Forum of Pompeii ruins in 2011
A forum in Roman civilization was a large city square located in the centre of Rome and other Roman cities, such as the city of Pompeii, shown above. But a Roman forum was more than just a city square - it was the beating heart of a Roman city where people shopped in the marketplace and attended public gatherings, religious ceremonies, courts of law, and festivals. A forum was also a place to visit a temple, libraries, courts, and art displays.
Most of the forums in Roman cities had at least one large building called a Basilica located along one side of the forum city square. In Roman times, a Basilica was simply a large public building - not a church - which provided space for merchants, public officials, and legal proceedings. However, a few of the six great forums of Rome did not have a basilica; this was because space was limited or filled with other kinds of structures.
Most Roman cities had only one main forum, but Rome had six main forums, as shown in the diagram below. All six forums were located next to each other in the heart of ancient Rome, and they can still be seen today though in a very ruined state due to the ravages of time.
All six great forums in the heart of Rome
In addition to the six major forums, the city of Rome also had several other minor forums known collectively as the Fora Venalium, Latin for "Food Market Forums". Examples of the minor forums are the Forum Piscarium for fish sellers, and the Forum Vinarium for wine sellers. This was possible in Rome because of the city's large size. In other Roman cities, there was usually just one forum. To see a complete list of these smaller food forums, please click this link.
Most forums throughout the Roman Empire were centrally located public squares with areas for commerce that also included a temple and at least one building for courts of justice and administration. The marble relief below shows a typical business found in a Roman forum in the 1st century.
1st Century AD Pillow Shop in a Roman forum
In this article, I explore the six main forums of Rome that were visited by over 7 million tourists in 2019, according to Statista.com.
All of the six main forums of Rome are located next to each other in the heart of the city. They are composed of the ancient Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) and the newer five forums that are known collectively as the Imperial Fora (forums). Those five forums are, from first to last built: Forum of Caesar, Forum of Augustus, Forum of Vespasian, Forum of Nerva, and Forum of Trajan.
Whereas the ancient Roman Forum was wide open and unwalled, the newer Imperial Forums (fora) were all four-sided plazas with an entrance at one end, a temple at the other, and a portico (a long porch with columns) on both the left and right sides.
In addition, each forum was surrounded by four walls with entrances. These walls gave a forum structure and defined its territory - they also helped to protect forums from fires in nearby neighbourhoods. The image below shows the typical layout of an Imperial Forum in ancient Rome. Having the temple placed at the far end of a square enclosed by walls is a pattern the Romans learned from the Etruscan civilization that dominated much of Italy before the Romans.
Layout of a typical Imperial Roman Forum
A portico can be seen on the left and right sides of the diagram above. In Classical Roman architecture, a portico is a long walkway with a roof supported by lines of columns on one or both sides. A line of columns in Classical architecture is known as a colonnade. Every Imperial Forum had at least two beautiful colonnaded porticos, which you can see in the drawing below.
In this image, a Roman matron lady is walking inside one portico, and another portico can be seen across the square. And for those wondering about the beautiful floors - yes, Roman floors could be very elaborate and colourful. These stunning floors were made from shining inlaid marble and granite from all over the Roman Empire. The great forums of Rome were architectural showpieces - almost like art - that required much time, skill, money, and resources to construct.
Colonnade of columns along the South Portico Romans used rare marbles of many colours to create stunning architecture
Every one of these newer Imperial Fora was built and financed by a Roman Emperor. The only exception was Julius Caesar, who was never an emperor though he did build a forum. Instead, he was "Dictator Perpetuo" (Dictator for Life) and his heir, Augustus, became the first official Roman Emperor in 27 BC, seventeen years after Caesar's death.
Not every Imperial Forum was named after the Emperor who started it. For example, the Forum of Nerva was begun and financed by Emperor Domitian. However, after his death by assassination, his forum was completed by Emperor Nerva, who then renamed the forum after himself.
|•||They wanted to beautify the city;|
|•||They wanted to show themselves in a good light;|
|•||They wanted to leave a legacy;|
|•||They wanted to contribute significantly to Roman society by providing structures for public enjoyment, art, commerce, libraries, and government administration.|
None of these forums were built as a memorial to a dead emperor - they were all built by someone still living. For example, Caesar started buying land for his forum in 54 BC and began construction in 51 BC, many years before his death in 44 BC.
The cost was enormous. Julius Caesar spent 100 Million Sesterces ( $160 Million US Dollars) just to buy the land required for his "Forum of Caesar" in the expensive downtown core of Rome. Then, more money was required to demolish the buildings and then level the ground. And still, much more money was needed for the construction, materials, and artwork that often took many years to complete.
"Julius Awaits the Senators in His Forum"
In my drawing above, something that actually happened is portrayed: Julius Caesar would sit in front of his forum temple in the morning, waiting for the Roman Senators to come to him before they could go to the Roman Senate. Naturally, this caused resentment among the Senators who already had other concerns about his growing power. It is thus not surprising that, on March 15, 44 BC, a dozen or more of these Senators stabbed him to death ... and the rest is history. For those wondering if the Senators were using the new Curia Julia built next door to his forum - they did not - it was not completed yet. Instead, they were using Pompey's Theatre to meet, and this is where Caesar was assassinated - in the grand building built by his former enemy.
