FORUM OF NERVA
THE NARROW, BEAUTIFUL FORUM BETWEEN THE OTHERS
The Forum of Nerva at night in 2022
Though little remains of the Forum of Nerva in our century, the two surviving marble columns and walls made of peperino blocks still show their beauty and elegance, as seen in the photo above. Many centuries ago, the long walls on either side of this forum were covered with marble veneer and decorated with over 50 tall columns and hundreds of carved figures above them. In addition, at one end of the forum sat a splendid Roman temple constructed in the elaborate Corinthian style, as shown below.
Forum of Nerva and Temple of Minerva in 100 AD Yes, Romans kept dogs on a leash, as seen in this ancient mosaic
Because this forum was built within the narrow space between two other forums, the Forum of Nerva was the smallest of the great six forums of Rome. Nevertheless, for almost four centuries, this busy forum was an interconnecting hub between several other forums.
In my drawing of the Forum of Nerva above, I have imagined how it appeared in the year 100 AD. In this image, we are looking towards the Temple of Minerva, dedicated to the goddess of the same name. Entrances and exits to the forum are located along all four walls that border it. On the far left side, in the distance, you can see the outline of the southern exedra of the Forum of Augustus which borders this forum on its left side.
AN IMPERIAL FORUM WITHOUT PORTICOS
Unlike the other four Imperial Forums, you can see how this forum does not have columned hallways (Porticos) on either side of the paved courtyard. Instead, because of the limited width, Roman architects placed 22 paired columns on either side and nine pairs along the rear wall facing the temple. All the columns supported an elegant structure called the 'Attic,' shown below. Notice how the 'Attic" projects outwards above the columns. This combination of columns and "attic" form a structure called Le Colonnacce, which is unique to the Forum of Nerva - I discuss this in detail further down the page.
Diagram showing Attic column structure
Photo part of diagram courtesy of David Bramhall - CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0
As shown in the image above, each pair of columns was made up of an actual round column standing in front of the wall and another column - actually a flat pilaster - placed against the wall. A pilaster type of column is more a decoration than a support. In the photo above, on the far right side, only the pilaster's capital remains because the lower part has been pillaged along with the other marble that covered the wall. And only two actual round columns remain of the original 53, as shown in the diagram below.
The 53 round columns of the Forum of Nerva
A USEFUL FORUM OF MANY NAMES
Since the day it opened in 97 AD, this forum has had many names, such as the Forum Transitorium, Forum of Domitian, Forum Palladium, Forum Caesaris, and the Forum Pervium. However, today it is known as just the Forum of Nerva. Though certainly the smallest of the forums of Rome, it was nevertheless quite elegant and unique in its structure. This forum was completed in 97 AD, just fifteen years before the Forum of Trajan, the final forum in Rome, was completed in 112 AD.
This unique column and "Attic" structure formed what we today call Le Colonnacce. The three walls forming Le Colonnacce separated this forum from the neighbouring Forum of Augustus on one side and the Forum of Vespasian on the other. In addition, doorways in the lower part led to the Forum of Caesar and the Roman Forum. Thus, the Forum of Nerva served as an intersection and conduit to the various forums - this is why it was also known as the Forum Transitorium.
Forum of Nerva as the central hub to other forums
Its other purpose was to fill the gap between the Forum Romanum in the south, the Forum of Vespasian in the east, and the Forums of Augustus and Caesar in the west - this forum thus connected four forums. It was also narrower at its north end, towards the temple, behind which was a large entrance.
THE FORUM OF NERVA WAS THE NARROWEST
Images that show a wide and large Forum of Nerva are not correct - the reality is that this was the narrowest and smallest of all the forums of Rome. For example, the Forum of Trajan was 185 metres (600 feet) wide, whereas the Forum of Nerva was only one-quarter the width at 45 metres wide (145 feet). But the Forum of Nerva was long - 170 metres (550 feet).
This forum replaced old Argiletum street, the ancient centre of the Roman publishing industry, filled with businesses creating and selling books. Interestingly, the great sewer of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima, ran below the forum. Also, the Forum of Augustus used to have two protruding and circular exedras facing Argiletum street, one of which had to be demolished to make room for the Forum of Nerva. You can see the remaining exedra in the image (left) below, pressing against the Temple of Minerva.
