Guide to the Monuments of the Roman Forum: the Epicenter of Ancient Rome
Updated: Jun 4
Here's my guide to 16 must see monuments, attractions, and ruins in the Roman Forum in Rome Italy, with tips for visiting. The Roman Forum is an absolute must see site in Rome, and should be on your Rome itinerary.
The forum can be a challenge to decipher. But, with this guide in hand, you can tour the forum and know exactly what historic monument you're seeing.
In this blissfully evocative heap of ruins, you'll step back in time to the days of Romulus, Julius Caesar, Titus, and Constantine. You'll weave your way past the ruins of Imperial Rome and through the tales, legends, and events of its great 2,000 year old history.
The Roman Forum was a critically important nerve center. It was the central civic space -- the political, commercial, cultural, and religious center of Rome. It's where Ancient Rome had its most important temples, churches, and halls of justice.
What is the Roman Forum?
The forum is a rectangular valley running from Arch of Titus to the Arch of Septimus Severus near Capitoline Hill. The Via dei Fori Imperiali, a wide boulevard built by Mussolini in the early 20th century, forms the eastern edge.
The forum's main road is the Via Sacre. It's basically the Broadway of Ancient Rome. Much of the paving of the Via Sacre is original to Ancient Rome.
The forum was dense with construction. It was the beating heart of Rome, the seat of power, and its central showpiece. It was a grandiose district consisting of gleaming white temples, grand basilicas, and vibrant public spaces -- fit for an empire that ruled half of the known world.
The Forum was the scene of political upheavals, funerals, and triumphant parades. Before the Colosseum was built, it even hosted gladiatorial battles. Roman citizens thought it was the center of the entire world.
By the close of the imperial period, the forum was a densely stuffed with "modern" ancient buildings. Layers of churches and fortresses were built atop and amid the ancient remains.
After the 4th century, the Forum fell into disrepair and almost total obscurity. It became a quarry for building stone.
In the 18th century, the forum ignominiously lapsed into a cow pasture covered in layers of dirt and rubble. Only in the 18th and 19th century did excavation begin, uncovering the buried treasure. Excavations continue today.
You'll need a guide to the Roman Forum to experience its wonders properly. The forum is a very overwhelming place. It's difficult to piece together everything that's there, as you're enveloped by antiquity at every turn.
The Roman Forum is essentially fragments of ruins and brick walls. You only have a hint of the former grandeur and splendor. Anything standing has been excavated, reconstructed, and re-erected since excavations began in the early 18th century.
If you can, try to picture a Roman general returning from battle as a conquering hero with his booty to the roars of crowds filling the streets.
History of the Roman Forum: the Foundation Myth
Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. According to the foundation myth of Rome, the brothers decided to settle on Rome's seven hills.
Romulus picked the Palatine Hill. Remus picked the Aventine Hill. But because they were twins, it wasn't clear who should govern. They didn't know who was the first born and, hence, the rightful ruler.
The idea was that they would form independent settlements while they waited for divine intervention or an augury (omen). When six vultures flew overhead on his turf, Remus decided it was an augury from the Gods that he was the chosen one. He ran to tell Romulus.
But little did he know that Romulus had seen a flock of 12 vultures. An argument ensured. Who saw them first?
The argument grew intense. In a fit on anger, Romulus slew his brother Remus. By fiat, Romulus became the leader of Rome.
Romulus then declares the area between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill, which corresponds to the Roman Forum, an "asylum." It's a place where Roman citizens can live in an ideal society. So the place of Rome's founding becomes the center of Rome. The forum was the political and economic center of the city.
Many of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance never saw the monuments of the Roman Forum. At that time, in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was still underground.
What To See Inside The Roman Forum: Monuments and Attractions
So, are you wondering what to see in The Roman Forum? Here are 16 of the must see monuments and landmarks in the Roman Forum. I've put them in the order you'll encounter them in a stroll through the forum.
1. Arch of Constantine
You'll encounter the Arch of Constantine just before entering the forum. If you're a Christian, this arch is a symbol of your religion. Constantine's Arch represents a landmark in history, when a military battle made Christianity the mainstream religion in Rome and the entire Western World.
In 312, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemy and co-emperor Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a turning point in their dispute. Legend holds that, the night before, Constantine dreamt of a cross in the sky.
