Mike Vouri: The Roman Forum: Ancient Days and Modern
- Written by Mike Vouri
If your planning on visiting the Roman Forum (Fori Romani) these days, arrive when the gates open at 9 a.m., otherwise you’ll encounter the same herds of humanity that you finally escaped at the exit of the Vatican Museum. Minus yourself, of course. Look in the mirror. You’re one of them.
The Curia is the brick building, center right, in the Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum began life as a cattle pasture, then became a public market, and finally the political center of the ancient world. Mike Vouri photo
The facts are that, in these post-pandemic days, crowds are unavoidable at blue-chip tourist attractions. We all felt chained to our doorsteps. We all wanted to get away and experience that vacation of a lifetime before the next catastrophe hits. And there we were at the gate, before the trash pick-ups had barely cleared the streets and the panhandlers were still curled up in their sleeping bags, waiting for my personal guide, the archaeologist/author/guide, Daniella Hunt.
My sister-in-law, Rebecca, was along, figuring that with a 25-year resident such as Daniella the risk was minimal of getting lost in the bowels of Rome, as we had once or twice with Julia in Florence. The little bouncing blue ball in Google Maps can be maddening when your negotiating a path and suddenly you find it’s heading the wrong way!
And this was Ancient Rome after all. The Rome that began in 800 BC or thereabouts as a shepherd’s village on the Palatine, then as a farmer’s market (or Forum, the origin of the word) and finally as the center of the Western world (750 BC to roughly 500 AD) with a teeming population of more than a million souls at the empire’s height.
But even in the old days folks here rose early to steal a march on the day, considering this was the place you paid your bills, bought real estate, jeered or cheered politicians and sacrificed a goat to your favorite god in hopes it might find your daughter a decent husband or dissolve a bunion.
Ancient pedestrian pavers in the forum. Woe to the chariot driver who drove on these! Mike Vouri photo
Traffic could be a killer, as Daniella pointed out. This is evident by the huge rectangular slabs that delineated pedestrian walkways from the chariot and cart traffic on the Via Sacra, the main road that led into and around the forum. Unlike the large cobbles that pave the Via Sacra proper, the pedestrian slabs are authentic and not all that difficult to transverse..
Through plagues, conquering armies and scavengers; through the fires that ripped through the city and toppled the the buildings into rubble; through the flood waters from the Tiber that filled the valley with silt and buried all but the tallest monuments—these slabs have endured. As have buildings such as the Curia (senate house) and several temples that accommodated the one God when the empire turned Christian after 300 AD.
Daniella warmed to her subject as we strolled from the Temple of Vesta, about midway through the valley, to the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Septimious Severus at the base of the Capitoline Hill. Most of what we see in the Forum, she said, has been reclaimed or re-ordered by others over the centuries. And some structures more than others.
The Curia and Temple of Diana and Ephesus, like the Pantheon, were converted to churches and are more or less intact. Initially erected on the site by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, then rebuilt (to the same design) the Emperor Diocletian in 283 AD, the Curia has exceptional acoustics, as perfect for homilies as it was for political debates. The Temple of Diana and Ephesus, rises on the side of the hill, the cella converted into a nave, while the Corinthian columns of the intact portico front a classic Romanesque church face. As for the rest, their surviving columns poke up like chimneys in a city consumed by fire. (Ok, they’re elegant chimneys!). But they’ve only survived because they served as frames of sorts for medieval buildings, also long collapsed.
The remainder of the marble was shipped across the river to the Vatican. Not the intact columns, architraves and pediments, those features of ancient temples we all know and love (well, some of us anyway). This is a popular misconception. No, these elements were smashed to pieces by sledge hammers and ground into lime to make cement. Recycling is not a new concept.
With a clear landscape before us, Rebecca and I snapped photos like crazy, noting crowds beginning to form at the gates, including tour groups of 20 or more in formation behind the leaders with their guidons. We could see them congealing and moving down the hills in three directions like tidal surges, consuming every bit of reflection, contemplation and well being in their path.