In the two images below, I show the overall structure of the Forum of Nerva when it was new compared to how it looks today.
Forum of Nerva structure in 100 AD compared to 2022 AD
Not much left - you really have to use your imagination
The Forum of Nerva, in essence, was a very fancy and long corridor, as shown above in the image on the left showing the forum in the year 100 AD. The image on the right shows how little remains of the forum. The Via dei Fori Imperiali street runs through the forum, right below where the Temple of Minerva stairs were once located. Half of the ancient exedra from the Forum of Augustus still stands, which helps to visualize where the temple and other structures were located. Right above the street, on the right side, you can see the two remaining columns and the Attic that formed Le Colonnacce.
Romanticized Forum of Nerva showing it as wide and huge
Though beautiful and grand, the image above is a very romanticized and exaggerated vision of what the forum looked like in the second century. In this image, we see a forum as wide or even wider than the Forum of Augustus (90 metres / 300 feet), which was twice as wide as the Forum of Nerva. The video below the image is based on an actual photo of what remains of the Forum of Nerva, thus showing a proper perspective and size.
EARLY HISTORY AND STRUCTURE OF THE FORUM OF NERVA
Emperor Domitian began construction of this forum; however, after his murder in 96 AD, the forum was completed by Emperor Nerva the next year, in 97 AD, who then named it after himself. In the image above, along the outside walls, you can see a close-up view of the peristyle of Corinthian columns and entablature known as "Le Colonnacce", of which only 2 columns remain of the original 50.
Above the entablatures along both sides of the forum are large statues of the Roman goddess Minerva. The painted reliefs within the frieze of the entablatures are of Minerva, the Nine Muses, and Arachne. An animated image I developed below shows a transition between how the Forum of Nerva looks now and 2,000 years ago. An archaeologist has advised me that the temple was probably closer than shown. Basically, the temple ended just before the Forum of Augustus' southern exedra (click to view - exedra indicated by a red asterisk, lower right).
This animated image of the Forum of Nerva changes over a period of ten seconds. You will see the original structures of this forum appearing within a recent photograph of the ruins of this forum so that you can compare "now" with "then." On the far right, you can see one of the original columns that survived.
The temple and columns in the upper left are the ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus. As shown in the video, the Forum of Nerva is indeed rather narrow, and I think it is fair to say that some reconstruction images of the forum exaggerate its width. Unfortunately, not much remains of this forum, which time has reduced to a faint glimmer of its former glory. Below is my drawing of the Forum of Nerva on a hot summer day in 100 AD.
Forum of Nerva covered with awnings on a hot summer day
Awnings have been stretched across the forum to protect the people from the heat and brightness of the summer Sun. This was actually a common practice in Ancient Rome. Even the Colosseum, the vast Roman Forum, and the Sacra Via street were covered with a series of colourful awnings (known as Vela in Latin). It is recorded that these vast awnings were sky blue, speckled with stars, and were wonderful to see with the Sun shining above them. The summers in Rome are so long and hot, and these practical awnings must have been a welcome relief.
LE COLONNACCE OF THE FORUM OF NERVA
In this section, I look at the columns and the sections above them that form Le Colonnacce that ran along three sides (north, south, and west) of the Forum of Nerva. The first photograph shows details of the structure from the top of the columns and up to the Cornice. This horizontal expanse of stone above the columns is called the "entablature" in classical architecture. Most outstanding in the photo below is the frieze filled with high-reliefs of Minerva and ladies weaving and spinning fabrics. The frieze tells the tale of how the Roman goddess Minerva transformed a lady named Arachne into a spider.
Entablature of Le Colonnacce - Forum of Nerva
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
The photo above is a close-up of the entablature details above the two remaining columns of Le Colonnacce. This kind of architecture was used extensively by the Romans in the design of their temples and other buildings. The style is definitely Corinthian based on the exquisite details listed below, starting at the bottom and going up:
We see the top part of the Corinthian capital above the columns. The volutes and acanthus leaves have mostly been worn away over time;
Above the capital is the horizontal expanse of marble called the "Architrave", which is divided into three bands called "fascias" that
are themselves divided by two lines of sculptured motifs;
Above the architrave, the "Frieze" starts, and it is framed below and above by a band of elaborate motifs. Within the frieze itself, we
see various relief sculptures of human figures telling the story of Minerva, the 9 Muses, and Arachne;
Above the frieze is a band of cube-shaped "dentils" followed by a band of "egg-and-dart" motifs above. These two
bands form the start of the "Cornice" overhanging structure;
Next are the protruding "modillions" that support the Cornice overhang that itself is decorated with carved rosettes on the
under-surface. Finally, a thick band of intricate carvings spans along the entire top surface of the Cornice.