When Constantine was victorious the following day, Maxentius fell off the bridge and drown. Constantine became sole emperor.
Straight away, he ratified the Edict of Milan, a religious tolerance act. It was the beginning of Christianity as the official state religion. One wonders what world history would be like if Constantine lost the battle ...
Newly restored, the Arch of Constantine tells the story of his great victory. The arch is made entirely of carvings and decoration from other buildings with military imagery. An inscription on the top level announces that Constantine was the builder.
In the round reliefs, you see Emperor Hadrian. In the square reliefs you see Marcus Aurelius. The arch is topped with statues of Augustus and Trajan. In this manner, Constantine conflates himself with past great emperors.
2. Temple of Venus and Rome
This was another massive temple in the Roman Forum. Over 100 feet tall, it was once one of ancient Rome's most impressive monuments.
The temple was designed by Emperor Hadrian, who fancied himself an amateur architect. Hadrian also built the Pantheon and Villa Adriana. As was his preference, the temple is Greek in design. It was once surrounded by white columns, which now mark the perimeter.
The Temple of Venus and Rome is really just a shell now. The main ruin is an apse in the center. It's a brick arch with a cross hatched ceiling. The ceiling was installed by Maxentius in 307.
The temple once consisted of two main chambers, each preceded by a vestibule. Inside were two colossal statues of Venus and the goddess Rome Aeterna. Their Latin names, Roma and Amor, are inscribed on the walls, equating the city of Rome and the concept of love.
3. Arch of Titus
The arch of Titus is one of the three triumphal arches in The Roman Forum. It's an architectural trophy commemorating a great military victory over Judea. The Arch of Titus was built for Emperor Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian. The present day structure was erected by Titus' brother Domitian.
The inscription on the arch says "the Senate, the People of Rome." This was the symbol of the Roman Republic, which died when Augustus was made emperor.
The arch is rather infamous. It celebrates Titus' victory during the Fall of Jerusalem. Titus laid siege to the city, starved out its inhabitants, and brought home 50,000 slaves. He and his army destroyed the city's great temple. The only remaining vestige is the famous Wailing Wall.
The inside of the arch is ornamented with Roman propaganda. You can see an image of slaves carrying a menorah out of the temple of Jerusalem. This led to an exile of the Jewish population. What happened in ancient times is, in a way, still being dealt with today.
The arch once held vividly colored statues. It depicts the parade of the emperor on a quadriga.
The emperor's face was originally red, the color of his defeated foes. The center square in the coffered archways shows the apotheosis of Titus, where he megalomanically becomes a god.
4. Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
Sited on Velia Hill, this basilica is an absolutely enormous building. It was built with unprecedented technology and oozes Roman imperial power. The Romans used concrete, with inset bricks that were then covered in marble.
The basilica is one of the most important monuments in Rome, a massive structure made up of three barrel vaults. It's as if the city was built for giants, not humans. But the monumental basilica is now less than one third of what it once was.
The basilica wasn't a church as the name suggests. Rather, it was a Roman hall of justice. Litigious citizens could come here to lodge a lawsuit, bicker about inheritances, or get building permits.
The three arches are the three bays that made up one of the two side aisles of the basilica. What's no longer there is the central aisle or nave.
The basilica was begun by Maxentius. Constantine completed it, after he vanquished his rival and co-emperor.
There was originally a colossal statue of Constantine on a throne in the nave. Chunks of the 30 feet original statue are in a courtyard of the wonderful Capitoline Museums. One hand is the size of a man.
The basilica interior was elaborate, with intense color and ornamentation. The nave was lavishly furnished with gilded ceilings, inlaid marble, and sculptures.
5. Temple and House of the Vestal Virgins
The only people who lived in the Roman Forum were the members of the Cult of Vesta, led by the high priest Pontifus Maximus (which is how the pope got his PM title). The vestal virgins were extremely famous. Their temple was one of ancient Rome's holiest spots.
The virgins came from Rome's noblest families, chosen at the age of 10. They took a vow of chastity for 30 years. They were sacred living creatures. Their job?
To keep alive the flame of Vesta in the circular Temple of Vesta, which symbolized the hearth of the Roman family. As long as the fire burned brightly, Rome was supposedly safe. The temple was once surrounded by 20 columns.
