It’s been almost six years since I visited the Roman Forum, camera in hand, eagerly snapping away at the ruins I’d dreamt of seeing after a decade of education in Latin. We had a small group tour and I remember standing as close to the guide as possible taking notes on my phone for things I wanted to remember. Once a nerd, always a nerd.
Despite my education in Roman history and the Latin language, nothing prepared me for visiting the Roman Forum. While I was ridiculously excited, I was also overwhelmed – the Forum was full of unlabeled ruins and it seemed as if you needed extensive knowledge of the Forum itself in order to be able to appreciate anything. So, I thought I’d share some highlights from the Roman Forum to inspire you to visit on a trip to Rome. (Note: there are so many more fascinating ruins to see in the Roman Forum. I just picked my top 19.)
What is the Roman Forum?
Located at the heart of ancient Rome, the Roman Forum (or Forum Romanum in Latin) was the center of Roman life for centuries. It began as a marketplace during the time of Romulus and eventually evolved into a location for elections, speeches, trials, religious ceremonies, meetings, gatherings, and more. The Forum expanded and thrived until the Roman Empire began to decline, with most of the buildings being destroyed, repurposed, or left to ruin by the 5th century AD.
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Forum was known as the Campo Vaccino (cattle field) because it was used as a pasture for grazing animals. It wasn’t until 1803 that archaeologist Carlo Fea “rediscovered” the Roman Forum. It took well over 100 years to excavate the area to what visitors see today.
Highlights of the Roman Forum
Temple of Caesar (Templum Divi Iuli)
Begun by Augustus in 42 BC, the Temple of Caesar was dedicated on 18 August 29 BC after the Battle of Actium. It sits on the site of Caesar’s cremation. The temple is unique because it had a recessed section built into the front of the temple to accommodate Caesar’s ashes and a new rostrum platform for public speeches. The platform had bronze rams taken from the ships of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.
Interestingly, it is the only temple dedicated to the cult of a comet. According to legend, a comet appeared for seven straight days after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. The comet was considered to be the soul of Julius Caesar and a symbol of the new birth of Augustus as heir.
The temple was dismantled in the late 15th century and used for parts to build new churches and palaces. Only parts of the cement core platform remain with the recess.
Translation of the above plaque, which is found on the site of the temple: “Caesar’s body was laid in the Roman Forum where the ancient seat of the Roman power resided. There the Roman people gathered tables, chairs and any other type of wood that they found. They lit the fire and all the people witnessed the burning of the fire during the night. In this place, they built an altar and then a temple to the same Caesar, in which he is now honored as a god.’
Curia Julia (Sant’Adriano al Foro)
The Curia Julia was the 3rd senate house in ancient Rome, begun in 44 BC by Julius Caesar. Construction was taken up by Augustus Caesar after Julius Caesar’s assassination and finished in 29 BC. It was damaged by fire in 283 AD and subsequently rebuilt by Diocletian. The floor of the Curia survives as well as the steps where around 300 senators could sit.
The Curia remains mostly intact because it was converted into the Basilica of Sant’Adriano al Foro in the 7th century. However, the roof, upperparts, sidewalls, and rear façade were reconstructed in the 1930s.
Ruins of Basilica Aemilia
Basilica Aemilia was built on the site of 5th century BC butcher shops and 4th century BC banks. It was constructed in 179 BC by censor (magistrate) Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and given the name Basilica Fulvia. His colleague Marcus Aemilius Lepidus completed it after his death. The Aemilius family subsequently restored the basilica several times, hence the name switch to Basilica Aemilia. Pliny called it one of the most beautiful buildings in Rome.
Fire completely destroyed it in 410 AD. Afterward, it was rebuilt only to be destroyed by an earthquake in 847 AD. What remained of the basilica was used for building materials.
Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda)
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was constructed by Emperor Pius in 141 AD and dedicated to his deceased wife, Faustina. Marcus Aurelius added Antoninus to the dedication after his death.
It was converted to a Catholic church as early as the 7th century but wasn’t recorded as such until the 11th century. The church is called Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda. Miranda was possibly a benefactress of the church; San Lorenzo was the location of the sentencing of St. Lawrence, Deacon and martyr, to death by the prefect of Rome.
Before excavations, the ground level was at the base of the door.
