The Roman Forum: My tour from afar

Welcome to the Roman Forum!  Okay, most of you are not standing on Italian soil as you read this. But in order to engage you in one of the most historical places in the world from afar, and perhaps pique your interest enough to travel to Rome, Italy to experience all its history, beauty, and wonder for yourself, I will attempt to take you there with words. Words that shall conjure up your imaginative potential and sweep you away to Rome's Roman Forum.  Together we will go beyond hearing dates, names and stories in hopes of retaining bits of history.

Most of us have working knowledge of Caesar and the Colosseum, but I sought to activate the audience’s emotional and intellectual resources as they walked through the Forum. As John Barmoy, Roman visitor in 2004, commented, "After walking through the narrow streets with all the tightly packed shops and stores, my first impression of the Forum was that it seemed unusually large, open, scattered. All this green space in the middle of such congestion. It almost seemed out of place."

A tour of any sort, whether in person or in prose, aims to make these seemingly desolate ruins come alive for you as you view them and relish in their antiquity. This is a place of artistic expression, a place of death and a place of honor. 

This "unusually large, open, [and] scattered" archaeological site represents the very origins of Rome, also known as, the “Eternal City.” Of course, it is imperative to have a little historical background, which will lead to the very entranceway to the Forum by way of the Colloseum. Rome officially dates back to 753 BC, after the birth of Romulus and Remus, twin sons to the Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. 

Already we have a problem because virgins don’t give birth.  The title, “Vestal Virgin”, was bestowed upon Rhea Silvia, as well as other girls between the ages of six and ten, chosen by the Pontifus Maximus.  They took on the responsibility and privilege as keepers to the Eternal Flame, always to be kept burning, hence Rome’s nickname as the “Eternal City.”

Vestal virgins lived in “The House of Vesta.”  Vesta, goddess of hearth or fire, led the Vestal Virgins as they served for thirty years and took the oath of chastity.  So Rhea Silvia, when demanded to name her concubine, names not a man, not a woman, but a god, the god of Mars, god of war.  As was the punishment, she was buried alive in a field out beyond the confines of this land in the Field of Villains, also known as the “Field of Shame.” 

The twin boys, as the professed result of this sexual unification of mortal and god, scared the people of the land.  They anticipated the wrath of the gods, known to cause chaos and disrupt their way of life so the boys were set adrift on the Tiber in order to rid of them.  Found and nurtured by a she-wolf, they were later discovered by a shepherd named Faustinus. 

They age and grow to be stronger and of higher intellect than those of the times and sibling rivalry ensues. They part ways and set up two separate cities by the hills where they were found and saved.  Originally there were eight hills, but one was lost to an earthquake, just one of the natural disasters responsible for lost land and ground level shifts in and around this area.  Romulus takes to the Palatine and Remus to Aventine Hill.

One day, six vultures fly over Remus up on this hill, which the superstitious Remus interprets as a sign of flattery from the gods.  Romulus, later visited by twelve, insists on his fate as the stronger, chosen one.  They meet here, about where this arch stands, crossing the lines they had previously established.  Romulus slays Remus, unites two cities and Rome is born.  Further egotism leads him to name the city after himself, obvious in the modern term, Rome, also a derivation of the word “Rom” meaning “strong.”

He takes his place as the first king of this new single government later followed by six more: Three Sabines who came from a neighboring town, initially invited to increase the female population under Romulus’ rule.  The three that followed were Etruscan, from the North, modern day Tuscany, who brought artistic influences in the form of pottery. 

450 years of monarchy ends with the rape of Lucretia, known to be superior in beauty, loyalty and the expected female modest behavior.  Her rapist commits suicide on the Rostra, a speaking platform down in the basin.  Her husband, Collatinus and his friend Brutus slay the monarchy, or noble family, and became the first two consuls leading to the end of monarchy and the first days of the Roman Republic.

