No matter how long you are spending in Rome, if you are here for the first time, visiting the Roman Forum should definitely be on your bucket list. Set right next to the famous Colosseum, the Forum used to be the heart of the city and can tell you the whole story of Ancient Rome.
In today’s post, you will not only find lots of practical information, but we will also cover a short history for each and every one of the buildings you will get to see on your tour.
Because at the end of the day, they all tell a story waiting to be heard.
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Your complete guide to visiting the Roman Forum
What is the Roman Forum?
As a modern-day visitor of Rome, you’ll soon realize that many places are called a “forum.” So the first thing you might ask yourself is, which exactly is the “Roman Forum“? Why is this place so special? The short answer: because it is the most glorious meeting place in human history.
Political elections, public speeches, criminal trials, triumphal processions, gladiatorial matches, business negotiations…everything happened in the Forum! The Roman Forum was the heart of Rome, while Rome became the capital of the Mediterranean world (or THE WORLD, as they called it)!
To use a modern U.S. analogy, it was as if the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court, Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley would all set up shop in a tiny square in the center of Washington, D.C, in view of all the citizens gathered there.
Think of this when you visit the place: you are following in the footsteps of some of the most iconic people in the history of mankind. Mass murderers and Christian saints, famous orators and infamous demagogues, great philosophers and delirious madmen, business magnates and unscrupulous charlatans, all of them operated in the Forum Romanum during their days.
But how did this piece of land become the center of human civilization?
A short history of the Roman Forum : Roman Forum Facts
When was the Roman Forum built?
Picture a landscape of wooded hills skirted by the river Tiber some seven hundred and fifty years before Christ was born. The twins Romulus and Remus just founded a small settlement on one of the hills. But the inhabitants of the new “city” of Rome had a rather important problem: there were no women among them.
Long story short, using deception, the Romans kidnapped the sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives of a neighboring tribe called the Sabines. Understandably, the Sabine men were not happy, so they stormed Romulus’ settlement. It fell on the Sabine woman to find a solution and stop the bloodshed; they came out imploring their men to make peace with their captors and live in harmony within one kingdom. Thus, the Roman Kingdom was born, co-ruled by Romulus of the Romans and the Sabine leader, Titus Tatius.
It was not much of a kingdom, to begin with. Basically, it was a pair of hilltop villages separated by grassy wetland: one on the Palatine hill and the other on the Capitoline.
To encourage friendly relations, the two people decided to drain the marsh separating them. They built the Cloaca Maxima, a covered sewage system, clearing away the water. The newly reclaimed land was used as a meeting place for trade, political debate, trials, and mass entertainment. Ecce Forum Romanum! Behold the Roman Forum!
Who built the Roman Forum?
No single person or group of people built it. Instead, the place developed organically during its one thousand and two hundred years of active existence. New buildings were erected, while some of the older ones were periodically renovated and rebuilt. Just take a break and contemplate this for a moment: the place was continuously used for 1200 years while the oldest structure still in use in North America was built less than 400 years ago.
The Forum’s travertine paving, still visible today, dates from the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Octavian Augustus (27 B.C – 14 A.D.). However, some of the buildings are much older, dating from the early days of Rome (VII. century B.C.); others were erected as late as the IV. century A.D.
So what exactly can a modern visitor see today?
Roman Forum Buildings – what to see inside the Roman Forum
Most tourists approach the Forum after they visit the Colosseum, so I will follow this route in our virtual tour; we will travel along the Via Sacra, or Sacred Avenue, leading from the Colosseum to the east up to the Capitoline hill to the west.
It was customary to build triumphal arches celebrating major military victories – the triumphant general and his soldiers were permitted to march through the arch in the ovation of the gathered citizens. There are no fewer than three of these monuments in the area of the Forum; the first one you’ll encounter is the one bearing the name of Constantine the Great.
The Arch of Constantine is the largest triumphal arch built in Rome, and it’s symbolic of probably one of the most consequential events in human history, one that shapes the world to this day.
It was erected by order of the Senate on the Via Triumphalis, the Avenue of Victory, to celebrate Constantine’s triumph over Maxentius in 312 A.D. and the ascent of Rome’s first Christian Emperor. If Constantine had lost that key battle, probably Christianity would never have become the dominant religion of the Western World.
