Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum - Isabel Lovell

The Story of the Forum's Streets

A band of weary, wounded men were dragging themselves slowly along the highroad toward Rome. In the distance the city could be faintly seen, but so worn were these wayfarers that they showed no joy at the nearness of their journey's end. Their leader alone was hopeful, and spoke words of cheer to his downhearted men.

"Courage, brothers!" cried he. "See, Rome lies just beyond. Bethink ye of the kindness of Porsenna to these people in their time of famine. Surely, Etruscans will be well received within these walls!"

"Nay," replied a voice in the rear, "bethink thee of Cocles on the bridge! Bethink thee, too, of Mucius who would have killed our king! Though the Romans be brave as lions, they have hearts of stone!"

But the leader of these men—all that remained of the army sent by King Porsenna against the tribe of the Aricians—listened not to such dark sayings, but with brave words continued to encourage the tired soldiers until at last they stood before the gates of Rome.

Weary unto death, hopeless, forlorn, their clothing rent, their armour gone, these soldiers of the Etruscan king came as suppliants to their ancient enemy. And, as the surprised people gathered about them, they told the tale of their misfortunes. Thus the Romans learned that the Etruscans had been defeated by the Aricians, that the king's brave young son had been killed, and that of all Porsenna's army there remained only the few men that now besought their pity and their help. And this was freely given, for the Romans proved themselves as firm friends as they had been bitter enemies. The wounded soldiers were gently cared for, their hurts healed, their clothes renewed. And thus it happened that, having formed a great affection for the Roman people, many of these Etruscans remained in the city wherein they had received so much kindness, and there built themselves homes. For this purpose land was given them, and the place where they dwelt was thereafter known as the Vicus Tuscus, or the Etruscan Street. This ancient roadway passes between the Basilica Julia and the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and although shorter and less important than a road called "Via," the Vicus Tuscus was among the most famous streets of Rome.

In the Vicus Tuscus, near the Basilica Julia, there stood a bronze statue of Vertumnus, god of Gardens, of Fruits, and of Flowers, who bears a pruning-knife within his hand, and to whom were offered garlands of buds, and the early ripenings of the orchard. Now Vertumnus, also the god of Change, took upon him many shapes, and because he loved Pomona, a fair goddess who shared with him the care of fruits and flowers, he appeared in various forms, hoping to catch her fickle fancy. To-day he was the hardy reaper, returning from the field, his arms laden with ripe ears of corn; to-morrow he might be a gay soldier, starting for the war, his armour brightly shining; and the next day might see him as a fisherman, sitting beside a stream, his rod in hand, his basket full of fish. Even as an aged crone did Vertumnus appear before Pomona; but it was as a youth, a noble, blooming youth, that he won the heart of the goddess. In the busy Vicus Tuscus this statue of the changeful god stood for many years, seeming to say to the ever varying multitudes, passing and repassing beneath him:

"Move on! Change on! I watch!—I guard! The time of buds, the time of fruit, the time of harvest, all are mine. Come!—Work!—Go!—the god of Change is here, and over your welfare ever watches—guards!"

And it was a motley throng indeed over which the god Vertumnus watched, for the Vicus Tuscus was a crowded, business street, and one of no fair fame. Perfumers, spice dealers, silk merchants, there had shops, and thus those that came to buy were among the idler and gayer of Rome's citizens.

On the upper side of the Basilica Julia, another street enters the Forum and joins the Sacra Via. This is the Vicus Jugarius, at whose beginning once stood the altar of Juno Juga. Now by "jugum," the Romans meant a "yoke,"—something that bound two things together,—and thus Juno, the wife of Jupiter and the queen of heaven, was often worshipped as Juno Juga—the goddess of Marriage.

It happened at one time that, as a great storm was over the city of Rome, the lightning struck the Temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill. This was considered as a sign of the goddess's displeasure, and accordingly two sacrifices were ordered in her honour. One of these solemn processions, which were parts of the holy rites, passed along the Vicus Jugarius, on its way to the Temple. At the head were led two white heifers, about whose horns were twisted ribbons and garlands of flowers; for only white animals were sacrificed to the heavenly deities, and such as were chosen for this honour were not only gayly bedecked, but were led with a loose rope, that they should appear to go as willing offerings. Following the heifers were reverently carried two images of Juno; then came twenty-seven fair maidens in long, white robes, their clear, sweet voices rising and falling in a hymn to the queen of heaven. Behind these maidens walked ten magistrates, crowned with leaves of laurel and wearing purple robes. In the Forum the procession paused, and a long cord was given to the damsels, each of whom rested her hand upon it, and, thus held together by that which was a symbol of their common purpose, the young girls, beating time with their feet to the music of the hymn they sang, went on with the procession as it passed up the hill to Juno's temple. And men remembered long the sight of these fair maidens; and the story of that solemn progress through the Vicus Jugarius was told and retold for many years.

Something there was, however, concerning this street that men remembered much longer, and of which they always spoke with bated breath—it was the recollection of the horrible sights that were once seen on the Lacus Servilius.

For the Lacus Servilius was a fountain that stood in the Vicus Jugarius, at its entrance into the Forum, and during the terrible days of Sulla's misrule the heads of many senators were placed thereon. With cunning wisdom did Sulla cause these gruesome trophies of his power to meet the eyes of the Romans even as they approached the Forum, and upon the immediate, trembling obedience of the people his great and unquestioned might became established.

But the street full of the greatest memories—the street, not only of the Forum, but of Rome—was the Sacra Via. From the very beginning, when this road was but a pathway between the Romans and the Sabines, the Sacra Via was trodden by those whose deeds and misdeeds made Rome's history. Over its winding way through the Forum passed the solemn processions of the gods; along it moved the mournful followers of the dead; through it rode the triumphal trains of victors; and always busy feet wore out its stones, as the people of Rome went hither and thither about the business and pleasure of their daily life.

It was in the month of September in every year that the famous Ludi Romani, or games of Rome, were celebrated in honour of great Jupiter, god of the gods, who, from his temple on the Capitoline Hill, ever guarded the welfare of the State. There, from the Capitol, a solemn and magnificent procession started on its way to the Circus Maximus, the great arena formed by King Tarquin the Elder on part of that land which he had made firm by his wonderful drains. And here, when festivals were held, races and contests of various sorts took place; and the rumble of chariot-wheels, the cries of wild beasts, the clanging of armour, mingled with the excited and delighted laughter of thousands of spectators. After sacrifices in Jupiter's temple, the long train of the Ludi Romani wound down the hill into the Forum, and there, having turned into the Sacra Via, and gone along that road until it reached the Vicus Tuscus, it passed out and went on to the Circus.

The hearts of all old soldiers beat fast with pride as they saw, coming at the head of this bright company, the young sons of the knights and other veterans of the army, each youth riding a fine steed or walking on foot according to his father's rank. And strangers, also looking on, marked well the rich promise of Rome's future heroes, and departing, wonderingly told their countrymen of this vision of Roman valour that they had seen. Next to the noble youths came charioteers, guiding some four, some two, fiery horses, all panting for the race; and wild huzzas broke from the crowd as combatants and dancers closely followed on. Among these dancers, who advanced in groups, and who were accompanied by players of the flute and by those that made music from ivory lyres, there came, first men, then youths, then boys. All these dancers wore vests of scarlet; from their brazen belts hung swords, while in their right hands they held short spears. The men wore also helmets of brass, gayly adorned with waving plumes; and each swayed with happy grace as he slowly moved along.

Then came dancers of another sort, men that wore hairy vests of goatskins or bright coats of flowers, and that bore, standing upright on their heads, the manes of different animals. For these dancers appeared as fauns,—followers of Faunus, god of the Woodland,—whose wild frolics in the moonlight make the forests echo and reecho with their unbounded glee. Quietly following these capering fauns there walked many musicians, to the measure of whose strains the incense carriers coming after, softly swung their fragrant censers. And in this light haze of perfumed smoke, there shone holy objects of silver or of gold that had been given as offerings to the gods by the citizens and the State, and that were now carried in honour of the deities. For just behind, there appeared the images of the gods themselves, borne on men's shoulders or carefully drawn in small chariots, whose traces the noblest citizens deemed it an honour to hold. In this manner the procession of the Ludi Romani moved along the Sacra Via, and through the city escorted the gods of Rome.

As the Romans worshipped many gods, so they celebrated many festivals, and again and again solemn companies, such as those of the Ludi Romani, were seen upon the Sacra Via. Like all people of all lands, the Romans found much pleasure in watching such bright array, and at the sound of coming music the crowds would quickly gather along this famous street, for it was well known that all important processions must pass that way. And perhaps the throngs were never greater than at the burial of some noble Roman, whose power and whose wealth promised them a great oration and a grand funeral train. For it was the custom to , carry the body of a high-born citizen into the Forum, where it was placed before the Rostra, upon which stood some near relative who spoke in praise of the great deeds and of the many virtues of the dead. And the richer and the mightier the man the more splendid his procession, the more eloquent his oration.

