the Temple of Saturn and had broken new ground for a basilica and an imperial senate house bearing his name. Augustus (31 B.C.–14 A.D.) and his successors built on Caesar’s example, erecting monuments, buildings and arches in their own honor. Some typical monuments of the early imperial period include the Temple of the Deified Caesar, the Arch of Augustus and a new imperial rostra (all commissioned by Augustus), as well as the Arch of Tiberius (built by Tiberius in 16 A.D.) and the Arch of Titus (detail, above), built by Domitian in 81 A.D.

As the empire expanded, many of its rulers began to build their own grandiose fora (known collectively as the imperial fora). But the central Forum (above) remained important as the stage for triumphs and ceremonial events. Several extraordinarily ornate imperial monuments were added during this period, including the Arch of Septimius Severus (203 A.D.), the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (141 A.D.), and the enormous, vaulted Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (c. 306–310 A.D.).

By the early third century A.D., the Roman Empire had become so vast that only the strongest of rulers could hold it together. In 284, after a half century of civil war, the autocratic Diocletian became emperor. Diocletian’s reforms included dividing the empire into eastern and western halves, each with its own ruler. In the early fourth century, the emperor Constantine (307–337) temporarily reunited the empire and founded a new capital at Constantinople. Rome ceased to be the center of the Roman (later Byzantine) Empire, and little was built there after Constantine. During the Middle Ages, the Forum fell into a state of complete disrepair. A few of its structures were reused as churches and fortifications, but most of the once-bustling urban center was abandoned, eventually becoming a cow pasture (the Campo Vaccino). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Forum became a popular subject for paintings, including Giovanni Paolo Panini’s 1735 The Roman Forum (above). The Italian archaeologist Giacomo Boni began excavations of the Forum in 1898, and the site has been intensely studied ever since.