The Roman Forum is undoubtedly the most important heritage site in Italy considering it served as the social and political centre of one of the greatest empires in history. Before the forum was built the area it inhabits was low-lying, grassy wetland situated between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill. The first king of Rome, Romulus, who controlled the Palatine Hill and his rival Titus Tatius, who occupied the Capitoline Hill, had been at war with each other for many years until combat was halted by the intervention of the Sabine women. The Sabines were an Italic tribe that occupied a small fortress upon the wetlands. The Forum was drained in the 7th century BC, with the building of the ‘Cloaca Maxima’, a large covered sewerage system.
Initially the Forum functioned as an open air marketplace around the Comitium (assembly place), however within its first hundred years it became the location to make political speeches, hold civil trials and other public affairs, thus the Forum was expanded. The original purpose of the Forum as a marketplace fell further into decline when other Fora were erected throughout the city of Rome, each specialising in a different product i.e one fora for cattle and another where wine was sold.
Rome’s second king Numa Pompilius built the temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestal Virgins in the 7th century BC. It is believe that Pompilius was instrumental in organising the cult of Vesta, Vesta was the goddess of the house, home and family. The House of the Vestal Virgins served as a college to the all female priesthood of Vesta and was Rome’s only college of full time priests. Pompilius also built the Regia which was home to the ruling emperors. Tullus Hostillius enclosed the Comitium or assembly area around the old Etruscan temple where the senate met. The old temple was converted into the Curia Hositilia, and in 600 BC the area was paved for the first time.
During the Roman Republic (5th century BC to 27 BC) the Comitium continued to be the central location for all political and judicial dealings. The Senate wanted to expand the area further and purchased private homes that had been erected between the Comitium and the Temple of Vesta. The 5th century BC saw increased building in the area, with both the Temple of Saturn (497 BC) and the Temple of Castor and Pollux (484 BC) built in quick succession, the Temple of Concord was added a century later.
One of the most telling aspects of the Roman Republic was the change in how business as conducted at the forum. Originally speakers to the parliament stood on the Rostra which faced north towards the Senate House, and its assembled politicians and the elite which put the speaker’s back to the common people of Rome. A ‘tribune’ known as Caius Licinius (consul in 361 BC) was the first to turn away from the elite and speak to the gathered crowds. The tribune, known as Tribunus Plebis or the tribune of the plebs, was the first official position of the Roman state that was open to the general Roman public with a view to keeping the Roman senate and magistrates power in check. This began the tradition of ‘locus popularis’ in which young nobles were expected the speak to the people rather than the senate.
The earliest basilicas were built in the 2nd century BC with a view to ‘monumentalising’ the site. The Basilica Fulvia (179BC) was built on the north side of the Forum square and the Basilica Sempronia (170 BC) on the south side of the square. The last century of the Roman Republic saw further works carried out in and around the Forum, the plaza was raised by a metre with marble paving stones being laid, and the monumental Tabularium (records hall) was erected ay the Capitoline Hill end of the Forum.
The Forum continued to grow under the reign of Julius Caesar until his assassination in 44 BC. That year saw the Forum being home to two incredibly dramatic historical events, the first being Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar from the partially completed new Rostra, immortalised by Shakespeare ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. The second being the public burning of Caesar’s body which occurred on a site directly across from the Rosta, where the Temple to the Deified Caesar was built posthumously by his great-nephew Octavius (Augustus). Augustus continued the expansion of the Forum, giving its final shape. He constructed the Temple of Divus Iulius and the Arch of Augustus in 29BC.
During the early years of the Imperial Roman Empire the economic and judicial business moved away from the Forum to larger structures to the north, after the building of Trajan’s Forum (110 AD) these activities transferred to the Basilica Ulpia. However monuments continued to be constructed at the Forum. The white marble Arch of Septimius Severus was added in 203 AD to commemorate Roman victories. The Emperor Diocletian was the last builder of Rome’s great infrastructure and refurbished and reorganised the area, rebuilding the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Testa and the Curia.
The reign of Constantine the Great saw the completion of the Basilica of Maxentius (312 AD), this restored much of the political focus to the Forum until the fall of the Roman Empire two centuries later. After the fall of the empire some of the old monuments were transformed into Christian churches however many were allowed to fall to ruin and were buried under debris.
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