A Forum on Values

So much can be studied and taken from the architecture and culture of Ancient Rome. Miles Glendinning’s use of Rome as an early example of heritage preservation brought back a personal nostalgia I have for Rome that has developed over time from studying its art, history, architecture, and urbanism. I wanted to use this space to expand and muse on attributes of Roman heritage conservation that were not touched on by Glendinning.

Like all cities, Rome had a past. But unlike the Rome of today, where its history is apparent at every block, Ancient Rome lacked significant physical or cultural knowledge about its history.

The Etruscans are the closest ancestral tribe known in Northern Italy. The area around Rome was known as Latium, inhabited by migrants from Greece, who interacted with and adopted Etruscan culture. A desire to create connections to an ancestral past may have informed the design of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus during the early Roman Empire in 509 BCE. Besides being a temple to one of the many pagan gods passed on to Romans from the Etruscan faith, its stylistic elements included the use of terracotta, brick, and peripheral or pseudoperipheral columns, which mimics what was known at the time to be traditional Etruscan style.

Possibly more interesting than the specific stylistic choices of the temple is its placement on the burgeoning forum. Around the early 6th cen. BCE, the physical presence of the Roman Republic was established. The Republic was characterized with citizen rights, representation, public spaces, laws and elected officers. Public participation was at the heart of the Republic’s ideology and they looked to the forum to embody these ideas. The forum was a collective gathering place where everything from commerce to politics to the exchanging of ideas occurred. The forum was where values were established, and the buildings on the forum sought to inform those values. By simply studying the buildings on the forum, one could determine the values of the society: government, religion, commerce, and public space. Thus the building of an Etruscan-style temple on the forum speaks volumes about the Roman’s value of heritage and connection to the past.

I would argue that the entire development of values in Ancient Rome could be seen by studying the Roman Forum. The built form exemplifies the values that Roman society sought to cultivate, from the early republic on through to the emergence of Christianity. The early ideals of communal gathering, learning and participation exhibited in the civil architecture of the early forum gave way by the second century BCE with the introduction of triumphal arches. The forum became a place where monuments to the individual were erected, the triumphal arch being the most common. This exemplified the societal shift that began to value the individual over society. By the time of Caesar, the forum was replaced by large-scale works such as the Basilica Julia, a series of porticos stacked around the perimeter. This new form introduced an unprecedented scale of urbanism to the forum and marked the change from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire; the forum was now the center of a cosmopolitan empire, and the daunting, regularized forms reflected that.

The list of changes to the forum goes on. The introduction of Christianity marked a huge change in the aesthetic of the forum that went on to change the architectural styling of Rome for the rest of time.

I wonder what our forum is today, or if one even exists. Are our strip malls forums that display our value of commercialism and consumer experience, with a parking lot of cars, which we value for convenience, individualization and privacy? The way our values manifest themselves physically in our environments and reciprocally inform our values, intentionally or not, is an infinite cycle that is often invisible to us. The Romans were not the originals that we copied; they are as much themselves guilty of harboring a desire to imbue culture and heritage. ­

Information on Rome, the Forum and dates come from notes taken on a course on Roman Urbanisms with Prof. Nicholas Adams. Fall 2012. Vassar College. 

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