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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
The Roman Forum — Its History and Its Monuments

by Christian Hülsen

published by Ermanno Loescher & Co
Publishers to H. M. the Queen of Italy

Text, maps, and black-and‑white images
are in the public domain.
Color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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 p70  V. The Rostra
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Fig. 27. Rostra, reconstruction.º
The Rostra is preserved to us in the shape which it received in the time of the early empire. Caesar planned to move the old Rostra (which stood on the boundary of the Forum and the Comitium, see above p5), but Augustus carried the plan to fulfillment. Probably the great walls of blocks of brown tufa which formed the body of the structure belong to his building. Of these only the lowest layers have been preserved, except at the north corner, where as many as four blocks lie above one another: most of the front wall is restoration (1904). On the outer side the blocks of tufa were covered with marble, and the front (80 Roman feet = about 78 English feet long) was decorated with the gilded bronze beaks of the captured ships of Rome's enemies. There are still to be seen, arranged in pairs, the holes in which the beaks of the ships were fastened. The façade was crowned by a marble cornice: the upper side of these blocks contains a groove for a balustrade of marble (and bronze). The façade of the Rostra (with the arch of Tiberius on the left) is represented on a relief over the left-hand arcade of the arch of Constantine (see fig. 29): from this picture it is clear that the balustrade had an opening in the middle, possibly so that a staircase could be placed there, leading down  p71 into the Forum, on the occasion of some of the great ceremonies of State which took place on the Rostra (see p74). The same representation shows honorary statues at the corners of the façade: the bases of two of these, erected in honour of Stilicho (beginning of the fifth century A.D.), were dug up here in the year 1539. The columns with statues, which are visible on the relief,  p72 stood either on the platform of the Rostra or behind it on the Clivus Capitolinus. In the middle of the side-balustrades there stood, since the time of Trajan, the marble slabs, decorated with reliefs, which are described below (p97 ff.): from the rear the original platform was reached by a broad staircase of a few steps. The Rostra is surprisingly long and broad: the explanation of this is that it was intended not only for the individual speaker, but also oftentimes for the emperor and all his suite (see the illustration on the balustrade of Trajan,  p74 below p98). It may be permitted to mention here two such ceremonies of state, concerning which we possess detailed descriptions from antiquity: the reception of Tiridates by Nero, and the funeral ceremony of Pertinax.

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Fig. 28. Front elevation of the Rostra.

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Fig. 29. Bas-relief from the arch of Constantine.

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Fig. 30. Plan of the Rostra.

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Fig. 31. The Rostra, seen from the Clivus Capitolinus.

In the year A.D. 66 the Parthian king, Tiridates, who had accepted the conditions of peace proposed to him by Nero's general, Domitius Corbulo, came to Rome to receive his crown anew at the hand of the Roman emperor. Nero prepared for him a magnificent reception which is said to have cost 800,000 sesterces (200,000 francs) a day; the ceremony of the coronation is described as follows: "Before dawn the centre of the Forum was filled with delegations of the Roman people, in white garments and with laurel wreaths in their hair; on the sides and at the entrances the soldiers, with gleaming weapons and standards, were drawn up; countless spectators occupied every available inch of ground, even the very roofs of the buildings. At the rising of the sun Nero appeared in the Forum, clad in the garb of triumph, accompanied by senators and praetorians. He took his place on the Rostra, in a curule chair.  p73 Then between the soldiers, who were drawn up along both sides, Tiridates with his suite was led to the Rostra, where he paid homage to the emperor. When the public saw this Oriental ruler bowing humbly before their emperor, they raised such shouts of enthusiasm that Tiridates was terrified believing this was the signal for his death. Nero however bade him be of good courage, received his address of homage, ordered a praetor, who understood the language, to translate it for the benefit of the people, and himself made a gracious reply. Then Tiridates mounted a staircase, which had been built in front of the Rostra, came to the emperor, kneeled before him, and received the crown from his hand: a scene which aroused once more the loud applause of the Romans".

