The Despoiling of the Roman Forum

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in April 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

Roman Forum

Before going to Rome, I wasn’t really sure what the Roman Forum was. I’d seen pictures of it, and gathered that it was a large conglomeration of ancient ruins, but wasn’t sure how they’d come to be together or if it was just the “ancient quarter” of the city.


The thing is, this was known as the Forum even back in ancient times — Forum Magnum to be precise — and originally served as a marketplace. It was the center of daily life in Rome, witness to triumphal processions and elections, the site of public speeches, gladiatorial matches, criminal trials, and, as marketplace, a center of commercial affairs.

Temple of Venus and Roma

The forum is believed to have developed organically and gradually, over many centuries, instead of having been built as a planned complex.

Originally, the site was a marshy lake that was drained using the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewage systems. Ever since then, its soil has been rising slowly due to the sediments left behind by the flooding of the Tiber and the erosion of the nearby hills. As time passed, new pavement had to be placed, though the latest visible is from the time of Augustus.

Basilica of Maxentius
Arch of Titus

In 1425, Pope Martin V wished to improve the city, which was underpopulated and mostly littered by old ruins. The Forum, full of marble, made for a convenient quarry. While officials had been appointed to manage and protect ancient ruins (the maestri di strade and the Conservatori), the papacy slowly overstepped their authority beginning in the 15th century. In 1536, Charles V (remember the Piazza del Campidoglio?) held a triumph in Rome after conquering Tunis. Some 200 houses and churches were cleared from the surrounding areas of the Forum in order to allow for his procession through it and the better display of its ruined buildings. Later, during the 16th century, Pope Paul III despoiled the forum extensively for material to build the new Saint Peter’s Basilica.

During the 17th and through the 19th centuries, artists from all over Europe visited the Roman Forum in order to study and paint its architecture. Carlo Fea, an Italian archaeologist, began to clear the debris in the Forum in 1803, starting at the Arch of Septimius Severus. The Italian government began further excavations in 1898, restoring fragmented pieces of columns, bases, and cornices to their original location, though this work paused briefly during World War I.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (today, Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda)
Temple of Vesta
Temple of Saturn

Excavations continue to today, and in 2020 archaeologists discovered a sarcophagus and a circular altar, which some argue might be a memorial tomb dedicated to Romulus.

Fontana di Trevi

Designed by Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini (among others), the Fontana di Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and one of the most famous in the world.

Originally, Pope Urban VIII commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to come up with designs for a new fountain in 1629, but the project was abandoned when the Pope passed. In 1730, Pope Clement VII organized a contest for a new design, which Alessandro Galilei won. Apparently there was a local outcry over a Florentine having won, however, and so the commission went to Nicola Salvi instead. Work began in 1732, and the fountain was inaugurated in 1762 by Pannini, as Salvi died in 1752 with the fountain still unfinished.

The latest restoration work completed on the fountain was done in 2014-2015 (right before I visited), which included the installation of 100 LED lights to improve its nighttime illumination.

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