FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
Forum of Augustus, looking towards Temple of Mars Ultor, with columned porticos on both sides.
FORUM OF THE FIRST AND GREATEST EMPEROR
In its prime, the Forum of Augustus was an architectural marvel of the Roman Empire. Built with gleaming and exotic colored marbles, this large forum served a multitude of purposes, including important religious, historical, and political functions. The centerepiece of the forum was a grand temple at the end of a long and spacious courtyard flanked on either side by columned porticos filled with bronze and marble statues. And each of these larger-than-life statues told a story about a Roman who had made a great contribution to their civilization.
" The Forum of the late Emperor Augustus ... one of the finest works that the world has ever beheld. "
- Pliny the Elder - Natural Histories, Book 36, Ch 24
Quite simply, the Forum of Augustus was breathtaking and a great symbol of Augustus' legacy and ideals as the first Roman emperor and heir to his illustrious father, Julius Caesar.
And for a few centuries, this forum indeed shone brightly until the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD, after which it steadily declined. And by the 9th Century, after 300 years of wars, earthquakes, and pillaging, this once beautiful and great forum became the ruin we see today. Nevertheless, the ruins that remain are very impressive still, and it is not too hard to imagine how grand and huge this forum must have been two thousand years ago.
Forum of Augustus in the year 2022 showing what remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor and the Porticos on either side. Most of the courtyard in front of the temple has been destroyed by a roadway built in the 1930s.
In this section, I will show you many aspects of this forum's architecture, history, and artwork. Then, through great photos and some of my own drawings, I will explore every part of the forum - the long porticos on each side, the wide paved courtyard, the large circular exedra rooms, the grand temple, the Hall of the Colossus, the walls filled with statues, and the impressive sculptured attic along the upper porticos.
Forum of Augustus in the year it opened in 2 BC
The large temple of Mars Ultor is located at the end of a long courtyard paved with white travertine slabs. A two-storey columned walkway (portico) flanks either side of the temple. The left side portico has its construction exposed to show its ceiling and roof details. A large bronze sculpture of Augustus driving a four-horse chariot - called a Quadriga - lies in the centre of the courtyard.
Above is my colour drawing of what the forum looked like not long after it was fully constructed. Many details of the forum are pointed out in the description below the image. After the image, I will show a map of the whole forum so you can see the overall structure and parts. After that, I begin exploring the different parts of the forum in detail followed by a discussion of who, exactly, was Augustus. Afterwards, I will explore the reasons why the forum was built and then I will look at the architecture and history of this forum in detail.
A MAP OF THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
It can be said that Augustus was personally and deeply involved with the planning and overseeing of his forum's construction, based on the accounts of famous Roman historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius.
Of course, the main influence on the architectural design was the Forum of Caesar and its large city square with a temple at one end and a long, columned porch on either side. In fact, Augustus' forum branched off from his father's forum at a 90-degree angle.
Below is a map showing the correct north-south orientation of the forum. The map also shows two views - the first shows how the forum looked when first built with four exedras. The next photo, dated after the year 112 AD, shows how the forum looked when the two western exedras were demolished to create space for the Forum of Nerva and then the Forum of Trajan during the next two centuries.
The alternating images show how this forum once had four exedras, two of which were demolished approximately 100 years later because of the construction of two new forums (Nerva and Trajan's). These four half-circle-shaped exedras branched off the northern and southern porticos, and their purpose was two-fold. First, they were used to display numerous marble busts of various important and historical members of Augustus' family. Second, court cases were held in the exedras, perhaps even Senate discussions.
In the diagram above, notice how the forum's rear wall (right side, behind the temple) lacks symmetry. Compare the right side of the diagram in the upper part to the lower part. The southern portico on the right ends very differently from the northern portico. For the sake of architectural symmetry, one would think that both sides of the forum should be a mirror-like reflection of the other. In classical architecture, symmetry is fundamental.
Also, because Augustus almost certainly used the Forum of Caesar layout as a guide, the lack of symmetry in his own forum strongly suggests, in my opinion, that he just was not able to buy all the land he required. Being a powerful man, he so easily could have expropriated all the land he needed - but he did not do that, reflecting positively on his character. Despite the irregular symmetry, the forum we ended up with is still huge. In its prime, this forum was stunning in appearance due to its size, the lavish use of different coloured marbles, a large octastyle temple (8 columns wide), and over a hundred statues.
I have marked the lower (southern) exedra in the diagram with a red asterisk because much later on I will be focusing on this particular exedra. An "exedra" is an architectural term meaning a rounded or square structure that protrudes out from another larger structure such as a hallway or a large room. The red square on the map shows the location of the Hall of the Colossus where a giant statue of Augustus was housed - and I will also be looking at this in detail further on.
THE WHITE TRAVERTINE PAVING STONES OF THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
You probably noticed how the forum's courtyard is paved with a whitish stone. Often, you will read that this forum is paved with "white marble" but that is not accurate. The stone the Romans used for paving the forum courtyard is actually a cheaper "cousin" of marble known as travertine. Both are derived from limestone, but they are not the same.
