This must happen to everyone a couple of days into their first visit to Rome: You’re having breakfast, turning your mind to the day ahead, when you think… “I’m going to see <insert famous historical site here> today” and you’re aware that it feels oddly normal yet still surreal to be heading out to visit another 2,000+ year old site of historical significance. On our fourth day in Rome, I have a memory of asking my wife rather nonchalantly, “So, what do you want to do after we visit the Forum?” That’s always been something special about traveling to me – the juxtaposition of rapidly becoming comfortable in a foreign place (was I really asking about what to do after the Forum???) running up against the anticipation of experiencing something enormous for which you don’t have any adequate frame of reference.
On yet another perfect weather day, we made the short walk from our hotel to the Roman Forum. I could have been perfectly happy to just stand at one end to look out over the site and imagine the scene more than 2,000 years ago:
I’ll stop to make a quick recommendation… Unless you’re a history buff, skip hiring a guide and just download the free Rick Steves podcast for a self guided tour. Most of the guides were providing their tour groups the same information as we were listening to via our iPhones (and we didn’t have the hassle of having to stick with a group).
For me, one of the most visually dramatic spots in the Forum is at the western edge where the Temples of Saturn (left, dating from about 500 AD) and of Vespasian & Titus (right, dating from 47 AD) stand:
Even if you came here and didn’t have a tour guide or a podcast to inform you, it would be hard not to be moved simply by what your eyes were taking in. Here, looking across the Forum toward Capitoline Hill in the distance, your mind can construct a bit of daily Roman life in this scene through the temples, public squares and remnants of structures:
Throughout the Forum, the remains of the larger temples are what my eyes were most drawn to. The Temple of Castor and Pollux (below, on the left) was finished in 495 BC and was used starting in the second century by the Roman Senate as their meeting place. On the right is the Temple of Vesta sitting on the site of cult activities dating back to 700 BC. It’s a reconstruction as this had been burned down at least two times.
Another striking temple is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina which was undergoing some restoration work when we visited. Although originally constructed as a temple around 140-150 AD, it later became a Roman Catholic church between the 7th and 11th centuries. For perspective, those columns stand about six stories tall.
With all of the striking architecture, I was a bit surprised at what my favourite part of the Forum ended up being. The atrium/court of the House of the Vestal Virgins was idyllic, and perhaps of all of the sites within the Forum, was the place where I could best imagine a small slice of Roman life:
The statues, ponds, and the backdrop of the remains of the other buildings made this feel unlike any of the other sites at the Forum:
As we were beginning to wrap up our visit and make our way for lunch, we got to see a very unique slice of ancient Roman life. Admittedly, this might have been due to the combination of the heat and being on my feet for a few hours. Making a very rare appearance was Mittens, a descendant of Snuggles, Julius Caesar’s original cat. I think based on ancient Roman law, Mittens effectively rules this place now:
Laughing to myself as I thought that while bending down to take the picture of Mittens, I knew it was time to find some shade and liquid refreshment. By the way, we had made post-Forum plans that morning and ended up grabbing a nice light lunch in Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. Not twenty minutes removed from that “pinch me” visit to the Forum, I was eating lunch alongside residents of Rome feeling very much at home (minus the grasp on the language, of course).