Above the Cornice overhang were large sculptures of women spaced at regular intervals. Unfortunately, only one of these sculptures still exists within the remains of the Forum of Nerva, shown in the photo below. Fragments of two other sculptures are in museums, which is discussed later on.
Colonnacce Attic relief figure - possibly Minerva
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
The figure above shows a female figure holding a shield with her left hand while wearing an elaborate helmet. Also, she likely was holding a spear in her right hand. It was thought that this figure represents the Roman goddess Minerva. However, another theory says that this figure - just one of many in the forum - represented all the various peoples the Roman conquered. Parts of two other figures in the forum were found, and are different, as shown in this photo (click to view).
It is understandable how people think the figure of the woman is indeed Minerva because it looks almost exactly like her. The photo below of an actual Roman statue of the goddess Minerva, over 3 metres high (10 feet), shows the uncanny resemblance. Also, because the forum and its temple were dedicated to the same goddess, it is likely this figure actually is Minvera, notwithstanding newer theories - see for yourself.
Roman statue of Minerva in the Capitoline Museum
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
Like all the other iconic forums of Rome, much artistry and carving went into the creation of the Forum of Nerva. While the surviving section shown in the photo above is a small fraction of what it once was, I am nevertheless thankful that even this small part has survived so that we have a fair idea of how the whole looked. In their prime, all those carved figures were painted in vivid colours.
FORUM OF NERVA IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE
Unlike nearby forums, such as the Forum of Augustus which fell apart quickly, the Forum of Nerva mainly survived intact for over 1,000 years after the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 AD. However, after the Gothic Wars that devastated ancient Rome in the 530s, the situation of the forum declined. Unmaintained sewers and drains became clogged, leading to flooding that slowly filled all the forums with sediment.
Forum of Nerva in the year 900 AD
By the 800s, the columned walls of the forum enclosed several farming communities trying to flourish within the magnificent ruins. Here and there, some columns were removed, walls were damaged, but overall most of the forum and its temple still existed, as shown in the images above and below.
Forum of Nerva in the early Middle Ages
This is how the Forum of Nerva looked during the early medieval period (image above). In fact, most of this forum survived intact until 1606 AD, when Pope Paul V ordered the Temple of Minerva demolished because he required marble and travertine stone for the construction of the Fontana dell'Acqua Paola fountain and the Borghese Chapel in the Santa Maria Maggiore church.
As the centuries advanced, the ground level within the Forum of Nerva rose higher and higher. By the middle of the 1550s, a third of the columns' height was buried in dirt, and the Temple of Minerva was partially dismantled and damaged by numerous earthquakes over the centuries. The image below is an engraving by Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570), showing how much of the Temple of Minerva survived.
Forum of Nerva covered in deep mud & dirt 1551 AD
The image above, dated 1551 AD, shows an area filled with dirt and rubble. The stairs leading up to the Temple of Minerva are buried deep in the muck, and the courtyard is filled with rubble and various plants and grass. By this century, the forum was filled with sediment - notice how deeply buried the columns on the right side are - almost a third of their height. These columns (not including the capital on top) are 9 metres high (30 feet approx); thus they are buried by 3 metres (10 feet) of dirt and debris. These are a few of the columns that form "Le Colannacce." In fact, I would say that those two columns are the same ones we see today.
Sections of the Temple of Minerva were still standing in the 1500s. While this engraving is clearer than the one below, for some reason the artist has distorted the left side of the Temple of Minerva - the columns and entablature above are at a rather strange angle. The image below shows a more understandable representation of how the temple looked five centuries ago. Also, you can see part of the original inscription - "IMP NERVA" - on the front of the temple ruins.
Forum of Nerva in the 1490s - Artist Unknown
The 530-year-old engraving above shows the Forum of Nerva in the 1490s, sixty years before the 1551 engraving. As you can see, there was even more mud earlier, as if there had been an effort in the later years to clear some of the muck away. The columns are buried deeper, and the debris in the foreground shown in the 1551 image cannot be seen in the image above. Incredibly, the people in this image are walking on top of 4 to 5 metres (12 to 15 feet) of sediment covering the original forum. You can see a torrent of sediment coming out of the Temple of Minerva's right side.
Both images show the tall Torre dei Conti on the extreme right, built on the foundation of a Forum of Vespasian outer wall exedra. The tower was even higher than shown in the engravings - a series of earthquakes, especially severe in 1348, severely damaged the tower, reducing its height. In the next section below, we jump three centuries into the 1800s to see how the forum looked.
FORUM OF NERVA IN LATER CENTURIES AND TODAY
Forum of Nerva in the 1700s - Street on right that became Via Dei Fori Imperiali
Giovanni Piranesi - 1745 approx.
By the mid-1700s, the Forum of Nerva was reduced to just the section shown in the 16th Century engraving above. The remaining two columns and the ancient structures they supported were all just incorporated into the local neighbourhood buildings. By this point, the columns are half-buried by almost 4 metres (13 feet) of dirt and debris. The doorway between the columns is actually being used to enter the attached three-storey building.
In the 1930s, the street on the far right was transformed into the wide and elevated Via Dei Fori Imperiale. The first photo on this page shows people standing on the elevated street looking down into the forum. Of course, all non-Roman structures in the forum area were dismantled in the 1920s and the 1930s during the Mussolini era.
Forum of Nerva in the 1800s
In the 1800s, just as today, the only standing parts of the Forum of Nerva were the two remaining columns that form Le Colonnacce. The main difference is the ground level which covers over half the columns' height. Also, notice how the ground is cobbled.
By the 1800s, the forum was just part of the city, with buildings built right next to the two remaining columns and the superstructure above them. The photo on the left dates from the 1870s, whereas the drawing dates from the mid-1800s. The doorway marked with the sign with "FORNO" above can still be seen in the present-day images below - it has been bricked in with light brownish brick. The word "Forno" is an Italian word meaning a bakery or oven.
You can also see where the windows and other doorways that existed in the 1800s were also bricked in. Looking at the bricked-in FORNO doorway in the image on the right (below), you can see where the former ground level was located before excavations in the 1930s lowered the ground to the original and ancient level.
Forum of Nerva in the late 1920s or very early 1930s
In the photo above, we see more of the area beside and behind the ruins of the Forum of Nerva in the very late 1920s or perhaps in 1931 or 1932, before the whole Alessandrino neighbourhood above the Roman forums was demolished. Again, you can see how high the ground level was and how deeply buried the two surviving columns are. Notice how the doorway and window in the forum wall are gone and a protective fence has been placed around the ruins in front. It looks like the government was already taking steps to protect and restore the ruins somewhat.
FORUM OF NERVA IN THE 21st CENTURY
The Forum of Nerva in 2022
C. Raddato - CC BY-SA-2.0
What you see above is all that remains of the Forum of Nerva today - a couple of columns, some entablature above the columns, and a length of wall. The former beautiful Temple of Minerva is reduced to bits of foundation here and there, seen in the foreground of the photo. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the small part that remains is still wonderful to look at, and one can only imagine how magnificent this forum must have been at its peak so many centuries ago. Below are different views of these two remaining columns.
What remains of Forum of Nerva columns today
Photo on the left, above is taken while standing with the back wall of the forum behind me, facing south. In the distance, you can see the elevated roadway (Via dei Fori Imperiali) that goes through the forums.
Photo on the right, above
The yellow line shows the ground level inside the forum in the 1800s, before excavations in early 1930s.
The line is drawn at bottom of the "Forno" doorway that existed in previous centuries. When the forum was thoroughly excavated, all the
former window and doorway holes were bricked in.
And this ends my discussion of the Forum of Nerva. If you ever travel to Rome and you go see this forum, you will see that there isn't very much left. Nevertheless, the small part that still remains offers a wonderful glimpse of ancient glory. Once again, I have included the Forum Guide with six links to all six iconic forums of Rome if you would like to explore another forum.
The links below offer additonal information about the FORUM OF NERVA, including entrance fees, hours, how to get there, etc.