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The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide

The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide

By Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer. Pp. xxii + 437, figs. 297. Cambridge University Press, New York 2015. $250. ISBN 978-0-521-19244-6 (cloth).

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Gorski and Packer’s new book on the Roman Forum is a hybrid: part hefty coffee table book, part guidebook, and part scholarly presentation of the most prominent monuments built around the original forum plaza. Gorski’s detailed color reconstructions, including large-format gatefolds, dominate the content and determine the volume’s landscape-oriented layout. Packer’s commentary combines a digest of personal observation made on site and a review of primary and secondary literary sources that focuses on the architecture of the targeted monuments and their spatial relationships to one another.

Following an illustrated preface and acknowledgments, the tripartite organization of the volume is divided as follows: the two chapters of part 1 (“Architecture in the Roman Forum During the Empire: A Brief History”) outline the sequential development of the forum. “The Augustan Reconstruction (31 B.C.E.–14 C.E.)” includes a prologue on the republican forum, and “From Tiberius to Phocas (14–608 C.E.)” offers a broad look at the development of the forum during the Imperial period.

Part 2 (“The Monuments”) comprises the main body of text and the majority of illustrations. All but one of the 18 chapters focus on a single monument each, including lesser-known or lesser-documented structures such as the Arch of Tiberius (ch. 15) and the Schola Xanthi (ch. 16).

Part 3, a single chapter (“Conclusions”), focuses on spatial relationships between the constituent buildings of the forum in its major building phases (e.g., the Augustan, Flavian, and later periods). A glossary, notes, bibliography, sources for illustrations, and index follow.

Content is governed by stated limitations: “we discuss only the major structures around the central plaza—with two notable exceptions: the Temple of Vesta ... and that of Antoninus and Faustina ... buildings too important to the life and character of the Forum to omit” (xv–xvi). In terms of chronology: “we portray the Forum at a particular moment in time, just after 360 CE” (xvi), and thus, it follows, “apart from a brief introduction, we do not discuss the general character of the Forum during the Republic (509–31 BCE)” (xvi).

The “topographically arranged” presentation of part 2 anticipates the sequential encounters of a walking tour beginning at the present north entrance of the forum, starting with the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina and proceeding counterclockwise around the forum perimeter.

The inclusion of “only the major structures” around the “central plaza” is one that requires some lowering of expectations for what is designed to be a comprehensive presentation (see below). Major buildings associated with the eastern extension of the forum (the so-called Forum Adiectum, e.g., the Arch of Titus and the Basilica “Nova”) are not included, while those on the far west side that are included, such as the Portico of the Dei Consentes, do not in fact border the open plaza of the forum.

The chronological limitation (fourth century) means minimal discussion of the forum’s early phases. Older monuments still standing in late antiquity (e.g., the Temples of Saturn and Vesta, the basilicas, and the Augustan-period temples) are fully discussed. The reconstruction of the forum as it looked during the Tetrarchic period is as vivid and clearly presented as one can find anywhere. Nevertheless, structures of the forum from the Early to Middle Republic that are of great historical importance—the Curia Hostilia, the Comitium, and the old Rostra, of which few physical traces remain to be seen today—receive only passing mention and the occasional illustration.

Each chapter of part 2 begins with the historical background, postclassical fate, and excavation history of its focus, including excerpts of primary sources. In some cases (e.g., ch. 5, on the Basilica Aemilia) contrasting modern attempts at reconstruction are compared. The architecture and sculptural embellishment of the building follows, emphasizing materials and surface treatment. Architectural terminology is illustrated by labeled profiles included in the glossary; these helpfully represent specific buildings from the forum.

Some monuments are presented in more depth than others; comparative analysis in some cases is awkward. For example, the discussion of Antoninus Pius’ work in the forum, in part 1’s chronological overview (42–5), diverges into a detailed comparison between the moldings of the Temple of Vespasian and those of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina that seems ill-placed within a chapter providing an overview of the development of the forum over the entire Imperial period. Since the chapters of part 2 do not approach their subjects comparatively, there was apparently no other place to insert this kind of analysis. Tangential discussion in part 1 of Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun built in the Campus Martius is unnecessary.