Interestingly, although the structure was finalized in 315 A.D., most of the statues decorating it were “re-used” from much earlier monuments dedicated to Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.
The next monument you will encounter is the Arch of Titus; it has a powerful religious symbolism for the Jewish community, the same as the Arch of Constantine has for the Christians.
Emperor Domitian erected the building to celebrate his father’s (Emperor Vespasian) and his brother’s (Emperor Titus) victory over the Jews in 70 A.D. The Jewish revolt ended in a massacre, Titus’ legions sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple, the holiest place of Judaism. The arch depicts several artifacts looted from the Temple, including the Menorah; its representation on the arch served as a model for the menorah used on the emblem of the State of Israel.
Let’s pause here for a moment to “look around.”
On your left, while facing the Arch of Titus, you’ll see the Palatine hill, the place of the original settlement founded by Romulus and Remus. The area was a wealthy neighborhood during Republican times, and later it became the residence of Emperors, several palaces being built by them. The very word “palace” has its roots in the name of the Palatine hill.
On your immediate right, you’ll see the Temple of Venus and Roma, one of the largest temples of the Classical World. It was built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian (117 A.D. – 138 A.D.), the finishing touches done by his successor, Emperor Antoninus Pius (138 A.D. – 161 A.D.).
The temple was restored by Emperor Maxentius (306 A.D. – 312 A.D.) after a fire destroyed it. Although he is remembered as Saint Constantine’s arch-enemy (see above), to Maxentius goes the honor of erecting the last major building in the millennium-long history of the Roman Forum: the Basilica bearing his name.
Built next to the Temple of Venus and Roma in 312 A.D., the Basilica of Maxentius is the largest building in the Forum. Roman basilicas had various functions; they acted as council chambers, courtrooms, and meeting halls for official gatherings. They also served as models for the future Christian places of worship, Saint Peter’s Basilica from the Vatican being just one example.
Let’s continue our journey down Sacred Avenue and approach the Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestal Virgins. It is probably the oldest building complex in the Forum, its history going back seven hundred years before the birth of Christ to the days of the early Roman Kingdom.
The Vestals were a group of virgin priestesses serving the goddess of the hearth called Vesta. The number of Vestal Virgins grew from two during the time of King Numa Pompilius to six. The future Vestals were selected by lots from prepubescent girls volunteered by their free-born Roman citizen parents. It was a great honor to be chosen as Vestal Virgin; however, it came with a steep price.
The priestesses committed to thirty years of celibacy under the pain of death. As soon as they were selected, they had to leave their parents’ house and move to the House of the Vestals, where they would reside for the period of their service. The main duty of the Vestals was to tend the sacred fire in the Temple; the Romans believed that the city’s fortunes were linked to the fire – if it would ever go out, disaster would befall Rome.
Can you imagine tending the same fire for thirty years while living in isolation without any romantic involvement? And I haven’t even mentioned the punishment for breaking your vows: to be buried alive and left to rot. Yet, here you were, thinking your job sucks.
Just north of the ruins of the Temple of Vesta, you’ll see the Temple of Romulus. The building symbolizes how the new Christian world overtook the ancient Classical one.
Initially dedicated by Emperor Maxentius as a Temple to his deceased son, Valerius Romulus, it was transformed into a Christian church in 527 A.D. by orders of the “barbarian” king, Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths. To this day, the basilica of Santi Cosmo e Damiano functions in this building.
Further down the Via Sacra, you’ll encounter the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which guards the entrance of the actual Forum. It was erected by “the Fourth Good Emperor,” Antoninus Pius, in memory of his deceased wife Faustina – as such, it is the first monument in the Forum dedicated to an Empress.
Later, the building was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to Saint Lawrence as he was sentenced to martyrdom in this place.
Next, you’ll encounter the Temple of Divus Julius, also called the Temple of Caesar. I personally find this building extremely intriguing, not only for its architecture but for what it stands for.
Even by Roman standards, Julius Caesar was a genocidal mass murderer, a populist demagogue turned into a power-hungry tyrant and an unashamed adulterer. Still, after his adopted son Octavian consolidated his power as the First Roman Emperor, he deified his adoptive father and erected a temple in his honor in the middle of the Forum.
