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Visiting the Roman Forum: 8 Highlights, Tips & Tours

Exploring the Roman Forum
Exploring the Roman Forum
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Few sites are so filled with a sense of history as the Roman Forum (Foro Romano), where, for many centuries, the fate of Europe was decided. Although the surviving remains give only a hint of the grandeur and splendor of the Forum in ancient times, this area, with its columns still standing tall or lying tumbled on the ground, its triumphal arches, and its remains of once-important buildings, are still impressive even to 21st-century visitors.

The Forum is so vast, and often crowded, that it's difficult to make sense of it or know what happened where. That's why a tour using a headset with an expert guide is helpful, so you can listen as you snap photos and appreciate the grandeur of one of Rome's most popular and important tourist attractions.

For more than a thousand years, the might of Rome, the magnificence of Roman art, and Roman law and religion found expression here and radiated throughout Europe and beyond. The first buildings here were temples, followed by public buildings. This combination soon made the area the political center of the city - the meeting-place of the courts and the assemblies that directed the affairs of the republic. Commerce soon joined religion and government, with the building of market halls that made the Forum the center of all public activity, not just for Rome, but for an increasingly large part of the continent.

By the end of the Imperial Period, the Forum was a densely built-up complex in which "modern" buildings rubbed shoulders with ancient ones, making it difficult today to identify individual buildings. This is further complicated by layers of later churches and fortresses that were built amid the ancient remains. The area served as a quarry of building stone and a cow pasture until 18th- and 19th-century excavations uncovered the Forum from a layer of dirt and rubble as deep as 15 meters.

1 Temple of Antoninus Pius

Temple of Antoninus Pius
Temple of Antoninus Pius
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From the Via Sacra, steps leads up to the Temple of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina, built in AD 141 to honor the deified empress, and after his death, co-dedicated to him. Six columns with Corinthian capitals survive from the front, along with a number of columns along the side. In the 12th century, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, but when the Emperor Charles V visited Rome in 1536, the columns were disengaged from the medieval masonry.

2 Temple of Castor and Pollux

Temple of Castor and Pollux
Temple of Castor and Pollux
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Three 12-meter Corinthian columns are all that survive from the Temple of Castor and Pollux, rebuilt in the reign of Tiberius in the first century AD to replace the original, built in 484 BC by the son of the dictator Aulus Postumius in thanks for the defeat of the Tarquins. This victory was attributed to the help of the Dioscuri - Castor and Pollux, who were the subject of numerous myths, partly of Greek and partly of Etruscan origin. A legend held that after the victory, Castor and Pollux rode to Rome and watered their horses at a spring in the Forum. The three remaining columns are known popularly as The Three Sisters.

3 Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn
Temple of Saturn
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Built about 497 BC, the Temple of Saturn was one of the most important and venerated of the Republic. The first temple in the Forum, it was dedicated to the god that was probably of Etruscan origin but adopted by the Romans as the supreme god. It was destroyed by fire several times, the last in the fourth century AD, but was repeatedly rebuilt. Under the Republic, the state treasury was kept in this temple, and annual celebrations of the Saturnalia started from here. You can recognize the Temple of Saturn by its eight weathered Ionic columns.

Adjoining the temple is a fragment of the Miliarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone, which was the starting point of the Via Sacra and all the Roman consular roads. On the stone, in golden figures, were inscribed the distance from Rome to the various provinces of the Empire.

4 Arch of Septimius Severus

Arch of Septimius Severus
Arch of Septimius Severus
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The Roman Senate and populace traditionally constructed triumphal arches honoring victorious emperors and generals, and in AD 203, this 23-meter arch was erected opposite the church of Santi Martina e Luca, to Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta after their victories over the Parthians. On the arch, four deep marble reliefs represent episodes from these wars. Goddesses of victory hold trophies, and a large inscription proclaims the glory of the emperor and his sons (though the name of Geta was later removed). The arch also features the base of a column commemorating the 10th anniversary of Diocletian's accession and the remains of the Rostra, the ancient orators' platform originally decorated with the prows of captured enemy ships. The arch was considered the spot of the Umbilicus Urbis, the navel or symbolic center of Rome.