There's some dirt on the vestal virgins. Gossip held that some of them broke their vows. If they did, they were punished by being buried alive, a ghastly fate indeed.
Chronicals from Roman times describe the punishment in gruesome detail. But if the vestals kept their 30 year vow, they received a dowry and were allowed to marry.
The House of the Vestal Virgins was a two story building. The building surrounded a long courtyard with two pools. The house became a model for later medieval cloisters.
There's not much left to see. But the vestals had an extraordinary legacy.
6. Temple of Castor and Pollux
Dating from the 5th century B.C., this former temple consists of just three leafy Corinthian columns. But it was once a prestigious temple in the forum.
The temple commemorated the Roman victory over the reviled Etruscan king Tarquin. After their victory, Castor and Pollux, twin sons of the god Jupiter, watered their horses on the spot.
The temple was often used as meeting place for senators. The front steps served as a podium for Rome's orators.
7. Domus Tiberiana
Domus Tiberiana is one of the main imperial palaces on the slopes of the forum bordering Rome's Palatine Hill. It’s technically on Palatine Hill, but almost seems part of both areas and is easily seen from the forum. The structure is also known as Caligula's Palace.
Domus Tiberiana was a sumptuous palace built by the second Roman emperor Tiberius, who reigned from 14 to 37 AD. He was succeeded by the venal Caligula, a power crazed semi lunatic. Caligula continued to expand the palace as far as the forum, having the Temple of Castor and Pollux as his personal vestibule.
Part of the building was subsequently incorporated into Nero's Domus Transitoria on Palatine Hill. Its distinctive facade has large repeating arches with barrel vaults within.
Domus Tiberiana was only unearthed in 2004. It will reopen to the public in the second half of 2021. It has been closed for more than 40 years. Tours will include previously inaccessible rooms in areas of the site untouched by earlier excavations.
8. Temple of the Divine Caesar
You'll also find the ruins of the Temple of the Divine Caesar, the man who personified the greatness of Rome. You may get the willies standing there. This is a spot where history changed. Yet, it's ugly, covered by a wooden cover/awning.
The Temple of Caesar was built by Emperor Augustus after Julius Caesar's assassination on March 15 in 44 B.C. Caesar was assassinated in the Theater of Pompey on the Ides of March. (The theater isn't in the forum. Its ruins are in the nearby Campo de'Fiori.)
The event transformed Rome from a republic into an Imperial empire.
Marc Anthony took Caesar's body and, amidst great drama, purported to read Caesar's will in his dramatic "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" speech. Anthony announced that Caesar had left his estate to Rome. When the people heard this, riots ensued.
In reality, this speech was pure propaganda. Caesar had left his estate to his great nephew and heir Octavian. He would go on to become the first emperor, Augustus.
During its heyday, the temple was lifted high off the ground on a podium. The walls of the podium still remain. Behind the wall is a small apse area. There, you'll find a mound of stone and dirt covered with coins and flowers.
That's the remains of the altar holding Caesar's ashes, which marks his grave. It's often decorated with coins and flowers, commemorating his memory.
9. Temple of Romulus
The origin of the Temple of Romulus has been the subject of conjecture. Most historians think that Emperor Maxentius used it as a temple for his son Valerius Romulus, who died at age 4 in 309 and was deified.
The temple's original bronze door is decorated with two porphyry columns -- a marble so rare that it's almost extinct. Inside, the temple has several cycles of frescoes. There are 13th century wall paintings that imitate curtains. There's also a funerary tabernacle with a madonna and child.
10. Temple of Antonius and Faustia | Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda
This temple was built by the Emperor Antonius for his deceased wife, the beautiful Faustina who died young. Historians consider Antoninus to be part of the five "Good Emperors."
Antonius wasn't long for the world either. So he decided to slap his own name on the temple as well. That meant he could walk through the forum and see people worshipping him while he was still alive.
The temple has a majestic front. The Corinthian columns are 50 feet high, with formerly gilded capitals. A staircase led to a shaded loggia past the columns, which admitted Romans to the building. The original triangular pediment would have held vividly colored statues.
In the Middle Ages, the Romans decided to build a church, San Lorenzo in Miranda, on the ancient ground. Initially, they tried to rip down the temple's columns with oxen. But they failed, just creating incision marks in the columns. Thus, it seems the skill of ancient builders exceeded the expertise of medieval builders.
