Saturday, February 11, 2012

Exploring Rome - The Forum Boarium

The area near the Boca della Verita is one of the most historically significant locations in Rome, yet few tourists do more than snap a picture at the famous drain cover before heading off to lunch in the Ghetto[1] or Trastevere.

Known to archaeologists as the Forum Boarium (Latin boarius -a, -um, of oxen or cattle) and Forum Holitorium (Latin olitor, vegetable grower) this section of the Tiber’s east bank served as an important religious center as well as the cattle, vegetable, and olive center of Rome for centuries. A tour of the area is well worth the couple hours invested, if only for the knowledge that you’re one of the few non-professionals who’s taken the time to look.

The Forum Boarium


After you’ve taken your pictures at the Bocca della Verita, take some time to step inside the church of S. Maria in Cosmedin. This church marks, more or less, the southern boundary of the Forum Boarium. It is built above the city’s oldest center of the cult of Hercules. There was a cult center here before the founding of Rome itself in the 8th century BC and in the 2nd the Ara Maxima was rebuilt with the tufa blocks that now form the church's crypt.

Inside you’ll see a series of Corinthian columns embedded in  the west and north walls. These originally formed part of a gallery built in 4th century AD and attached to the Ara Maxima. It was once believed the gallery was a sort of administrative center but it is more likely it was simply part of the shrine. By the 7th century the structure had become a well established Christian church and in the 8th the tufa blocks that form the altar's foundation were hollowed out to create the church's crypt.

To descend to the crypt, simply ask the attendant if the gate is not open. Once below you’ll find reasonably clear signage describing the Ara Maxima as well as other parts of the crypt. 

Tufa Blocks of the Ara Maxima

But that’s not the only Hercules site in the area. After you leave the church carefully cross Lungotevere Pierleoni at the stoplight. You’ll see a small round temple: the Temple of Hercules Victor. This temple is still misidentified on some tourist maps as a temple of Vesta due to its resemblance to that goddess’s temple in the Forum Romanum. Marcus Octavius Herrenus dedicated the temple to Hercules Victor (called Olivarius, the patron deity of olive oil merchants). It seems likely that Herrenus’ wealth came from the olive trade.  

Temple of Hercules Victor

But wait - there's more! Though no longer extant, there was yet another temple to Hercules in this area: the Aedes Aemiliana Herculis.  It was likely dedicated by Scipio Aemilianus during his censorship. Unfortunately, it was torn down in the 15th century.
So, what the heck are three temples to Hercules doing in a commercial area of ancient Rome? I’m glad you asked!

While Hercules was returning from his 10th Labor, rustling the Cattle of Geryon, he paused to rest at this very spot on the bank of the Tiber. One night while he slept, the fire breathing monster Cacus (who normally only ate people) snuck down from his cave on the side of the Palatine and re-rustled some of the cattle, leading them away backward so they would leave a misleading trail.

The next morning, not surprisingly, Hercules noticed half his cattle were missing. A very annoyed Hercules then went in search of his cattle and eventually heard them mooing from behind an immovable rock. Of course the rock was easily movable by Hercules and shortly thereafter the hero fought and killed Cacus. Naturally, the locals  and their king, Evander, were grateful so they established suitable worship of the hero at the site of the Ara Maxima. As a result, the area became an obvious place to locate temples to Hercules (but not the only one - the Romans were rather fond of Hercules).
Temple of Portunus

Just north of the Temple of Hercules is a more conventional rectangular temple. This one is dedicated to the god Portunus, not a bad deity to have on your side if you happen to be operating a major port next door. At least that’s what the Romans felt, and in fact a temple has existed in this location since the late 4th century BC. While we were there in February 2012 there seemed to be quite a lot of maintenance activity at this temple – perhaps it will be open to the public in the future.

Concordia Augusta Monument Fragment
Now, carefully cross Via Luigi Petroselli and you'll be face to face with a pedestal and a small altar with a fragmentary inscription. These are the remains of a statue dedicated to Concordia Augusta by Augustus in 11 AD.

Quadrifrons Arch of Janus
Just to your right as you face the little altar is a large parking lot that lies in front of the Arch of Janus (also known as the Quadrifrons Arch). It's the only four sided arch still standing in Rome. It was probably built by Constantine and marks the eastern side of the Forum Boarium. It stands directly over the Cloaca Maxima which opens to the Tiber adjacent to the nearby Ponte Rotto.

Arch of the Argentarii

Finally, if you continue up the stairway on the north side of the Arch of Janus you'll come to the little church of San Giorgio in Velabro. On the west side of the church is the Arch of the Argentarii, a heavily decorated monument celebrating Septimius Severus and the imperial family. You'll notice that in several places portraits are missing. In fact, they were deliberately erased by Caracalla after he had his brother Geta, wife Plautilla, and  her father Plautianus killed.

View Forum Boarium in a larger map

After you've visited these site walk a few blocks north to the Forum Holitorium.

Note: All the archaeological information in this post comes from Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, known in our family as "the big book of ruins": 

[1] Nonna Betta, a rather good kosher restaurant is open for lunch 12:00 to 4:00 daily.


  1. When I was in Rome a couple of years ago,I took the bus and got off Trastevere and from there walked for 2 hours and ended up at the Trevi fountain. I have seen the river and some ruins on the way as well as the government buildings and churches. Stopped by the Santa Maria church and took a break by Piazza Navonna but I missed all the sites you have been to. Maybe, it's time to revisit Rome :)

    1. It's *always* time to visit Rome!

      I highly recommend "Rome and Environs" if you're interested in the "off the beaten track" stuff. It looks at first glance like a scholarly reference book but it's very accessible and it includes little walking itineraries for each of the areas.



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