Forum Basics
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 2/18/2019


With Rome Reborn you can visit the Roman Forum and look at all of the buildings and structures that existed in 320 ce. The concept of forum and the Roman Forum have a long history. In future articles, I’ll look at the history, design, uses, and stories of the Roman Forum in detail, but today let’s get basic. We’ll begin by just laying out what a forum is, its purpose, and a brief recounting of the history of the Forum in Rome.

A forum is simply a marketplace where people in an area can meet to exchange goods. Most human settlements develop a marketplace or multiple marketplaces as they expand. This can happen organically as people start to live near enough to each other to regularly meet to trade. It can also happen by design, when a city or colony is founded and laid out or a new tract of land within a settlement is developed.

In the case of Rome, the ancients generally called the main forum either simply the Forum, Forum Magnum (the Great Forum), or Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum), and it probably developed organically. Various archeological digs have dated parts of the Forum back to the 8th century bce. The valley was central and relatively level, but it was also marshy. If you have ever been to Rome in the summer, you know how hot and humid it is. Now imagine seeing animal flesh, baked goods, fish, and other items in the bog. Not the most pleasant of experiences, but at least farmers, herders, fishermen, and craftspeople would not need to transport their goods up the hills, nor would the buyers need to travel to various locations to acquire what they needed and wanted.

Ancient stories claim that the Forum was created purposefully when the three villages on the Palatine, the Capitoline, and the Esquiline hills chose the valley between them for a forum. Since we know that this area was not designed to be settled but seems to have attracted people, the “creation” of the Forum Romanum was probably the result of an agreement between the villages to use the marketplace as a political center as well. The land they chose was central but hitherto undeveloped, since it was subject to periodic floods of the nearby Tiber River. Its main use in the Iron Age (900-700 BCE) had been as a graveyard. With the unification of the hilltop settlements into a city, the area of the future Forum was therefore suitable for use as a city center—at least it could be so used if the level were raised to reduce the chances of flooding. Geologists have established that an impressive project of land reclamation was undertaken, and the area became available for use by public activities that were economic, political, and religious. The Comitium, the area used for political and religious functions, and the adjacent Senate House (first called the Curia Hostilia), may date back to the 7th century bce, after the market areas of the Forum. The area sacred to the goddess Vesta, also dates to this period. During the 6th century bce, the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Drain, was built which would have added to the drainage system.

With the government form changing from monarchy to republic, the Forum Romanum took on greater political importance. The streets were paved, new temples were placed, and monuments reflecting the new form of government were erected. After the plebeians gained some political power early in the 5th century bce, the office of the Tribune was created, and tribune benches were set out, so that the officials could meet with their constituents and do their work to represent them. As time went on, the original wooden market stalls were replaced by permanent structures (tabernae and basilicae) that changed in style over the centuries. Once confined to the Comitium, funerary processions and public meetings spread out to the rest of the Forum.

Still later in Roman history, emperors and those closest to them filled the Forum Romanum with new temples and structures to draw attention to their power and to promote their prestige. The Forum became crowded, nearly impassable in some areas. Ancient citizens would have grown up with the changes, but walking through the ruins back in 1991, I felt confused and restricted by the closeness. Luckily, Rome was a big city, and there were other areas for business, government, and public displays of grandeur.

The Forum Romanum was not the only forum in Rome. Over two dozen are attested throughout the history of the ancient city. Like the main forum, these held marketplaces, often specialized, and temples. Often these other fora were created by families or individuals who wanted to leave a lasting impact on the city. Any visitor to any one of those fora would be reminded of the glory of the benefactor with every step. Many of the other fora exist only as small ruins or in literature today.

Obviously, fora required upkeep, so it should not be surprising that smaller ones would fall into disrepair when newer marketplaces opened or more money was poured into the larger public spaces. Fires, sadly common in the city, also gave opportunities for rebuilding. Maintaining these spaces could be done by the town, by taxes or fees charged within the forum, or by benefactors. Individuals or families with wealth or public aspirations built and rebuilt numerous structures around Rome, and the fora were an area that they focused their efforts upon because so many people would use those marketplaces. Looking at the various building projects around Rome was akin to looking at who held or wanted to hold power in the city at any given time.

There is so much more that I could tell you about the Forum Romanum and all the fora around Rome. And I will, in future articles.

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