Often, when you see recreations of this forum, the colour of the pavement stones is shown as tan, almost a beige colour. However, we know this forum definitely was paved with white travertine because sections of that paving still exist, as shown in the image below. You can see that many of the original white travertine slabs are still in remarkable condition despite 2,000 years of wear and tear. So anyhow, you be the judge - what colour do you think the travertine is?
Original white travertine paving stones between temple and north portico
Licensed from dreamstime.com with my labels added
In this image we are standing between the left side of the temple and the edge of the northern portico. In the upper left, you can see the Hall of the Colossus, where a giant statue of Augustus was housed. Amazingly, the pedestal that supported the statue is still there. Also, at either end of the back wall behind the pedestal, there are two two pilasters (flat, white columns). On the left side of the travertine paving, you can see the steps that led up into the northern portico that ran the entire length of the forum. You see so many holes in the walls because that is where metal pins attached marble slabs to cover the brick. Over the centuries, so much of the elaborate marble decoration was pillaged.
Travertine comes in a variety of colours, such as white and tan. It is also much less expensive than marble and was used regularly by the Romans to pave open spaces. For example, the Romans paved the square before the Pantheon with travertine.
Using travertine is more practical for outside spaces because, unlike marble, it is somewhat porous and can deal better with rainwater. It is also harder and thus better suited for a lot of foot traffic. On the "Mohs" scale of hardness, travertine rates between 4 and 5, whereas softer marble rates between 3 and 4.
Thus, the marble would wear out faster and have to be replaced more often at great expense. This forum, in its day, would have received millions of visitors every year. However, I am guessing that the courtyard received much more foot traffic than the other parts of the forum - I say this because certain floor areas of the forum - the porticos, the temple - are actually covered with expensive marble tiles (shown below) - so this presents a bit of a dichotomy.
Marble types used for portico and exedra floors
Whereas the central courtyard and its passageways were paved with travertine tiles, the floors of the long porticos and the semi-circular exedra rooms were tiled with marbles of varying colours. As shown in the image above, the colours used for these marble floor tiles were gray marble, a rusty red marble, and a yellowish marble with some orange hues. The reddish marble has other colourful hues within in addition to red. The diagram above shows those marble types. You can see those marble types being used to create beautiful floors in the next series of images below.
THE PORTICOS OF THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
Inside the northern portico in the year 1 AD
In the top image, we are on ground level, inside the northern portico, looking right towards the open forum with the southern portico on the far side. Notice the beautiful floor tiles gleaming in the daylight. We know this is the actual pattern because sections of these floor tiles have survived, as shown in the image below taken in 2013. Amazingly, the gray, orange and red colours, despite some fading, have survived twenty centuries.
Northern Portico in 2013 - Some tiles have survived Also showing how 1930s roadway has cut off most of forum
Image courtesy of AncientDigitalMaps - CC BY-NC 2.0
The photo above shows a corner of the Temple of Mars Ultor on the left. Also shown is how so much of this forum - and this portico - have been cut off by the roadway structure built by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. Interestingly, just in front of the temple's staircase, you can see more white paving stone in addition to the large patch of paving stones on the left.
If you visit this forum, you can get a good view from the roadway which is called the Via Alessandrina (branches off the Via dei Fori Imperiali), shown in this 2019 image of the roadway with the Forum of Augustus on the right (click to view) courtesy of Google Earth. Because millions of tourists visit Rome every year, ground-level access to all the forums is limited to those with a "Combi" ticket which also includes access to the Colosseum and Palantine Hill. The cost for an adult "regular" ticket is approximately 21.5 Euros as of 2022.
Colonnade of columns along the South Portico, Forum of Augustus Roman architects used marble from all over the Empire to create stunning architecture
In the image above, we are looking out from the southern portico. Once again, you can see the gilded bronze horse and chariot statue - the Quadriga - on display. Along an inner wall (which you cannot see) on the lady's left, there was a series of bronze statues of very important Romans - over 100 of them - called the Summi Viri. Some artists show these statues as being displayed outside the porticos, but the Roman historian Suetonius suggests they were displayed within. In the next section, I will look at the Summi Viri in detail after the next photo.
The next consideration regarding these porticos is their height. Not much remains of these porticos - a few columns, a bit of wall, some sections of floor tile, and bits of the attic. So how can we know how high these porticos were and what kind of roof they had? Well, the answer is quite simple - the southern portico made a roof line impression on the back wall of the forum - almost like a fossil showing where the supporting roof timbers were inserted. Look at the photo below, and the evidence is obvious.
Southern portico's roof shape and height impression in forum wall Image courtesy of Damian Entwistle - CC BY-NC 2.0
That "fossil" roofline marks the eastern end of the southern portico. When looking at the photo above, keep in mind that the scale of everything in this forum is quite large. For example, a person walking along those tiles in the foreground would actualy appear small in relation to the overall structures. To put things in perspective, that large patch of tiles mentioned above is approximately 13 metres wide (40 feet). Furthermore, those same tiles are indeed portico floor tiles from the southern portico that follow the same pattern and colour scheme as the northern portico floor tiles on the opposite left side of the forum.
Notice how the exedra on the right is quite high, with wall niches for statues as high as the portico roof. It appears that the arched doorway on the left is blocked by Rome's current ground level, which is just as well because crowds of peope might otherwise walk into the forum and cause much wear and tear damage.
