The five or so acres that make up the Roman Forum were once the heart of the Mediterranean world, and, although the glories of ancient Rome are hard to glimpse here now, there’s a symbolic allure to the place, and at certain times of day a desolate drama, that make it one of the most compelling sets of ruins anywhere in the world.
Entrances: Largo della Salara Vecchia, halfway down Via dei Fori Imperiali; at the Arch of Titus near the Colosseum; by the Temple of Venus; and on Via di San Gregorio (via the Palatine).
Daily: mid-Feb to mid-March 8.30am–5pm; mid- to end March 8.30am–5.30pm; April–Aug 8.30am–7.15pm; Sept 8.30am–7pm; Oct 8.30am–6.30pm; Nov to mid-Feb 8.30am–4.30pm; last entry 1hr before closing.
€12 combined ticket with Colosseum and Palatine Hill, valid for two days; free first Sun of the month.
You need some imagination and a little history to really appreciate the place but the public spaces are easy enough to discern, especially the spinal Via Sacra, the best-known street of ancient Rome, along which victorious emperors and generals would ride in procession to give thanks at the Capitoline’s Temple of Juno. Towards the Capitoline Hill end of the Via Sacra, the large cube-shaped building is the Curia, meeting place of the Senate, which was built on the orders of Julius Caesar as part of his programme for expanding the Forum, although what you see now is a third-century-AD reconstruction. Inside (under restoration at the time of writing), three wide stairs rise left and right, on which about three hundred senators could be accommodated with their folding chairs.
Near the Curia, the Arch of Septimius Severus was constructed in the early third century AD by his sons Caracalla and Galba to mark their father’s victories in what is now Iran. Next to the arch, the low brown wall is the Rostra, from which important speeches were made (it was from here that Mark Anthony most likely spoke about Caesar after his death), to the left of which are the long stairs of the Basilica Julia, built by Julius Caesar in the 50s BC after he returned from the Gallic wars. A bit further along, on the right, rails mark the site of the Lacus Curtius, the spot where, according to legend, a chasm opened during the earliest days of the city and the soothsayers determined that it would only be closed once Rome had sacrificed its most valuable possession into it. Marcus Curtius, a Roman soldier who declared that Rome’s most valuable possession was a loyal citizen, hurled himself and his horse into the void and it duly closed.
Next to the Basilica Julia, the enormous pile of rubble topped by three graceful Corinthian columns is the Temple of Castor and Pollux, dedicated in 484 BC to the divine twins or Dioscuri, who appeared miraculously to ensure victory for the Romans in a key battle. Beyond here, the House of the Vestal Virgins is a second-century-AD reconstruction of a building originally built by Nero: four storeys of rooms set around a central courtyard, fringed by the statues or inscribed pedestals of the women themselves, with the round Temple of Vesta at the near end.
Almost opposite the House of the Vestal Virgins, a shady walkway to the left leads to the Basilica of Maxentius, in terms of size and ingenuity probably the Forum’s most impressive remains. Begun by Maxentius, it was continued by his co-emperor and rival, Constantine, after he had defeated him at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. From here the Via Sacra climbs more steeply to the Arch of Titus, built by Titus’s brother, Domitian, after the emperor’s death in 81 AD, to commemorate his victories in Judea in 70 AD and his triumphal return from that campaign.
Top image: Roman Forum in Rome, Italy © Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock