FORUM OF CAESAR
THE FIRST IMPERIAL FORUM BUILT IN ROME
On September 26, 46 BC, Julius Caesar, dressed in a light toga, slippers, and wearing garlands of flowers, inaugurated his magnificent forum shown in the image above. In the centre is the grand temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus Genetrix, which housed a large statue of her by the sculptor Arcesilaus.
The left and right sides of the forum were filled with beautiful two-storey porticos containing statues between each column. Furthermore, a third portico facing the temple filled the southern side, thus forming a "U" arrangement of three porticos along the periphery of the forum with the temple at the top.
In front of the temple was a statue of Julius Caesar on horseback, called the Equus Caesaris. At first, there was only a statue of Caesar's favourite horse, Genitor, that he rode in many of his most famous battles (shown in the image below). However, after Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, the statue was changed to one showing Caesar riding Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalas, as shown in the image above.
Caesar riding his horse Genitor in battle
Artist: Adolphe Yvon - 1875
The Forum of Caesar was the first great forum built outside the Forum Romanum. The architecture and layout of this forum was so successful that it became the pattern for all future forums in Rome and the Roman Empire.
Julius Caesar built this forum because of a vow he made to the Roman goddess Venus to honour her with a temple if she granted him victory over his enemy, Pompey the Great in the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. He won the battle and began plans to build his forum. In my drawing below, Caesar sits in front of his forum temple in the last year of his life - 44 BC - waiting for the Roman Senators to see him first before they can head to the Roman Senate - his way of showing who was really in charge.
Caesar sitting in his forum in 44 BC
Caesar must have really enjoyed his forum that cost an enormous sum to build - over 100 Million Secterces, which I discuss in detail further down. The grand marble temple behind him with a fountain before it, combined with the travertine paved square, was really splendid, as shown in the drawing above.
DIMENSIONS AND STRUCTURES
The Forum of Caesar, at 160 metres long and 75 metres wide (525 x 250 feet), was a design that became the standard for all the other forums built afterwards in Rome. However, the Roman concept of constructing an enclosed space with a temple at one end was heavily influenced by the earlier Etruscan civilization, so this was not an entirely new concept.
This temple's walls were made of brick covered with marble slabs, and the columns were pure marble. It also contained many artworks that Caesar had collected, such as paintings, statues, and six collections of engraved gems (click to view image).
Cornice sections from Temple of Venus Genetrix
Image courtesy of Roger Ulrich - CC BY-NC 2.0
The whole forum was paved with slabs of white travertine stone. Images showing forums paved with multi-coloured stonework, looking something like the floor of the Pantheon, are probably incorrect. Nevertheless, the effect of a wide expanse of white travertine stone reflecting the light of a bright noon-day Sun can be quite dazzling, especially if the travertine is polished to a lustre.
The temple's architecture is Corinthian Order, octastyle, and it sits upon a high podium with no front staircase. Right before the podium of the Temple of Venus Genetrix was a fountain decorated with statues of nymphs called the Appiades Fountain, of which only a few remains of the foundation can be seen (click to view).
The following view (above) of the Forum of Caesar again shows the open forum from far back inside the southern portico where it meets the eastern portico (on the right). Ahead, in the distance, we can see the Temple of Venus Genetrix and, on the left, the western portico. Look at all those beautiful and fluted Corinthian columns. How marvelous it must have been to walk around this forum when it was new and the marble was sparkling.
Forum of Caesar, Temple of Venus Genetrix
C.R. Cockerell - 1800s
The image above is another reimagining of how the Forum of Caesar looked during its prime. As you can also see in this beautiful painting, the artist correctly included two-storey porticos. The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus is seen in the top left corner atop the Capitoline Hill and Trajan's Column can be seen peeking above the portico on the right side.
However, the painting also shows us a forum paved with stones of varying colours which is not accurate - the forum was paved with slabs of white travertine. Also, the temple was not entered by a grand staircase filling the front of the temple. Instead, there was a long staircase passage along both sides of the temple that led towards the front doors. Thus, when standing before the temple, one would see a highly decorated wall only instead of a grand staircase, and there was a long fountain before the wall. Also, the portico on the left, does not show any of the statues displayed within.
LAYOUT PLAN OF THE FORUM OF CAESAR
Forum of Caesar Layout Structure
My diagram of the Forum of Caesar displays a large square surrounded by two-storey columned porticos along three sides and a temple on the fourth side. Near the temple, on the left, is the Basilica Argentaria, built in the 2nd century by Emperor Trajan. Alongside the portico on the left, you can see the Tabernae, which were most likely public offices and not shops.
Finally, in the foreground, you can see the Curia Julia which housed the Roman Senate. Caesar had begun this building but, after his assassination, it had to be finished by Augustus.
THE PORTICOS WERE TWO-STOREYS HIGH
Images showing this forum with one-storey porticos are probably incorrect. My research indicates strongly that the porticos of the Forum of Caesar had both a lower and an upper level, as stated in the quote below:
The porticos outside the Basilica Aemilia and on the Forum of Caesar are exceptionally wide and long, with the latter having an upper storey.
- Luke Lavan, Public Space in the Late Antique City, Part 1, Jan. 11, 2021
The two engravings below from the mid-1800s show a Forum of Caesar with two-storey porticos.
Forum of Caesar engravings from the 1800s showing a forum with two-storey porticos
It is also intersting how the Fori-Imperiali.info website in Italy states:
The porticoes were two-storeys high and with double aisles divided by an internal row of columns.
BUILDING THE FORUM OF CAESAR WAS VERY EXPENSIVE
Ancient Rome's centre was very crowded, very expensive
Because the area of Rome where this forum was to be built was not vacant and contained prime, commercial real estate, Julius Caesar had to spend a fortune, probably over 100 Million Sesterces, to buy several parcels of land in the core of Rome - and then there was the cost of planning, materials, and construction. The total cost would equal hundreds of millions of dollars in today's currency. Fortunately for Caesar, he acquired a vast amount of money as the result of his conquest of the Roman province of Gaul (France, today).
Julius Caesar is considered to have been one of the richest people who ever lived - worth over $4 Trillion dollars in today's currency by the time of his death. The Roman historian Suetonius mentions the cost in one of his writings, as quoted below:
He began a forum with the proceeds of his spoils, the ground for which cost more than a hundred million sesterces.
Suetonius, "The Life of Caesar" - Section 26
It took many years to acquire the land required to build the forum. Caesar needed the assistance of the great Roman orator, Cicero and his good friend, Gaius Oppius, to persuade some of the reluctant land owners to sell their properties. Starting in 54 BC, these two men, acting as Caesar's agents, bought numerous properties so that construction of the Forum of Caesar could begin in 51 BC. It then took 5 years of actual building before Caesar could inaugurate his forum in 46 BC.
Like many of the forums of Rome, the date when this forum was inaugurated did not mean it was completely built. The Forum of Caesar was finally completed by his adopted son Emperor Augustus in the year 29 BC, fifteen years after Caesar's assassination on March 15, 44 BC.
THE FORUM OF CAESAR PLAN EVOLVED OVER TIME
NOTE: It is important to understand that, although Caesar started acquiring land as early as 54 BC, the forum that came into being was not planned that early. The forum we know - temple, three porticos, wide courtyard - came about in an evolutionary rather than a straight-forward process. Large events and a crisis distracted Caesar. For example, when he first came up with the idea of constructing public buildings, Caesar did not foresee a four-year civil war.
For Caesar, building his forum was a slow process, as explained below:• In 54 BC, land was acquired;
• Demolitions happened over the next few years,
• After demolitions, the land was cleared & levelled.
And then step-by-step Caesar's monumental forum was planned and realized, with serious construction beginning in earnest six years later after he won the civil war against Pompey in 48 BC.
Forum of Caesar in the First Century
It is interesting how they show this forum with one-storey porticos and no statues between the columns
Image by Altair4 (modified by myself)
By this point, Caesar's power was secure and he had every intention of fulfilling his promise to the Roman goddess Venus to build her a temple. He had the money, he had the power, he had the resources, and he had the vision and ambition. He also wanted to build necessary structures for the good of Rome - public spaces for public administration and business. But, of course, he obviously also wanted to construct a forum that glorified himself, his family, and his legacy.
In my opinion, I would say the "blueprint" for his forum came together in 48 BC and then everything - the planning, resources, construction, labour - came together to construct the great Forum of Caesar - known to the Romans as the Forum Julium or the Forum Caesaris. For more insight into how this forum came into being, an excellent article entited "Julius Caesar and the Creation of the Forum Iulium" by Roger Ulrich, American Journal of Archaeology, 1993, sheds much light on this topic.
Ultimately, Caesar's huge investment was certainly worth it because, after his forum and its grand temple were built, this did much to impress upon everyone the extent of Caesar's power and prestige. Some people may think that self-glorification was the primary purpose of Caesar's forum; however, he astutely justified his forum's construction, claiming that Rome and its expanding territories desperately required more forum space and facilities to handle the growing demand.
To be fair to Caesar, there was much truth in his assertion because the spaces within the Forum Romanum for public administration and trials, Etc, were no longer sufficient. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Caesar definitely wanted to leave behind a remarkable legacy that would remind people of his accomplishments for many centuries.
WHY CAESAR'S TEMPLE WAS DEDICATED TO VENUS GENETRIX
In this section, I will explain why Julius Caesar's temple was dedicated to an aspect of the goddess Venus instead of being dedicated to himself. What is interesting is how Caesar initially wanted to dedicate his temple to an aspect of Venus that differed from the one he eventually chose.
Julius Caesar claimed descent from the goddess Venus, and he swore to build a temple to the aspect of that goddess known as Venus Victrix - "Venus the Victorious" - during his struggle with General Pompey in the four-year Great Roman Civil War (49 - 45 BC).
And when that long civil war finally led to the decisive Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Caesar had a change of heart about the temple dedication because his enemy, Pompey, had already built a temple dedicated to Venus Victrix in Rome. Thus, Caesar decided that, if he were victorious, he would instead build a temple dedicated to another aspect of the goddess known as Venus Genetrix - meaning "Venus the Mother", goddess of motherhood and of the home. This important aspect of Venus was also the ancestor to all the Roman people and especially of the Gens Julia - Caesar's family - who claimed descent from the goddess.
There were twenty other aspects of Venus he could have used, such as "Venus Acidalia" or "Venus Anodyomene", but Caesar chose the "Genetrix" aspect of her because it was a very important and beloved aspect of the goddess. Aspects of a Roman god are also known as "Cult Epiteths." Roman gods were complicated and often had many different versions.
The Anodyomene aspect of Venus is shown in a Roman mural below found in the ruins of Pompeii. This was a Roman copy of the orginal by the ancient artist Apelles. It is believed that another copy of the mural existed inside the Temple of Venus Genetrix in the Forum of Caesar.
Roman goddess Venus depicted as Venus AnadyomenePublic Domain
Two years after winning the Battle of Pharsulus in 46 BC, Caesar kept his promise to dedicate the temple in his forum to Venus Genetrix. After the temple was built, the Romans celebrated the festival of Venus Genetrix on September 26, a festival that Caesar instigated.
The next image shows a carved marble relief of Cupids, associated with Venus. This surviving section of relief was located along the entablature of the Temple of Venus Genetrix. This gives you an idea of the high level of decoration lavished on the structures within this forum. Cupid was the son of Venus and the Roman god of war, Mercury.