So, this temple is a monument to propaganda, if you will; a reminder that history was always “written” (and re-written) by the victors.
Immediately to the south, one can see the ruins of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The original building was raised to celebrate a major victory of the early Republic.
In 509 B.C., two hundred and forty-four years after the founding of the city, a popular revolt led by Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew the last king of Rome, one Tarquinius Superbus (the Proud). Unwilling to accept defeat, Tarquinius plotted his return, gathering allies in the process. Eventually, his Latin League declared war on the fledgling Roman Republic, confident in an easy victory.
However, the Romans organized themselves under their temporary dictator, Postumius Albus, and defeated Tarquinius at the Battle of Lake Regius in 496 B.C. According to the legend, the twin sons of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek), Castor and Pollux, fought beside the Romans; in their honor, Albus’ son built the Temple bearing their names in 484 B.C.
To the north of the Temple of Caesar, you’ll see the ruins of Basilica Aemilia. The initial building served as the butchers’ shop, but it was replaced by the bankers’ offices in the IV. century B.C.; in a way, it was the Wall Street of Ancient Rome. Since then, it was repeatedly redesigned and rebuilt under different names: Fulvia, Aemilia, Paulii.
The building survived the Empire by four hundred years but was eventually destroyed in 847 A.D. by an earthquake. Its remains were later excavated, and the stones and marble was used to build medieval edifices, the Pallazo Giraud Torlonia among them.
Finally, you have arrived at the actual Piazza of the Forum, the place where everything began. As explained above, the Forum was initially designed as a marketplace and meeting place. The piazza retained this function over the centuries.
On the western side of it was the Rostra, the stage from which politicians and generals, demagogues and orators, addressed the citizens. Its name comes from the warship rams (rostra) captured during the epic battle of the Latin War, the Battle of Antium (338 B.C.).
The Roman victory was extremely important for it extended Rome’s overlordship over its neighbors, the Latins, and brought it closer to the unification of the Italian peninsula. To celebrate the triumph at Antium, the Romans mounted the captured rams of the enemy warships as trophies on the speaker’s platform in the Forum, hence the name Rostra.
In front of the Rostra, Emperor Septimius Severus erected the Arch of Septimius in 203 A.D., celebrating his victories over the Parthians. The rise and reign of Emperor Septimius Severus provide the backdrop of my book series, Agent Strabo’s Ancient Mysteries, as my well-informed readers surely remember.
Behind the Rostra, the modern visitor can see the well-preserved building of the Tabularium. Erected in 98 B.C. by the dictator Sulla, the Tabularium stands on the front slope of the Capitoline hill and below what was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter the Best and Greatest – father of the gods, the Roman iteration of the Greek Zeus).
Although there is an ongoing debate in academic circles regarding its function, it is believed that the Tabularium housed the Roman records office. Alas, we have the Romans to thank for the government keeping records of everything we do: contracts, inheritance, tax receipts….
Next to the Rostra, one can see one of the most iconic buildings of the modern archeological site: the Temple of Saturn. It stands at the foot of the Capitoline hill, and although its construction began under the last king, the building was finalized in 497 B.C., making it the first Temple of the Republican era. The currently visible ruins date from a later reconstruction of the temple in 360 A.D.
On the northern side of the Piazza, you can see the Curia Julia, the meeting place of the Senate of Rome since the times of Julius Caesar. He built it in 44 B.C. to replace the previous Curia Cornelia, which in turn replaced the initial Curia Hostilia. It was the equivalent of the U.S. Congress building at Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., with the mention that the Consuls (i.e., the President) were presiding the Senate, hence the Curia Julia was Congress and White House combined. The decisions taken in this building shook the world more than once.
To avoid any confusion: although the Capitol Hill of the U.S. is called after the Capitoline Hill, beginning on the western side of the Roman Forum just behind the Temple of Saturn, the Roman Capitoline hosted the religious center of Rome, not the political one. The Senate met in the Forum while the later Emperors resided on the Palatine hill, just south of the Forum complex (see above).