Access to dimensional data in the text is cumbersome. While the prose is uncluttered with strings of figures, the provision of basic dimensions in a consistent way (as it is, one needs to hunt between text and endnotes) seems a modest desideratum. There is no way to make quick comparisons: Which temple had the highest podium? How does the height of one speakers’ platform compare with that of another? Or how do the spans of the naves in the forum basilicas compare? A table or two for quick consultation would be most welcome.

The entire presentation is richly enhanced by beautiful illustrations, the great majority in vibrant color: 33 photographs of coins representing monuments; 96 photographs of buildings in situ or of decorative elements in museums; and 31 reproductions and redrawings of plans, sketches, and line art from previous studies. Most spectacular are the 147 new illustrations by Gorski, including plans, elevations, and perspectival views, although regrettably only two buildings are shown in section: Bauer’s rendition of the Basilica Aemilia (fig. 5.11) and Gorski’s of the Temple of Vespasian (fig. 10.7). Packer’s skill at reconstructing ruined buildings from their fragments (and assessing similar efforts by others) paired with Gorski’s breathtaking ability at rendition in a manner that recalls the Beaux-Arts tradition at Rome has resulted in an albumlike presentation of both technical and more whimsical views of the forum monuments. Gorski explores a variety of light conditions (times of day, weather, and front, side, and back lighting), seasons, vegetation, and weathering. We see the Arch of Tiberius in light snow (fig. 15.1), the Temple of Vesta at last light illuminated by its inner flame (fig. 20.1), and a backlit Arch of Septimius Severus and Rostra (fig. 8.1). While the possibility of original applied color is a source of comment and some experimentation (figs. 7.12, 7.13), Packer and Gorski prudently refrain from colorizing the architectural detailing of the monuments or from adding decorative details when there is no evidence. For the most part, the rationale for a given reconstruction is explained in the accompanying text and notes. Where scholarly opinion has differed substantially on the appearance of the upper stories or roofing of major structures such as the Temple of Vesta and the Basilica Julia, the authors offer both discussion and alternative reconstructions (figs. 20.15–18; 21.15, 21.16).

There are some surprising gaps in the coverage in addition to those buildings that fall literally out of bounds of the topographical limits of the area of the old forum. What about the Regia? The venerable structure is shown on plans (e.g., fig. 4.7), and its tantalizing arcaded north facade is depicted in figure 1.14. It is sandwiched between two temples that are granted full chapter-length studies. But there is no dedicated consideration of the Regia itself. Similarly, while three of the four archways that marked major entry points to the forum are given individual chapters, the Arch of Gaius and Lucius, which closed the gap between the Temple of Divus Iulius and the Basilica Aemilia, is hardly mentioned. Minor monuments that surely added some color and novelty to the forum square are shown only on plan or not mentioned at all: the Lacus Curtius is shown on plan but not included in the index, and the shrine to Venus Cloacina and the Fountain or “Lacus” Juturnae are shown on plan but not included in the text or index. The equestrian statues of Domitian and Septimius Severus that stood in the forum are mentioned (40–2, 46–8), and their associated numismatic evidence is considered. The famous Temple of Janus shows up on plan and in Gorski’s perspective views but is not discussed in the text or even mentioned in the index. With ancient representations on coins and reliefs referenced and illustrated frequently throughout the volume, it is strange that there is no depiction or analysis of the Anaglypha Traiani, despite its being mentioned at least four times in the main text and provided with a dedicated entry in the glossary.

The final chapter of the volume offers many interesting observations about the interrelationships between the buildings of the forum and the viewer who encounters them. Packer’s text and Gorski’s illustrations work well in concert here, the latter offering visual confirmation of the former’s interest in the alignment of major facades (particularly the broad sweep of the basilicas) with points of ingress to the forum.

Roger B. Ulrich
Department of Classics
Dartmouth College

Book Review of The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, by Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer

Reviewed by Roger B. Ulrich

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Ulrich

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