Monday, August 3, 2015

Here and There in the Roman Forum

The Roman Forum is one of the great archaeological sites of the world.  So much history, so many memorable figures.  And very unusually a lot of it is documented in hallowed ancient texts.  There were probably some fascinating things going on in Borneo in the 1st Century AD, but nobody will ever read about them.

The Roman Forum is also a preservation nightmare, a place where treasure hunters and stone scavengers and ham fisted early archaeologists (with less difference between the three than you might think) have rendered the site almost uninterpretable. I went prepared, homework done and guide book in hand....and still found it puzzling.  So instead of providing a Grand Tour of this mighty concentration of Detritus of Empire, I am just going to show you a few odd side lights.

The best way to visit the Forum is actually to enter by way of the Palatine Hill.  The lines are short to non-existent, you get to marvel at the huge, shattered corpse of the Imperial Palace, and get some great over views of the Forum.  Then you go down the hill.  This puts you in the middle of the Forum but in terms of understanding the place I suggest a brisk walk to the left which brings you to the base of the Capitoline hill and the earliest part of the Forum.

Here's whats left of the Temple of Saturn.  The original version was very early, with construction starting back in the days of Roman Monarchy.  It was dedicated circa 498 BC, completely rebuilt in 42 BC, burned down and rebuilt again in 283 AD.  There seems to have been another 4th century renovation...the columns you see here have apparently been salvaged from other structures as evidenced by their variable dimensions.  The traces of bronze lettering you can see read:


Most of us have enough rudimentary Latin to figure that one out.

Near the foot of the Temple of Saturn we find another little spot:

The good folks who run Rome's archaeological sites would have you believe that this is the base of the Miliarium Aureum which was literally the Golden Mile Stone.  Yes, all roads led to Rome and all distances were reckoned from right here.  Or somewhere close to here.  On the basis of rather sketchy accounts of the size of the Mile Stone this is not legit.  Anyway, the decorative touches look more like what you see on the pediments high up on temples.  Guess it was just laying in the right spot.  A more plausible marble cylinder was dug up somewhere nearby in the early 1800s, but its whereabouts seem to be unknown.  Too bad really, I like Mile Stones.  Later echos of this central mileage point can be found in Washington DC, Constantinople/Istanbul, and  London (dubiously).  There are evidently quite a few Kilometer Zero markers around the world if you care about such things.  I don't.

This tacky pile of brick snugged up against the Arch of Septimus Severus appears to be the Umbilicus Urbus. The "navel" or exact center of Ancient Rome.  It presumably had nice marble on it back then.  From being the symbolic center of the Eternal City to its current sad situation...quite a Decline.

Below you see the Lacus Curtius, literally the Lake of Curtius.  Here you have your choice of legends.  Pick the one you prefer.

1. It was the site of a swamp where the Sabine leader, Mettius Curtius fell while riding his horse during a legendary war between the Sabines and the Romans, who were then still a minor power.
2. In response to an Oracular warning, a Roman knight named Marcus Curtius threw himself into a chasm that opened at this spot, thus saving Rome from an unspecified doom.
3. A consul named C. Curtius on the order of the Senate built an enclosure here in 445 BC to enclose a spot struck by a lightning bolt.  This last may seem less fanciful, but how often does lightning strike in a deep valley between tall hills?  Might have been a bit of Jovian aiming involved.

The panel depicting a rider is a reproduction of an original found on site and now preserved in a museum.

I feel badly not showing a wider view of the next Temple, that dedicated to Antoninus and Fausta. Antoninus Pius, remembered as one of the Good Emperors, built this in circa 141 AD to honor his recently deceased wife.  His name got added later.  It is a nicely preserved Temple, and for the usual reason; a Christian church was built inside its super structure.  But lets focus on a tiny detail.  Notice the odd grooves at various spots near the tops of all these columns?  Some claim it was from ropes place by stone robbers trying to pull the whole shebang down.  Unlikely, that.  A more plausible explanation would be anchoring grooves for some sort of sun shading canopy.

My last spot on the odds and ends tour of the Forum is actually pretty well known.  This is a detail from the Arch of Titus, a triumphal structure put up in honor of his conquest of the rebellious Jews. Note that the procession is carrying off all sorts of sacred swag including the great Menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem.  We have very good historical evidence that this actually happened, and that the Temple treasure was deposited in the nearby "Temple of Peace".  This mostly vanished structure was once one of the Forum's grandest buildings, and was another monument erected to commemorate the ever elusive concept of  "Peace" in the Middle East.

Titus himself by the way was already dead when this arch was dedicated by his brother Domitian some time after 81 AD.  The arch has a very colorful history.  In the middle ages a representative of the Jewish community had to stand under it once a year and pledge good faith towards Christians. In later times it was buried under a maze of post Roman structures including, alarmingly, a powder magazine.  Once it was freed from encumberances it became a model for many other emblems of Nationalistic insolence including Paris' Arc de Triomphe.

For those of you inclined to conspiracy stuff, I should mention that the final resting place of the Menorah is uncertain.  Various rumors over the years claim that the Pope keeps it in a secret store room at the Vatican.  Most likely nonsense but interesting nonsense.  For a discussion of what is and is not known regards the Menorah after its arrival in Rome, this monograph makes an interesting read.  And it only tests trace positive for Dan Brown level skulduggery.


Borepatch said...

What a great post. It would have been fun to go through the Forum with you. I never approached it from the Palantine.

Tacitus2 said...

Hey, great to hear from you again. I have on occasion suggested a Blogdig someplace. Lemme know when Life permits this.