The Roman Forum: Part 1, Ruins in modern imagination

Ruins in Modern Imagination: The Roman Forum (part 1), an ARCHES video speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”ForumViewsSZ,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in Rome on a glorious sunny December day, standing on the Capitoline, looking across the Roman Forum.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] I think today, for most visitors, this is a very overwhelming place. It’s hard to piece together what’s here. We see ancient stones, rows of ancient columns, some buildings intact, monumental triumphal arches, the Colosseum in the distance.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] I think many visitors to the Forum come and in their minds try to reconstruct what this would have looked like when Rome was an empire.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] When we look at the fragments, we clearly understand those as ruins. But we don’t realize that many have been restored, have been re-erected. We also see arches like the Arch of Titus, and it’s very easy to imagine that we’re looking at the arch as it stood in antiquity, and the long passage of more than a millennium and a half vanishes.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] When we walk through these ruins, what we’re seeing are reminders, not only of antiquity, not only of the later medieval, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, but also the interventions of modern archaeology. One of the things we want to do in this video is to identify the way that this space has been understood and used over the years.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] A place we need to begin is to understand the critical importance of this site for ancient Rome itself. This is where Romulus and Remus settled, where Rome built their temple to their supreme god, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on the Capitoline Hill.

[1:43] We can look over at the Palatine Hill, where the emperors built their palaces, and then this valley that was this critically important central civic space for ancient Rome for hundreds of years.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] This valley was the administrative and cultural center of the city of Rome, and the city of Rome, in turn, was the center of the Roman Empire. And so there is no more important a site.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] We’re talking about one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, one that stretched from England to the Levant [and] North Africa, embraced so many different peoples, and that grew over centuries. Starting at this small city, and eventually conquering much of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] If we look to our left, we can see the reconstructed Senate. This is a reminder of Rome before the empire, when Rome was a republic. Behind that, are the imperial fora, where emperors created spaces to honor themselves at a time when there was no more room to build here.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] And so the Forum as a place where the civic and religious life of the ancient Romans came together, there were spaces dedicated to emperors, dedicated to their favorite gods. There were places to offer sacrifices. At the far eastern end is the ruins of an enormous structure that we know as the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, [an] important administrative building.

[3:11] This is not a site that was built at once and then stayed the same, but that evolved over centuries as emperors wanted to identify with the space, and they built around it and continued to expand it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] This was under continuous renewal in the ancient world, but change didn’t stop then. Slowly, over time, Rome became a Christian city.

[3:34] By the fourth century C.E., we see a dramatic change from the pagan to the Christian, and the emperor who’s most associated with that is Constantine, who, according to tradition, converted to Christianity on his deathbed.

Dr. Harris: [3:48] Ultimately, by the end of the 4h century, Rome becomes officially Christian. And so buildings that were once pagan become reused as Christian spaces.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] This is important, because this preserved those ancient buildings. Ancient buildings were often pillaged, were often dismantled for their high-quality stone and reused, unless they happened to be reused as churches. In that case, they were preserved.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] We can think of the church of Santa Maria Antiqua. We’re looking at pagan Rome, but we’re also looking at Christian Rome. There’s also the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, which was built from pagan remains.

Dr. Zucker: [4:29] It’s important to remember that it was during the reign of Constantine that Rome lost its status as the capital of the empire. The capital was moved far to the east, to the city that was renamed Constantinople, which we now call Istanbul.

[4:43] The Roman Empire then had two centers. It had this new administrative and political capital in the east, and it had this historical capital in the west.

Dr. Harris: [4:53] But importantly, here in the West in the early 5th century, the city of Rome was invaded and conquered. Italy itself was overrun by people we call the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and ultimately caused the dissolution of this once united empire.

Dr. Zucker: [5:10] After the 4th century, the Roman Empire really only continues to exist in the east.

Dr. Harris: [5:15] The Christian buildings in the Roman Forum remain in use. Pilgrims come from all over to visit Rome, to visit the church that Constantine created on the other side of the Tiber River, the Church of St. Peter’s.

Dr. Zucker: [5:29] It was during the medieval period that Rome experiences an enormous drop in its population. What was once an enormous metropolitan center becomes largely emptied out. And in fact, the Forum gains a new nickname, “the cow pasture.” It is a largely abandoned space where animals now were grazing.

Dr. Harris: [5:48] The idea of the Forum as overgrown with vegetation, as a place that was ideal for grazing animals, is hard to imagine for us today, and in some ways was probably very beautiful with all of this natural overgrowth over these beautiful ruins.

Dr. Zucker: [6:07] Well, we can get a sense of how different the Forum looked before the modern era if we look at the prints of Piranesi.

[6:15] One of the first things we notice is that the ground level was much higher than it is now. Over time, debris accumulates, soil accumulates. The churches that were built on the Forum were built with their entrances 20 feet higher than the present ground level. What we’re seeing in the modern era is the result of modern excavations.

Dr. Harris: [6:36] The result of centuries of archaeology, an archaeology that at various times had different goals. In the 18th century, the goal was different than it was, for example, in the early 20th century with Mussolini. Modern archaeologists today have different values than the archaeologists of the past.

[6:55] Today, we’re more reluctant to dig all the way down to the classical remains. We’re also concerned about the medieval era.

[7:03] But there was a time when all that mattered, for example, in the 18th century and the 17th century, were those classical remains. Let’s talk about that rediscovery of classical antiquity, this new interest in what was here, that began in the 14th and 15th century in the beginnings of the Renaissance.

[7:21] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Roman Forum: Part 1, Ruins in modern imagination," in Smarthistory, July 5, 2020, accessed May 24, 2024,