Unlike the later imperial fora in Rome—which were self-consciously modeled on the ancient Greek plateia (πλατεῖα) public plaza or town square—the Roman Forum developed gradually, organically and piecemeal over many centuries. This is so despite the tidying up of men like Sulla, Caesar and Augustus who attempted, with some success, to impose a degree of order there. By the Imperial period the large public buildings that crowded around the central square had reduced the open area to a rectangle of about 130 by 50 meters.
Its long dimension was oriented northwest to southeast and extended from the foot of the Capitoline Hill to that of the Velian Hill. The Forum's basilicas during the Imperial period—the Basilica Aemilia on the north and the Basilica Julia on the south—defined its long sides and its final form. The Forum proper included this square, the buildings facing it and, sometimes, an additional area (the Forum Adjectum) extending southeast as far as the Arch of Titus.
Originally the site of the Forum had been marshy ground, which was drained by the Tarquins with the Cloaca Maxima. Because of its location, sediments from both the flooding of the Tiber River and the erosion of the surrounding hills have been raising the level of the Forum floor for centuries. Excavated sequences of remains of paving show that sediment eroded from the surrounding hills was already raising the level in early Republican times.
As the ground around buildings began to rise, residents simply paved over the debris that was too much to remove. Its final travertine paving, still visible, dates from the reign of Augustus. Excavations in the 19th century revealed one layer on top of another. The deepest level excavated was 3.60 meters above sea level. Archaeological finds show human activity at that level with the discovery of carbonised wood.
An important function of the Forum, during both Republican and Imperial times, was to serve as the culminating venue for the celebratory military processions known as Triumphs. Victorious generals entered the city by the western Triumphal Gate (Porta Triumphalis) and circumnavigated the Palatine Hill (counterclockwise) before proceeding from the Velian Hill down the Via Sacra and into the Forum.
From here they would mount the Capitoline Rise (Clivus Capitolinus) up to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the summit of the Capitol. Lavish public banquets ensued back down on the Forum. (In addition to the Via Sacra, the Forum was accessed by a number of storied roads and streets, including the Vicus Jugarius, Vicus Tuscus, Argiletum, and Via Nova.)
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