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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.