Book Reviews

The Roman Forum

A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide.

Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer Cambridge June 11, 2015

This is a volume designed to impress, with its large landscape format (12 inches wide and 9 inches tall); thick and glossy paper that showcases the full-color, sometimes full-page, photographs, reconstructions, and drawings; and a sheer heft that catches one by surprise.

The Forum was the center of Roman life. It contained most of the city’s important buildings, including the Roman Senate building (Curia) and temples (to Vesta, Saturn, Caesar, and others). The Rostra provided a platform for significant speeches, and various monuments and arches proclaimed the greatness that was Rome.

This book fills a need. There are many archaeological reports and monographs on the Forum, but many of these are either inaccessible (due to language and/or specialization) or too focused to give a larger view of the structures in their context (xiii, xv). Guidebooks are helpful but often lack the depth to give readers an appreciation of their subject matter (xiii, xv). The authors have two goals in mind for this book. First, they wish to present the buildings in relation to one another and to discuss the development of the Forum (xv). Second, they want to provide a “history and character of the Forum’s buildings” (xv). To keep the volume manageable, the authors have chosen to discuss “only the major structures around the central plaza,” the Temple of Vesta, and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (xv–xvi). Although history is discussed, the focus is on the layout of the Forum just after AD 360 (xvi).

The book is divided into three parts. The first provides a brief history of the architecture during the empire (31 BC–AD 608). The volume devotes more space to the Augustan reconstruction (31 BC–AD 14) than all the remaining periods (3–36 versus 37–63). This is good news for those interested in the New Testament period, since the structures discussed in the Augustan section were around when the earliest church and Paul were there.

Discussion of the Augustan reconstruction (3–36) takes a short look at the Forum during the republican age (508–31 BC) (3–5). Very little information is provided on this early period; the focus is on the changes made by Julius Caesar that prepared the way for the empire (5). When Augustus came to power, he began a restoration of the Forum that was funded by spoils from military victories, private benefactors, taxes, and Augustus’s own contributions (5, 11). Plans for temples, public buildings, and private shops are noted (11–15). This is followed by a detailed discussion of materials, construction techniques, style, and design (15–21). Augustus played a major role in the process. For temples, his designers did not like excessive decoration, and most temples were built or restored in a Corinthian style (21). Augustus added a new Forum adjacent to the main Forum based on a provincial Italian town model (21). Next the authors discuss select buildings from this period (22–34). This was a time of great activity, during which many buildings were built, restored, or reconstructed. Of course, not everything remains from this period; much has been rebuilt over the centuries. The authors use sources such as coins as well as educated speculation to fill in the gaps (e.g., 23, 31). Augustus’s restoration of the Forum was a monumental task. It took almost 50 years (34–35), but when it was complete “Augustus had thus, until the end of the empire in the West [late 5th century AD], permanently established the general character of the Forum and its principal monuments” (36). Few major changes were made or needed over the next five centuries (36).

A brief section is devoted to the Forum from after Augustus to the close of the first century (37–42). Nero’s fire in AD 64 destroyed only the Temple of Vesta in the Forum; reconstruction began before his death (37). The Flavian dynasty (AD 69–96) added three structures: the imperial cult Temple of Vespasian, the Portico of the Dei Consentes, and a massive statue of the emperor Domitian riding a horse (the Equus Domitiani) (38–42). The placement and excessive size of the Domitian statue made it controversial, and it was destroyed shortly after his assassination in AD 96 (42). The remainder of this section briefly discusses the Forum through AD 608 (42–63). Part 1 is a helpful discussion of the evolution of the Forum. It has brief historical sketches, but the focus is on the buildings themselves and not their function.

Part 2 consists of eighteen chapters that describe seventeen major architectural structures and four minor ones (these four are in a single chapter). Major monuments include the Temple of Caesar, the Curia, the Basilica Julia, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Concord, and the Temple of Vespasian. For each major monument, a brief history is given. In addition to the history section, using the Temple of Caesar as an example, the individual structure discussions proceed as follows: The chapter begins with a history leading up to construction followed by a description of the evolution of the monument (83, 85–86). Using coins and other sources, the authors describe what the temple may have originally looked like (85). Finally, the excavation is explained (86, 90). Included are pictures of the present ruins (84–86), coins illustrating the structure (84), isolated reconstructions of the floor plan and building (87–89), a reconstructed pillar (90), and most impressively, a full-page, color reconstruction of the building in its context (82).

The final part, “Conclusions,” in some ways is similar to Part 1. It chronologically follows the development of the Forum. However, it has a more fluid description of the buildings and structures in relationship to one another and the impact of their appearance.

The reconstructions produced for this volume are excellent. They are based on the best available sources and carefully created and revised as necessary (xvi–xviii). Due to the uncertainty of color, the reconstructions are left “traditionally (if inaccurately) uncolored” (xvii–xviii; quote, xviii). Included are double-page foldouts that provide a Forum map (AD 360) and panoramic reconstructions.

This is not a history book or an extensive discussion of structure functions. The history and function discussions all support the focus on the architecture. Given its purpose, there is little to criticize about this book. I would like to have seen other buildings and monuments, including the Arch of Titus, covered in detail; however, this is the desire of a student of the New Testament. In fact, I would like to see two more volumes: one focused on the early 60s just before Nero’s fire and one focused on approximately AD 90. I suspect such volumes would be difficult to produce, given the present state of the Forum. Nevertheless, there is enough here to satisfy the New Testament student.

Anyone interested in Roman architecture will find this volume helpful. The clear value for students of the New Testament and church history is its ability to reconstruct the world in which the earliest and later Roman churches existed. There are other benefits as well. First, although the focus is on Rome, many of the building types described here were also built throughout the empire. Cities needed to function, and Roman cities had many similarities. A specific type of building (e.g., a basilica) would have similar functions throughout the empire. Second, as source material for understanding the New Testament world, architecture is an undervalued resource. Much about a city can be told by its buildings and their placement. This book is a great start for Rome, indicating a type of research that can be done for any city with significant architectural remains available. Not much has been done in this area for the New Testament, and thus students will need to break new ground, learning in the process to be careful when drawing conclusions. Without written records, we do not always know why something is where it is (even with written records this is not always certain). Also, unless destroyed in a catastrophic event and rediscovered much later (e.g., Pompeii), many ancient cities that have been excavated contain buildings from many periods. We must try to understand a city in its specific time periods.

The book concludes with a detailed glossary that includes illustrations of architecture and color pictures of different types of marble and stone (363–72), endnotes (373–418), bibliography (419–27), coin sources (429–30), and a general index (431–37).

This beautiful volume is also available in ePub and PDF formats ($200.00). If the quality of these electronic formats is as high as that of the book, these may be helpful for use in classes or even in sermons. Unfortunately, the cost of either format is out of reach for most individuals.

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