5 fascinating sights in the Roman Forum: the endless history of Ancient Rome

Thu 15 Dec 2016

The Roman Forum stands in the shadow of the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, a sprawling labyrinth of arches, columns and temples. Even without a context, it’s an impressive sight – one of those iconic views of Rome that appears in countless paintings, photos and postcards. But the Forum becomes even more awe-inspiring when you discover the story behind these magnificent ruins.

A Roman Forum tour with one of our expert guides is the perfect way to explore the ancient city, taking you on a journey not only through the Forum, but also through the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the House of Augustus. Walking in the footsteps of the Romans, you’ll see some of the most important buildings in Ancient Rome. Historic events such as the funeral of Caesar, the decapitation of Cicero, and countless triumphal processions all took place in the Forum, but it was also the place where ordinary Romans went about their daily business.

The Forum is full of fascinating sights, as you’ll discover on a tour of Rome, but here are five of the best.

1. The Temple of Saturn

The imposing columns of the Temple of Saturn still dominate the Forum. The remains of this temple are arguably the most impressive in Rome, and give us some idea of its prominence in the ancient city. In Roman times it would not have been open to the public, but the privileged few who were allowed to enter would have seen a massive hollow statue of Saturn. For reasons which are still unclear, this statue was filled with olive oil. During Saturnalia – a pagan festival celebrated in December – the people of Rome would gather in front of the Temple of Saturn to watch the sacrifice to the god.

2. The Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

This building was the largest in the Roman Forum. It’s a feat of engineering that would have astounded the Ancient Romans, and which still impresses today. Construction work on the Basilica began under the reign of Maxentius, but by the time it was completed, in 312 AD, Constantine had become emperor. The Basilica is striking for its vast concrete vaulted roof, which towers over the surrounding buildings. What remains is only a fragment of the original building, as the central nave collapsed during an earthquake in 847 AD.

Basilicas were originally courthouses or meeting halls, built to accommodate large groups of people. Constantine and his Christian successors realised that this architectural style could also be used effectively in religious buildings, as it provided plenty of space for large congregations, and differed significantly from the architecture of pagan temples. Over time, the word “basilica” came to be associated with the buildings used for Christian worship.

3. The House of the Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses of the Temple of Vesta, women whose key responsibilities involved guarding the sacred flame and retaining their virginity at all costs. These women came from privileged families and were sometimes selected at the age of only six or seven. When they left their homes they came to live in the House of the Vestal Virgins, a grand building with fifty rooms that was located close to the Temple of Vesta, at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum.

Walking through the remains of the building today on a Roman Forum tour, you can still see the statues of the Vestal Virgins, lining the courtyard. We may not know exactly what the rooms originally looked like, or how the statues would have been positioned, but exploring the House of the Vestal Virgins is a unique experience. Once only accessible to the priestesses, the remains of this opulent house can now be explored by any visitor to the Roman Forum.

4. Arch of Titus

Walk along the cobbled street of the Via Sacra and you’ll see this imposing triumphal arch, built in the first century AD to commemorate Titus’s military victories. Built on the orders of Domitian after the death of Titus, the arch depicts winged victories and a triumphant Titus being crowned with a laurel wreath. The arch is one of the earliest examples of humans and divinities being portrayed together, rather than in separate scenes. Even the laurel wreath is fictional, as in reality, Titus apparently refused to be crowned, saying that it was not really his victory – he had only been an instrument of God’s wrath.

The south panel of the arch shows spoils from the Siege of Jerusalem, including a menorah and trumpet. A contemporary historian, Josephus, claimed that a million Jews had been killed in Jerusalem. While this estimate is now considered to be greatly exaggerated, there’s no doubt that the Roman armies devastated the city. It was a major victory for Rome, and the Arch of Titus not only celebrated the emperor, but also served as a demonstration of the power of Rome. Illiterate Romans would have looked up at this magnificent monument – once brightly coloured – and read the story of the Roman victory through the sculptures, rather like reading a comic book.

5. Imperial Ramp

This ancient passageway has only been open to the public since the end of last year, making it one of the highlights of a tour of the Roman Forum. The ramp connects the Forum to the Palatine Hill, and was once used by emperors such as Domitian, as it provided a private shortcut to his palace on the top of the Palatine. This exclusive network was covered by a 30 foot high ceiling, so that the emperors could ascend the Imperial Ramp on horseback.

On the ground level you’ll get a glimpse of some 8th century frescoes and a 6th century church, and once you’ve climbed to the top you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the Roman Forum.

~by Alexandra Turney~

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