Rome’s Invisible Forum of Peace

Visitors to Rome frequently have a confused notion of the size of the Roman Forum. That’s partly because a significant percentage of the Forum is still buried underground. The addendum to the Forum constructed by Emperor Vespasian, in the 70’s A..D., is a good example of this–because until very recently, you couldn’t see it at all.

Vespasian ruled 69-79 A.D., and the first part of his reign was constant war. The Emperor’s son Titus, who would later succeed him as Emperor, was the leader of the Roman army that destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, after a long period of unrest among the Jewish population. The general’s victory spelled disaster for the Jews, but victory for the Romans, who hailed a new era of peace.

Back in Rome, Vespasian decided to celebrate by adding a new section onto the already existing Forum in the center of town, and naming it the Forum of Peace. Much of the new addition was taken up by a Temple of Peace, dedicated to the personification of this abstract concept. (Romans did this sort of thing fairly often, and we can tell you all about it!)IMG_6990Centuries ago, however, the Forum was buried under tons of mud, and the Forum of Peace was forgotten. A Franciscan monastery was constructed here in the Middle Ages, attached to the early Christian basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which is located atop a part of the Forum of Peace where there once stood an ancient Roman library. Here’s the nondescript facade of the basilica today, which doesn’t get a lot of attention. But if you look just to the left of the doorway, you’ll see that an ancient white, marble wall runs perpendicular to the facade, and continues deep inside the basilica. This is one of the ancient library walls, and a recessed stone seat that is conveniently located inside the front door of the church … was once a bookshelf.

Nowadays, a team of archaeologists have begun excavating the Forum and the Temple of Peace. While they obviously can’t move the basilica or the monastery, they’ve done plenty of digging in the open area out front. What they’ve uncovered so far is absolutely marvellous: a beautiful floor made of inlaid colored marbles, interspersed with rows of columns, tentatively marked here by the archaeologists with square blocks. Some of our own students have spent their summers on this dig, and have their own stories to tell!

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But as so often happens here in Rome, thousands of tourists walk past this site every week, and very few of them give it a second look. To them, it’s a drab-looking building with some construction-work going on outside. What’s to see? They’re missing a fascinating bit of ancient history–because they’re not visiting Rome in the company of one of our guides…