If you would like to view this forum when it is closed, find a good vantage point from somewhere above it. There is (or was) a great light show at night in this forum, viewed from outside, showing the history of the place. They use amazing technology to project images and effects onto the ruins that brings them to life. To view the forum during the day, you will need a ticket. These tickets usually also include entrance to the Colosseum and the Palantine Hill.
THE SUMMI VIRI STATUES OF THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
Besides being dedicated to the Roman god of war, Mars Ultor, this forum also served to glorify Augustus and his greater family as well as Roman values and ideals. One of the ways this was accomplished was by glorifying those Romans who significantly contributed to their civilization.
These illustrious Romans were called the Summi Viri - the "Greatest Men" - and they were represented by an estimated 108 statues placed within the porticos and exedras of the forum, as told to us by a famous Roman historian, quoted below.
" Next to the immortal gods he honoured the memory of the leaders who had raised the estate of the Roman people from obscurity to greatness. Accordingly he restored the works of such men with their original inscriptions, and in the two colonnades of his forum dedicated statues of all of them ...
Who were these "greatest men" exactly? Well, they were all those Roman founders, statesmen, soldiers, and heroes who had achieved victories in war, built great structures, and contributed remarkably to the Roman state. And by honouring them, Augustus reinforced Roman values of duty, piety, and bravery.
Busts of famous Romans in the Vatican Museum today
According to Suetonius, the Roman emperor Augustus explained the purpose of the Summi Viri in his own words, quoted below:
This has been done to make my fellow-citizens insist that both I (while I live), and my successors, shall not fall below the standard set by those great men of old.
AUGUSTUS - (according to Suetonius, Life of Augustus, XXXI)
The image below shows the northern portico looking straight on, and you can see many of the bronze statues. Because bronze is 90% copper, it can look rather brownish when new. The statues were said to be larger than life which is why they appear bigger than the Romans walking through the 14 metres (46 feet) wide portico. To see the scale of this forum, you may wish to study this forum diagram (click to view). Notice, also, in the image below, how the upper part of the portico (called the "Attic") is overlayed with a series of repeating sculptures which I will explore right after the next section.
Summi Viri statues within north portico and gilded bronze Quadriga in foreground
All of the Summi Viri statues in both porticos were made of bronze. However, the Summi Viri statues within the exedras that branch off from the eastern ends of the porticos were made of marble. Below each statue was a stone plaque with the name of each person and his "Cursus Honorum" (course of honours). And further below was an even larger stone plaque with a much longer carved inscription called an elogia, which is discussed in the next section.
ELOGIA OF THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
The purpose of an elogia, found under each Summi Viri statue in the Forum of Augustus, was to describe all the major accomplishments of the person portrayed by the statue. Below is an example of an elogia that has been pieced together from six surviving fragments. This is an approximation of what an actual Forum of Augustus elogia was like in word and appearance.
Reconstructed elogia with six original pieces from Forum of Augustus
Nearly all the elogia are gone, and only fragments have survived. However, some amazing people, such as Attilo Degrassi in the 1930s, patiently put some of those fragments together and, using ancient texts and surviving elogia found elsewhere, he figured out what was actually written on some of the elogia. Below is a photo of some of those fragments that are believed to be describing a Roman statesman and commander named Nero Claudius Drussus Germanicus (you can make out part of his last name in the fragments).
Actual Elogia fragments (5) from the Forum of Augustus
Image courtesy of Museo dei Fori Imperiali
THE ATTIC CARYATID AND CLIPEUS SCULPTURES
Above the portico columns, we find the upper storey called the Attic. Most noticeable, of course, is the striking pattern of sculptures all along the length of both porticos. In terms of the female scultpure, what you are seeing is a Caryatid - basically a column shaped like a woman. This is the same form used in the temple near the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
Restored section of Forum of Augustus Attic showing Caryatids on either side of a Clipeus
Image courtesy of Jamie Heath - CC BY-SA 2.0
Above is a photo by a friendly fellow, Jamie Heath, who takes impressive and useful photographs of ancient things. This wonderful photo shows a reconstructed section of the "Attic" from the Forum of Augustus that was created in the 1940s by combining actual surviving sections with resin replacement sections. This gives you an idea of the Attic's actual appearance, which must have been quite dramatic and beautiful so long ago when the forum was still new and vibrant.
These decorative Caryatids have long hair, and they each support a Doric capital, above which a basket-like structure is seen. In between each Caryatid is a round and convex Clipeus - Latin for "shield" - the surface of which supports the head of the god Jupiter Ammon. This god was a fusion of the Roman god Jupiter with the Egyptian god Ammon - this is indicated by the horns on the side of his head. Notice the large amount of decoration surrounding the Clipeus - just outstanding. Notice also, how the top surface of the "Attic" forms little squares with rosettes in their centres all along the entablature/cornice supported by the Caryatid ladies.
The Attic sculptures ran the entire portico length
Because so little of the "Attic" has survived, we do not know for sure absolutely whether the sculpture pattern seen above ran the entire length of both porticos, but it probably did for the simple reason of symmetry. Also, sculptural motifs within the frieze of a Roman structure typically ran the whole length of the frieze except in the front which might have an inscription. Thus it is very probable that the entire length of each portico was festooned with those sculptures.
