The Transformation of Rome’s Forum Boarium Over the Centuries



Forum Boarium in the Imperial Age, Lanciani FUR, tab. XXVIII, detail


“A very popular area exists that borders the bridges and the Circus Maximus, named for an ox located there”. – Ovid, Fasti (VI, 477-8)

With the Forum Boarium the ancients defined a level zone that included the eighth and eleventh Augustan districts, located between the slopes of the Capitoline and Aventine hills and the Tiber River. The ancient tradition is unanimous in acknowledging a very early use of the Forum Boarium, which played a preeminent role in the creation of the urban center and the consolidation of the city of Rome. Originally it was a marshy area, subject to continued flooding from the river, but reclaimed during the Tarquinian age, owing to the construction of the Cloaca Maxima (the Great Sewer).

Given the location and the presence of the first ford (Pons Sublicius) and the first point of entry along the Tiber (Portus Tiberinus), the area became a place of business and manufacturing, especially related to food, and in connection with its role of communication between the port and the Roman Forum. In this initial phase the Forum Boarium represented a great public space that allowed for commercial exchange among people that lived in individual villages on the surrounding hills (in particular the Palatine and Capitoline) and became a type of salt market under the tutelage of a divinity, later identified with the Greek Hercules (perhaps Caco originally). Only afterwards would it be transformed into a market specializing in the commerce of cattle, a historical episode also echoed in mythology with the story of Hercules pausing for a rest with the oxen of Geryon. With the expansion of Rome, the area became an integral part of the city and the piazza was transformed into a trans-regional meeting place, already frequented by Greek and Phoenician merchants by the beginning of the eighth century B.C. The development of commercial traffic also saw the convergence of a series of streets, the Salaria and its extension across the river (Campana road), the Latina and Appian ways, and from Etruria the Aurelia and Triumphalis, naturally on the other side of the Tiber.

Probably from the beginning of the sixth century B.C., there was a shift from the principal piazza of the Forum Boarium to the Roman Forum, wider and in a more favorable position, while the Forum Boarium maintained its role as a landing and a place for the unloading of goods. The Forum Boarium was considered a true and appropriate extension of the Roman Forum, to which it was closely linked across the two streets vicus Tuscus and Iugarius. It constituted an open area, where its interior had a true and proper piazza, of moderate dimensions, geared precisely for the cattle market, probably located between the Tiber, Circus Maximus and Velabro. It was believed that the Arch of the Bankers formed one of the entrances of the complex, while the northern limit was probably the vicus Tuscus, the southeast the prisons of Circus Maximus and the south via della Greca with other boundaries difficult to determine.

A bronze bull is reported by some sources to have been located in the Forum Boarium. Tacitus (Annales, XII, 24,1) mentioned “a foro Boario ubi aereum tauri simulacrum aspicimus” that existed in his time. Ovid (Fasti, VI, 478) described an area “quae posito de bove nomen habet.” Pliny (Naturalis Historia, XXXIV, 10) “bos aereus inde captus in foro boario est Romae”) confirmed the location of the statue in the forum and its place of origin as Aegina. The statue, then a prize of war, was taken to Aegina in 210 B.C.

Moreover, there is evidence of insulae, or multi-level dwellings, which already characterized the region in the Republican era. Literary sources indicate that the natural environment consisted primarily of oak tree forests (Poetelinus near the Temple of Portunus and Stimulae on the Aventine), and was supplemented in the open spaces by cultivated grain, vegetables, olives and wine.

Drawing reconstructing the Forum Boarium in the Imperial Age, by G. Gatteschi (20th century)

With the Roman expansion in the Mediterranean basin and the creation, in the Imperial Age, of large ports near the coast, the Forum Boarium lost some of its commercial importance, even though the entire zone always maintained a sacred character for the Romans, given its vicinity to the location where Romulus and Remus were found.

The quarter was moreover rich as a cult place, as evidenced by the Temples of Portunus and Hercules Olivarius and the Arch of Janus, adding merit to the founding myths of Rome and the presence of the Great Altar of Hercules.

With the end of the Roman Empire, the entire area kept its popular connotations and in the Medieval Age, the Forum Boarium saw the construction of modest buildings. After the Gothic wars, Rome became an agricultural city in which traces remained up until the modern era (in the early 1900s the market for beasts was still located near the Theater of Marcellus); the urban landscape was profoundly altered by catastrophes that hit Rome between the sixth and eighth centuries. At the time of Gregory the Great (540-604), only some parts of the area inside the Aurelian Wall were still inhabited and the population withdrew in limited sections to the two banks of the Tiber.