Thus the funeral of the Emperor Augustus was one long remembered in Rome. The people, having been summoned by the heralds, came to the Forum by the first light of day, and stationing themselves on the Sacra Via and along the rest of the procession's path, they waited for the coming of the solemn train. It was yet early morning when the body of Augustus was borne forth on its way to the Rostra, whereon Tiberius, his adopted son, was to speak the funeral oration. The corpse of the Emperor was placed upon a bier of ivory and gold, and covered with cloths of purple, woven and interwoven with golden threads; but only the images of Augustus were shown to the sorrowing multitudes. Of these images there were three: one brought from the palace on the Palatine Hill, where he had lived as Emperor; another borne from the Curia, where he had governed as supreme ruler; and yet another driven in a chariot, wherein he had ridden as victor. With the procession walked torch bearers and incense carriers, and at its head advanced trumpeters and buglers, whose instruments gave forth grave, dismal sounds. Behind these musicians slowly came certain senators of Rome, bearing upon their shoulders the bier of Augustus, lovingly called by his people the

Father of his Country." In sign of their deep mourning, these senators wore no marks of office, but appeared in plain togas without stripes, and with no rings upon their fingers. Then, each in a chariot, there followed many men that appeared as the distinguished ancestors of the Emperor. For when a Roman noble died, a waxen image was taken of his face, and this was reverently hung in the atrium of his home, among those of the other members of his house. At the burial of any of his name, these masks were taken down, and men were hired to appear as the living images of his family's famous ancestors. Bearing these masks upon their faces, wearing the exact clothes and marks of office due the rank of those they represented, these men were wont to ride in the funeral procession accompanied by the number of lictors allowed their assumed stations. And all the lictors, including the twelve belonging to the Emperor, were dressed in black, and marched in single file, their fasces held downward. Thus the older the family, the greater the train of ancestors; and those seen at the funeral of Augustus were very many indeed. However, the greatest of them all was not represented, for Julius Caesar had been made a god, and so had no longer a place among mortals.

Next in this great procession were borne figures of Romans whose strength, whose valour, and whose wisdom, had been of value to the nation. From Romulus to the statesmen of Augustus's own day—all were there. And then were carried the images of those peoples whose lands this Emperor had conquered; as if to say, "The whole world mourns for thee, most mighty ruler."

In robes of sombre hue, the relatives and friends of Augustus now followed, their actions and their looks showing signs of greatest grief. And ending the procession came the noblest and most famous of Rome's citizens, proud indeed of the honour thus permitted them.

Before the Rostra the magnificent bier was set down, and about it were placed chairs for those that represented the ancestors of the Emperor. Then Tiberius, mounting the platform, delivered a long oration in honour of Augustus; and a wonderful stillness fell throughout the Forum as the vast multitude strained forward to catch every word. When the last tribute had been paid, the last eloquent word spoken, the splendid, solemn procession formed once more, and the body of the Emperor was carried onward to his funeral pyre.

Very different from these silent, sombre multitudes, were the gay, happy crowds that flocked to the Forum whenever a great triumph was to be celebrated. For them all the world of Rome rejoiced, because the nation's enemies had been conquered, and the mighty general that had gained these victories rode in highest state to the Capitol, there to pay homage to the great god, Jupiter. Every one was in brightest, holiday attire; every side echoed with light jest and song, and everywhere many-hued ribbons and garlands floated in the breeze. The doors of all the temples were thrown wide open, and within, sweet flowers were placed before every shrine, while rare incense burned upon every altar. Eager people lined the Sacra Via from end to end, particularly in the Forum, where the galleries of the basilicas, the Columna Maenia, the steps of the buildings, and many special scaffolds were all thronged to the very utmost.

Of the many days of splendour witnessed in Rome, one of the most magnificent was that on which the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus triumphed together after their victories in Palestine. Here they had long besieged and finally captured the Holy City of Jerusalem, and so great had been their successes that the Senate had voted them separate triumphs; but these Vespasian had refused. So now there was to be a double triumph; and a motion like a long, slow wave, passed over the people as, at the sound of trumpets, each man moved forward the better to see the coming show.

Amidst cries of respectful salutation, first passed the senators and the higher magistrates of Rome, all in their richest robes and ornaments; and behind them the trumpeters sent forth gayest strains of martial music, to which from time to time the delighted people joined their voices. Then exclamations and cries of wonder were heard on all sides, as the spoils and treasures taken by Vespasian and Titus were displayed to the admiring people. It was as if a river of gold, of silver, of ivory, and of precious stuffs, was rolling by. For carriers, clothed in garments of purple and gold, wearing fine ornaments, and bearing laurel leaves upon their heads, now passed in great numbers, each man laden with articles of rarest value. There were all kinds of fine embroideries, cunningly fashioned objects of silver, wonderful carvings of ivory, glittering gems in crowns of gold, and costly images of the gods.

