Rome – Forum and Capitol from near the Basilica Constantine

For long years many eminent archaeologists and renowned writers of Roman history affirmed that a rough polygonal pavement running in front of the Basilica Julia, on the south side of the Forum, and winding in and out among arches, temples and basilicas on its course from the Capitol to the Arch of Titus, was the veritable pavement of the ancient Sacra Via, but during 1900, Signor Boni, one of the foremost archaeologists of our time, following the direction of the sewer which runs in front of the Basilica Aemelia, carried the excavations deeper, and found, nearly six feet below the road which had for years been mistaken for the Sacra Via, extensive remains of the fine polygonal pavement of the true Sacred Way. Still more of this pavement has recently been uncovered. At our feet, and stretching away before us, we see this intensely interesting discovery. We can even see the carefully joined blocks of stone, and we can judge from the size of the embankments on either side, how much below the later pavement was the real one.

No cultured man can look upon this pavement, pressed as portions of it have been by the feet of Vergil and Horace, Caesar and Cicero, Pliny and Pompey, and which, after a millennium and a half, the sun again shines on, and not feel a thrill of gladness blended with an emotion of surprise; and just as in the solar system there are heavenly bodies of surpassing magnitude of whose existence we are assured, that only sweep within the vision of men at an interval of thousands of years, proving anew the fact of their own being, so it would seem that by the sight of this sacred pavement, so long hidden away and which has again appeared to men, the mighty intellects, the brilliant geniuses, the magnetic personalities, that fell long since into human affairs, like a shower of stars of the first magnitude from God’s great anvil of creation, have by this discovery again assumed a more tangible appearance, becoming real rather than mythical characters in human history.

That we may better appreciate what the uncovering of this particular piece of pavement means, we should understand exactly our position. From the map we know that the ruins of the Basilica of Constantine are directly to our right the heavy mass of masonry near the limit of our vision on the right is part of its western wall. Just to the left of that mass of ruins is the vestibule of the Temple of Romulus, now the Church of S. S. Cosma-Damiano, and a little farther away is the colonnade front of the Church of S. Lorenzo. The Black Stone, identifying the traditional site of the grave of Romulus, was found a few feet this side of and to the right of the Arch of Severus.

We can see one of the sculptured marbles near which we were standing last (Position 28), in line with the left hand or southern side of the Severus Arch. The column of Phocas stands more to the left, nearly in line with two of the columns of the Vespasian Temple beyond, while the broken pillars standing more to the left, mark the course of the Sacra Via after early times.

From where we now stand, we have by far our best view of the Capitol, and of the old wall of the Tabularium beneath, pierced with several window-like openings, though broken only by a single doorway. Formerly that wall was faced with a double row of Doric columns one above another, which must have added greatly to its artistic effect. The columns on either side of the doorway are remains of this architectual embellishment.

As I contemplate that famous Capitoline hill again, there comes to my mind the thought of the man who built the Temple of Jupiter there, Tarquinius Superbus, and that curious incident in his life which affected mightily the destinies of Rome. It must have special interest for all those engaged in the book trade, for it tells of the remarkable success of a book agent in that far distant age. It seems this ancient book agent was a woman, having the monopoly of a certain edition of valuable books which she carried into the presence of the superb Tarquin and announced, rather brusquely, that she was ready for business and that her price for the set was three hundred pieces of gold. The king was busy and indifferent; at any rate, he thought the price was exorbitant. Finding him unapproachable, the woman, who happened to be a sibyl, a sort of prophetess, turned to the fire glowing upon the hearth, for it was a cold day, and deliberately threw three of the books into the flames, where they were soon reduced to ashes. A few days after she called again, having in her possession the remaining six books, for which she asked the original price, three hundred pieces of gold. Tarquin refused to buy them at that price; whereupon three more were flung into the fire. Once again she called upon the king and, to his surprise, offered the last three remaining volumes of the set for the price asked for the nine, threatening that, if they were not purchased at this call, they would follow the other six into the flames. When the king heard this warning he became alarmed and sent for his wisest philosophers to come and examine the books, which they did, and declared they were well worth the price asked.

So, out on that old hill, the king became possessor of the Sibylline books, which contained a list of remedies for diseases, directions for preparing sacrifices, prophecies relating to public affairs, and many other important matters. They were carefully put away in the Temple of Jupiter, which then stood on the south summit of the hill, and, centuries after, they became the rock on which the Republic split asunder under their skillful interpretation in his own interests by Julius Cesar.

The large building whose roof forms the sky line, seen to the north of the Capitol and over the Arch of Severus, is the Church of Aracoeli, standing on the northern summit of the Capitoline Hill. We spoke of that church, though we could not see it, when looking up the broad steps leading to the Capitol from the opposite side. The Castle of St. Angelo is hardly more than a mile beyond that church, on the other side of the Tiber, and St. Peter’s must be standing not more than a mile and a half away, directly back of the Capitol.

Behind us, but somewhat to our right, are the Church of S. Francesca, the site of the Temple of Venus and Rome, and the Colosseum, while only a few rods behind but more to the left, is the Arch of Titus.

With a surer comprehension of our surroundings, we now come back to these long buried stones of the Sacra Via. Beyond the right hand embankment, near the ruins of the Basilica of Constantine, we see a place where the course of the street was practically the same from the first years of the city to the last.