Carved marble cupids that once adorned the entablature of the Temple of Venus Genetrix
Image courtesy of Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Trajan's Market
It is claimed that, after Caesar prayed to Venus and vowed to build a temple to Venus Genetrix, a line of fire rushed across the ground from his camp to Pompey's camp, which was a sign that the goddess accepted his vow.
FORUM OF CAESAR IN LATER CENTURIES
Because this was the first Imperial Forum that was completed in 46 BC, people visiting this forum in the year 300, for example, would be entering a forum that was over 350 years old. For us, it would be like visiting a city square filled with buildings built in the 1660s - we would consider that quite old. And that is a lot of time for damage to happen because of "wear and tear," fires, and earthquakes.
By the time the Western Roman Empire officially ended in 476 AD, the Forum of Caesar was a whopping 520 years old. Fortunately, repairs and restorations were performed to keep this forum operational, especially after severe events such as earthquakes or fires.
Forum of Caesar in early 4th Century after repairs following fire of 283 AD
In the year 283 AD, a raging fire tore through Rome and seriously damaged the Forum of Caesar and its Temple of Venus Genetrix. A few years later, the forum was restored by Emperor Diocletian but these repairs seriously changed the look of the temple. The front of the temple and forum spaces to either side were plugged with a thick wall with only one entrance to the temple. The changes are shown in the image above, and the image below provides an exploded view of how the Temple of Venus Genetrix looked when it was newly constructed in 46 BC.
Exploded-view of the Temple of Venus Genetrix in 46 BC
You can see how building a thick wall across the front of the temple in the 4th century seriously changed the look of the temple and the whole forum. The depth perspective of the temple was gone and replaced by a facade of just columns, entablature, and tympanum. I wonder if the wall hid the fact that perhaps most of the temple behind the wall was not actually restored after the fire of 283 AD.
Initially, people entered the temple by staircases along the side of the building and then walking to the front and using the main staircase. A large statue of the goddess Venus Genetrix stood inside the main temple Cella, and a large fountain called the Appiades Fountain stood in front of the temple.
Artists try to imagine how this fountain looked but have to guess because only small parts of the foundation still exist. I imagine the water flowed into a long and rectangular marble pool on either side of the temple front. The water then flowed from either end towards a central pool. Records state that several statues of water nymphs stood in front of the fountain. The Romans called a water nymph an Appias, from where the Appiades fountain gets its name.
An interesting fact is that Julius Caesar placed a golden statue of his mistress Cleopatra inside the Cella. But, of course, this statue, along with the statues of Venus Genetrix, and Julius Caesar, have long vanished.
All that remains of the temple is a large foundation and three columns supporting a section of the entablature. The staircase running along the side of the temple also still exists, as shown in this photo (click to view). Below is an image of the forum in the 7th century.
Forum of Caesar in the Seventh Century AD
As shown in the photo above, by the 600s, the forum is still mostly complete, but degradation has begun. Some paving stones are missing, and grass or moss can be seen. The temple podium has missing marble panels, and the stairs leading to the portico on the left are crumbling. By this point in time, the population of Rome has shrunk by over 90%.
The Forum of Caesar is abandoned, empty, and rot has set in. With no one to maintain and repair the structures, this forum could not survive, especially after severe pillaging of its marble and other resources began. Within a few centuries, not much remained, as shown in the following image of the Forum of Caesar in the 10th century.
Forum of Caesar in the 10th Century AD with farms
The image above shows a seriously degraded Forum of Caesar in the 10th century - over 1,000 years after it was built. The land all around is pasture-like, and farms fill the forum. You can make out some of the columns of the western portico and entrances to the Tabernae. Also, the forum wall is primarily intact, as is the Curia Julia Senate house (which still exists in a good state). On the other side of the wall, you can see the top part of the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Romanum.
