Are you planning to explore the Ancient City of Rome but not sure what to see in the Roman Forum? This series of articles covers all the things you should see with explanations in the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Did I mention it was written by a licensed guide of Rome?
Pro Tip: If you are researching for your trip and considering a solo-journey to the area, definitely bookmark this post on your internet browser. This way you can circle back to it in Rome! Also, check out our Colosseum tours which include admission for the entire area including the Palatine Hill.
13 Things to See in the Roman Forum
At this point you should have seen the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. You should walk down toward the Arch of Titus to start your journey through the Roman Forum.
13. Via Sacra
The road running through the arch is the via sacra or sacred way. You can probably guess that it was an important road by its name.
During the triumphant march after a big victory, which happened often in Roman times, you’d start a journey down the via sacra into the city. The road saw considerable improvements over time such as rows of colonnaded and other effects to highlight its importance. The Arch of Titus, the next destination, is one of those improvements.
One of the coolest things is that you can still see the wear and tear from Roman times on these pavers. Everything from the smoothness to crevices that wagon wheels created over time. This is definitely one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
12. Arch of Titus
The via sacra runs down into the Forum but not before passing through the Arch of Titus. Domitian built this arch to commemorate Titus’ famed victory that quelled the revolt in Jerusalem in which he brought 60,000 slaves and endless wealth back to Rome. As. a result they had the wealth to build the Colosseum.
The Arch of Titus is a considerable point of interest for many reasons. First is likely to be its position near the Colosseum on top of a hill. It is also one of three arches that remain of the 36 original arches.
The arch gains significant interest from many people from Jerusalem or of Jewish descent since it details a major event in Jewish history. Rome controlled Judea at the time and they rebelled against the control. It worked out pretty well for them a few hundred years earlier under the Maccabees so they gave it another shot.
Historians often refer to this war as the Great Revolt and it was exactly that. Eventually, the Romans succeeded in re-conquering Judea after breaking through 3 walls which took seven months. It is important to mention how the Romans treat war at this point.
If you try to defend yourself but give in pretty quickly and join the Romans, then they treated you pretty well. It is a really good deal. They’ll want to take some spoils and possibly some wives, but losing would be far worse and victory against the Romans was rare and often not long-term.
If you fight back too hard, they’ll sack your city, take everything you have, rape most of your population and enslave as many people as they could transport back to Rome. That is what happened in Judea. Over 60,000 slaves came back to Rome with Titus and built the Colosseum.
Beyond the horror story of the Roman war, the arch helps connect some historical dots. It verifies that Titus’ campaign happened and that he returned victoriously. Paper doesn’t hold up well over time but the stone does. Historians detailed most of this in writing as well as detailed reliefs depicting the events.
On top of historical verification, the reliefs inside the arch show a huge leap forward in Roman artwork. You have to understand that at this point in history, 81 AD, most people in Europe were living in cold wet huts fending for their lives. It was the middle east that was prospering. The Gauls are trying to stay dry while the Romans have created the illusion of space in travertine.
The illusion of space is when an artist uses your perspective against you to make an area look bigger and give the illusion of possibly even motion. It is basically Baroque artwork 1500 years before Baroque artwork entered the scene. You can see the procession of the Jews holding the Menorah (7 candelabra) as they return back to Rome as slaves.
On the other side, you see Titus on horseback triumphant over his enemies. In the center, you can look up and see the symbol of Rome, the Eagle, with wings spread. The arch is something not to miss in Rome.
11. Temple of Venus
With the Arch of Titus at your back and the Colosseum in front of you, you’ll see a structure to your left. Head up to that building and work your way towards the Colosseum. There is a great balcony to take a picture like the one above. This is the Temple of Venus which was a massive temple that Emperor Hadrian built.
10. Basilica of Constantine (Temple of Maxentius)
The original name of this building was the Basilica of Maxentius for the Emperor ruling Rome before Constantine. The two of them fought a historic battle at the Milvian bridge which is still standing today in the northern part of the city.
As the legend goes, the night before the battle, Constantine saw a symbol burning across the sky and the next day his soldiers wrote the cross on their shields and they were successful, attributing this as the first Christian victory ever.