The birth of the Senate follows.  However, the plebian, or common people’s, discontent with patrician rule led to a revolt which generated the Twelve Tables, the first remnants of Roman law, which were large bronze chiseled tablets literally exhibited in the Forum.  Attempts to protect the weak from the powerful, they were meant to implement reforms and outlined customs leading towards equality among the classes.  Realistically they existed within a still highly conservative community. 

This was followed by the time of the divine Julius Caesar, which we will of course dive into later.  He dies in 44 BC succeeded by his nephew Octavian, leading to Constantinople rule and later the Byzantine Empire when the Western empire was ruled by the Pope and the Eastern was under the Emperor’s rule.  This empire lasts from the 4th century to roughly 1869.  In 1870, Italy is unified, Rome becomes the capital and the territories and language are brought together for the first time under King Vittorio Emmanuele, to which the massive white monument with the stairs, flames and guards now stands down the road at Piazza Venezia.

It wasn’t until this time, around 1870 that the rediscovery of the Forum generated 130 years of excavations that led to identification, continuing inquiries and theories as they put together Roman history in the context of it religious, political and archaeological progression.”

A good place to start with the visual content is with the Arch of Titus, as it is the entry to the Roman Forum.  It is known as a triumphant arch, rather a monument erected to brag of military victories. The outerpart of this arch is a reconstruction done by Norwegian architects while the inner parts are original. Titus was an emperor until 79 AD accredited with the destruction of Judeas and the Temple of Solomon for which this arch actually commemorates.  The two reliefs visible inside the arch represent the two greatest moments of the triumphal procession.

If you move along the cobble path known as the Via Sacra you'll notice water fountains filled with pure fresh water still pumped from the aqueducts. 

Think about the people who have walked down here before you, people like Cicero, Caesar, Cassius, and all those famous Roman legends.  But also Jewish slaves and Saints Peter and Paul, as well as people of our own time like Eminem last year and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2006.  As you make your way down the sacra you'll find a a sign to your right that reads, “Temple of Romulus” but it is neither a temple nor for Romulus, founder of Rome. 

Instead it is a monument built in tribute to a nine year old boy named Romulus.  He was not just any little boy, but son to Emperor Maxentius, the second to last emperor and to whom the throne was bequeathed, although he never made it.  This was built in ode to the emperor’s son in 309 AD, under Constantine after the Battle of Milvic Bridge. 

To me, the most interesting and also the authentic part of this structure are the columns of purple marble, or red Egyptian Pourfrey, it’s true name, which is said to be worth more than gold.  It no longer exists in it’s natural form, as it was completely exhausted by the Romans.  This same purple marble can be seen at the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica, meant to be the first thing someone crossed over upon entering.  Though, most will never do so because the middle entrance is closed and only the two on its sides remain entrance points.

As you look around the Forum, no other marble has retained its natural color as this pourfrey.  2000 years in the sun has faded the brilliant pinks, greens and reds once present throughout the Forum.  This purple was the most noble color in Rome, adopted by the emperors.  Senators had purple bands over white togas, dress for the common people.  Emperors dressed in purple togas and Equestrians (not to be confused with present day jockeys, but the fancy businessmen who wore purple pin-stripes). 

The only position that wore more purple than the Senate was the Pontifus Maximus, or the High Priest, a position once held by Julius Casesar.  Above all priests and said to serve as bridge-maker between God and mortals.  They were also responsible for predicting the future of the city; were they destined for fortune or devastation? They found this out through a practice of divination, where they cut open little animals, stuck their hands in and pulled out the entrails to see where the food lay on the digestive tract as signs of future events.  Yummy right?

If you have been allured enough, I suggest heading to your local travel agent's office and booking a trip to Rome — the most beautiful city in the world — so you, too, can agree with tourist in 2008, Patrick Burke, when he said, "The most striking image of my time in Italy was walking out of the subway station (the Coloseo stop on the blue line) and standing in front of the Forum. I am fascinated with Western history and I was moved to the point that I called my mother to thank her for giving me the opportunity."


Photo credit: Christa M. Thomas