One of the most densely populated zones in this phase was near the Tiber Island, on the left bank of the river. Its nucleus included the Capitoline, the Theater of Marcellus and the Church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. It was not only that the flood of 589 devastated this area, elevating the levels of the roadway, but a change of use came about, moving from commercial to religious and charitable. Already by the High Medieval era, many pilgrims came to Rome.

The entire zone was taken up by a deaconry in charge of the Tiber docks, storerooms and markets. The port facilities were in fact recycled between the eighth and the tenth centuries A.D. to assure a regular flow of supplies along the waterway to a network of between eight and eighteen deacons installed between the Forum Boarium and Roman Forum, to provide pilgrims with food, accommodations, and other services.

Forum Boarium in the 19th century

In the Medieval era, the highest areas would lose importance (apart from some isolated clusters on the Celio, Esquiline and Aventine hills) and the built-up region would move toward the monumental zone near the river. While the antique city expanded from the settlements on the hills, remaining centralized in the Forum, the Capitoline and the Palatine, the Medieval city remained anchored to the Tiber River. The river was in fact the protagonist of the urban development of Medieval Rome, although it also represented a danger: two or three times a century, usually at intervals of thirty or forty years, but sometimes every two or three years, the city flooded near the principal loop, as it had done previously in antiquity.

Between the final decades of the eleventh century and the end of the thirteenth century, Rome underwent a process of renovation reflected in its monuments. New churches rose up and changed the urban configuration of the city.

Overall, however, excavation data are limited in this area due to interrupted periods of habitation that damaged the structures of earlier periods.

Forum Boarium in the 19th century

“Poverty and neglect have safeguarded the zone, the churches that came to inhabit the antique temples have kept them sacred; some modest little house was erected and a damp atmosphere of silence has enveloped the piazzas of the Bocca della Verità and the Velabro, moved only by carts on their way from the countryside through Ostiense Way”. – (G. Giovannoni, Il Tempio della Fortuna Virile ed il “Forum Boarium”, Rome 1914).

After the long period of papal government in which restoration and recovery were overwhelmingly oriented towards buildings of worship, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic administration, ambitious to recover antique Rome, drew up a series of master plans.

Detail of the Arch of Trajan at Benevento and the arrival of the emperor near the Tiberinus Port. On the upper left are personifications of Portunus

A first pass was accomplished with an amendment to the Decree of 17 May 1809, when Napoleon declared that antique buildings would be maintained and conserved with Treasury funds. In June of the same year, a Commission was created to examine the monuments and make government reports on the necessary conservation. The Commission immediately displayed an interest in the Forum Boarium, where architect Giuseppe Valadier had already directed an excavation of the Temple of Hercules. In the course of the work, a building that belonged to the temple was demolished, the foundations were excavated, revealing an antique staircase, and enormous amounts of land were removed, thereby resolving the problem of drainage.

The excavations, probably conducted by prisoners as they were during the Pontifical government, were made not for archaeological purposes but rather to adorn a modern imperial
Rome with the remains of antique culture.

(Rectangular Temple), Hercules (Round temple), and a statue of Apollo, suggesting that it must have been near the Trigemina Gate

In 1810, the Commission was reorganized and given the name Commission des Monuments et Batiments Civils. The first unified plan for the Forum Boarium was created, aimed at bringing the monuments back to their antique condition. The Temple of Hercules was used as a point of reference for the excavation of the Temple of Portunus and the Arch of Janus. Both temples were used as churches and enlarged to meet their new functions, but it was also thought that they must reacquire their original aspect. In the same year Valadier began restoration of the Temple of Hercules: the wall around the perimeter was demolished and a fence made to protect the temple from vandalism and unwanted entrances. The plan provided that many buildings, including those toward the Tiber, would be removed to offer a more open view of the monumental area. The year 1812 saw an expropriation of the first building owned by the Armenians, adjacent to the rear side of the Temple of Portunus, and then a massive expenditure was approved to take down other buildings connected to the area of the Forum Boarium. The Newspaper of the Capitoline informed the Romans on the progress of the excavations and described the work in detail. When the French domination ended in 1814 and power returned to the pontifical government, the Temple of Hercules and that of Portunus were excavated and the land in between was partially levelled.