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Fig. 32. Augustus and Agrippa on the Rostra (Coin of Sulpicius Platorinus, about 18 B.C.).
The funeral ceremony of Pertinax (A.D. 193) is described by an eye-witness, the historian Cassius Dio: "on the Forum Romanum a wooden stage had been built, close in front of the stone one (the Rostra): upon this had been constructed a small building, the columns of which were adorned with gold and ivory. In the building stood a couch of the same material, covered with purple cloth worked with gold: on the couch lay a wax figure of Pertinax, clad in the garb of triumph, and, as though the emperor slept, a beautiful young slave boy was engaged in keeping the flies away with a fan of peacocks' feathers. The emperor and we senators and our wives came to the ceremony in garments of mourning: the women took their places under the porticos (of the Basilicas), and we under the open sky. Then the funeral procession began: first the statues of all the famous Romans of the old days; then choruses of boys and men, singing a funeral hymn in honour of Pertinax; and then bronze statues representing all the provinces of the Roman empire, each one in the national costume. Then followed the subordinate officials, for example, lictors, clerks, and herolds; then again statues of famous men, those who had won fame by great deeds or discoveries. Then came armed soldiery, on foot and on horse, and then race-horses too: then the funeral gifts which the emperor, we senators with our wives, the knights, the citizens, the guilds and the associations had presented. Finally came an altar covered with gold, and  p76 decorated with ivory and precious stones from India. After the procession had passed by, Severus mounted the Rostra and made a eulogy on Pertinax. The emperor's speech was frequently interrupted by manifestations of applause or of sorrow for Pertinax: and at the end the applause was loud. Then when the bier was about to be carried out great weeping and wailing occurred. The bier was carried from the catafalque by the pontefices and the magistrates, not only those who were at present in office but those who had been appointed for the following year; then it was given over to be borne by men appointed from among the knights. We senators walked in front of the body sorrowing and wailing; behind the bier came the emperor, and so the procession moved to the Campus Martius", where (on Monte Citorio) the ceremony of cremation and consecration took place.

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Fig. 33. The Rostra, with the alterations of Septimius Severus.

In the reign of Septimius Severus the Rostra was rebuilt with considerable changes, necessitated by the erection of the arch in honour of Severus. In order to make possible a direct approach to the speaker's platform from the side toward the arch, a triangular courtyard (see Hof fig. 33) was cut out of the northern half of the Rostra, and the curved west wall (hemicyclium) of this court was ornamented with slabs of red marble (Porta Santa) and pillars of marmo africano. Some of these slabs — which have been fastened to the wall again in modern times — still show the holes for the nails by which the bronze ornaments were attached. On the side toward the arch of Severus the wall was broken away and the court-yard seems to have been shut off merely by a simple gate.

In quite late times the façade of the Rostra was extended northwards by an addition built of poor brickwork, in which also the holesº for the fastening of ships' beaks are to be seen. An explanation of this is probably to be found in a long inscription, consisting of one single line, engraved of rectangular blocks of marble which on their upper side originally supported a balustrade.  p77 The inscription states that about A.D. 470, in the reign of the emperors Leo and Anthemius, a prefect of the city [Ulpi]us (?) Lunius Valentinus restored the structure — probably after a naval victory over the Vandals; accordingly the building has been named 'Rostra Vandalica.'

See: Varro l. l. V, 155; Liv. IV, 17, 6. VIII, 14, 12; Diodor. XII, 26; Dionys. I, 87; Plinius VII, 212. XXXIV, 20, 25; Sueton. Aug. 100; Pomponius Dig. I, 2, 2; Cassius Dio XLIII, 49.

Jordan I, 2, 233 sg.; Richter, röm. Rednerbühne 8‑39, Jahrb. d. Instituts 1889, 1‑17, Beiträge zur röm. Topographie II (1903); Lanciani 280; Huelsen, R. M. 1899, 238. 1902, 13‑21; Vaglieri 152 foro; Petersen, Comitium Rostra Grab des Romulus (1904); Boni, Atti del Congresso storico 1903, vol. IV, p. 554‑563.

The various transformations of the Rostra can best be seen from above. One should go back accordingly past the Schola Xantha and the arch of Tiberius and up the Clivus Capitolinus. In this way one comes to the Temple of Saturn.

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Page updated: 23 Jan 05