We are indeed in the midst of the Roman Forum. What innumerable companies of people have been crowded within this area ! What illustrious men have walked here glancing up at temples and columns as we do now! Objects of antiquity lie all about us. Those pieces of sculptured marble, which looked rather insignificant from a distance, are, as we now see, not very small after all.
But first let us get a definite sense of our location here, which we can easily do. Off to our left is the base of the Column of Phocas, in front of us are the eight columns of the Temple of Saturn, and to the right we see towering above us the southern end of the Capitol, the lower dark part of which belongs to the Tabularium. We can even see the window from which we have been looking, the first one from the corner on the second row from the top. The Arch of Septimius Severus must be only a few rods to our right, while the Colosseum and the Basilica .of Constantine are far to our left. From this point, in front of the Temple of Saturn, we can see the admirable effect of that temple’s noble columns, worn and broken though some of them are. The building seen beyond those columns is the rear portion of the Caffarelli Palace, the residence of the German ambassador, while to the left of that building, directly back of this Column of Phocas, is the famous Tarpeian Rock. We are near enough now to the Column of Phocas to see the effect of age upon it. The blocks of the pedestal are crumbling at the joints, and the whole monument speaks, as with a human tongue, of the ravages of the elements. The date of the erection of that monument, the early part of the seventh century, marks the beginning, practically, of the temporal power of the popes, which was founded by Gregory the Great.
That which especially interests us here, however, is this pair of curious marble balustrades just in front of us, sculptured in relief on either side and surrounded by a finely carved cornice.
You will notice that each balustrade is composed of several pieces of marble, all of which are more or less damaged, and that some pieces are missing. They stand on a base of marble, which, in turn, rests upon a foundation of travertine. These reliefs were discovered in 1872, having been formerly built into the walls of a mediæval tower. For a long time they were thought to be the balustrades of the Rostra, but this has been disputed by learned authorities, who declare that they appear to have always rested upon the pavement of the Forum without any other support than what they now have. For what purpose they were used no one is quite sure. It seems that they are of the time of Trajan and we ought to be able to get a clue as to their use from the figures carved upon them. On the farther one you will observe the animals used in sacrifices – a wild boar, a ram and a bull ; and on the other side of that same balustrade, Trajan is represented as making provision for destitute children. On the side toward us of the nearer balustrade, an official seems to be holding a sort of ballot-box into which citizens appear to deposit ballots as they pass; and, on the opposite side, Trajan is represented as burning the bonds on his remission of the debts due the public treasury. In the background of this latter relief are reproduced the various buildings which formerly stood on the south side of the Forum. The Rostra appears on both of the marbles. Some think, from the presence of the sacrificial animals, that these marbles formed an approach to a temple or altar; and others, from the depositing of ballots and other public references, that they belonged to a polling place of the citizens. Whatever may have been their original use, they serve an important topo-graphical purpose, since they represent the various buildings of the Forum as they stood in the time of Trajan, thus throwing light upon the architecture of many a structure in regard to whose existing ruins we would otherwise have no possible clue.
But we must not tarry here now, for there awaits us one of the most surprising and valuable discoveries ever made in this vicinity. This is found near the Basilica of Constantine, where we have already stood for a few minutes. On the map we find the point to which we are now to return, and our field of vision from that point, indicated by two lines which start from the number 29 in front of the Basilica of Constantine, and branch toward the left or northwest.