When it came to cremating Caesar, sacrificing a naked victim, or just discussing the day’s events, the Roman Forum was the place to be. Traversed by the Via Sacra (Sacred Way), the main thoroughfare of Ancient Rome, the Forum flourished as the center of Roman life in the days of the Republic, before it gradually lost prestige (but never spiritual draw) to the Imperial Forums.
You’ll see only ruins and fragments, an arch or two, and lots of overturned boulders, but with some imagination you can feel the rush of history here. Used for years as a quarry (as was the Colosseum) it eventually reverted to a campo vaccino (cow pasture). But excavations in the 19th century and later in the 1930s began to bring to light one of the world’s most historic spots.
By day, the columns of now-vanished temples and the stones from which long-forgotten orators spoke are mere shells. Weeds grow where a triumphant Caesar was once lionized. But at night, when the Forum is silent in the moonlight, it isn’t difficult to imagine Vestal Virgins still guarding the sacred temple fire.
You can spend at least a morning wandering through the ruins of the Forum. We’d suggest you enter via the gate on Via dei Fori Imperiali. Turn right at the bottom of the entrance slope to walk west along the old Via Sacra toward the arch. Just before it on your right is the large brick Curia ★★, the main seat of the Roman Senate, built by Julius Caesar, rebuilt by Diocletian, and consecrated as a church in a.d. 630.
The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus ★★ (a.d. 203) will be your next important site, displaying time-bitten reliefs of the emperor’s victories in what are today Iran and Iraq. During the Middle Ages, Rome became a provincial backwater, and frequent flooding of the nearby river helped bury (and thus preserve) most of the Forum. Some bits did still stick out aboveground, including the top half of this arch.
Just to the left of the arch, you can make out the remains of a cylindrical lump of rock with some marble steps curving off it. That round stone was the Umbilicus Urbus, considered the center of Rome and of the entire Roman Empire; the curving steps are those of the Imperial Rostra ★, where great orators and legislators stood to speak and the people gathered to listen. Nearby is the iconc trio of fluted columns with Corinthian capitals supporting a bit of architrave form the corner of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus ★★ (emperors were routinely worshipped as gods even after death).
Start heading to your left toward the eight Ionic columns marking the front of the Temple of Saturn ★★ (rebuilt in 42 b.c.), which housed the first treasury of republican Rome. It was also the site of one of the Roman year’s biggest annual blowout festivals, the December 17 feast of Saturnalia, which (after a bit of tweaking) Christians now celebrate as Christmas. Turn left to start heading back east, past the worn steps and stumps of brick pillars outlining the enormous Basilica Julia ★★, built by Julius Caesar. Further along, on the right, are the three Corinthian columns of the Temple of the Dioscuri ★★★, dedicated to the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux. The founding of this temple dates from the 5th century b.c.
Beyond the bit of curving wall that marks the site of the little round Temple of Vesta (rebuilt several times after fires started by the sacred flame within), you’ll find the reconstructed House of the Vestal Virgins (a.d. 3rd–4th c.). The temple was the home of the consecrated young women who tended the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta. Vestals were girls chosen from patrician families to serve a 30-year-long priesthood. During their tenure, they were among Rome’s most venerated citizens, with unique powers such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals. The cult was quite serious about the “virgin” part of the job description—if one of Vesta’s earthly servants was found to have “misplaced” her virginity, the miscreant Vestal was buried alive, because it was forbidden to shed a Vestal’s blood. (Her amorous accomplice was merely flogged to death.) The overgrown rectangle of their gardens is lined with broken, heavily worn statues of senior Vestals on pedestals.
The path dovetails back to Via Sacra. Turn right, walk past the so-called “Temple of Romulus,” and then left to enter the massive brick remains and coffered ceilings of the 4th-century Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius (Basilica di Massenzio) ★★. These were Rome’s public law courts, with unique architectural style that was adopted by early Christians for their own houses of worship (the reason so many ancient churches are called “basilicas”).
Return to the path and continue toward the Colosseum. Veer right to the Forum’s second great triumphal arch, the extensively rebuilt Arch of Titus ★★ (a.d. 81), on which one relief depicts the carrying off of treasures from Jerusalem’s temple. Look closely and you’ll see a menorah among the booty. The war that this arch glorifies ended with the expulsion of Jews from the colonized Judea, signaling the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora throughout Europe. You can exit behind the Arch—and there’s another exit, accessing the Campidoglio from the opposite end of the Forum.
From here you can climb the Palatine Hill (Palatino) ★ on the same ticket. The Palatine, tradition tells us, was the spot on which the first settlers built their huts under the direction of Romulus. In later years, the hill became a patrician residential district that attracted such citizens as Cicero. In time, however, the area was gobbled up by imperial palaces and drew a famous and infamous roster of tenants, such as Livia (some of the frescoes in the House of Livia are in miraculous condition), Tiberius, Caligula (murdered here by members of his Praetorian Guard), Nero, and Domitian.
Only the ruins of its former grandeur remain today, but it’s worth the climb for the panoramic views of both the Roman and the Imperial Forums, as well as the Capitoline Hill and the Colosseum. You can also enter from here, and do the entire tour in reverse, historically in proper chronologic order.