5 The Curia

The Curia
The Curia
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The meeting-place of the Roman Senate is one of the best preserved ancient buildings in the Forum, protected from further destruction when it was converted into a church in the seventh century. The first Curia was erected in the time of the kings and rebuilt frequently as a result of fires and other damage. A plain and unornamented building, both inside and outside, it could seat 300 senators. Borromini adapted its bronze doors to serve as the main doorway of St. John Lateran, and the changes made to it over the centuries were stripped off between 1931 and 1937. It is now sometimes used for special exhibitions and preserves its inlaid marble floor from the third century, along with fragments of friezes. The Anaglyphs of Trajan, two travertine slabs with reliefs depicting the emperor and the people of Rome, are displayed here. Outside the Curia and protected by a low roof is a block of black marble under which, according to legend, is the tomb of Romulus, founder of Rome. Opposite the Curia is the "newest" remnant from ancient times, the Column of Phocas, erected in 608.

Popular Tours

6 Temple of Vesta

Temple of Vesta
Temple of Vesta
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One of the most holy and important buildings in ancient Rome, the Temple of Vesta contained the Sacred Fire. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, six priestesses selected as children from the best families in Rome. This eternal fire was of great importance in Rome. On the first day of the new year, they put out the fires in their houses and lit new ones from the flame in the temple of Vesta. The present remains, dating from the time of Septimius Severus, between AD 193 and 211, indicate that the temple was circular with 20 slender columns supporting the roof. An opening in the center of the roof let out the smoke from the sacred flame. The temple was mostly intact until the mid-16th century, when it was torn down and its marble used to build papal palaces and churches. What you see today was reconstructed in the 1930s during Mussolini's drive to reclaim Italy's ancient grandeur.

7 House of the Vestals

House of the Vestals
House of the Vestals
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Adjoining the Temple of Vesta was the house of the Vestal Virgins, also built by Septimius Severus. You can still easily make out the plan of the building from the remains of its foundations. In the courtyard are the statues of the head vestals with inscriptions of their virtues on the pedestals. The sacred Palladium, an image of Pallas Athene brought by Aeneas from Troy, was kept in the House of the Vestals.

8 Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus
Arch of Titus
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Standing at the end of the Forum farthest from the Capitol, the Arch of Titus is the oldest of the Roman triumphal arches, erected after the death of Titus by his successor Domitian. The reliefs on the arch show scenes from the victorious general's triumphal procession to the Capitol after Titus captured Jerusalem in the year 70 and thus put the final seal on the defeat of the Jewish people in Palestine. Titus, who became Emperor in 79 AD, is shown in his chariot accompanied by the goddess of Victory holding a laurel wreath and by the booty brought back from the war - the Menorah, the table with the shewbread, and trumpets from the treasury of the Temple.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Roman Forum

  • Tours of the Forum and Ancient Rome: Half-day tours, in the morning or afternoon, include the Forum with the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill for a well-rounded introduction to ancient Rome. After visiting the highlights of these three sites, the three-hour Ancient Rome Half-Day Walking Tour continues on to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. The Skip the Line Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour explores the Forum, Palatine Hill, and Circus Maximus, with priority-entrance tickets to the Colosseum. Both tours include a knowledgeable guide and headsets, so you can always hear the guide clearly. On either of these, be prepared for plenty of walking.
  • Segway Tours: If you're not up to walking and prefer to get a broader overview of Rome's attractions, consider the Rome Segway Tour. You'll cruise past the Forum and other ancient sites on your own two-wheeled, self-balancing electric Segway (lessons and a helmet are included) listening to your expert local guide via an audio headset.
  • Visiting the Forum on Your Own: The Forum is grouped with the Colosseum and Palatine Hill under one inclusive two-day ticket. You cannot re-enter any of these on the same ticket. The best time to avoid lines and crowds are early morning and around noon, when bus tour groups go to lunch.
  • For Your Comfort: Wear good walking shoes. The Forum covers a large area with uneven stones underfoot. Much of the Forum is unshaded, so be sure to carry plenty to drink. You can picnic in the Forum, although Palatine Hill offers a better ambiance - and shade.

Getting to the Roman Forum

  • The Rome Metro Linea B, the Blue Line, stops at the Colosseum, two stops from Termini train station, but a better way to get to the Forum entrance is by any of the myriad bus lines from all over Rome that stop at Piazza Venezia.
  • All the hop-on hop-off sightseeing buses stop here as well.

Address

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