11. Santa Maria Antiqua
Santa Maria Antiqua is one of the earliest surviving Christian churches in Rome. The Byzantine church was discovered in 1900. It was built within a 1st century Roman structure built by Domitian.
The church has a wealth of rare frescos from the 6th to 9th centuries depicting the Virgin Mary. The best preserved fresco is the cycle of the martyrdom of St. Cyricus and St. Julitta, which covers the chapel of Theodotus. It's considered the Sistine Chapel of the medieval era. You can only visit with Rome's S.U.P.E.R. Pass.
During a 9th century earthquake, the church was buried in rubble. It was sealed from the world for over 1000 years. This fate might have saved the precious works from a subsequent Baroque redo.
12. Domitian's Ramp
In ancient Roman times, Santa Maria was likely the entrance hall to the 1st century Ramp of Domitian. The ramp connected the public area of the Roman Forum to the private imperial palace complexes on Palatine Hill.
It was discovered by Giacomo Boni, an architect and archaeologist. He excavated it mostly between 1899 to 1905.
The ramp has seven levels, six hairpin turns, and is both above and under ground. It empties into a hilltop terrace with a breathtaking view over the Roman Forum.
After years of conservation, the church and ramp opened to the public in 2015. Now, with the S.U.P.E.R. Pass, you can walk along the 2000 year old passage, just like the emperors did.
13. Arch of Septimius Severus
This huge six story arch honored the Emperor Severus' victory in Mesopotamia. It bears reliefs of soldiers marching barbarians and slaves back to Rome. Increasingly, Rome's economy was based on plunder. The city's decaying infrastructure helped lead to the fall of Rome.
The arch was richly decorated and was dedicated to Severus' two sons Caracalla (who later became a rather bad emperor) and Geta. Once Septimius died, Caracalla killed his brother Geta to become the sole ruler. All monuments to Geta and any mention of him were erased from the history books, including the existence of the arch itself.
The arch consists of three vaulted archways. They're framed by four detached composite columns resting on high sculpted piers. Below the arch, is a circular base. It was the exact center of the city of Rome. It embodies the cliche expression that "all roads lead to Rome."
The arch is currently undergoing conservation and restoration.
14. Temple of Saturn
This temple, the oldest in the forum, served as the treasury of Ancient Rome. The original temple dated from the 5th century B.C. The current iteration dates from the 4th century A.D.
The columns you see framed the entrance to the temple. It formerly held a modest wooden statue of the god Saturn. But the base of the statue was stuffed with booty and plunder.
15. Curia Julia | Sant'Adriano al Foro
The remains of the Curia Julia date from 283. The curia was completely restored in the 1930s.
This was the Supreme Court of Rome, and the most important political building in the forum. The senators gave speeches and promulgated the laws of the land. There were four chambers hearing cases.
It was common for the orator-lawyers to go outside and pay people to come in and clap during their rousing orations. They were essentially professional clappers.
If the curia is open, you can see two statues. One headless statue, made of porphyry marble was dedicated to either Hadrian or Trajan.
The Rostrum was the "Speaker's Corner." Archaeological evidence suggests that it has existed since the 5th century B.C. But it wasn't officially called the "rostra" until the 4th century A.D.
The Rostrum was a long stage created for Rome's great orators to speechify to the assembled masses and try to sway public opinion. The rostrum was likely 10 feet high and 80 feet long, ornately decorated with columns and statues.
During the republic, freedom of speech reigned free. During the empire, free speech took a hit when it was more dangerous to speak truth to power.
Great events in Roman history occurred here. Cicero railed against Rome's corruption and decadence. Mark Anthony offered the laurel of kingship to Caesar, who dramatically refused preferring to be a private dictator.
You can take a virtual tour of the Roman Forum on Google Arts & Culture, with almost 300 different items to eyeball. You can also take a 360 tour on 360 Cities or a virtual walking tour with Pro Walks.
Practical Information and Tips For Visiting the Roman Forum
Address: Via della Salara Vecchia between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum
Hours: Daily 8:30 am to 7:00 pm
Ticket Price: Combined ticket to visit The Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill is 12 euros. You must make a separate reservation for the Colosseum.
Pro Tips: You can also visit the Roman Forum using the Roma Pass, which is a cumulative ticket that provides free or reduced rates for more than 40 attractions.
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