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Begun by Julius Caesar as an answer to the overcrowding of Rome’s older forums, the Imperial Forums were, at the time of their construction, flashier, bolder, and more impressive than the buildings in the Roman Forum. This site 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, thereby linking the Colosseum to the grand 19th-century monuments of Piazza Venezia. Excavations under his Fascist regime began at once (circa 1931), and many archaeological treasures were revealed (and then—argh!—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 this part of 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. This forum was once flanked by that of Vespasian, which is now gone.

The next along is the Forum of Augustus ★★, built before the birth of Christ to commemorate the emperor’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 semicircle of Trajan’s Markets ★★, whose teeming arcades stocked with merchandise from the far corners of the Roman world collapsed long ago. The shops once covered a multitude of levels, and you can visit the part that has been transformed into the Museo dei Fori Imperiali.

In front of the Markets, the Forum of Trajan ★★ is the newest and most beautiful of the Imperial Forums, built between a.d. 107 and 113, and designed by Greek architect Apollodorus of Damascus (who also laid out the adjoining market building). There are many statue fragments and pedestals bearing 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.