An Ancient Piazza
Visitors can be a little confused by the Roman Forum. At first glance, it is a rather lifeless array of marble fragments. But we must remember that in ancient times, this space was far more than the temples and monuments whose ruins we can explore today. It was filled with bustling, noisy life as the popular crossroads of the city—the predecessor, in fact, of the modern Italian piazza.
Every morning at dawn, average Romans would escape their cramped, dark apartment blocks (called insulae or “islands”) and spent their days outdoors. The Forum Romanum was the oldest and most crowded of their meeting spots. Back then, it housed structures from Rome’s most ancient times, including the small Temple of the Vestae, where the Eternal Flame burned, and the old Curia (Senate House). Like an open-air art gallery, statues loomed haphazardly on every corner. Although these are displayed in museums today as white marble, they were originally painted bright, even garish colors; their lips brilliant red, they had expressively detailed eyes, and their clothing was of bold, striking hues. But far more eye-catching were the live attractions.
As in any piazza today, “people-watching” was a favorite pursuit. Ancient Rome was the world’s first great immigrant city, and on a single afternoon you could see beautiful courtesans from Egypt, Syrians in magnificent silks, slaves from the Danube, boxers from Ethiopia, Greek language professors, German imperial guards with braided blonde hair, and Britons in outlandish trousers. Theatrical performers gave the Forum a circus-like ambiance—one could see animal trainers with dancing monkeys, acrobats, fire-eaters, and professional storytellers. “Give me a copper coin,” was the standard refrain, “and I’ll tell you a golden story.” Actors declaimed lines. Poets read verse. Philosophers debated. Strange marvels would also be on display—the first Indian tiger seen in Europe was shown in a cage alongside “giant’s bones” (actually dinosaur fossils from the East).
It was impossible to be bored in this tumultuous space. Over the centuries, the emperors would create other more spacious and opulent Forums. Today, we can see the Forums of Augustus, Trajan, and Nerva along the Via degli Fori Romani, but the original cramped and chaotic Forum Romanum would remain the most beloved.