Like Caesar's forum, the other five major forums of Rome represented a considerable investment of money, materials, artistry, and architectural skill. Their very ruined state in the 21st century is a tragic loss which is sadly understandable given the ravages of time over twenty centuries. Fortunately, the still-standing ruins are impressive and offer us a glimpse of Roman architecture's splendour and grand scale.
In the year 500 BC, Rome had just one main forum, the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum). And then, starting in 46 BC, the other five Imperial Fora were built, and they branched off from the Roman Forum.
The location and dates of all six forums are shown in the diagram below. Each forum is colour-coded for easier comparison. In addition, the distance between the forums and the Colosseum has been shortened.
As shown in the diagram above, the timeline for the construction of the first main forum and the Imperial Forums that
followed, from first to last built, is a period of over 600 years:
ROMAN FORUM (Forum Romanum) 500 BC
Forum of CAESAR 46 BC
Forum of AUGUSTUS 2 BC
Forum of VESPASIAN 71 AD
Forum of NERVA 97 AD
Forum of TRAJAN 112 AD
Because the five Imperial Forums were not all built at the same time, the image below dates from the year 112 AD, when the last forum - the Forum of Trajan - was finally completed so that all the major forums of Rome could be seen together.
The Roman Forum is located at lower left, and the five Imperial Fora branch out towards the right. You can see the forum labels, if you hover the cursor or touch the image.
Touch or hover cursor to show forum labels
You can see how the Roman Forum (bottom left) is open and sprawling. It isn't walled in or self-contained, whereas the other five forums basically all follow the same pattern of a temple inside a courtyard bordered by porticos - a pattern set by Julius Caesar when he opened his new forum (middle) in 46 AD.
The last forum to be built was the Forum of Trajan (top right), considered by many as the largest and most beautiful of the Imperial Fora, in 112 AD.
The forums exist still in the 21st century but only partially - which is not surprising given their great age. For example, the last forum built in 112 AD is now over 1,900 years old.
Although some forums have fared better than others, none of them has been spared from serious damage, pillaging, and even demolition. Right up to the early 1700s, if marble was needed for a palace or church, a whole forum temple or wall could be ordered demolished.
Only two columns survive after 1606 AD Demolition of the Forum
Photo by C. Raddato - CC BY-SA-2.0
This happened in 1606 AD to the Forum of Nerva, where the temple was still primarily intact before being demolished. And today, only two of the original 53 tall columns along the forum walls remain. The temple now no longer exists except for a few foundations.
Natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires have also taken their toll on these ancient structures. Even within the first centuries of their existence, many of these forums were damaged, often repeatedly. Understandably, these forums then had to be repaired or rebuilt on an ongoing basis, which required vast sums of money.
Around the 5th century, as the Empire declined, less money was spent by the wealthy elite of Rome on maintaining the great monuments of their city. And so, a decline already began in the forums of Rome - even before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD
Starting in 410 AD, Rome was sacked five times, causing varying degrees of damage to the forums. At the very least, anything valuable was taken during the multiple sacks. Below is a list of the five sacks of Rome:
|410 AD - Visigoths|
|455 AD - Vandals|
|546 AD - Ostrogoths|
|1084 AD - Normans|
|1527 AD - Charles V Imperial Troops|
The worst damage occurred during the sacks of 1084 and 1527 AD. The sack of 410 lasted only three days, whereas the sacks in 455 and 546 AD lasted for weeks, and many ancient Roman monuments and buildings were damaged or even burned. In addition, thousands of Rome's citizens were taken away as slaves by ship. As you can see, the forums endured a lot of abuse over the centuries, and they were damaged greatly.
The remaining parts of the forums are some wall sections, foundation fragments, some columns, bits of flooring, and a few mostly intact structures. However, the reality is that well over 90% of the forum structures are gone, as seen in this photo of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum in 2006.
Furthermore, in contrast to the demolished Forum of Nerva, the Roman Forum is still impressive because of several structures that have survived, such as the Curia Julia (home of the Roman Senate) and the nearby Arch of Septimius Severus (shown below).
Other notable "survivors" in this forum are the Temple of Romulus and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which are now known as the churches of Saints Cosmas and Damian and San Lorenzo in Miranda, respectively.
Arch of Septimius Severus in the 18th century when the forums area was called the "Campo Vaccino" (Cow Field)
Painting by Gaspar Van Wittel - 1653 - 1736
Over the centuries, all the forums became buried under 3 to 5 metres (10 to 16 feet) of dirt and debris. For many centuries, until the 1800s, the forum area of Rome was known as a grassland called the Campo Vaccino - the "Cow Field" (see image above). The forum area became a vast pasture where people would bring their animals to graze and admire the ruins still poking up from the ground. Unfortunately, people also plundered much of the marble and other precious materials.
Excavations of the forums started in the 1800s and were completed in the first four decades of the 20th century, although newer excavations do happen still. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, several million people every year visited the ruins of these ancient forums, which, like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, have become prime tourist destinations in Rome.
This ends the history and background of the six great forum of Rome. For your convenience, the Forum Guide is available below for you to begin exploring the six forums of Rome.