Begun by Julius Caesar to relieve overcrowding in Rome’s older forums, the Imperial Forums were, at the time of their construction, flashier, bolder, and more impressive than anything that had come before them in Rome. They conveyed the unquestioned authority of the emperors at the height of their absolute power. Alas, Mussolini felt his regime was more important than the ancient one, and issued the controversial orders to cut through centuries of debris and buildings to carve out Via dei Fori Imperiali, linking the Colosseum to the 19th-century monuments of Piazza Venezia. Excavations under his Fascist regime uncovered countless archaeological treasures: Most ruins more recent than imperial Rome were destroyed.

The best view of the Forums is from the railings on the north side of Via dei Fori Imperiali; begin where Via Cavour joins the boulevard. (Visitors are not permitted down into the ruins.) Closest to the junction are the remains of the Forum of Nerva, built by the emperor whose 2-year reign (A.D. 96–98) followed the assassination of the paranoid Domitian. You’ll be struck by how much the ground level has risen in 19 centuries. The only really recognizable remnant is a wall of the Temple of Minerva with two fine Corinthian columns. The next along is the Forum of Augustus ★★, built to commemorate Emperor Augustus’s victory over Julius Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, in the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.). Continuing along the railing, you’ll see the vast, multilevel semicircle of Trajan’s Markets ★★, essentially an ancient shopping mall whose arcades were once stocked with merchandise from the far corners of the Roman world. You can visit the part that has been transformed into the Museo dei Fori Imperiali & Mercati di Traiano. In front of the Markets, the Forum of Trajan ★★ was built between A.D. 107 and 113, designed by Greek architect Apollodorus of Damascus (who also laid out the adjoining market building). Many statue fragments and pedestals bear still-legible inscriptions, but more interesting is the great Basilica Ulpia, whose gray marble columns rise roofless into the sky. This forum was once regarded as one of the architectural wonders of the world. Beyond the Basilica Ulpia is Trajan’s Column ★★★, in magnificent condition, with an intricate bas-relief sculpture depicting Trajan’s victorious campaign. The Forum of Julius Caesar ★★, the first of the Imperial Forums to be built, lies on the opposite side of Via dei Fori Imperiali, adjacent to the Roman Forum. This was the site of the stock exchange as well as the Temple of Venus.