The central nave of the building was an impressive 265ft ( 80m) long and 83ft ( 25m) wide. Today can be seen only 3 arches, but originally you have to imagine that there was a vaulted ceiling and another 3 arches symmetrically placed in front of the current 3 which would have created an imposing, closed building. At the southern end would have been the entrance and at the northern end would have been placed a gigantic statue of Constantine himself.
In Ancient Roman times the word Basilica signified a courthouse or a place to conduct business matters when the weather wasn’t permitting outside. The standard architecture was a long nave with apses on both sides of the nave, supported by huge columns. When Christianity took over as the main religion, they incorporated this architectural style for their churches and that’s where we get the modern term of Basilica today.
9. Temple of Romulus
Don’t mistake this with the Romulus who founded Rome. The emperor Maxentius dedicated this temple to his son Valerius Romulus and deified him. Eventually, the emperors prohibited paganism and converted this temple into the Basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano. The bronze doors are original from the 309 AD structure. Such an old building still in such good shape deserves to be one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
8. Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
Known today as the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, this functioning church is adapted from the ancient Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Though much of the structure is updated and rebuilt, the original portico encased by marble columns still stands.
Like many churches around Rome, they remodeled this church and built upon from its original structure. Just like much of Rome, the various levels of the church reflect modern and ancient Rome. Another great example of this, the Basilica of San Clemente is located on the other side of the Colosseum (only a a10-minute walk from the Forum).
Historians consider Antoninus Pius to be part of the 5 ” Good Emperors”. This means that he died of natural causes and didn’t fill the tabloids of the time with crazy deeds. He was quite old already when he became Emperor and lived a decent life out of the spotlight. His young wife, Faustina, who was extremely beautiful died quite young and the Emperor was so grieved that he made her a goddess and built her a temple. This story is so good, it is for sure one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
7. Temple of Vesta & Eternal Flame of Rome
While facing the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, turn around you’ll see a circular altar in a shaded area on a slight hill. This is where the Vestal Virgins cared for the famed Eternal Flame of Rome.Originally surrounded by 20 Corinthian columns, the ruins are a good indication of what the temple may have once looked like.
Today, what remains of the Temple Mussolini reconstructed in the 1930s after the Forum was excavated. Behind the Temple, the House of the Vestal Virgins stands leads its way up the Palatine hill. Vital to the faith of pre-Christianity Rome, the Vestal Virgins were priestesses who took a vow of virginity and served for 30 years beginning in childhood.
Powerful women indeed, the Vestal Virgins had the power to free slaves and prisoners. Additionally, injuring a Vestal was punishable by death. The Vestals also protected the eternal fire to Vesta, the Roman Goddess of Hearth.
As sacred as the temple was, Roman residents used Vesta’s eternal fire to kindle their own household fires. And that is why this is one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
6. Mamertine Prison
Just outside the northern facing exit of the Forum, you’ll find the Mamertine Prison. It is not actually inside the structure so make sure you are ready to leave as you won’t be allowed reentry. The prison was said to have been built as early as the 7th century BC and originally was referred to as the Tullianum.
According to Christian Dogma, St. Peter was imprisoned here prior to his execution on the cross upside down. The prison was not intended for long-term incarceration, but merely a place to be held prior to a trial and eventually execution. It was close to the Forum and Capitoline Hill which made it accessible.
Peter was not the only prisoner of mention to be held here. Jugurtha, king of Numidia was held in the Mamertine Prison for a short stay and possibly died inside. Vercingetorix, a chieftain from Gaul and nemesis of Julius Caesar who attempted to unite Gaul against the Romans, but didn’t get far also died here.
Most generals and high-profile leaders were pardoned after the war with the Romans which was part of their process of getting nations to capitulate. There were some cases of extreme hatred where Romans would be more demeaning to high-ranking opponents. The Mamertine prison was a foul enough place to seek that revenge. Also, if you wanted to display your human-spoils of war, the Palatine Hill was a short walk away.
5. Temple of Castor and Pollux
Today, the three columns left on this temple are not much to look at but the remains are spread out around the city. The statue of these two dioscuri or demigods sit on either side of the steps leading up to the Capitoline Hill in all their glory.
