The Forum Romanum - Solely a Centre of Vice, Bloodshed and Political Propaganda?

  By Alexander J. Knights, 1 October 2007; Revised
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The Roman Forum, or, Forum Romanum, served a large variety of purposes during Republican Rome. The vast array of functions that took place were used for personal and social gain. While political propaganda and bloodshed did frequent the Forum Romanum, it also served as a place of social, recreational, business, religious and legal activity.

The Forum Romanum was situated on a marsh, in between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills. The Tiber River ran adjacent to it. It was drained early in the Republican era through the construction of the ‘Cloaca Maxima’ – or ‘Great Sewer’. Over time, buildings were erected and structures put in place, for the glory of Rome, personal gain, along with public use.

The Forum Romanum in its prime. Various temples, arches, the Rostra and the Tabularium are visible.
The Forum Romanum in its prime. Various temples, arches, the Rostra and the Tabularium are visible.

The Forum Romanum became a place of recreation as well as being the administrative, civil, political, legal and social centre of Rome. Temples were erected, commencing with the ‘Saturnus Aedes’ (Temple of Saturn) in 498 B.C., for worshipping the numerous Roman deities. The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, on the Capitonline Hill, was the climax of the ‘Via Sacra’s’ (Sacred Way) course through the Forum. Basilicas were constructed to host a myriad of activities – business dealings, court hearings and retail to mention a few. The ‘Basilica Aemilia’ was the first of these, constructed by the Aemilians in 179 B.C. Other buildings such as the ‘Curia’ (Senate House) hosted Senatorial gatherings. The ‘Tabularium’ housed all state records and public archives (‘tabulae’), backing onto the Capitoline, with its characteristic Doric arcade. The diversity of the functions and features of the Forum Romanum were monumental.

However, the Forum was not solely a place for social and religious activity, as alluded to above. Political propaganda was an important and decisive tool in Republican Rome, used to gain support of the masses. The ‘Cursus Honorum’, or Ladder of Offices, was the political hierarchy, and was formalized by the ‘Lex Villia Annalis’ in 180 B.C. To elevate rank in the ‘Cursus Honorum’, senators would utilise political propaganda to gain support, and subsequently, votes and popularity.

Three buildings and structures in particular were used for political purposes – the ‘Rostra’, ‘Via Sacra’ and the ‘Curia’.
The ‘Rostra’, or speaking platform, was named after its adornments – the rostra of Carthaginian warships captured after Rome’s first naval victory in 460 B.C. Luminous speeches and orations would be held there, to evoke ideas, cause emotion or win over the plebian and patrician masses.

The ‘Via Sacra’, or Sacred Way, was named because of its course through the Forum – past Rome’s most sacred building, and then up to the chief temple, that of Jupiter. Triumphal marches and military parades were held there so as to make a significant statement about a particular general’s successes.
The ‘Curia’ was the Senate House, predominantly used for addressing other senators. However, political allies were valuable, and emotive speeches and political propaganda within the ‘Curia’ were powerful tools in gaining political power’.

The Forum had other, less ‘civilised’ uses as well. The ‘Munera’ were gladiatorial games, originating early Etruscan funeral rites. The central plaza in the Forum Romanum was frequently adorned with temporary seating around a central arena, were spectators would amass. Lavish games were organised by the ‘aediles’, of which there were two. Source 1 talks about Gaius Julius Caesar as an ‘aedile’, and describes the steps he took for political propaganda – “he exhibited combats with beasts and stageplays too”. The ‘Munera’ were violent and bloody, but seemed to gain the organizer (the ‘aedile/s’) much popularity. This further solidifies the idea that the Roman Forum was rife with bloodshed, and used for selfish political propaganda.

However, the ‘Munera’ tended to be more of a lower, working class, or plebian, thing to go and experience. Marcus Tullius Cicero provides us with possibly a more ‘enlightened’ and aristocratic view of the ‘Munera’ – typical of the upper class mindset – “how can a civilised person find pleasure in a defenseless human being mangled by a very strong animal?” Cicero questions the morals behind the ‘Munera’, but not surprisingly, fails to mention the motivation and political gains associated with them.

