The Roman Forum ★★★
The Roman Forum. (Photo by Stefan Bauer.)
Downtown Ancient Rome: The Roman Forum (Foro Romano), Palatine Hill, temple of the Vestal Virgins, Roman Senate, and Triumphal Arches of Titus and Septimius Severus
Entrances: Via della Salaria Vecchia 5/6 (at Via dei Fori Imperiali/Via del Foro Romano) and Piazza Santa Maria Nova 53 (also: Palatine Hill entrance at Via San Gregorio 30)
tel. +39-06-3996-7700 or +39-06-0608
Book tickets ahead of time: Select Italy
Roma Pass: Yes (free)
Open daily as follows:
Last Sun in Mar–Aug 31: 8:30am–7:15pm
Sept 1–30: 8:30am–7pm
Oct 1–last Sat in Oct: 8:30am–6:30pm
Last Sun in Oct–Feb 15: 8:30am–4:30pm
Feb 16–Mar 15: 8:30am–5pm
Mar 16–last Sat in Mar: 8:30am–5:30pm
Roman Forum tours
• Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour
• Context: Roma Antica, from the Roman Forum to the Colosseum
• Context: Ancient Rome Discovery (for families)
• Private Tour: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Art History Walking Tour
• Rome Super Saver: Colosseum and Ancient Rome with Best of Rome Afternoon Walking Tour
• Ancient Rome: Archaeological Discovery Tour
• Small Group Walking Tour of Rome's Archaeological Sites
• Ancient Rome Half-Day Walking Tour
• Private Tour: Imperial Rome Art History Walking Tour
• Illuminated Rome Night Tour with Dinner (no site entry)
• Rome Segway Tour (no site entry)
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Several cracked, fluted columns pick out one corner or side of a long-vanished temple. Jumbled blocks of ancient marble lie in the dust and weeds.
The rostra from which the great orators once harangued the crowds stands empty. The airy senate building survives intact. The squat triumphal arches are set with crumbling carved reliefs.
Your feet pound against the worn flagstones of Rome's original roads. A set of steps ends at a platform where once stood a temple dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar. The towering walls and apses that made up one-half of the original "basilica," the Roman law courts that later provided a blueprint for the first great churches.
Tourists pose atop the empty pedestals around the statue-lined pool of the House of the Vestal Virgins, near the cracked shell of a temple where they once kept the sacred fire burning.
The Forum was the original downtown of Rome, a former swampland drained by the world's first great city sewer and then filled with temples, government buildings, markets, and the hubbub of the early Roman Republic.
Visiting the Forum
All Moo Caesar
During the Middle Ages, Rome became a provincial backwater, and frequent flooding of the nearby river helped rapidly bury most of the Forum. This former center of the empire became—of all things—a cow pasture.
Some bits of it did still stick out aboveground, including the top half of the Arch of Septimus Severus (below), which was used to shelter a barbershop. There are plenty of older paintings and engravings that show cows contentedly munching among the broken columns.
It wasn't until the 19th century that people really became interested in excavating these ancient ruins to see what Rome must once have looked like in its glory.
(Note: this is not to confuse you with the nearby Foro Boario, the so-called "Cow Forum," with its miniature temples and Mouth of Truth by the Tiber.)
Slung between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum was the cradle of the Roman Republic, a low spot whose buildings and streets became the epicenter of the ancient world.
It takes a healthy imagination to turn what are now dusty chunks of architrave jumbled on the ground, crumbling arches, and a few shakily re-erected columns into the Glory of Ancient Rome, but this archaeological zone is fun to explore nonetheless.
The early Etruscan kings drained this swampy lowland, and under Republican rule it became the heart of the city, a public "forum" of temples, administrative halls, orators' podiums, markets, and law courts.
There are standing ranks of columns here and there marking the sites of once-important temples and buildings. Much of it means little to those of us who aren't fresh from a class in ancient history, so I'll highlight a few of the more visually spectacular sights.
A walk in the footsteps of the Caesars
The Temple of Antonius & Faustina in the Roman Forum.