However, as regards the actual amount of sculpture variation that existed within the "Attic, this is more uncertain. From what I have read and observed, the Caryatids did not vary, but the Clipeus sculptures did. The face in the middle of the Clipeus changed - showing, instead, other gods, or different versions of Jupiter. For example, I have seen an image of a Clipeus section from this forum which is described as the head of a barbarian.
Whatever the reality was, I am sure many will agree that an amazing amount of work and artistry went into the construction and embellishment of these long and wide porticos in the Forum of Augustus. But the northern portico held another amazing structure - the "Hall of the Colossus" and its giant statue of Augustus - which I look at next.
THE HALL OF THE COLOSSUS
Genius of Augustus statue in 50 AD
At the very east end of the northern portico, there is a rectangular room that once housed a huge 11 metre (36 feet) high statue of Augustus - only fragments remain (click to see video). It is believed this statue came into being during the reign of emperors Tiberius or Claudius. It was made from white marble and stood on a base (podium) that is still there. They say you can still see the imprint of the statue's foot on top of the podium's surface.
In my drawing above, I try to capture the grandeur and feeling this sculpture must have elicited from its viewers. I based much of the design on physical evidence that still remains, as I explain further along. But this is still just my best guess. There may have been a portrait of Alexander the Great on one of the walls, along with other paintings. I assume they were on the left and right side walls, which I do not show. In my drawing, I wanted to focus strongly on Augustus, with everything else framing the imposing statue.
This statue was called the "Genius of Augustus" or "Genius Augusti" and it showed him dressed in a long robe with a cowl and holding a cornucopia. Parts of a finger and knuckle from this sculpture are shown below, and they give you an idea of the size of the sculpture. I am guessing that the rounded section below the finger is probably where the cornucopia was held.
Surviving finger/knuckle from actual Genius Augusti statue
Image courtesty of Amphipolis - Creative Commons
The next photo below shows what the Hall of the Colossus looks like in the year 2013. You can see how there were two 13 metres (43 feet) high columns within the poritico and centered near the entrance to the hall. Inside, on either side of the back wall, you can see two white marble pilasters (flattened columns pressed against a wall). The room was quite large, actually, measuring 13 metres x 12 square (43 x 40 feet). The walls were once covered with white Carrara (lunense) marble. And this room was relatively high, perhaps over 20 metres (65 feet). On the left side of the photo, you can see two wall niches where I assume Summi Viri statues were held. These niches are probably a lot bigger than you imagine given the portico's width of 13 metres (43 feet) - thus, the niches are at least 3 metres (10 feet) high.
Hall of the Colossus in the year 2013
Image courtesy of Monique Webber - Fair Use Educational
Moreover, we know the walls inside the hall were clad in marble veneer with designs painted on the surface because sections have survived, as shown in the image below. I reproduced these designs in my drawing at the start of this section. These designs are basically waves along the top and bottom framing a repeating pattern of two plants. These wall sections are displayed at the Museo dei Fori Imperiali in Trajan's Market.
Painted marble wall slabs from Hall of the Colossus
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
Marble was used to cover the walls and floors of this forum. Marble was also used to make statues, capitals, and the entablature above the columns. Unfortunately, in our century, the Forum of Augustus is a place where over 90% of the porticos, courtyard paving, and temple are gone. This is because so much was pillaged and earthquakes badly damaged the rest. And all that remains of the vast amount of marble used in this forum are a few pieces and sections.
Fortunately, not all was lost. Excavations have revealed some surviving slabs, chunks, and bits of marble that give us tantalizing glimpses of former glory. Below are several photographs of various parts of the forum that help us to visualize its original appearance. For example, what did the porticos actually look like? Well, one of the photos below shows us a small part of a portico column, its capital, and even a small section of the entablature above. It is amazing how these marble pieces somehow survived for 2,000 years in the forum without being smashed, burned, or stolen.
SURVIVING MARBLE SECTIONS FROM THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS
The JeffBondono.com website has generously offered five excellent images that show various marble sections from the Forum of Augustus that have survived. The first photo (far left) shows a vertical section from a Forum of Augustus portico. A partial column is topped with a capital - and above that are three bands of marble (fascias) forming the architrave above the capital. Above that is a frieze filled with ornamental reliefs below a cornice decorated with two surviving dentils beneath a carved egg-and-dart motif.
Surviving sections of Portico
Portico Corinthian Capital
Head of Jupiter remnants from Attic
All 3 Images Copyright JeffBondono.com
The top middle photo shows a closeup of the portico's Corinthian capital, the upper part of which is mostly gone. Though most of the Acanthus leaves are also damaged, you can still see the overall two-tier arrangement of the leaves. These capitals were made of white Carrara marble. Notice also the fluted column below with a pronounced astragal (marble rim) all along the top surface. The third photo on the right shows two sections of the head of Jupiter that was centred within a circular Clipeus. Note the glaring gaze and furrowed brow of this Roman god. The carved thick hair and intricate beard are also very interesting.
