The Ancient Roman Forum

Corinthian columns, Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

Juan Silva/ Photolibrary/Getty Images

The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) began as a market place but became the economic, political, and religious hub, town square, and center of all Rome.

Ridges connecting the Capitoline Hill with the Quirinal, and the Palatine with the Esquiline, enclosed the Forum Romanum. It is believed that before Romans built their city, the forum vicinity was a burial area (8-7th C. B.C.). Tradition and archaeological evidence support dating the building of certain structures (the Regia, Temple of Vesta, Shrine to Janus, Senate House, and prison) to before the Tarquin kings.

After the fall of Rome, the area became a pasture.

Archaeologists believe the establishment of the forum was the result of a deliberate and large-scale landfill project. Early monuments located there, whose remains have been found, including the carcer 'prison', an altar to Vulcan, the Lapis Niger, Temple of Vesta, and the Regia. Following the 4th century B.C. Gallic invasion, Romans vowed and later built a Temple of Concord. In 179 they built the Basilica Aemilia. After the death of Cicero and the nailing of his hands and head in the forum, the arch of Septimius Severus, various temples, columns, and basilicas were built and the ground paved.

Cloaca Maxima — The Great Sewer of Rome

The valley of the Roman forum was once a marsh with cattle paths. It would become the center of Rome only after drainage, filling, and building the great sewer or Cloaca Maxima. The Tiber floods and Lacus Curtius serve as reminders of its watery past.

The 6th century Tarquin kings are held responsible for the creation of the great sewer system based on the Cloaca Maxima. In the Augustan Age, Agrippa (according to Dio) carried out repairs to it at private expense. Forum building continued into the Empire.

The Name of the Forum

Varro explains that the name of the Forum Romanum comes from the Latin verb conferrent, because people bring issues to court; conferrent is based on the Latin ferrent, referring to where people bring merchandise to sell.

quo conferrent suas controversias, et quae vendere vellent quo ferrent, forum appellarunt (Varro, LL v.145)

The forum is sometimes referred to as Forum Romanum. It is also (occasionally) called Forum Romanum vel (et) magnum.

Lacus Curtius

Almost in the center of the forum is the Lacus Curtius, which, despite the name, is not a lake (now). It is marked by remnants of an altar. Lacus Curtius is connected, in legend, with the Underworld. It was the site where a general might offer his life to appease the gods of the Underworld in order to save his country. Such an act of self-sacrifice was known as a devotio 'devotion'. Incidentally, some think the gladiatorial games were another devotio, with the gladiators performing the self-sacrifices on behalf of the city of Rome or, later, the emperor (source: Ch. 4 Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads, by Olivier Hekster; Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 2002 BMCR Review).

Shrine of Janus Geminus

Janus the Twin or geminus was so called because as a god of doorways, beginnings, and ends, he was thought of as two-faced. Although we don't know where Janus' temple was, Livy says it was in the lower Argiletum. It was the most important Janus cult site.

Niger Lapis

Niger Lapis is Latin for 'black stone'. It marks the spot where, according to tradition, the first king, Romulus, was killed. The Niger Lapis is now surrounded by railings. There are grayish slabs in the pavement near the Arch of Severus. Beneath the paving stones is a tufa post with an ancient Latin inscription that has been partly cut off. Festus says 'the black stone in the Comitium marks off a place of burial.' (Festus 184L — from Aicher's Rome Alive).

Political Core of the Republic

In the forum was the Republican political core: the Senate House (Curia), Assembly (Comitium), and Speaker's platform (Rostra). Varro says comitium is derived from the Latin coibant because Romans came together for meetings of the Comitia Centuriata and for trials. The comitium was a space in front of the senate that was designated by the augurs.

There were 2 curiae, the one, the curiae veteres was where priests attended to religious matters, and the other, the curia hostilia, built by King Tullus Hostilius, where senators cared for human affairs. Varro attributes the name curia to the Latin for 'care for' (curarent). The Imperial Senate House or Curia Julia is the best preserved forum building because it was converted into a Christian church in A.D. 630.


The rostra was so named because the speaker's platform had prows (Lat. rostra) affixed to it. It is thought the prows were attached to it following a naval victory in 338 B.C. [Vetera rostra refers to the 4th century B.C. rostra. Rostra Julii refers to the one Augustus built at the steps of his temple to Julius Caesar. The ships' prows bedecking it came from the Battle at Actium.]

Nearby was a platform for foreign ambassadors called the Graecostatis. Although the name suggests it was the place for Greeks to stand, it was not limited to Greek ambassadors.

Temples, Altars, and the Center of Rome

There were various other shrines and temples in the forum, including an Altar of Victory in the senate, a Temple of Concord, the imposing Temple of Castor and Pollux, and on the Capitoline, the Temple of Saturn, which was the site of the Republican Roman treasury, of which remnants from a late 4th C restoration remain. The center of Rome on the Capitoline side held the Mundus vault, the Milliarium Aureum ('Golden Milestone'), and the Umbilicus Romae ('Navel of Rome'). The vault was opened three-times per year, the 24 of August, 5 of November, and 8 of November. The Umbilicus is thought to be a round brick ruin between the Arch of Severus and the Rostra, and was first mentioned in A.D. 300. The Miliarium Aureum is a pile of stones in front of the Temple of Saturn set up by Augustus when he was appointed Commissioner of roads.

Significant Places in the Forum Romanum

  • Pool of Curtius
  • Shrine of Janus Geminus
  • Lapis niger
  • Senate House
  • Imperial Rostra
  • Temple of Concord
  • Golden Milestone
  • Umbilicus Urbis
  • Temple of Saturn
  • Temple of Castor and Pollux
  • Shrine of Joturna
  • Basilica Aemilia
  • Porticus — Gaius and Lucius
  • Basilica Julia
  • Temple of Julius Caesar
  • Temple of Vespasian
  • Arch of Septmius Severus
  • Portico of the Consenting Gods
  • Column of Phocas


Aicher, James J., (2005). Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City, Vol. I, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.

"The Roman Forum as Cicero Saw It," by Walter Dennison. The Classical Journal, Vol. 3, No. 8 (Jun., 1908), pp. 318-326.

"On the Origins of the Forum Romanum," by Albert J. Ammerman. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Oct., 1990), pp. 627-645.

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Gill, N.S. "The Ancient Roman Forum." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). The Ancient Roman Forum. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Ancient Roman Forum." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).