As you walk down the sloping entrance road, on your left is a medieval church grafted onto and above the Temple of Antonius & Faustina, the eight columns still standing free of the church fabric at the top of some steps (it was built in AD 141 by Antonius Pius in honor of his late wife, Faustina).
Turn right at the bottom of the entrance slope to walk west along the old Via Sacra, or "Holy Way" (the Broadway or Main Street of ancient Rome, down which triumphal military parades and imperial procession marched) toward that arch you see.
Just before the arch on your right is the large brick Curia built by Julius Caesar, the main seat of the Roman Senate and remarkably well preserved (partly from being transformed in the Middle Ages into a church; if it's unlocked pop inside to see the marble inlay floor, an AD 3rd-century original).
The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus (AD 203) displays time-bitten reliefs of the emperor's victories in what are today Iran and Iraq.
Just to the left of the arch you can make out the remains of a cylindrical lump of rock with some marble steps curving off it. That round stone was the Umbilicus Urbus, considered the center of Rome and of the entire Roman empire, and the curving steps of the Imperial Rostra, where great orators and legislators stood to speak and the people gathered to listen.
Against the back of the Capitoline Hill—the modern building of which is raised upon a foundation of the ancient Tabularium, where the ancients stored their State Archives (see the people peeking out? It's now open as part of the Capitoline Museums)—you'll see the much-photographed trio of fluted columns with Corinthian capitals supporting a bit of architrave to form the corner of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (emperors were routinely turned into gods upon dying).
Ho-Ho-Ho, Merry Saturnalia!
Faith aside, there's only a 1-in-365 chance that Jesus was actually born on December 25. Part of Christianity’s early success was its savvy leaders' ability to graft their new cult onto existing pagan ones, taking things like the popular holiday of Saturnalia and making it their own so as to render Christianity more familiar and palatable to potential converts.
Start heading to your left toward the eight standing Ionic columns comprising the front and corners to the Temple of Saturn (rebuilt 42 BC), which housed the first treasury of Republican Rome. It was also where they threw one of the Roman year's biggest annual blowout festivals, the December 17 feast of Saturnalia, which, after a bit of tweaking and the wandering of the calendar, we now celebrate as Christmas (see sidebar to the right).
Here you turn left to start heading back east, walking along the Forum's southern side, past the worn steps and stumps of brick pillars (19th-century reconstructions) that outline the enormous Basilica Julia, built by Julius Caesar.
The Temple of Vesta in the Forum.
Past it are three standing Corinthian columns of the Temple of the Dioscuri, dedicated to the original gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, brothers to Helen of Troy. After Leda made it with the swan—really Zeus/Jupiter in disguise—she laid an egg out of which hatched triplets. Helen, of course, would grow up to be a real beauty, get kidnapped, and cause the ancient Greeks to go to war with Troy to get her back.
One Trojan, Aeneas, fled his burning city, had a series of adventures (chronicled in Virgil's masterful propaganda poem The Aeneid), and eventually landed in Italy to build the city of Rome. The Romans, counting back a few steps from their mythical founder, decided they really dug the whole Leda story.
Vestal virgins were young girls (between ages six and ten) selected from patrician families to serve a 30-year priestesshood During their tenure they were among Rome's most venerated citizens, with unique powers, such as the ability to pardon a condemned criminals. The cult of the goddess Vesta was quite serious about the "virgin" part of the job description. If any of Vesta's earthly servants were found to have 'misplaced' their virginity, the miscreant Vestal was summarily buried alive. (Her amorous accomplice would merely be flogged to death.)
Beyond the bit of curving wall that marks the site of the little round Temple of Vesta (rebuilt several times after fires started by the sacred flame housed within), you'll find the partially reconstructed House of the Vestal Virgins (AD 3rd–4th centuries) against the south side of the grounds. This was home to the consecrated young women who tended the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta.
The overgrown rectangle of their gardens has lilied goldfish ponds and is lined with broken, heavily worn statues of senior Vestals on pedestals (and, at any given time when the guards aren't looking, a couple of tourists posing as Vestal Virgins on the empty pedestals).