The unfortunates in the hats and pants were prisoners, on the Arch of Septimius Severus. Photo by Mike Vouri
Shifting her focus, Daniella invited us to consider the arch of Septimius Serverus, one of three triumphal arches that march from the Flavian Amphitheater (better known as the Colosseum) to this one, commemorating the emperor’s victories over the wretched in far-off lands. As Daniella puts it, the arches functioned as permanent reminders of the “triumphs,” or victory parades, the formal processions, led by Caesar in his golden chariot, followed by units from his legions, prestigious prisoners in chains, mounds of booty, followed by still more prisoners. And it’s not hard to tell prisoners from Romans in the friezes. The prisoners wear hats and trousers, the Romans tunics or togas.
By now the modern version of the triumph was growing exponentially. In the midst of our relatively quiet conversation (though not without a guffaw or two) a guide with 30 Germans in tow barged in and it was the Teutoberg Forest all over again. This was the infamous fight when three Roman legions—15,000 men—were ambushed and slaughtered to a man east of the Rhine River. No triumphal arch for that one. In fact, it spurred Caesar Augustus to pull in his claws and maintain peace within the empire’s borders—the so-called Pax Romana.
Two elements are at work here to explain the crowds. First, is Covid relief, which I mentioned earlier. The second, and probably most trenchant, is the quest for skip-the-line entry, a luxury order that usually involves one of those guides with a flag on a stick. No one likes to stand in line forever. Social distancing, that is limiting the number of guests, also comes into play, but you’d never know it by 10 a.m. in the Fori Romani.
The Temple of Vesta is the oldest monument in the Roman Forum. Mike Vouri photo
We left Septimius Severus behind, and returned midway down the valley to the Temple of Vesta, which gleamed incandescently in the morning light. If you’ve read Daniella’s guide book, you know it is her favorite edifice in the valley, despite the fact that Mussolini “restored” portions of the ruin to trumpet his renewed Roman Empire. This is evident in several varieties of scroll work in the architrave (the beam supported by columns). To Daniella’s way of thinking this is a corruption of the oldest monument in the forum, dedicated to the god of the hearth, an essential element in making a home. That the temple is round—the only round Roman structure in the Forum—dates to 800 BC vintage mud huts with the hearth on the center below a hole in the roof—-which is pretty much a universal stand among primitive hovels.
The Romans selected six young women, the Vestal Virgins, to maintain the flame through the various iterations of the temple from the city’s inception almost to its collapse. Aside from performing sacred rituals this might also include providing fire starter to any who applied! Any Vestal who lost her virginity, for whatever reason, was turned out on the street, or in extreme cases, put to death along with her paramour or assaulter—it made no difference. And woe to the scoundrel who tried to enter the Vestal’s living quarters next door, as did the errant patrician, Clodius, in drag…much to the consternation of Julius Caesar, who was high priest (Pontifex Maximus) at the time. The scoundrel got away with it, though he would eventually pay the piper for other wrongs, among them inciting riots in the Forum and hiring assassins to eliminate his enemies.
The good news for Vestals yearning for a normal life was they could retire from the order nearing 40 of years of age, marry and perhaps have children (which was fairly risky considering age and pregnancy mortality of the time).
The original door of the Temple of Diana and Ephesus is situated just above the brick steps, where it was buried for centuries. Mike Vouri photo
Our tour of the Forum with Daniella concluded with a quiz, if you can believe it, but a fun quiz if there ever was one. She shifted us over to the Temple of Temple of Diana and Ephesus, and returned to one of her favorite subjects: the submersion of the valley with tons of silt, soil and rubble.We were asked to consider the bronze door of the church, impossible to enter now as it is elevated above a brick archway, probably eight feet above the porch atop the brick steps added in recent decades (and barricaded to contemporary visitors).
“What about the door?” she asked. “Where was the Roman door.”
Rebecca Smith, Guide Daniella Hunt and Mike Vouri captured in hysterical relief at slipping the crowds in the Roman Forum. Mike Vouri photo
We were hot and tired by then at 11 a.m., and intimidated by the mass of humanity spilling down the Via Sacra below the monument. We had found a spot in the shade, off the beaten path so-to-speak, with chunks of marble scattered about, the remnants of at architraves, drums that had once formed columns and a slab or two from a pedestrian area long excavated. I gave it a stab.
“Well…it appears the original is below the bronze one,” I said. “Obviously the entire temple was buried right up to it, along with most everything else in the valley, right? So the bronze door and the porch were at the same level!”
“Excellent!” Daniella replied. “Now let’s head up to the Palatine.”
The Palatine Hill, where the super rich and the emperors once lived.
But that’s another story.