On the southern side of the Piazza, opposite the Curia Julia, you can see the remains of the Julia Basilica. As its names hints, the latest redesign was done by Julius Caesar in 54 B.C. and later reconstructed by Emperors Octavian August (in 12 A.D.), Septimius Severus (in 199 A.D.), and Diocletianus (in 283 A.D.). However, before Caesar demolished it to make room for his own basilica, the Basilica Sempronia stood in its place (built 169 B.C), which in turn was built over the house of the Roman hero and legendary general Scipio Africanus.
The main function of the Julia Basilica was to house the civil law courts; in a way, it was the Supreme Court of Rome. The impressive building also housed several governmental offices and even some taberanae (a kind of ancient fast food store); even judges and civil servants needed to eat.
I haven’t mentioned other ruins and monuments in and around the Forum Romanum, but I wouldn’t like to overwhelm you with even more information.
During your visit, I would like you to remember that the place is more than just a hodge-podge of old rocks. Put yourself in the shoes of a visitor from the future walking down the ruins of Washington D.C. or New York because this is exactly what you are from a Roman perspective: a visitor from the distant future walking down the epicenter of the Roman civilization.
You are stepping on the same stones as millions of Romans did, from humble plebs to all-powerful Emperors.
In and around a tiny rectangle of 420 by 160 feet, you can absorb the very essence of the Roman world: you are standing at its political, religious, cultural, entertainment, and economic center. If the Greeks initiated the Western Civilization, the Romans carried it to term. In many ways, the Roman Forum is the birthplace of the Euro – American civilization of today.
And you are standing right in the middle of it.
Where is the Roman Forum located and how to get there?
Located in the heart of Rome, steps away from the Colosseum, you can find the Roman Forum at Via della Salara Vecchia, 5/6, 00186 Roma RM, Italy.
The easiest way to get there is by subway or bus – get off at the Colosseo stop.
A hop on hop off bus will also leave you in front of the Colosseum and is worth taking when you want to see as much as possible in a short time, without having to worry about means of transportation, tickets, and other similar things. Get your ticket here!
Distance from other main attractions in Rome:
2 minutes away from the Colosseum
30 minutes away from the Vatican City by public transportation (Cipro or Valle Aurelia on the orange subway line)
20 minutes walk from Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon or Piazza Navona
35 minutes walk from Piazza del Popolo
Opening Hours for visiting the Roman Forum
The Roman Forum is open daily from 8:30 AM to 7 PM.
However, you won’t be able to visit on the 25th of December and the 1st of January.
Ticket prices for visiting the Roman Forum
The prices for a ticket are as follows:
12 EUR for adults
7,50 EUR for EU-citizens aged 18 to 25 years
free entrance for teenagers under 18 and disabled persons, as well as their assistants
A great option that could include the ticket for visiting the Roman Forum is the Roma Pass. It includes unlimited public transportation and on top of that, the pass offers free access to two venues of your choice (one when you choose the 48-hour option), making it a cost-efficient option to look at. Get your pass here!
The Vatican & Rome City Pass is another option for when you are spending more time in Rome and wish to see as much as possible. This one has a higher price tag but you will get unlimited public transportation, along with skip the line with free admission to the Colosseum AND the Roman Forum, the Vatican Museums, and Michelangelo’s miraculous ceiling at the Sistine Chapel. Get the pass here!
Tours of the Roman Forum
If you don’t know what tour to choose, but you want to have a guide tell you all you need to know about the Roman Forum, here are 2 great options:
Where to stay close to the Roman Forum
Staying anywhere close to the Colosseum will place you in close vicinity to the Roman Forum as well. So why not choose a room with a view if you can?
Here are 3 options to consider:
Palm Suites – Small Luxury Hotels of the World – stunning interior design, city views, walking distance from both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, the hotel has also a charming interior garden where you can enjoy your breakfast. See availability here!
47Luxury Suites – Colosseo is a deluxe apartment perfect for larger groups since it can accommodate up to 8 people. The view you get from here is incredible and you will want to book it today! Check it out here!
B&B First Floor – you couldn’t ask for a better location than this, directly next to the Colosseum. Rooms have a coffee machine and a great modern design. See more here!
Other Rome travel resources