Hall of the Colossus Wall Remnant
Portico end-wall niche fragments
Both Images Copyright JeffBondono.com
The photo on the left shows part of a decorated marble wall slab from the Hall of the Colossus. I believe this is an older photo of the same wall section seen further above. Notice the painted wave and floral designs. Due to 2,000 years of time and being in the ground, the paint colour may have changed, and it certainly has faded.
The photo on the right shows what remains of a wall niche used for statues. This niche was located at the end of a portico where it was framed by marble decoration.
They recreated the left side of the wall niche where you can see part of the original marble edging along the top left and bottom left. Also, a few blocks forming part of the portico wall below the niche are shown.
Within the niche, there appears to be part of an elogia beneath a section of the statue. Furthermore, on the left side, they show a large section of a Giallo Antico (yellow) marble column from the porticos of the Forum of Augustus.
Notice how this marble column section cracked into five parts. Could an earthquake have done that, or was it just people smashing things to bits? It really is a shame how so much of the forum's beautiful marble decoration, which required so much skill and time to create, has been lost to us. I have often thought that ancient Roman buildings built in the Classical style were also works of art in addition to being practical structures.
THE SOUTHERN EXEDRA THEN AND NOW
The southern exedra in the early first century AD
The image above shows a court of law taking place in this forum's exedra located at the east end of the southern portico. Notice all the wall niches that contain statues. A very large statue is displayed in the centre of the back wall - this is Romulus holding Spoila Optima (weapons of an enemy defeated in single combat). All those smaller statues are Summi Viri.
The exedra on the opposite side of the forum, branching off from the Northern Portico, also had wall niches but the statues were different in context from the Summi Viri. Instead, this exedra'a wall niches displayed sculptures of Augustus' legendary family members - known collectively as the Julian Dynasty. And Julius Caesar was also a member of this family that claimed descent from the goddess Venus. Other wall niches in the northern exedra contained sculptures of the Alban Kings who had ruled in Italy four hundred years before Rome was founded.
The southern exedra in the year 2014
Licensed from Dreamstime
The purpose of these many statues went beyond art - they were symbols that legitimized the power and authority of the Julian family members by exploiting the Roman practice of the "Cult of Ancestors." This was ancient propaganda using sculptures and inscriptions whereby Augustus is saying to the Romans: "My legendary family has a long and noble history in Roman civilization, and we are descendants of the god Venus. I am practically divine and thus have a legitimate right to govern and to wield power."
Actually, beyond the numerous statues, the whole forum itself broadcasted that message loudly. It did so simply through its sheer size, and its lavish architecture and art which all worked to underscore the accomplishments of Augustus, his ancestors, and his connection with the gods Venus and Mars. Of course, such a large and luxurious forum also made obvious Augustus' wealth and power.
Location of Southern Exedra in the Forum of Augustus
Besides the physical propaganda aspects of the forum, however, the spaces and facilities it provided were indeed useful and much needed by the people of Rome. There was a lot of space to conduct civic affairs in his forum - the colonnades on either side of the temple were approximately 14 metres (46 feet) wide and 110 metres (360 feet) long, which provided much space to conduct business. Also, at the temple end of each colonnade were two huge Exedras (40 metres wide - 130 feet) used for holding courts of law and other administrative functions such as meetings of the Roman Senate. And, of course, Augustus' forum did much to add to the grandeur and beauty of the city of Rome.
An interesting aspect of the northern and southern exedras is they each housed a huge statue within a large niche in the centre of their inner wall. The southern exedra house a large statue of Romulus, who founded the city of Rome. But the exedra branching off the northern portico housed a huge statue of Aenas (holding his father and son) from whom Augustus claimed descent (Aenas was the son of Venus). I have read claims that these statues were over 13 metres (45 feet) high - meaning there had to be a wall niche even higher to house it.
THE TEMPLE OF MARS ULTOR
Temple of Mars Ultor in the year 1 AD
Remaster of a painting by unknown artist
The Temple of Mars Ultor dominated the Forum of Augustus as it was undoubtedly designed to do. Large, tall and lavishly constructed with white Carrara marble, this was surely one of the most beautiful temples in Rome when completed in 2 BC. It was also 50% larger than the temple in the Forum of Caesar next door. The wide staircase was made of long, marble slabs covering a concrete substructure. The foundation (podium) upon which the entire temple stands is made of blocks of tufa limestone. Roman architects often covered the sides of a podium with a veneer of white marble slabs, a few of which can still be seen clinging to the side of the podium in the photo below.
It took forty years of planning and construction to complete this large temple - from 42 BC to 2 BC. A lot of thought, work, resources, and artistry went into its creation. For example, the high columns were 18 metres (60 feet) high and made of white Carrara marble. And there were eight columns along its front and the same number along its sides, thus making it an octastyle temple. Its architectural style was the Corinthian order, much loved by the Romans for its tall and slender columns, lavish capitals, and ornate entablature and cornice. Back in the day, visitors to this forum must have been very impressed by this building.