Even the Arch of Janus was excavated to its base and probably the adjacent houses were also demolished. During those years, teams of landscapers were hired to embellish the surrounding area.

The Temple of Hercules from above, after restoration in 2000

In 1813, the French architect Berthault reached Rome and presented the Commission with various proposals for arranging the monumental areas of Rome. Among these was a plan for the zone of the Roman Forum – Colosseum – Palatine – Arch of Janus – Temples of Hercules and Portunus. The project involved the destruction of many buildings to make way for large and straight tree-lined roads. The boulevards, flanked by at least two rows of trees on either
side, would have connected the various monuments, which would then have emerged well isolated from surrounding constructions. A piazza was ultimately planned, with a short semi-circular tree-lined side that would framed the Arch of Janus. Ultimately, the majority of design proposals for the Forum Boarium were never approved due to an abrupt end of French rule.

In the subsequent years of the Pontifical government the work proceeded slowly. In 1829 Valadier designed a new plan for the Forum Boarium aimed at restoring the unity of the site. The idea was to link the antique level to the modern road network and the Tiber by taking down other buildings between the river and the monuments. A piazza was to be created in front of the antique Aemilius Bridge (Broken Bridge), and the monuments, after restoration, would be isolated from the neighboring buildings of later periods. Due to shortage of funds, the work continued slowly and the restorations of the Temple of Hercules and the Temple of Portunus
consisted mostly of routine maintenance to safeguard the buildings from immanent collapse.

The Forum Boarium flooded

In 1870, following a disastrous flood in December that occurred after the Capture of Rome in September, a much-needed system was developed to protect the city from the fury of the Tiber. The Ministry of Public works nominated a Commission to address the problem and, after years of study, approved a plan of the engineer Raffaele Canevari. In 1877, he began work in Rome on the embankment of the river that involved a comprehensive modification of the area: the zone was contained by the road along the river (Lungotevere) and crossed by a street which ran between the Temples of Hercules and Portunus, joining the piazza to the Palatine bridge. The scholar Luca Beltrami described such interventions as merciless: “Hydraulic engineers lord it over in the name of public benefit: seizing land from the large zone of the Tiber, freely bossing everyone around, demolishing buildings along the river, to make way for miles of walls in travertine.”

In this way, the Forum Boarium lost its relationship to the river.

The Forum Boarium in 1920

New and severe transformations were involved in the Regulatory Plan of 1909. This latest strategy, to resolve problems related to the location of buildings designed as city offices and to connect the center of the city to the southern zone (already considered in the Regulatory Plans of 1873 and 1883), allowed for an enlargement from via Tor de’ Specchi to via Bocca della Verità, demolishing the front part of the isolated buildings on the east side of via Bocca della Verità. The arrangement of the Forum Boarium was the subject of a specific study by an Artistic Association of Architecture Connoisseurs. The Association, established with the principal goal of conserving the monuments of Rome, nominated a commission in 1892 with the architect Giovanni Battista Giovenale as President, that was originally dedicated to the study and safeguarding of the church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. The goal of the restoration, begun in 1898, was to make the intrinsic coherence of the twelfth century structure stand out, removing the Rococo veneer used by Giuseppe Sardi to transform the building into a church in 1718.

After completing the restoration of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, the Artistic Association of Architectural Connoisseurs drew up a plan in 1914 to further define the area. Two curved ramps were designed that would divert traffic to the left and right of the temples, reconstructing the original unified plan. The ramps and avenues would then be adorned with trees and flowerbeds.

In 1907, a law was passed that provided clear rules and restrictions for the monumental area of Rome, including the Forum Boarium. In 1914, the architect Gustavo Giovannoni denounced prior work near the Temple of Portunus, begun by the College of Armenians, a private building speculation, to elevate and convert existing small and modest constructions, transformations that were expressly prohibited by law. Giovannoni, after having the work suspended, called for the isolation of the Temple of Portunus as a first step to liberating the entire zone of the Forum Boarium, to which it belonged. World War I required a break of about eight years after which Antonio Muñoz resumed the previously proposed work of Giovannoni to isolate the Temple of Portunus.