The path now dovetails back to join the Via Sacra at the entrance. Turn right, climbing between some overgrown ruins and medieval additions under the shade trees, then head left to enter the massive brick remains and coffered ceilings of the AD 4th-century Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius.
These were Rome's public law courts, and their architectural style was adopted by early Christians for their houses of worship (the reason so many ancient churches are called "basilicas;" technically speaking, it is a type of architecture, not a type of church).
Detail from the Arch of Titus showing the sack of Jerusalem.
Return to the path and continue toward the Colosseum, a visit to which is now part of the ticket that gets you into the Forum (see my testy sidebar to the right).
Before you get there, however, veer right to the second great surviving triumphal arch in the Forum, the Arch of Titus (from AD 81). One of the time-bitten relief panels on this arch depicts the carrying off of treasures from Jerusalem's temple Look closely and you'll see a menorah among the booty (there's a picture of the detail on the left).
The war this arch glorifies ended with the expulsion of Jews from the colonized Judea, signaling the beginning of the Jewish diaspora throughout Europe.
- Planning your day: You could wander through the Roman Forum in an hour or two, but many people spend four or five hours and pack a picnic lunch to eat on the Palatine (technically illegal; see below). The ticket office closes one hour before the site.
- Cumulative ticket: Your ticket is good for two days and covers admission to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill (though you can enter each site only once). You can buy this ticket ahead of time (and skip the long lines) via Select Italy.
Or buy a ticket at any of four ticket offices:
- At the main Forum entrance (on Via della Salaria Vecchia 5/6, on the east side of the Forum just off Via dei Fori Imperiali/Via del Foro Romano).
- At the Colosseum.
- At the base of the Palatine Hill at Via San Gregorio 30 (just south of the Colosseum along that wide, busy road),
- At Piazza Santa Maria Nova 53 (inside the south end of the Forum, 200m from the Colosseum)
However, if you'll be doing a lot of Rome sightseeing, I'd invest in the pass:
- Save with a discount pass: Admission to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill is now covered by a single €12 ticket—one of the priciest admissions in town, and therefore perfect to use as one of the two freebies you get on the Roma Pass.
These sights are also covered by the Archaeologia Card, but that is no longer a good deal. » more
- Get an audio guide: You can rent an audio guide from the entrance for €4 that gives you context and background details and walks you through the entire Forum and Palatine Hill site in about 70 minutes.
- In summer, they sometimes run guided tours in English at noon for €5; call to see if they're still running.
- Book a Forum tour: If you want a guided tour of the Roman Forum, book one via our partners Viator.com or Context Travel:
- Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour
- Context: Roma Antica, from the Roman Forum to the Colosseum
- Context: Ancient Rome Discovery (for families)
- Rome Super Saver: Colosseum and Ancient Rome with Best of Rome Afternoon Walking Tour
- Private Tour: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Art History Walking Tour
- Ancient Rome: Archaeological Discovery Tour
- Ancient Rome Half-Day Walking Tour
- Private Tour: Imperial Rome Art History Walking Tour
- Illuminated Rome Night Tour with Dinner (no site entry)
- Rome Segway Tour (no site entry)
- Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour
- Prime picnic spot: Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy atop the little-visited Palatine Hill, where pockets of greenery survive between the excavated remains of the ancient Roman palaces. Though picnicking here is, I believe, technically against the rules, it nonetheless remains a lovely spot to enjoy your wine, bread, and cheese—just be discreet.
- Be prepared for heat: The forum gets brutally hot and dusty in summer (especially August), so visit in the cool morning, wear a brimmed hat, and bring bottled water.
- The Colosseum
- The Palatine Hill
- The Imperial Fori
- The Capitoline Hill
- More sights in Downtown Ancient Rome
- More ancient sights and ruins in Rome
- Sights on the nearby Esquiline and Viminal hills
- Gladiator for a day (under "Fun & Offbeat Experiences")
This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in April 2013. All information was accurate at the time.
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