The wide and triangular-shaped area below the rooftop with sculptures is called the Tympanum which contains seven sculptures of Roman gods and personifications. In the center is the Roman god of war Mars and (going left) is Venus, followed by (sitting) Romulus, and then the Personification of the Palatine Hill. Going right of Mars is the Roman goddess Fortuna, followed by Roma (sitting) , and then the Personification of the Tiber River. All these figures had significant meaning to the people of ancient Rome. But, of course, the most important figure was the Roman god Mars Ultor to whom the temple was dedicated.
Temple of Mars Ultor in 21st Century - Looking south-east
Image Licensed from Dreamstime.com
But twenty centuries has not been kind to this temple, as shown in the image above. This is what remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor in the 21st century: a staircase, the podium (temple platform), some wall sections, and four columns supporting a bit of entablature.
The arch gate you see between the columns is known to present-day Romans as the Arco dei Pantani, the "Gate of the Swamps" because, for so long after the fall of Rome, the forum area was very swampy. Actually, it is said that the whole forum area was filled with swamps during the time of Romulus. But, as the Romans developed drainage and built efficient sewers, they gradually drained the area and made the ground usable.
Behind the temple, you can see that a large section of wall still stands. This wall was constructed from tough peperino and gabine stone blocks that were considered fireproof. Initially over 30 metres high ((98 feet), it was built to both contain the forum and protect it from a densely populated neighbourhood located on the other side of the wall, shown below. Seeing how this wall is still standing after 2,000 years, I would say this definitely was a very tough and well-built wall.
Standing in the old Suburra looking at the Forum of Augustus firewall
Image Licensed from Dreamstime.com
The wall in the photo above is higher than you think because the street level centuries ago would have been much lower. Those two people looking through the gate (Arco dei Pantini built by emperor Tiberius) are looking down into the forum below. Above the gate, you can see two surviving columns from the Temple of Mars Ultor and part of the temple wall and entablature.
This street is in an ancient neighbourhood of Rome called the Suburra, and it was a hotbed of crime and prostitution, where poorer residents and even politicians mingled in the taverns and brothels that filled the area. It was also very prone to fires which made having a firewall very necessary. How interesting that such a dark, crowded underworld existed right beside this magnificent temple and forum. It makes me wonder if the ancient forum was full of pick-pockets, for example. Indeed there must have been several armed guards on duty at all times.
THE ROOF OF THE TEMPLE OF MARS ULTOR
The roof of this temple is shown correctly in this website's drawings. However, often in other recreation drawings, you will see a large statue located at the centre of the roof - this is incorrect and is just an artistic licence. The Romans made stone reliefs showing the Temple of Mars Ultor, and these reliefs clearly show a temple with only two statues in front, located at the extreme left and right of the roof. They are statues of winged victories, also known as Nike to the Greeks. The image below of a marble relief of the temple shows how it looked.
Ancient Roman marble relief showing the Temple of Mars Ultor
Image courtesy of Ancientdigitalmaps - CC BY-NC 2.0
As you can see, the rooftop is empty except for one lone Nike statue at the far right. And, of course, there would have been another Nike on the other side, which has been destroyed. Another carved relief of the same temple roof shows the two statues, which you can see by clicking here.
Amazingly, a foot from one of those statues, which were large and made of beautiful gilded bronze, has survived - it is shown below. It is a miracle that this gilded bronze foot somehow survived the ravages of time - it must have been buried deep in the ground all those centuries and thus hidden from pillagers' eyes.
Surviving bronze foot of a Nike sculpture from the roof of the Temple of Mars Ultor
Image courtesy of Jamie Heath - CC BY-SA 2.0
And just below the roof of the temple, the exquisite marble capital shown below is from inside the Temple of Mars Ultor. You can see little Pegasus-like carvings on the side and flowers above the traditional Acanthus leaves found on all Corinthian-style capitals.
It is indeed fortunate that this capital survived so we can glimpse how ornate and beautiful the inside of the temple must have been. Look how the large and delicate Acanthus leaves fold over towards us - imagine the amount of work to reduce the marble to produce that effect. As a sculptor myself, I can tell you that this capital represents a lot of work and skill - the artist who did this was a master of his trade. And he very likely had to produce many capitals just like this for the temple. It is such shame that so much work like this ended up being turned into lime to produce mortar.
Marble capital from inside of Temple of Mars Ultor
Image courtesy of Amphipolis - CC BY-SA 2.0
It is perhaps no wonder the temple was still not completed when the forum opened, as evidenced by just this one capital. Indeed, it must have taken the sculptor many days, perhaps weeks, to carve all the fine detail. Judging by the overall flat surface of this capital, it was located above a pilaster instead of a round column. And there were certainly many pilasters inside the temple, each requiring an ornate capital just like the one in the photo - so much work, so much lost over the centuries.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE OF MARS ULTOR
Not long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, things fell apart pretty quickly in the Forum of Augustus. In fact, by the end of the fifth century, barbarians were already dismantling parts of the forum and this temple. Throughout the 500s and 600s, more destruction happened, and temple columns were taken apart and used elsewhere. For example, during the reign of barbarian Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great (454 - 526 AD), the whole temple was practically dismantled for its beautiful white marble and other desired building materials.