This intervention, begun in 1921, consisted of freeing the temple from other buildings leaning against it; subsequent restoration focused on returning the monument to its antique likeness, to conserving traces of the past and replacing missing architectural elements. Between 1923 and 1926, Antonio Muñoz also worked on the restoration of the church of Saint George at Velabro. His main objective was the elimination of superficial additions so as to restore the unity of the original appearance, which had been altered by Baroque and nineteenth century transformations.

In 1926, Gustavo Giovannoni and the architect Vincenzo Fasolo developed a plan for the enhancement of all the antique monuments in the Forum Boarium. The project provided for the creation of a tranquil environment, concentrated around the buildings and deviating the traffic along the Lungotevere. Like that already proposed in 1914, the one existing ramp between the two temples would be replaced with two identical ramps at either side, the one on the left providing a very large entrance to the Palatine bridge, considered the most eastern point of entry to the Trastevere quarter. To remove the road from the area, a grand artery was designed, passing along the right side of the church of Saint George at Velabro. This involved the demolition of the convent. The ground between the temples and the Arch of Janus would have been leveled to bring it back to its original height and a modest little house adjacent to the arch, at one time a stable and then a garage for trucks, would have been demolished.

The planned composition, unrealized, would have had a central axis joining the Temple of Hercules with the Arch of Janus while a connection between the piazza and via Bocca della Verità would consist of a series of buildings of modest height, with facing in brick or tuff, porches, roofing and designs, like the example given by Fasolo in his drawing, “in Medieval Roman style, not dissimilar to that of the little houses of Saint Cecilia.”

The appearance of the area as we see it today is the result of changes and demolitions carried out from 1930 forward: based on project outlines, the arrangement in the Forum Boarium followed the principal objective of joining the temples with the Arch of Janus and recreating the unity of the site. The work involved the complete leveling of the area, the destruction of buildings near the Temple of Portunus and those located between the Salara road, now gone, and the Lungotevere, and between the Bocca della Verità and the Velabrum, to the end of via de’ Cerchi. It also involved the creation of two external ramps and a garden around the temples
as well as the nearby baroque fountain.

Although many in the early twentieth century called for the demolition of the former pasta factory Pantanella, an industrial building built in 1882, it was conserved and Muñoz transformed it into the Museum of Rome and the Empire, which was ultimately transferred to the Braschi Palace. The internal structure of the factory was completely modified to accommodate its new functions: the wooden attic was substituted with an iron structure and a majestic staircase was built at the entrance. Externally, to rid the building of its industrial imprint it was painted with dark colors, the chimney was removed, and a small porch was constructed, further breaking the volumetric continuity of the building along via de’ Cerchi.

The present appearance of the piazza was also significantly influenced by successive demolitions that occurred according to the Master Plan of 1931. The roads were arranged in two directions, toward the mountains and toward the sea: the Forum Boarium was crossed by the Street of the Sea, a route of about thirty meters (ninety feet) which followed via Tor de’ Specchi, the Mouth of Truth (today Petroselli Road), Lungotevere Aventine, and via Marmorata to then join the Ostiense Way. Following the expropriations of 1935, in the years 1936-1937 the existing buildings along via Bocca della Verità were demolished for the purposes of enlarging the street and constructing new and massive buildings to house municipal offices. The new building for the Divisions III and IV Registry completely erased all traces of preceding road structure.

The Church of Saint Aniano, now demolished, seen from the Temple of Portunus, 1920

As a result of demolition, Saint Aniano, a small chapel that rose near the Bocca della Verita, was also destroyed. Initially called the Church of the Our Lady, the chapel was given to the Society of the Scarpinelli,instituted in 1612, who dedicated it to Aniano. In 1805, the church became the property of the congregation of Saint Mary of the Tears, who restored it.

Amidst the vast demolition that took place in the area, the House of the Crescenzi was saved, thanks to a bond of protection already recognized by a deliberation of the Town Council on June 21, 1897 for buildings with artistic and historic value and successively reiterated by the Artistic Association of Architectural Connoisseurs. This last bond in fact put the House “of Rienzi,” referring to the House of the Crescenzi, on a list of untouchable and immoveable buildings in an “Inventory of Monuments” printed between 1908 and 1912. The restoration of these structures ended in 1939, coinciding with the completion of the building of the Registry. In 1940, a connection between the two buildings was realized, a decision probably made after the original project plan.


Excerpt from the Forum Boarium Guide (2011), originally published by the Ministry for Arts and Cultural Activities, Special Superintendency for Archaeology of Rome, an Italian government publication.

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