Set aside a day to visit the Roman Forum and get a glimpse into a civilization long gone, one that made the object of so many poems, novels, history books and movies. The teeming heart of ancient Rome, the Forum has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world and in all history. And no wonder why! At one point in time, the city of Rome was the largest in the world and the Roman Empire was amongst the most powerful forces in the world of its time. At its peek under Trajan, it covered 5 million square kilometers. It held sway over an estimated 70 million people which at that time represented 21% of the world’s entire population!
The Imperial Forum (Foro Romano) are a series of monumental public squares constructed in Rome over a period of one and a half centuries, between 46BC and 113AD. I recommend buying the tickets in advance and making sure to get the “skip the line” kind to avoid wasting your time and waiting in long queues. There are also combo tickets that include the visit to Colosseum.
You can access the archaeological site via the Foro Traiano (Trajan Forum), situated near the Via dei Fori avenue.
For centuries, the Forum was the center of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of triumphal processions and elections, the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, gladiatorial fights and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city’s great men.
Many of the oldest and most important structures of the ancient city were located on or near the Forum. This includes the kingdom’s earliest shrines and temples such as the ancient former royal residence, the Regia and the Temple of Vesta as well as the surrounding complex of the Vestal Virgins, all of which were rebuilt after the rise of imperial Rome.
Located in the small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum today is a sprawling ruin of architectural fragments and intermittent archaeological excavations attracting millions sightseers every year. Below: the ruins of the Saturn Temple.
My tour started with a visit of the prison cell where the apostles Peter and Paul were incarcerated: the Memertine Prison (or Tullianum), an underground small and humid space that nowadays turned into a Christian worship place with the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami built on top of it.
The Arch of Septimius Severus guards the entrance into the forum. It was built to commemorate the Parthian victories of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta.
The Arch of TItus was constructed in AD 82 by the Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus to commemorate Titus’s victories, including the siege of Jerusalem. The arch has provided the general model for many triumphal arches erected since the 16th century—perhaps most famously it is the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.
An avid reader of the Bible, I was particularly impressed by the Basilica of Maxentius pictured below. In ancient Rome, a basilica was a building with a large central open space and served a variety of functions, including a combination of a court-house, council chamber and meeting hall. Presumably this is where the apostle Paul was brought to plea his case during his trial in Rome.
In the far end, the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater ever built, stretches it’s concrete shoulders into the sun.
Also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the building could host between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. It was used for gladiatorial combats and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The name Colosseum has long been believed to be derived from a colossal statue of Nero nearby that was named after the Colossus of Rhodes.
Inside, the rigidly stratified nature of the Roman society can be clearly observed: each level of the building was dedicated to a specific social cast. The poorer casts were seated on the upper levels while the richer, noble class occupied the low level seats. The names of some senators can still be seen carved into the stonework, presumably reserving areas for their use. The Emperor and the Vestal Virgins had special boxes close to the arena for best views.
The arena itself was approximately 80m by 50m and it comprised a wooden floor covered by sand, covering an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum (literally meaning “underground“). This is still clearly visible even in the pictures above and below and it consisted of a two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals; larger hinged platforms called hegmata provided access for elephants and the like. Animals and performers were brought through the tunnel from nearby stables. Separate tunnels were provided for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to permit them to enter and exit the Colosseum without needing to pass through the crowds.
I wasn’t expecting it, but seeing this place where many martyrs gave up their lives for Christ was a very emotional journey for me.
The House of Augustus (Casa di Augusto) was initially the residence of emperors and later served as residence and offices for high dignitaries of the empire. Excavations continue on the three-story building; floor mosaics in the courtyard and several rooms have been uncovered while conservation efforts are bringing extensive wall paintings back to life. Here more than in any other place in the Palatine you’ll get a sense of what life was like for these privileged Romans.
Pictured below, the Stadium of Domitian commissioned by the Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus was used almost entirely for athletic contests.
In the valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills lies a long, grassy public park: Circus Maximus, an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue. This is where the famous scene in the film Ben Hur was shot. The stadium is 621m long and 118m wide and could host 250,000 spectators. The chariots raced around the central spina on top of which stood a row of eggs. At each turn, an egg was removed to indicate the number of laps raced. Nowadays, the park is a popular meeting place and concerts are held here in the summer.
On top of the Palatine Hill, take your time to walk the tree-shaded park of terraces, lawns, flowerbeds, pavilions, and fountains designed for social occasions and admire the beautiful views they offer over the Roman Forum. The alluring combination of some of Rome’s most imposing remains framed by trees, with views over the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and other Roman landmarks makes this a popular tourist attraction especially for those tired of the crowds below (guilty!)
When you walk through the impressive ruins of these palaces, temples, and public buildings constructed under Augustus and his successors, you are walking through the history of the Roman Empire.
Below the Arch of Constantine beautifully lit by the mid-day sun rays.
When the weather is pleasant, the Colosseum is one very popular meeting spot with many tourists and young people hanging out and enjoying the sunset while watching the building slowly turning its lights on, a sure sign that the giant is now ready to go to sleep.
I hope through my blog post I was able to take you onto a time travel journey and I stirred your interest to find out more about the ancient Rome, possibly by visiting it yourself!