After all this splendour there came, with slow, deliberate tread, the white oxen without spot or blemish that were destined to be sacrificed to Jupiter, and beside them walked white-robed priests, accompanied by young boys, bearing sacred vessels and instruments. And following these appeared the human sacrifices; for at every Roman triumph wretched captives were put to death, that the vainglory of the victor might be complete. Among these prisoners, all in finest garments, came the chief enemy of Titus, Simon, son of Gioras, and general of the Jewish army. In chains, like the rest of the captives, this man had also a rope around his neck, and as he tremblingly passed along, his proud spirit was crushed by the sneers of the pitiless crowds, and the torments of his cruel guards. Close to the captives marched the imperial lictors, holding, against scarlet tunics, fasces without axes, but wreathed with triumphant laurel.

And then came men bearing such marvellous burdens that the people were astonished, not only at the wonderful things they saw, but at the sight of such heavy weights carried for so great a distance. For there, upon large platforms, many of which were covered with carpets of gold, were seen representations of the lands conquered by the Emperor and his son; and not a few of these models were three or four stories high. Great ships were also borne before the amazed multitude; but of all the spoils shown in this famous triumph, the most noticed and applauded were the treasures taken from the wonderful Temple of Jerusalem. Stalwart men staggered under the weight of a large table of solid gold, upon which the priests had been wont to lay the sacred loaves of bread; others carried the beautiful golden candle-stick of seven branches, whose lamps had lightened the innermost portion of the Temple—the Holy of Holies of the Jewish worship; and some say that in this Roman triumph yet other carriers exultingly showed the Table of the Law of the conquered nation; but of this no man is sure. However, although this last proof of greatness may have been lacking, the triumph of Vespasian and Titus was magnificent enough to satisfy the most ambitious; and rejoicings over Rome's fallen foes were expressed by men that now followed, holding aloft glittering statues of Victory, all splendidly wrought in ivory and gold.

And now, in a round chariot, drawn by four white horses, approached the Emperor himself, closely followed in a like manner by Titus, his son. Before them slowly walked priests, burning incense, as to the gods, for during a triumph the victors were thought to be none less than earthly Jupiters—and, in truth, had they not protected and even saved the State? So while in their right hands Vespasian and Titus held boughs of laurel, which showed their power to conquer mortals, in their left they carried ivory sceptres crowned with eagles—great Jupiter's sacred bird as a sign that their might exceeded that of men and that they stood equal with the gods. Behind each of the royal conquerors, whose purple robes glistened with embroideries of gold, was placed a figure of Victory that held a crown of laurel above his head. Beneath both chariots tinkled tiny bells that warned off evil spirits, and there, also, hung images of Fascinus, god of Protection, who charms away all harm from those he guards. Thus arrayed and thus protected, the two victors passed through the city, and with them, mounted on a horse of surpassing beauty, rode Domitian, Vespasian's other son. Cheers rent the air as the three grandly proceeded on their way; nor did the joyous cries grow less when, coming directly after, were seen hundreds of Roman citizens that had been rescued from the enemy, or freed from slavery. Ending this superb spectacle of wealth and of power, marched the entire force of the foot-soldiers of the Roman army, singing loud, gay songs, and shouting again and again, "Io triumphe!" "Triumph! Triumph!"

At the foot of the Scalae Gemoniae, close by the Temple of Saturn, the Emperor paused, and, from the midst of the triumphal train, Simon, son of Gioras, was dragged forth. Up those stairs of terror he was led, and while the glittering, joyous throng lingered in the Forum, he was strangled to death in the depths of the loathsome Tullianum. Whereupon, with still louder rejoicings, the magnificent procession continued its way onward and upward to Jupiter's temple, where the conquerors laid their laurel wreaths in the lap of the Ruler of the gods, thus offering him the homage of their valour and of their glory.

These are some of the many stories that the stones of the ancient Sacra Via tell; such were some of the countless processions that went over this famous road. No wonder, then, that its name is known to all that have heard of Rome, for her greatest and her humblest have passed that way.

On the Sacra Via, near the remains of the Rostra, there can be seen to-day the base of a column that the Romans called the Umbilicus, and that they proudly believed marked the centre of the world. Standing on this spot, the whole history of Rome might have been read as from an open scroll, for there were seen the signs of her struggles, of her losses, and of her successes; of her religion, of her government, and of her art. The Forum, the great Record-book of the Nation, lay widespread for all to read, and, by its buildings and monuments, its columns and statues, its roads and gateways, told the wonderful story of the ancient Romans and of the mighty city wherein they dwelt.