This view of Cicero shows the conflicting views about the functions of the Forum – while many saw the ‘Munera’ as a form of entertainment, others saw it as a bloodthirsty activity, far below their standards. Never, though, are they condemned as a whole, due to the political propaganda attributed to them.

Source 1 describes the role of the ‘aedile’, an office in the ‘Cursus Honorum’. There were typically two ‘aediles’ in office for one year. Caesar’s time as ‘aedile’ is outlined in Source 1. He undertook duties such as decorating the ‘Comitium’ and the Forum, exhibiting games and stageplays, and constructing buildings. Most notable of which, was the ‘Basilica Iulia’ – constructed as an additional area mainly for law courts, as the ‘Basilica Aemilia’ had a limited capacity. The needs of a growing and flourishing Rome needed to be accommodated. The motivation behind the elaborate and generous acts of the aediles, such as Caesar, were arguably solely for political gain; propaganda in the form of a grand statement to the masses.

 The Forum Romanum was by no means exclusively a hub for violence, bloodshed, selfishness and political propaganda. Being the archaic equivalent of the Central Business District, the Forum was the site of religious, administrative, social, legal and recreational activity.

Prior to the dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., there was only one Basilica – the ‘Basilica Aemilia’. A Basilica was a large rectangular building which played host to everything from exercising and shopping, to court hearings and business dealings. By the time of the Late Republic, another was deemed necessary, and who better to rise to the occasion that Caesar. He promptly ordered the construction of the ‘Basilica Iulia’. Yet another location for social activity, the ‘Basilica Iulia’ provided a second major recreational, social and legal hub.

The Forum Romanum as it is today, with Rome's first temple featured - the Temple of Saturn
The Forum Romanum as it is today, with Rome's first temple featured - the Temple of Saturn
Religion was a core aspect of Roman culture. Being polytheistic, they had numerous gods and goddesses. Consequently, a number of temples, shrines and altars were erected in their honor.

The Temple of Saturn (‘Saturnus Aedes’) housed a statue of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. It was also home to the ‘Aerarium’, which was the State Treasury. The inscription “Senatus Populusque Romanus Incendio Consumptum Restitut” on the front of the Temple of Saturn is symbolic of Rome’s ability to endure and persist. Through fires and Barbarian invasions (such as the Gallic sacking of Rome under Brennus, in 390 B.C.) had continuously crippled Rome, each time they bounced back and adapted. The aspect of Religion within Roman society, specifically as a component of the Forum, was a testament to the Forum’s wide range of activities.
The Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was a symbolic place for the Romans. The Vestal Virgins tended to Rome’s eternal fire, which was never to be extinguished. Again, it’s symbolic of Rome’s audacity and determination never to die out.

In conclusion, the Forum Romanum served a variety of purposes and functions, such as administrative, political, civil, social, religious and legal ones. While many buildings and structures were used for recreation, law and social purposes, violence, bloodshed, vice and propaganda were commonplace too. Political agendas were satisfied, while the masses gained much of the time too. The Forum Romanum definitely was a multipurpose venue, used for a vast and diverse array of functions and purposes, not solely bloodshed, vice and corruption.

Source 1 – Extract from Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius, written c. 110 AD.

“When aedile [65 B.C.], Caesar decorated not only the Comitium and the Forum with its adjacent basilicas, but the Capitol as well, building temporary colonnades for the display of a part of his material. He exhibited combats with wild beasts and stageplays too, both with his colleague and independently. The result was that Caesar alone took all the credit even for what they spent in common, and his colleague Maruc Bibulus openly said that his was the fate of Pollux: “For,” said he, “just as the temple erected in the Forum to the twin brethren, bears only the name of Castor, so the joint liberality of Caesar and myself is credited to Caesar alone”.

This essay was written under exam conditions, over a period of 45 minutes. Hence, no references or bibliography are included.