Julius Caesar's new Senate House, the goddess of Victory

Shortly before his death, Julius Caesar began a new Senate House on this site to replace the older one nearby. Though the Senate met in various temples, this was its own special home, dedicated, as was essential for a senatorial meeting place, to a deity. The patron of the Senate House was the goddess of Victory, whose statue Augustus set in its main hall when he finished Caesar's building. Domitian, late in the first century A.D., and Diocletian, two hundred years later, rebuilt the Senate House on this same site, centred always about the altar of Victory, where senators swore loyalty to the Empire and opened their sessions with offerings of wine and incense. So closely was this altar connected with the Roman state and the Roman state religion that it was almost inevitably the centre of one of the last open battles waged between paganism and Christianity.

Until nearly the end of the fourth century paganism, despite imperial decree and popular acceptance of Christianity, had a majority in the patrician and conservative Senate. The altar of Victory, first removed by imperial edict in 357, had been restored by Julian the Apostate, Constantine's nephew, during his brief attempt to revive the old religion. In 382 the Emperor Gratian again ordered its removal as part of an aggressive campaign against paganism, during which he refused the office of Pontifex Maximus, automatically bestowed upon the emperors, and forbade the use of State funds for pagan ceremonies.

Four times the pagan party of the Senate, meeting within these walls, petitioned for the altar's restoration. Symmachus, its leader, described Rome herself as a venerable matron pleading with the emperor: 'Most excellent princes . . . pity and respect my age, which has hitherto flowed in an uninterrupted course of piety. Since I do not repent, permit me to continue in the practice of my ancient rites. Since I am born free, allow me to enjoy my domestic institutions. This religion has reduced the world under my laws. These rites have repelled Hannibal from the city, and the Gauls from the Capitol.'

Though his predecessors were adamant, the altar was restored in 392 by the short-lived Emperor Eugenius. About 394, however, it was removed forever and the official triumph of Christianity was complete. When, in 410, Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome, the remaining pagan element was quick to link this disaster with neglect of the old gods. To this, the new faith replied with one of the masterpieces of Christian literature-- Saint Augustine City of God, the Eternal City of the spirit rather than that of this world. Two centuries later the Senate House, with little external change, became the Christian church of Sant' Adriano.

Next to the Senate House there stood, in ancient times, the Basilica Aemilia, whose marble colonnades and rich carvings made Pliny class it among the three most beautiful buildings in the world. Some of its walls were still standing in the sixteenth century, but were then torn down, with only a few drawings left to suggest their lavish decoration. Lately some rediscovered and restored fragments have been set up on the excavated site and a few exquisitely carved reliefs removed to shelter.

Beside this basilica, toward the east, still stands the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, whose greyed-white cipollino columns have, since the Middle Ages, housed the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. For more than fifty years, guidebooks have declared that the present 'modern' or 'hideous' baroque church of 1602 is about to be demolished, but as this has not yet been done, it may be hoped that the picturesque contrast will remain as evidence of Rome's changing continuity.

The temple was erected by the Senate in honour of the deified empress Faustina, wife of Antoninus Pius, after her death in A.D. 141. Twenty years later, when the emperor himself had gone to join the gods, his name was added to the inscription and the temple rededicated to both. But even this enduring inscription could not prevent men of a later time from sometimes confusing this emperor with his adopted son and successor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, married to another Faustina, daughter of the first. To Christian antiquarians, no doubt, Marcus Aurelius seemed a more fitting deity, if human deities there must be, because of the nobility of his Stoic Meditations. Neither Faustina, according to most standards, was worthy of deification, but the tradition of divine honours to the imperial family was by now firmly established.

Separated from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina by a clump of deep green laurel trees and oleanders, rose and white, stands a little round building whose identity remains one of Rome's unsolved problems. It has been called by many names but none has remained completely satisfying. It first emerged into the light of history when it was consecrated, between 526 and 530, together with the large hall behind it to which it formed a vestibule, as the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The vestibule may not have been much more than two centuries old when it was consecrated to these twin Arabian physicians, for its construction suggests that it was built early in the fourth century, in the time of Maxentius or Constantine.

