The Via Sacra Revealed
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 3/18/2019
The Forum Romanum is not just a row of buildings. One would obviously need walkways or even roads to navigate the area. Let’s look at one such street you can still see and walk along today, even though it may well be the oldest surviving road in Rome: the Via Sacra.
The Via Sacra could be called the main street of ancient Rome, depending on what qualifies something as “main” during any given period of the city’s history. The western part of the street ran from the top of the Capitoline Hill down to the Forum and through the middle of it. The Capitoline was one of the hills inhabited as early as the middle Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BCE) and later was home to the a number of temples. Among these, the most important was the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
The Via Sacra was used as part of the route for Roman triumphs, which celebrated victories in war and helped men build political careers. Important funeral processions for deified emperors also used the Via Sacra. Of course, religious rites and processions would have been common on the road near the festival temple, depending on the date, for sacred holidays peppered the Roman calendar.
According to Roman legend, the road took its name from an important event. Rome, the legend says, was founded by Romulus and his men – and indeed, apparently nearly all of them were men. This situation would not allow for the growth of any village, let alone the destined great city named after Romulus. Using trickery and violence, they kidnapped the women of the neighboring Sabine people. After a period of warfare, a peace was agreed upon, and the location of the Via Sacra was where King Romulus reconciled with King Titus Tatius of the Sabines. Interesting story, right? And it’s one I’m sure I’ll return to in the future.
However, legends and folktales are often more fiction than fact, and that seems to be the case here. If we look at what lay along the Via Sacra from the earliest times onwards, we find a commonality: Most of these buildings were important religious structures. The Augustan poet Ovid claimed the road was named for the sacred rites that took place at sites along it, a claim also made by the great Roman first-century BCE antiquarian and author Varro, as well as in the works of 2nd century CE Roman grammarian Pompeius Festus. Were these Romans repeating a different type of tale about the reason for the Via Sacra’s name? Some modern scholars believe so but cannot offer solid proof one way or another.
The Temple of Vesta, the House of the Vestals, and the home of the Pontifex Maximus, called the Regia Pontificis, were all located in the Forum along the Via Sacra. Both Varro and Pompeius Festus claimed that the Via Sacra ran between the Regia Pontificis and the house of the Rex Sacrorum, a priesthood open only to patricians; some modern scholars disagree that the road ran there. Numerous other temples were also located along the road, so it is understandable that the theory would develop that the Via Sacra was named for the religious rites and structures around it.
Even as the empire spread and the state religion changed, the Via Sacra remained important. Traditional Roman buildings were repurposed by Christianity; for example, part of Emperor Domitian’s palace complex became the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua. The temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which was located along the Via Sacra opposite the Regia, was rededicated in the Middle Ages to Saint Lawrence. The Curia Julia--not officially a temple but with an important association with the goddess Victory--was converted to the church of Saint Hadrian. Reuse of sacred places is common around the world, so it makes sense that Christians would do this as well in Rome, once they controlled the state religion after centuries of persecution. Be this as it may, it is worth noting that the first major new churches built from scratch in the newly Christianized city were situated on the periphery of the ancient city. These include Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. It is almost as if the Christian authorities felt a need to tread lightly lest they offend the sensibilities of the pagans, who in the fourth and fifth centuries CE continued to have a strong presence in the city.
However, not everything along the Via Sacra was holy. During the Republican period, basilicas housing government offices and shops sat along some stretches of the road where people would have been conducting business. In one of his poems (Satires 1.10), Horace, the first century BCE Roman poet, mentions meeting all sorts of people when he walked down the Via Sacra. At certain locations along the street, the miscreants of society might be found as well, such as gamblers, or prostitutes and their clients.
Roads, like buildings, must be maintained. Sections of the Via Sacra were raised and rebuilt over the centuries. The fire of 64 CE even provided the emperors Nero and Vespasian with a great opportunity to redesign the Via Sacra. The eastern part of the street was re-laid to run between the Velian and Palatine Hills, alongside Nero’s Domus Aurea, a massive landscaped palace, and down to the area where Vespasian was to build the Colosseum. This new section of the street, outside the Forum proper, may have been home to luxury businesses.
Using the Rome Reborn walkthroughs, you can see everything that would have existed in the Forum along the Via Sacra as though you were there in 320 CE. In Rome today, you can still walk through the Forum along the Via Sacra, or at least through the parts of it that are not blocked off by ruins. The superstructure from the 5th century BCE designed to protect it and those using the street from rain is mostly gone, as are most of the colonnades built by Nero. While the street may not serve the exact same functions in the city of Rome today that it did in ancient times and late antiquity, the fact that tourists from around the globe still use it today continues to mark its value.Join the discussion!