Standing on this interesting spot, let us try to catch some echo of the voices that once resounded here, and get sight of some of the mighty events that took place on these very stones. Through the Arch of Titus back of us, and over this very pavement, rolled the dazzling splendor of many a Roman Triumph as it passed on to the Capitol yonder, like the continuous glow of a rainbow. We can almost hear the measured tread of those battle-scarred legions, whose footfalls echoed around the world. On either side of the Sacra Via marble structures were piled one above another, glistening like mountains of snowy whiteness in the sunlight. The countless porticoes of temples and pal-aces, every window front and every available space were covered with spectators all dressed in white, which added to the beauty of the scene. Wherever it was possible, stands or scaffolds were erected along this line of march so that the people might better see the unrivaled pomp of a pageant, such as the world will never see again. On the day of such a triumph, all the temples were open and decorated with garlands and filled with perfume. Streets and public buildings had been cleaned by thousands of slaves, and a force of military police kept the way clear for pedestrians.

The first day was occupied by the carrying of statues and other gems of art taken from the enemy’s country ; all this was borne by countless slaves, the captives taken in battle.

The second day, file after file of captives would come past here bearing the costliest and brightest armor, coats of mail, helmets and shields, all gleaming in sunlight, and which were taken from the enemy ; then followed another army of slaves bearing the silver and gold, the spoils of battle, consisting of cups, bowls, plates, urns, and jewelry, rings, bracelets, so arranged as to produce the most dazzling effect.

The third day was the climax of all. First came the trumpeters in inimitable array, who blared the battle charge just as it is given on the eve of conflict, stirring the hearts and making the blood bound in the veins of the vast concourse of people. Next followed a band of young men clad in the purest white, save for the scarlet sash tied about their waists, who led for the sacrifices one hundred and twenty noble oxen with gilded horns and heads crowned with gar-lands and ribbons. These were followed by boys who carried gold and silver platters, and these again were followed by slaves who carried, in vessels on their shoulders, gold and silver coins. Next came those who bore the consecrated bowl, weighing ten talents in gold and incrusted with precious stones. Then came the children and relatives of the captured king who wept piteously as they passed, and were it not that a Roman heart was a heart of stone, they would have elicited the compassion of the spectators. After his children came the captured king, proud, yet heart-broken, with a sullen and defiant expression on his face. Behind him marched his defeated generals, whose grief, as was often evident, was more for their king’s misfortune than for their own. Then followed, in a chariot covered with gold, the Roman conqueror, and when he appeared the very heavens seemed rent asunder with the thunderous applause of the spectators. After the triumphant general came the victorious army, with boughs of laurel in their hands and the Roman eagles gleaming above all the rest.

When one has passed around the whole Forum and has become acquainted with the principal ruins, he finds his field of investigation has just begun to open out before him. He would certainly be disappointed with the result of his efforts if he stopped with the objects which are left here for the eye to see; but no man can stop with these material things. Every temple relic, every broken column and arch not only tells of a once complete structure of stone and marble, but is an eloquent and undeniable expression of the thoughts and aspirations and triumphs that once existed in the lives of people of warm flesh and blood like ourselves. After having been able to stand in the same physical surroundings as did those stalwart Romans, after becoming familiar with the same hills and valleys, and looking upon some of the very structures that their minds conceived and their hands constructed, we find there is an endless charm for us in our efforts to pass on into their mental world, into their thoughts about each other, about the world outside, about God. More and more the conviction steals into our hearts that no book of fiction could be more fascinating than the true account of these people’s lives. How many ideas that are now being worked out in the world commenced to dawn upon the minds of men and women in this place, in those far-off times. In speaking of the slow discovery of the great truth of the unity of the human race, Goldwin Smith says : ” First, perhaps, the greatness of the Roman character broke through the narrow exclusiveness of savage nationality by bending in its hour of conquest to the intellect of conquered Greece ; nobler in this than Greece herself, who with all her philosophy, talked to the last of Greek and barbarian, and could never see the man beneath the slave. First, perhaps, on the mind of the Roman stoic, the great idea of the community of man with its universal rights and duties distinctly though faintly dawned, and therefore to the Roman stoic it was given to be the real author of Rome’s greatest gift, the science of universal law. Christianity broke down far more thoroughly the barriers between nation and nation, between freeman and slave, for those who were within her pale.”

We cannot stop now to go into the life lived here, but we do know that he who passes but once through the Forum, so full of memories, must ever after look with deeper interest into any bit of literature, any book that tells of Rome’s great past.

All the time we have been standing here, the Colosseum has been looming up behind us. Now we will turn towards it. To determine this next position, definitely, we must consult the large general map of Rome, the map we are to use for all our subsequent positions in the city. The Colosseum is found on this map four or five inches to the right or east of the lower bend of the Tiber toward the east. Next to the Colosseum on the northwest we see the site of the Temple of Venus and Rome, and next to this site is the plan of the Basilica of Constantine, with that part of the Sacra Via near which we have been standing, marked in front of it. The two red lines which start near the Arch of Titus, just south of the Temple of Venus and Rome and extend on either side of the Colosseum toward the east, show our next position and what will be our field of vision from that position.