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Ancient Rome grew around the Forum Romanum. Development began when the draining allowed construction, and the Forum constituted the heart of the metropolis of Rome. It began as a public market. Forum apparently comes from the Latin "foras," which meant a place outside of urban agglomeration. In simpler language, it meant "open space" or "market place." Forum referred generically to the open space in any Roman town or city where business, judicial, and municipal affairs and even, at times, religious activities were conducted. In many ways a forum was like the Greek agora, except that in a forum the space was more clearly defined, with buildings set closely together, often-aligned on predetermined axes. In the later imperial forums in Rome, open spaces were enclosed by parallel colonnades and dominated by temples often dedicated to Jupiter or Mars.

A typical forum was surrounded by market buildings, temples, and basilicas. Often, in planned towns that had begun as military camps, the forum lay at the meeting of the principal north-south street, the cardo, and the principal east-west street, the decumanus. The Roman architect Vitruvius suggested in his architectural treatise that a forum should be large enough to contain a crowd but not so large as to dwarf it, and that its proportions be 3:2 (length to width).

As with the Grecian Orders, which dictated every facet of Grecian architectural design, dictums have sprung that often dictate style, proportion - basic appearance. Often authors have created works that are accepted as if they were revelations from above. The Ten Books by Vitruvius were adopted all through not only classical times, but also the Renaissance, which the latter is understandable, being that the Renaissance was a reincarnation, or rebirth of classical thinking as well as design. In recent times, Philip Johnson's, The International Style, written with Henry Russell Hitchcock in 1932 was extraordinarily influential, as was Le Corbusier's concept of proportions in his works Le Modulor (1948) and Le Modulor 2 (1955). Just be wary of the fact that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes. Just because something appears in print does not make it "Holy Writ." You know how the realtors keep saying "Location, location, location." Well, try "question, question, question" before you put yourself into an intellectual, artistic, or political straightjacket which takes away your freedom of choice.

As an aside, pulling in contemporary life to backup something culled from history, consider the following: your local shopping mall. Think of its aisles. Does it seem true that the narrower the main aisle, the more popular, whereas the wide-open, more spacious mall seems empty? Some developers have found that their failing mega malls work better when crammed with kiosks placed strategically within those yawning wide open spaces. Vitruvius was onto something. And making a space rectangular as opposed to square, not letting the rectangle become too elongated makes sense. His 3:2 suggestion is smart and practical, probably gleaned from good common sense based upon observation.

Back to Rome. As urban development of the surrounding hills began to coalesce in Rome, the public market was unexpectedly in the center of Rome and began to lose its original function. Various Caesars cleared space and erected monuments to gods, government, and themselves. The political and religious life of the people was now here. There were temples, basilicas (meeting places for business or government), monumental governmental edifices, and statues (one of Nero is purported to have been 30 meters tall (100'), and made of bronze, gilded, to represent himself as the Sun God (compare with Louis XIV who was to merely dub himself the “Sun King).” The Forum had become the public and administrative life of the Republic of Rome.

At some point, sculpture began to become integrated with the architecture, particularly in relief work on the Arches of Triumph, telling of the exploits of those who had commissioned the works. In fact, a lot of the sculpture became propaganda art, but never the less integrated into its surrounding construction.

There were four fires that devastated the area. The first at the beginning of the Republic, the second in 64 C.E., the third near the end of the 2nd century C.E., and again in 283. There were earthquakes, and finally barbaric invasions, which finally destroyed the Forum. During the Middle Ages, the building materials were carried away and used to build houses elsewhere. How ignominious when, at its end, cows chewed on the grass, which covered what had once been the mighty Roman Forum. Archaeological recovery began in the beginning of the 19th century.

In the Imperial Age, beginning in 49 B.C.E., development took place in what became known as the Imperial Forums. Julius Caesar was the first to begin building in this new zone, immediately northeast of the original Forum. Caesar dedicated a temple to Venus Genetrix (Mother Venus). The remains are the three columns in the center. Venus Genetrix was the mythic ancestress of the Roman people, and particularly to the family of Julius. The dedication was made to thank the goddess for Caesar’s hard fought triumph over Pompey.

The Forum with the Palantine behind. In the foreground once stood the Temple of the Deified Caesar. What we are looking at is the remains of the podium, atop which stood the Temple. Following the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C.E., the Senate erected an altar, but it was not until 31 B.C.E. that a temple was begun, and completed two years later.

On the Via Sacra can be seen the columns of the porch of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The temple was begun by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 141 C.E. and dedicated to his deceased and deified wife Faustina the Elder. When Antoninus himself was deified in 161, his successor Marcus Aurelius had the temple rededicated in the joint names of Antoninus and Faustina.

The most notable is Trajan's Forum, begun during the emperor’s principate (C.E. 98-117), and finished by his successor, Hadrian, in 128 C.E.

Located within Trajan’s Forum is Trajan’s Column, built between 106 C.E. and 113. The column celebrated Trajan’s victories in Dacia (now Rumania).

In ancient Rome, Forum was virtually a proper name for the ancient forum east of the Capitoline Hill and north of the Palatine Hill. Flanked by the Tabularium and the temples of Concord, Vespasian, and Saturn to the west, the House of the Vestal Virgins to the east and the Curia and Basilica Aemilia to the north, the Forum contained the large Basilica Julia, the temple of Castor and Pollux, the temple of Divus Julius, the Arch of Augustus, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Rostrum, a speaker's platform decorated with the prows of captured enemy ships (hence the name). A dictionary definition of “rostrum” is:

ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘beak’ (from rodere ‘gnaw’ ). The word was originally used (at first in the plural rostra) to denote part of the Forum in Rome, which was decorated with the beaks of captured galleys, and was used as a platform for public speakers.

The Forum was the administrative and corporate heart of Rome. During the empire large, imposing forums were built in Rome by successive emperors, among them Augustus, Nerva, Vespasian, and Trajan, who built the largest. Trajan's Forum has the Vitruvian proportions, 3:2; designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, it measures 280 X 190 meters (920 X 620' feet) and covers an area of 10 hectares (25 acres).

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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