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Traversed by the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) ★, the main thoroughfare of ancient Rome, the Roman Forum flourished as the center of religious, social, and commercial life in the days of the Republic, before it gradually lost prestige (but never spiritual draw) to the Imperial Forums (see above). You’ll see ruins and fragments, some partially intact columns, and an arch or two, but you can still feel the rush of history here. That any semblance of the Forum remains today is miraculous: It was used for years as a quarry (as was the Colosseum). Eventually it reverted to a campo vaccino (cow pasture). Excavations in the 19th century and later in the 1930s began to bring to light one of the world’s most historic spots. 

You can spend at least a morning wandering the ruins of the Forum. Enter via the gate on Via dei Fori Imperiali, at Via della Salara Vecchia. 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) is the next important sight, displaying time-bitten reliefs of the emperor’s victories in what are now Iran and Iraq. During the Middle Ages, Rome became a provincial backwater, and frequent flooding of the Tiber helped bury (and thus preserve) most of the Forum. Some bits did still stick out aboveground, including the top half of this arch, which was used to shelter a barbershop!

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, a much-photographed trio of fluted columns with Corinthian capitals supports a bit of architrave from the corner of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus ★★ (emperors were routinely turned into gods upon dying).

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. Farther along, on the right, are the three Corinthian columns of the Temple of the Dioscuri ★★★, dedicated to the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux. Forming one of the most photogenic sights of the Roman Forum, a trio of columns supports an architrave fragment. 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 of the 4th-century Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius ★★ (Basilica di Massenzio). These were Rome’s public law courts, and their architectural style was adopted by early Christians for their 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 to continue on to the Colosseum, or head up to the Palatine Hill.

Access the Palatine Hill ★★ (Palatino)—where Romulus, after eliminating his twin brother Remus, founded Rome around 753 B.C.—via the Imperial Ramp. A secret passageway built by Emperor Domitian in the 1st century A.D., the 11m-tall (36 ft.) switchback ramp allowed the assassination-paranoid ruler to go back and forth undetected between his palace and the forum below. (He was murdered in the passageway anyway.) Later, emperors and other ancient bigwigs built their palaces and private entertainment facilities up here. Upon exiting at the top of the ramp, visitors are presented with a sprawling, mostly crowd-free archaeological garden, with some shady spots for cooling off in summer.

The Palatine was where 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 an 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. A museum houses some of the most important finds from hill excavations. The elaborately decorated houses of Livia and Augustus ★★ are open to S.U.P.E.R. ticket holders. 

Only the ruins of the Palatine’s 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, the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. You can also enter from here, and do the entire tour in reverse.

S.U.P.E.R. Tickets for Archaeology Lovers

A new ticket option allows visitors to the Palatine Hill to access archaeological sites which normally have limited hours or are closed to the public entirely. The S.U.P.E.R. ticket (Seven Unique Places to Explore in Rome) is available in lieu of a normal Colosseum/Forum/Palatine ticket. It includes access to the Houses of Livia and Augustus, the Neronion Crytpoporticus, the Palatine Museum, the Temple of Romulus, the Loggia Mattei (part of a Renaissance palace) and, at the foot of the Palatine, the Paleochristian church of Santa Maria Antiqua. The 20€ ticket, for those who want a deep dive into the Palatine’s layers of history, can be ordered at www.coopculture.it. Note that RomaPass holders must buy a separate S.U.P.E.R. ticket to enter the limited-access Palatine areas.