In the Middle Ages it was probably associated with the name of Romulus the Founder, as were all the buildings in this neighbourhood. The Mirabilia refers to 'the church of Saint Cosmas, that was the temple of Asylum'. The Basilica of Constantine beyond it was then known as 'the temple of Romulus', a name transferred by the seventeenth century to the little round vestibule. Later it was called after another Romulus, the son of Maxentius, who may have begun the building as a heroon or hero's shrine in memory of his dead son. Originally the round building had a small oblong room at each side, which jutted out closer to the Sacred Way. The tall cipollino columns which still stand belonged to the portico of one of these rooms.

In the seventeenth century, when baroque façades were being added to so many buildings of ancient times, the front of this little vestibule was remodelled and it was also given the cupola it has today. The surface of the Forum had risen here, too, and the old bronze doors, which were well below the ground-level, were taken out and reset higher up. In 1879-1880, however, when the Forum was being excavated, the baroque façade was removed--though the cupola was left--and these doors, their ancient automatic lock still functioning, were replaced near their old level.

The large hall behind this little building, which forms the main church of Saints Cosmas and Damian today, is also puzzling. It is older than its vestibule, and was perhaps built at different periods. The only certainty about it at present is that it was probably some structure belonging to the Forum of Peace on which it faced. On the wall overlooking this forum Septimius Severus attached the Marble Plan of Rome, found in fragments at its foot. Christians have worshipped here for more than fourteen hundred years, while from the apse in its massive wall, Christ, in classic Roman robes, has looked down from a Byzantine pattern of gold-edged clouds against a deep blue sky, and Peter and Paul have presented to Him the saints for whom the church was named. In this old mosaic the realistic human qualities and rounded form of ancient Roman art are passing, and in their place are dawning the formal composition and flat, stylized designs of the Byzantine East.

The Arch of Titus at the Summa Sacra Via, the highest point of the Sacred Way, now spans the eastern entrance to the Forum. A worn ancient pavement leads down from it past the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Between the arch and the Basilica of Constantine stands the church of Santa Francesca Romana, the medieval church of Santa Maria Nova, founded in the ruins of the temple of Venus and Rome, rebuilt several times, and finally rededicated to Santa Francesca, who had been revered here for years in the place where she was buried. Behind the baroque façade rises the bell tower of Saint Mary's, adding a medieval note to the span of centuries.

At times in the sunlit hush of the Forum today one regrets the loss of that everyday activity, whether of ancient Romans or of cattle and their drovers, which marked the place through so many centuries. Yet the Forum has a life of its own, though it is not as clearly linked as the Capitol with both past and present. Today, from behind a mass of masonry or a clump of laurels, come the voices of workmen setting up some fragment which may have lain unknown years beneath the earth. Tourists, their noses in guidebooks, pursue eternally their search for facts eternally liable to change, or sit happily in a golden dream upon a marble step on which Augustus may have stood. Day after day artists, young and old, singly or in groups, sketch the ruins as they have done for so many centuries. And from the oleanders by Faustina's temple, when friendly feet pass quietly along the Sacred Way, may come one of Rome's cherished cats, tail erect, to rub ankles or to bask in the sun upon some carved marble of days long gone.

Time and the hands of men are healing the scars of excavation which made Zola, more than half a century ago, call the Forum 'a long, clean, livid trench'. In some places this barrenness persists today; in others ivy and wistaria and roses veil a shattered column, or oleanders and whitespiked acanthus soften the outline of a ruined wall. Caesar and Augustus and Cicero and Antony are links with a memorable and moving past, but a new and kindly beauty of the present is stealing through the Forum-a beauty which changes as the hours pass. On a May morning cloud shadows sweep darkly across the ancient paving of the Sacred Way. As evening comes, the setting sun behind the Capitol gilds the flutings and rich ornaments of its fallen monuments and lights the Arch of Titus rising in stately simplicity at its eastern end. And at night when the moon rides high and white across the deep sky, the stone pines and ilexes of the Palatine rise sharp and black above the Forum, stately guardians of a gracious sleep.

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