For another ten centuries, the dirt kept rising, the pillaging of marble and other stones accelerated, and the structures kept degrading until this forum reached the ruined state seen today. In the mid-1400s, for example, that large forum wall you see in the image above was ordered demolished by Pope Eugenius IV for the travertine it contained. It took about thirty years to complete the job (1431 - 1462) - that was much stone that was removed.
16th Century people in Rome burning marble in a lime kiln
Cornilis Visscher - 1655-58
Image courtesy of British Museum - Educational Use
But the most damage was wrought by people looking to burn marble into a substance called "lime" that was required to make mortar. In fact, so much burning of marble in "lime kilns" occurred that the section around the ancient forums was called the "lime pit." The image above shows one of these lime kilns in the 16th century.
FORUM OF CAESAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Looking at front of Temple of Venus Genetrix with remains of portico and Basilica Argentaria on the left
In the year 2022 AD, this is what now remains of the Forum of Caesar, and the image below shows an overhead view for comparison. I have provided a 'ghost' outline of the Temple of Venus Genetrix to make it easier to make sense of the ruins.
It has been estimated this temple had eight columns in front, thus making it octastyle. Three of the temple's columns remain standing upon a considerable amount of the podium.
Of course, the equestrian statue of Julius Caesar on horseback is long gone. Unlike the similar statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius which survived because, for centuries, it was mistaken for Constantine I (the first Christian emperor) - Julius Caesar's horse statue did not have the same luck.
Forum of Caesar in 2022
Original Photo made using Google Earth
In this overhead view, you can see how several columns of the west portico are standing, along with portions of the Basilica Argentaria, the Tabernae (shops) and the public latrines. Before these forums were excavated in the 20th century, they were covered with many feet of dirt, and most columns you see standing now were lying flat in the ground and had to be manually raised and also reinforced.
The whole area of the forums was an open pasture for grazing animals known as the Campo Vaccino ( the "cow field") during the middle and later ages before excavation and reconstruction began - see this image to see a painting by Charles Lock Eastlake of the Roman Forum in 1822. You will see a man sitting on the ground, and some goats, in a field of green grass and trees with the Colosseum ruins in the background.
In this photo of a partial entablature from the Temple of Venus Genetrix, above the columns, you can see three horizontal bands forming the architrave. Further up, you can also see the floral design within the Frieze which itself is topped with a band of dentils, and then a band of egg-and-dart above the dentils.
Finally, one can see portions of three modillions all along the cornice - this entablature is quite similar to the level of detail found in the Maison Carrée entablature. A lot of work, love and artistry was put into the making of this temple. These were not just structures - they were works of art.
Judging by the capitals and the ornate entablature above, the Temple of Venus Genetrix was a temple of the Corinthian order. The swirling floral design in the frieze area of the entablature is very reminiscent of the frieze of the Maison Carree temple in Nimes, France.
MUCH OF THE FORUM OF CAESAR LIKELY WAS PAINTED
Actually, my own drawing at the start of this section may be inaccurate because it shows a temple and porticos with pure white unpainted columns. However, the reality was that the ancient Romans loved decoration and so they sometimes (perhaps often) painted parts of the columns and buildings with vivid colours in addition to adorning their temples with garlands and hanging textile fabrics. I am sure that if you could go back in time to see how ancient Rome really looked, you would be astounded by the display of colours in the architecture and sculptures.
Ancient Roman artwork showing painted architecture
As you can see in the Roman paintings and carved relief above, many of the columns and walls are painted with red and gold - and a carved marble relief shows a garland hanging between columns. Just as we festoon our walls and ceilings with decorations during festivals and special holidays, of course the Romans did the same.
And this ends my discussion of the Forum of Caesar. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or advice, just email me. For your convenience, I have placed the Forum Guide below if you would like to explore another of Rome's six iconic forums.
The links below offer additonal information about the FORUM OF CAESAR, including entrance fees, hours, how to get there, etc.A Tourist in Rome - Caesar's Forum, part of the great "A Tourist in Rome" section at JEFFBONDONO.com.