In addition to aggressive pillaging, a massive earthquake in 867 AD severely damaged the forum, causing a general collapse of many of the remaining structures. I assume that portions of the porticos, exedras, and whatever remained of the temple collapsed. It is hard to ascertain whether the porticos, for example, were destroyed by pillaging or earthquakes or - more likely - a combination of the two.
By the ninth century, most of the temple was gone, and Basilian Monks built the monastery of Sancti Basilii Scala Mortuorum ("Saint Basil of the Ladder of the Dead") on top of the temple podium. What an interesting name for a monastery, I must say.
Monastery on podium of Temple of Mars Ultor in 10th century
As seen in the image above, the Temple of Minerva in the Forum of Nerva (lower right) was still standing, and it remained that way until it was demolished in the 1500s. The point is that it is rather astonishing, in comparison to the other forums, how quickly the Temple of Mars Ultor and the Forum of Augustus fell apart and sank into oblivion.
By the 12th century, Benedictine monks took over, and the monastery's name changed to Sancti Basili Arcus Nervae ("Saint Basil's of the Arch of Nerva"). The last significant change to the temple was in 1566 when Pius V, Pope from 1566-1572, granted control of the whole temple and forum complex to the Dominican Nuns. Over the years, these nuns constructed the Santa Maria Annunziata ai Monti church dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation. Because of its small size, the church was better known to locals as Annunziatina (the "Little Annunciation").
In the 18th-century drawing below, you can see the bell tower of the convent church rising above the four remaining columns of the Temple of Mars Ultor.
Bell tower of convent church within the Forum of Augustus
"Chiesa e Monastero di S. Maria Annunziata"
Giusippe Vasi - 1750s
In the image above, the forum is mistakenly identified as the "Forum of Nerva" (... del foro di Nerva ...) - perhaps a sign that most people had no awareness that Augustus had actually built this forum. In addition, the arched gate into the ruins of the forum is high enough for a horse and carriage to enter, which contrasts with the recent photo further above that shows the same view.
As the centuries went on, more buildings, primarily religious, were constructed around the temple until the early 20th century, when demolitions, under the regime of Benito Mussolini, began from 1925 to 1932 to restore the temple and forum to its former state. Apart from the demolitions of non-Roman structures, the 1920s and 1930s also saw the start of excavations responsible for the forum we see today.
It is said that the forum faded rather quickly from the memory of the people of Rome because it more or less just vanished as an entity after the western empire collapsed. Moreover, it was one of the first major Roman public buildings to fall apart. I am sure Augustus would have been quite astonished (and greatly dismayed) by how quickly his beautiful and vital forum fell apart. But, nevertheless, here we are today, talking about Augustus' forum and temple, so not all was lost I might say, on the positive side.
Furthermore, speaking of Augustus, it is time to look at the man, his history, and why he built this forum in the first place.
WHO WAS AUGUSTUS?
The short answer is that he was the Roman who eventually became not only the first Roman Emperor but also the greatest.
Born in 63 BC, the man given the title "Augustus" actually was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. His birth name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus from the town of Velletri, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Rome's centre. While a teenager, he journeyed to Spain and crossed through the dangerous countryside to join his great-uncle Caesar who was battling Roman General Pompey the Great. And Caesar was so impressed by his nephew's bravery that he decided to make him his heir, especially since his only legitimate child, Julia, had died in childbirth in 54 BC, ten years before he was assassinated.
Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (Roman High Priest)
National Roman Museum
Two of the most critical events in Augustus' life were the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and the subsequent reading of Caesar's will that made him, at only 18 years old, officially his heir. At this point, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus - more commonly known in English simply as "Octavian.
The death of Julius Caesar caused a civil war that Octavian won with the assistance of Roman General Marc Antony in 42 BC. Ten years later, in 32 BC, after a severe schism with Marc Antony, who had divorced Octavian's sister and threatened the integrity of the Roman Empire, Octavian declared war on Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, who was in a relationship with Marc Antony.
This new civil war was ended a year later, in 31 BC, by a decisive naval battle in Actium, Greece, which Octavian won. His victory gave him complete control of Rome and all its lands. His victory also meant that the Civil War and the division of the empire ended, ushering in a long period of peace and prosperity for Roman civilization.
Marble busts of Queen Cleopatra VII and Roman General Marc Antony
Four years later, in 27 BC, the Roman Senate gave him the honorary title Augustus - The Venerable One - at which point he was now the first Roman Emperor though he never called himself that. Instead, he called himself by another title the Senate gave him - Princeps ("first citizen"). As the defacto first Emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus held all the power, and he used it to increase the size of the Roman Empire significantly. He also introduced many beneficial changes that led to two centuries of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) throughout much of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Some of Augustus' positive changes include a more fair and consistent tax system, improved coinage, and an expanded system of roads all over the empire. He also instituted the Vigiles Urbani (City Watchmen), Rome's first firefighter/police force. In addition, he created the Cursus Publicus, which was a courier system using relay stations all over the empire to quickly convey officials, tax revenue, message, and letters.
Perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments was summed up by Augustus himself when he proclaimed:
“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”
- - Augustus (according to Suetonius, Roman historian)
There is some truth in his statement. During his reign, new marble quarries opened up northwest of Rome and vast quantities of white Carrara marble became available. As a result, Augustus began numerous building projects that included temples, aqueducts, baths, and his own forum. Furthermore, for the first time, people in Rome walking in public sometimes found themselves walking on marble surfaces. And during the many building projects that lasted for decades, the streets of Rome were often clogged with large marble blocks being transported through the city.