They are twins and sons of Jupiter (Zeus) from a mortal mother. Hence making them demigods or dioscuri. They are known for their curly blond hair and white horses. Since they are strong, young warriors and the perfect pair to be patrons to the equites or Roman knights.
Witnesses saw them aiding the Romans in the battle over the Latins at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 484 BC. Later, they were seen in the city of Rome watering their horses at the Juturna Spring. The origin of their temple is where that spring once was but it was enhanced and renovated multiple times.
The twins represented much of what it meant to be Roman. They were loyal to one another and fought bravely. Romans, like Christians, often chose figures that mirrored their morals and virtues.
4. Arch of Septimius Severus
One of the biggest arches in Rome and built in 203 AD, it stands as a testament to Roman hegemony in the ancient world. At this time, the Roman Empire had just finished its golden years and was going to slowly deteriorate from here, but they wouldn’t have known it at the time. For the majority of the Roman world, the Eternal City would last forever.
The emperor Septimius Severus had this arch constructed to commemorate his victory over the Parthians ( modern day Iran). The victory was bittersweet, since that region had defeated a Roman army almost 300 years earlier under the leadership of Marcus Crassus. During that defeat, Crassus paid dearly since when he was captured, molten gold was poured down his throat to show his greed.
The arch was richly decorated and was also dedicated to Severus’ two sons Caracalla ( who later on became emperor himself) and Geta. Once Septimius died, Caracalla killed his brother Geta to become the sole ruler. All monuments to Geta and any mentions of him were erased from the history books, including on the arch itself. Now you understand why this is one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
3. Temple of Saturn
The current temple dates from the 4th century AD. We know this due to the inscription on the architrave which reads that the Senate had rebuilt this statue after a big fire. The original temple on this same spot was built in 497 BC.
Today we only have the podium left on which the temple stands and 8 huge columns of granite and marble. While you have to use your imagination, you can see that this temple was once a great and revered place of worship.
The Roman god Saturn supposedly has his roots back in the Ancient Greek Pantheon as the god Kronos. There is some mystery about what he was actually worshipped for and was represented veiled with a sickle or pruning knife. The practical function of the temple was this is where they held the public treasury, which lasted all throughout the Republican period and on a more limited basis during the Empire.
The most famous event that is associated with the god Saturn is the major festival that took place on December 17th- The Saturnalia. This was a huge party lasting for a few days where roles were switched and the masters waited on the slaves, gifts were exchanged and more informal clothes were worn instead of the rigid toga. Over time this festival is how Christmas was transformed into what it is today and a reason why this is one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
2. Temple of Julius Caesar
Across from the Temple of Vesta, is the Temple of Caesar. In its heyday, this was the centerpiece of the Roman Forum. Dedicated to Julius Caesar and constructed by his adopted son Augustus, Julius Caesar was the first Roman deified after his death and the first to be buried in the Forum itself. Back in the day, for hygienic reasons, nobody could be buried within the city limits, so this was a great honor.
Julius Caesar wasn’t actually considered an Emperor. That honor was for Augustus. What all historians agree however is that his actions led to the downfall of the Republic, which had seriously deteriorated by this point anyway. Once he was declared dictator for life, many aristocratic noblemen feared that he would try and become king, so he was assassinated. The upheaval that followed led to the creation of the Empire.
A symbol of the Roman Empire’s power, the Temple represented the power of the new Roman Empire and the grandeur of both Julius and Augustus. The temple is considered to be a political move by many people who were allegedly involved in the murder of Caesar. They supported the project to posture themselves as Caesar supporters to the masses. This is why this temple is one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.
1. The Curia (Senate House)
The Julian Senate House or Curia Julia is one of the most intact buildings in the Roman Forum. Unlike most buildings in the Forum, the Curia Julia is visible in its restored state.
This is due to its conversion into a church centuries later. Still, this large building was the home of the Roman Senate throughout the time of the Empire.
Many people come here and think this was the spot where Julius Caesar was killed, but don’t be fooled! This Curia was under construction when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC at the Theatre of Pompey (near Largo Argentina in today’s Rome). In later news, the roof of this building collapsed in August of 2018 and luckily no one was harmed.
Such a historic building is definitely one of the top things to see at the Colosseum.