House of the Vestals (Atrium Vestae)
The House of the Vestals was a 3-story, 50-room palace that housed the Vestal Virgins – the women who were responsible for keeping the eternal flame of Vesta lit.
The Order of the Vestals dates back to Romulus or Numa (8th-7th centuries BC). Chosen from aristocratic families between ages 6-10, these women were Rome’s only college of full-time priests. They served for 30 years – if they succeeded they got wealth and privilege; if they were caught to have had relations with men, they would be locked in a cave and starved. Many chose to remain on as priestesses after their tenure ended, possibly due to the respect and social privileges that came from service.
The house of the Vestal Virgins that remains today was built after Nero’s fire in 64 AD. Trajan reconstructed it and Septimus Severus restored it. The house featured multiple stories of bedrooms, reception rooms with heating systems and marble paving, kitchens, and a mill that surrounded an arcaded courtyard decorated with fountains and statues of famous Vestals.
After its dissolution in the 4th century AD, the complex housed imperial court officials and subsequently the papal court. It was abandoned in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Temple of Vesta (Aedes Vestae)
While the Temple of Vesta is one of the earliest structures in the Forum, it was rebuilt and destroyed many times. After its last destruction was by fire in 191 AD, Septimus Severus rebuilt it for the last time. The Temple of Vesta remained intact until the Renaissance. Unfortunately, the temple was demolished in 1549 and its marble was used to build papal churches and palaces.
The Temple of Vesta housed the holy fire of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, home, and family. As long as the fire was burning, Rome would be safe and prosperous. Because she was originally worshipped in homes, the circular shape of the temple reflects the shape of early Roman homes.
In addition, the temple stored the legal wills and documents of Roman senators as well as the Palladium – the statue of Athena (Minerva) that Aeneas brought from Troy.
Casa Romuli (House of Romulus)
These ruins are theoretically the dwelling of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome (ca. 771-717 BC). There are no remains of the actual house today but archaeologists have unearthed foundations of dwellings dating to the Iron Age (900-700 BC) whose location matches the descriptions given by ancient Roman historians.
The house was restored several times throughout the ages after accidental destruction by ceremonial fires and damage by storms.
Domus Flavia (Flavian Palace)
The Domus Flavia was completed in 92 AD by Domitian, the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. It housed the rooms for official business, entertainment, and ceremonies and was used until the end of the empire.
The peristyle (porticoed courtyard) of the Domus Flavia connected the living and dining rooms. Domitian was a paranoid man and so the walls and floors were made of reflective polished marble; when walking, Domitian could appear relaxed while constantly checking his surroundings in the reflections. In addition, the peristyle held a pool. At the center of this pool was an octagonal island that might have held a fountain and small channels.
The “stadium” looks like a traditional Roman circus but is actually too small to hold chariots. It was most likely a sunken garden. Domitian had a similar garden built at his country villa. The stadium was the last part of the Domus Flavia to be built.
Arch of Titus
The Arch of Titus was constructed around 81 AD by Emperor Domitian to commemorate the deification of Titus and his and Vespasian’s victory over the Jewish Rebellion in Judea.
The original inscription on the east side of the arch translates to, “the Senate and People of Rome dedicate this arch to the deified Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian.”
The Arch de Triomphe in Paris, built in 1806, is based off the design of the Arch of Titus.
Temple of Castor and Pollux
Just three columns remain of this 5th-century BC temple dedicated to the Dioscuri, or twin sons of Zeus and Leta.
The temple has its origins in legend. Castor and Pollux appeared as two horsemen on the battlefield to aid the Roman Republic in a war with the last king of Rome. After the Republic’s victory at the Battle of Lake Regilius, the twins appeared again, this time at the Forum watering their horses at the Spring of Juturna. The temple, or what remains of it, stands at this site.
Like most Roman temples, the Temple of Castor and Pollux served multiple purposes. It was a meeting place for the Roman Senate, an office for weights and measures, and a depository for the state treasury.
The three columns standing today date from a 14 BC rebuilding after a fire destroyed a previous version built in 117 BC and reconstructed in 73 BC. By the 15th century, only these three columns remained.
Arch of Septimus Severus
The Arch of Septimus Severus was dedicated in 203 AD to commemorate the victories of Emperor Septimus Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta over the Parthians in between 194 and 199.
After the death of Septimus Severus, Caracalla and Geta became joint emperors for a short time until Caracalla had Geta assassinated. Caracalla ensured that memorials and mentions of Geta were erased from buildings and monuments, including from this arch at the Roman Forum.
So much sediment and debris from repeated flooding left only the top half of the arch visible aboveground In the Middle Ages.
Temple of Saturn
Eponymously dedicated to the Roman god Saturn, the Temple of Saturn was inaugurated around 497 BC, making it the second oldest Republican temple. What remains today dates to a 360 AD rebuild of the original temple.
The temple housed the treasury (aerarium), the state archives, the insignia, and the official scale for weighing metals. The podium of the temple was used to post bills.
What remains of the inscription reads, “Senatus populusque Romanus incendio consumptum restituit.” “The Senate and people of Rome restored (the temple) consumed by fire.”
Santi Cosmi e Damiano
Santi Cosmi e Damiano incorporates older Roman buildings. The building pictured was originally a 4th-century AD Roman temple dedicated to Emperor Maxentius’s son Romulus. It became a church in 527. Santi Cosmi e Damiano is known as a titulus, or a Roman church assigned to a cardinal. Cosmas and Damian were two Arabian Christian brothers, doctors, martyrs, and saints.
Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
Also known as the Basilica Nova or Basilica of Constantine, the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine was the largest building in the Forum and the last Roman basilica built in Rome. At completion, it measured about 7,000 square yards. Unfortunately, only about one-third of the structure stands today.
Maxentius began construction of the basilica in 308 AD. Constantine saw its completion in 312 AD. The architects of the basilica used advanced engineering feats from Trajan’s Market and the Baths of Diocletian. As such, it resembled more closely a bath than a basilica. Interestingly, it served as design inspiration for NYC’s old Penn Station.
Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine was built to commemorate 10 years of Constantine’s reign as well as his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. The largest Roman triumphal arch, it spans the Via Triumphalis, the road taken by victorious military leaders when they entered the city.
Most of the decorations actually depict Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, taken from older monuments.
Column of Phocas
Probably one of the more visually iconic monuments of the Roman Forum, the Column of Phocas was dedicated to the Eastern Roman Emperor Phocas on 1 August 608 AD. Exactly why he received this column is unknown.
The column/monument is up-cycled: the column was made around the 2nd century AD and the pedestal was taken from a statue of Diocletian.
It was the last ancient addition to the Roman Forum.
Nymphaeum of the Mirrors
The Nymphaeum of the Mirrors was built in the mid-16th century by the Farnese family as part of their gardens called the Horti Farnesiani. Designed by Renaissance architect Pirro Ligorio, the gardens were built among the Roman ruins of the Domus Tiberiana in the Roman Forum and featured aviaries and beautiful sculptures.
Built against the ancient walls of the Domus Tiberiana, the Nymphaeum of the Mirrors was a semicircular domed nymphaeum built to imitate a grotto. The niches featured statues of Satyrs that held mirrors. Water fell like from the top of the vault and rose from the bases of the niches and from little holes in the floor in front of the nymphaeum to produce a rain-like effect. The gardens were abandoned and overgrown by the 18th century.
Temple of Venus and Roma
Located between the eastern edge of the Roman Forum and Colosseum, the Temple of Venus and Roma was the largest temple in Ancient Rome. The temple was begun by Hadrian in 121 AD to honor the goddess Venus and the city of Rome. Hadrian’s architect Apollodorus criticized Hadrian’s design for the temple and was subsequently banished and executed.
Hadrian inaugurated the temple in 135 but it wasn’t finished until 141 under the rule of Antonius Pius. It was damaged by fire in 307 and restored by emperor Maxentius.
A 9th-century earthquake likely destroyed the temple.
Temple of Vespasian and Titus
The Temple of Vespasian and Titus was dedicated to Emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus. Titus began its construction in 79 AD after his father’s death and his brother Domitian completed it around 87 AD.
All that survives are the three columns, the podium’s core, and parts of the inner chamber.
Roman Forum visitors’ information
When we visited the Roman Forum, we booked this semi-private tour which also included a tour of the Colosseum. I do recommend booking a tour because the signage around the Forum Romanum is sparse and there is so much to learn. You can buy tickets to the Forum and Colosseum through the official website for a specific entry time. However, if you have a special interest in the content or want to skip the line, I highly recommend purchasing a guided tour. The Roman Forum is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.