Augustus' many achievements made him very popular and much loved by both the Roman people and the Roman Senate - and that, in itself, was a major accomplishment.
Res Gestae Divi Augusti complete version in Rome
Licensed from Dreamstime
The best list of Augustus' accomplishments was actually written by himself. He wrote about the events of his life and all his major accomplishments and placed the document in his will with instructions that it be inscribed in various places throughout the empire. In 1938, a new and complete Latin version, shown in the photo above, was recreated and placed near the Ara Pacis in Rome. The best-preserved ancient version is found inside the Temple of Augustus located in Ankara, Turkey. It can be found inscribed on the inside Cella walls of the temple, and it was inscribed in both Latin and Greek.
At age 60, the Roman Senate conferred the title Pater Patriae - "Father of the Country" - on Augustus in the year 2 BC. This action by the Roman Senate that honoured him also coincided with the opening of the Forum of Augustus that same year. In his forum, below the beautiful Quadriga gilded bronze sculpture of a chariot pulled by four horses, Pater Patriae was inscribed on the pedestal.
THE DEATH OF AUGUSTUS
The Mausoleum of August in 2021, Rome
Image Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali
At age 75, in the year 14 AD, he passed away without leaving any heirs. Without sons to inherit, he had made his nephew, Marcellus, his heir. Sadly, this nephew died, leaving only Augustus' stepson he disliked, Tiberius, to become Emperor.
The photo above shows where his ashes were kept in the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome near the banks of the river Tiber. At 90 metres in width (300 ft), this building had a cone-shaped roof topped with a bronze statue of Augustus that raised the height to 45 metres (150 ft). Augustus started building his mausoleum decades before his death.
Over many centuries of pillaging and neglect, the building deteriorated so badly that it was referred to as the "rotten tooth." Fortunately, from 2007 to 2021, years of renovations have restored this monumental building, of which only 30% of the original structure remains. Interestingly, it is believed there have always been cypress trees on the lower ring of the mausoleum. The round, central chamber is where Augustus and his wife Livia's remains were stored.
Augustus reigned as Emperor of the Roman Empire for over 40 years, from 31 BC to 14 AD, leaving an impressive legacy that has endured twenty centuries. The month of August still bears his name, just as July bears his father Julius Caesar's name. In 2014, renovations to the Baths of Diocletian were completed to coincide with the 2,000-year anniversary of Augustus' passing in 14 AD. "Requiescet in pace, Augustus" (Latin - Rest in Peace).
WHY WAS THE FORUM OF AUGUSTUS BUILT?
This forum was built primarily to fulfill a promise Augustus had made to a Roman god if he was granted victory in battle, as explained below.
In October of 42 BC, just two years after the assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar who had adopted him, Augustus and his ally, Marc Antony, were battling the armies of Brutus and Cassius. These were two Roman Senators who headed the conspiracy that led to the murder of Caesar in 44 BC.
It was there, at the Battle of Philippi in Greece, that Augustus made an oath to build a forum and temple dedicated to Mars Ultor, Roman god of war and vengeance, if he was granted victory.
Building a forum and large temple dedicated to the avenging god of war Mars Ultor fit perfectly with Roman philosophy regarding war. The Roman attitude was that most of their wars were justified because they were "avenging" wrongs or disturbances to the natural order caused by their enemies. Incredibly, Romans often did not see themselves as ruthless or aggressive conquerors.
The association with Mars Ultor also made the forum the centre of many functions important to the Romans. Many of those functions involved the business of war.
For example, it was from this forum that military commanders would first set forth to go to war. It was here that the Roman Senate would meet to discuss critical military matters such as declaring war and recognizing Roman triumphs in battle. And when triumphs did happen - and there were many - the prized loot of triumphs was kept here.
Furthermore, this forum was also where 15-year-old Roman boys underwent the ceremony that allowed them to wear the Toga Virilis, the white toga of manhood, which then allowed them to enter the military at age 17.
Very quickly, this forum became all-important for the administrative, military, and political life of the Roman Empire. In fact,
the architectural plan of the Forum of Augustus became a template for the rest of the empire, and thus many other Roman cities built
a similar forum in their central area.
As mentioned earlier, in addition to building his forum to honour Mars Ultor and his legacy, it was built because of the Roman government's pressing need for more space to conduct legal proceedings and other matters. Both the city of Rome and the empire had grown so huge that there was a great demand for court cases which had to be held somewhere.
Moreover, the Roman government's need for space became so great that Augustus' forum was used to conduct legal proceedings in the porticos and exedras years before construction was completed, as stated by Suetonius in the quote above.
This ends the discussion of the Forum of Augustus. If you ever go to Rome, make sure to visit this great forum. Though much of it is gone, you will still be quite impressed by what remains. For your convenience, I have placed the Forum Guide below if you would like to explore another of the great forums of Rome.
The links below offer additonal information about the FORUM OF AUGUSTUS, including entrance fees, hours, how to get there, etc.