A Bigger, Better Forum: The Forum Romanum, the old forum of republican Rome, was big enough for the first seven hundred years or so of Roman History. But in the Empire stage, Rome's need for public space as the capital of a vast empire grew rapidly. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, Domitian (and Nerva), and Trajan all built their forums to satisfy that need for administrative space. Not incidentally, the additions to the forums were meant to show the wealth, power, and generosity of the donors. The old Forum Romanum simply had added more structures as more space was needed, and that pattern continued into the Empire: more and more mostly religious buildings congested the formerly open spaces. The imperial forums (with the exception of the Forum Transitorium, really little more than a passageway) all were, on the other hand, self-contained spatial complexes with their own pedestrian areas and buildings.

The halls and basilicas of these expansive new constructions served many functions. Rome had no permanent courthouses, commercial and legal offices or university lecture halls. Instead, tables, lecterns and seats were set up as necessary in the broad halls of the basilicas and porticoes, and curtains and temporary partitions were used to separate the different sections from each other. Here, contracts were drawn up, and court sessions were held. Commercial agents traveled from all over the empire to meet here, as did professional orators, philosophers, and poets who wanted recognition for their talents. Exedras, open recesses at the edges of the forums equipped with seats, served as lecture halls, as they had previously in Greek gymnasia. All forum activities were open to the public to a greater extent than in any modern administrative state. Such openness was simply taken for granted. (Sessions of the Senate, normally held in the nearby Curia, were also Public. The doors were literally open whenever the Senate met.)

The Forum Transitorium, begun by Emperor Domitian and completed by Nerva, was so named because it formed a transit passageway between the congested Subura neighborhood (popular and "racy" -- all the "nightclubs") to the east and the other forum spaces. Three of the imperial forums -- the Forum of Julius Caesar, the Forum of Augustus and the Forum Transitorium -- contained large temples built by the emperors to honor gods to whom they felt a strong affinity. The Senate met to decide questions of war and peace in the temple dedicated to the god of war at the Forum of Augustus. So far, archaeologists have yet to find the small Janus Temple at the Forum Transitorium or the Temple of Trajan in his forum.

Large parts of the Roman forum district were revealed to modern eyes in the 1920s and 1930s, when the dictator Benito Mussolini drove his own imperial road, the Via dell'Impero (now the Via dei Fori Imperiali), through a lower class neighborhood from the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia. Until recently, however, the areas fronting on this road, beneath which were the imperial forums, were occupied by streets, parks and parking lots. Since 1996, archaeologists have excavated below these green areas and parking spaces. The imperial forums dig is one of the largest and most complicated urban archeological excavations ever undertaken. In contrast to Mussolini's bulldozer approach, which simply destroyed anything from later antiquity or the post-Roman period, the new excavations have tried to rescue everything that could possibly be saved. And now the work is nearly completed: tourist walkways above and through the Imperial Forums are opening.

The excavations revealed that the central areas of the forums were subjected to systematic plundering as early as the 6th century AD. Very little remains of the stone that paved the open-air plaza of the Forum of Trajan or of the base of a colossal equestrian statue of Trajan, which was nearly twice as large as the Marcus Aurelius statue in the center of Piazza Campidoglio. The statue itself is, of course, long gone. Even the massive walls at the southwest end of Trajan's Forum can be seen only by the empty trenches where the foundations once stood: Romans have always been very efficient about recycling construction materials.

Despite such losses of physical remains, very much has been learned -- so much, in fact, that the generally accepted plan of the forum district, as drawn up by architect Italo Gismondi in the 1930s, is being reconsidered. Ground plans needed to be redrawn to take into account new information. The most dramatic changes in interpretation have been in Trajan's Forum, if for no other reason than that it was the most dramatic and impressive of the forums built by the emperors. This forum's most notable features are the famous column of Trajan and the huge semicircular market on its eastern edge -- the world's first multi-level shopping center. It is now clear that the long-sought Temple of Trajan did not, as was previously believed, stand to the north of Trajan's Column and the Basilica Ulpia. (It also didn't stand on the opposite, narrow side of the Trajan forum, where an entrance in the shape of a triumphal arch was presumed.)

