The ruins of the ancient Roman Forum during a sunset. (Credit: Alberto PizzoliAFP/Getty Images)
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The Roman Forum, known as Forum Romanum in Latin, was a site located at the center of the ancient city of Rome and the location of important religious, political and social activities. Historians believe people first began publicly meeting in the open-air Forum around 500 B.C., when the Roman Republic was founded. The rectangular-shaped area, sited on low-lying land between Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill, was home to many of the ancient city’s most impressive temples and monuments. Today, the Roman Forum is one of the most famous tourist sites in the world, attracting more than 4.5 million visitors annually.

According to a widely accepted legend, ancient Rome was founded by brothers Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. After a rising conflict, Romulus killed Remus, became king and named Rome after himself.

The traditional story also credits Romulus with starting an alliance with his rival, Titus Tatius, and making the site of the Roman Forum a neutral meeting zone.

At first, the Forum essentially served as a marketplace for day-to-day shopping. Over time, it became much more versatile and functional, as public affairs were held in the area.

Historians estimate that the rise of public events in the Roman Forum first took place around 500 B.C., when the Roman Republic started.

The Forum gradually developed, progressed and expanded over many centuries. Statues, arches, basilicas and other buildings were constructed to accommodate the gatherings.

Around the reign of Julius Caesar, the Forum became overcrowded. Caesar is credited with building a new forum, off to the side of the original, to offer more space. Later, the Emperor Augustus also added on to the area.

The Forum was considered the heart of Rome. While there were many other forums in ancient Rome, the Roman Forum was the most significant.

It was a multi-purpose site that accommodated various functions. Events taking place in the Forum included:

  • Elections
  • Public speeches
  • Criminal trials
  • Gladiator matches (before the Colosseum was built)
  • Social gatherings
  • Business dealings
  • Public meetings
  • Religious ceremonies
  • Educational events
  • Buying, selling and trading of items

Several important buildings, statues and monuments were located in the Forum. Some temples were built to honor men, and others were dedicated to gods or goddesses.

Some of the most well-known structures in the Roman Forum include:

Senate House: The senate house, known as the “Curia,” served as the council house for the Roman Senate and a site for various political events. It was rebuilt several times, and in the 7th century, the Curia was converted into a church.

Temple of Saturn: The first Temple of Saturn was built around 498 B.C. and is considered one of the earliest temples in the Roman Forum. But it was rebuilt years later, and the current ruins date back to roughly 42 B.C. This building was dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and was used as a treasury—where Rome’s money was managed and kept.

Arch of Titus: This first-century arch was constructed in 81 A.D. by the Emperor Domitian to honor his brother, emperor Titus, who was victorious in the Siege of Jerusalem.

Temple of Vesta: The Temple of Vesta was a circular-shaped temple that was dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of hearth, home and family.

The Rostra: The Rostra was a platform that people could stand on to give speeches.

Temple of Castor and Pollux: Historians believe this temple was completed in about 484 B.C. It was dedicated to the Roman twin demi-gods, Castor and Pollux, and underwent several construction phases.

The Sacra Via: This was the main road that ran through the Roman Forum and connected the various important sites. This famous street also stretched to the Colosseum, which was within walking distance of the Forum. It primarily served as a pathway for ceremonies and processions.

The Roman Forum was reconstructed many times during its existence. This allowed for various forms of architecture from different eras to merge together. Influence from each period can be seen in the design and construction of the buildings.

Roman architects were greatly influenced by classical Greek designs. But, the Romans also created their own signature structures, such as basilicas, triumphal arches, domes, Roman baths and amphitheaters. Materials ranged from concrete to magnificent marble.

The Roman Forum, and the ruins themselves, also served as a source of inspiration for artists. The famous Giambattista Piranesi, an Italian artist who lived during the 1700s, was known for creating a set of etchings that depicted views of Rome.

Sites in the Forum are also mentioned in historic literature: ancient Rome was, for example, the setting for several of William Shakespeare’s works.

Over time, many economic and political events began to take place in more elaborate structures to the north of the Forum.

The last major expansion to the Roman Forum, the Basilica of Maxentius, took place during the reign of Constantine in 312 A.D.

But most of the ancient buildings and sites in the Roman Forum were destroyed in 410 A.D., around the time that the entire Roman Empire began to fall.

During the Middle Ages, the land that was once the great Roman Forum was reduced to a pasture for grazing animals. The area became known as “Campo Vaccino,” or “cattle field” and was essentially an overgrown, neglected field.

The Roman Forum was “rediscovered” by archeologist Carlo Fea in 1803.

Excavations to clear the area took over 100 years. In fact, it wasn’t fully excavated until the early 20th century.

Because the Romans built over earlier ruins, the remains from several centuries can be found in the Forum.

Today, the Roman Forum is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can get a first-hand look at the ancient ruins and architectural fragments that were left behind. Persistent efforts to restore and preserve the ruins remain a top priority.

Excavations are ongoing in and around the Forum. Historians are still trying to uncover new findings that could give them answers about Rome’s exact age. For instance, in 2009, a group of archeologists found pottery remains and foods scraps around a wall that dated back to the 8th or 9th century B.C. This is more than a century before most experts thought Rome was founded.

The ancient remains are mysterious in many ways, but they offer unprecedented insight into Roman civilization.

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