The Roman Forum, from its original name forum romanum has long been at the center of political, economic, social commercial and religious life in Rome. It is also called forum magnum, literally the "great forum". It has long been a place of dynamism, of encounters, located in the heart of Rome. Of this very frequented place, there remain today vestiges which, coupled with the texts of authors of antiquity such as Plautus or Livy, allow us to reconstitute the forum in order to understand its functions.
There are several basilicas that are Aemilia basilica, Sempronia basilica, Opimia basilica and Porcia basilica. In antiquity, contrary to the current meaning of the term, the basilica was not a place of worship or meditation, but a building occupying economic, political and judicial functions, even commercial, as illustrated by certain markets. The Porcian Basilica, for example, was mainly frequented by magistrates, it had legal and economic functions, some commentators even speak of “Rome stock exchange”.
The history of the Forum in the second century [BC] is marked […] by the appearance and rapid flowering of a type of building that we compare to our stock exchanges. In the space of sixty years, four "basilicas" emerged from the ground, all around the square. (1)
But if one place is a good illustration of political life, it is the comitium, located to the north of the forum. It is a circular building where the comitia, which are assemblies of the people, meet although the votes do not always take place there. For the comitia tributes for example, it is rather in the field of Mars that the votes are recorded. Next to the comitium, there is another building, the Curia, where the Senate meets.
Places of worship and legends
When one evokes the temple of Castor, it is probable to meet the name "temple of the Dioscuri". They are etymologically the sons of Jupiter. In Latin, we have the plural Castores. The name of Dioscuri was mainly applied to Castor and Pollux. It was a temple of the Greek type, its remains are still visible: on a high podium, three white marble columns which support an important fragment of the entablature. Legend has it that the Dioscuri appeared to help the Romans fight the Sabines.
In the category of temples, let us not forget to mention the temple of Venus Cloacine, deity of the sewer venerated by the Romans. Cloacine also gave its name to the sewer that crosses the forum: the cloaca maxima. Its sacellum, in other words its small sanctuary, is located in front of the Aemilienne basilica. It is a small circular open-air construction.
The Lacus Curtius remains a very mysterious place, located between the Comitium and the old shops. According to legend, the action takes place during the war between the Romans and the Sabines.
“One of their officers, named Curtius, proud of his courage and his reputation, had advanced far from the body of the army; his horse fell into the quagmire and sank into it. Curtius did all he could to get it out; but seeing his efforts in vain, he left his horse there and fled. The place is still called today, after its name, Lake Curtius. The Sabines, having avoided this danger, engaged in the fight against the Romans which was bloody and for a long time doubtful. "(3)
The old shops are located in the central part of the Forum Romanum, to the north of the Sempronian Basilica. They were also called the Tabernae Veteres. The foundations of these shops date back to Tarquin the Superb. The old shops were those which were not affected by the fire of 542 BC. The others took the name of "new shops" or even Tabernae Novae. The Tabernae housed butchers before being reserved for banking activities.
The rue des Toscans is a street of the Roman forum. It leaves the square near the temple of the Dioscuri and, crossing the Vélabre that we will see further on, joins the Oxen Market and the Tiber. The rue des Toscans is thus perpendicular to the street housing the old shops. This street was the busiest of all. There were second-hand men, dyers and purple, incense merchants. We also speak of “rue des Étrusquess” or Vicus Tuscus. This street was frequently used as an important communication route between the Roman Forum and the Boarium Forum. Its name “rue des Etrusques” also reveals a route of exchange between the latter and the Romans. In this street, we also note the presence of a prostitution market. In the play Charançon, Plautus speaks of “those who trade in their own person”.
The Vélabre district is located south-west of the Roman Forum, between the Capitol and the Palatine, which are two other districts of Rome. It was a flood zone during the Tiber floods. At Vélabre, there are also traders: in Charançon, Plaute speaks to us about the “baker”, the “butcher”, or even the “haruspice”. The haruspice is an Etruscan diviner who examines the entrails of a sacrificed animal to draw hints about the future or a decision to be made. The Vélabre is not spared a form of prostitution.
Regarding the "fish market", it was located behind the forum romanum. We then speak of the piscarium forum. This market was located north of the forum romanum. Indeed the fish merchants, until then established on the forum, moved further north to a new forum, which was called forum piscarium or piscatorium. The word macellum is also used to refer to the market. The "picnic lovers" were certainly there, still according to the writings of Plautus.
At the bottom of the forum, we find the wealthiest class of the population. Indeed, this is where the patricians live, comparable to Roman aristocrats, in the Palatine district. It is one of the Seven Hills of Rome, and according to legend, Romulus founded Rome on the Palatine. Under the Roman Republic, it was a place of elegance and synonymous with wealth, and Plautus' description abounds in this sense: "people of condition and wealthy wander there".
North of the forum, on the contrary, these are the most disadvantaged classes. In the Subure district more precisely, there is a deplorable and popular place of life. The density is quite high, which degrades the possibility of good hygiene. Prostitution, as in other places of the forum, is very present there, in this neighborhood with an execrable reputation.
Through this place, the forum, the Romans always meet. It is thus a place of popular sovereignty because it is that of urban sociability. It is a neutral space where everyone is exposed to the eyes of others, in their dignity and social dimension illustrated by the size and nobility of the crowd that accompanies them. The economic dimension is revealing, through the bankers and traders of a flourishing economy. But soon the economic importance of the place will decline and its political function becomes preponderant. It will remain so until the end of the Republic.
(1) Town planning and metamorphoses of ancient Rome, L.DURET and J-P NERAUDAU.
(2) Titus Live, I, 35.
(3) The lives of the illustrious men of Plutarch, PLUTARQUE, translation: Dominique RICARD.
- Florence DUPONT, The Roman citizen under the republic, 509-27 before J.-C, HACHETTE.
- L.DURET and J-P NERAUDAU, Urbanism and metamorphoses of ancient Rome, Relia, 2010.
- Catherine SALLES, The Bas-fonds of Antiquity, PAYOT & RIVAGES, 1995.
- Marie-José KARDOS, Topography of Rome: Lexicon of Roman topography.
- PLUTARQUE, The lives of illustrious men of Plutarque, translation: Dominique RICARD.