Behind a massive wall at the north end of Trajan's forum, the diggers discovered a 10-meter (33 feet) wide pedestrian corridor, apparently designed to connect the great porticoes on either side of the Trajan forum. This ambulatory may have once also connected the Subura to the Forum of Julius Caesar, which is closer to the old Forum Romanum. Branch corridors appear to have extended toward the Forum of Augustus. As for the "missing" Temple of Trajan, archaeologists increasingly believe that it may not have been part of his forum at all, but was perhaps located elsewhere in the city (maybe on the Campus Martius, in the area of Hadrian's temple, the Hadrianeum).

Decline and fall of the imperial forums: There was a dramatic decline in the fortunes and population of Rome after Constantine established a new capital at Constantinople. Life in the area of the former imperial forums came to a standstill. As early as the first half of the 6th century and after the Gothic Wars, one part of the imperial forums was already being used as a burial ground for the poor, perhaps in connection with the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano.

In the Carolingian period, there began a general recovery of Rome, but, instead of reviving the forums, it led to their literal dilapidation -- their stones (lapidi in Latin) were taken away. The forums of Trajan and Julius Caesar were systematically dismantled and plundered. The extent and consistency of the destruction suggest an organized effort, probably related to the many construction activities of the Popes Leo III and Leo IV. On the adjacent Forum Transitorium, which apparently never entirely lost its function as a road, two-story constructions without cellars were erected along the street, directly on the pavement of the former forum. The few still-standing antique structures in the forums were subdivided and reused.

The small early medieval city of Rome was away from the forums, in the Campus Martius and Borgo districts, and the ruined areas outside, including the forums, now assumed the semi-rural character they retained until the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 9th century, wine, fruits and vegetables were cultivated on the plundered open spaces of the Caesar forum. Archaeobotanists have found evidence of fig, cherry, plum and nut trees growing between grape-vines and vegetable plots. The owners of these gardens were probably wealthy families who had residences in the city and defensive towers overlooking the old forums. By the 10th century, the former Caesar forum was crossed by roads lined by primitive, one-story houses measuring about five meters by five meters. Since this terrain quickly turned muddy because of the lack of a sewage system, the houses were rebuilt fairly often at short intervals. Beginning in the 11th century, the former imperial forums seem to have been gradually urbanized during the next eight centuries. A new, rudimentary network of streets eventually arose to snake through the piles of ruins and newer, often reproduced hovels in patterns that remained unchanged until Mussolini's radical interventions of the 1930s.

Excavations at the forums and Trajan's Market are so recent that good printed guide books are rare. Some materials are available at the entrance to the market on Via IV Novembre and there are signs posted around the market and the forums that explain what you are seeing. It really helps to look at the Internet sites before you go.

If you are going to see Trajan's Column, it is best viewed from above the level of the forum floor, from small Piazza just east of the Victor Emanuel Monument. And if you want to study the carvings on the column, there are good plaster casts of the entire series of reliefs at the Museo della Civilta Romana in E.U.R. (Piazza G. Agnelli.)

The Trajan's Market/Imperial Forums archeological site is definitely not wheelchair accessible -- very many steep stairways. The entrance (exit) at the southern end of the forums at the top of a long steep stairway is never open: you have to retrace your steps and climb back up all those stairways you came down to get into the forum. There is virtually no shade on the floors of the forum -- sun hats and sun block recommended. Bring water -- no refreshment stands or fountains inside.

Internet links:

Rome City Government site for the Imperial Forums Excavations:

Rome City Government site for the Forum of Julius Caesar (scroll to the bottom for links to forums of Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan, Temple of Peace, and Trajan's market):

Culture Ministry Site on Recent Excavations:

Trajan's Forum site archive -- includes history of the area:

Then and now -- modern photos with computer generated views of the forums/colosseum area. Some are of the Imperial Forums:

Photos of the Imperial Forums:

and Augustus:
and Julius Caesar:
and Nerva: