A Self-Guided Tour of the Ancient Mercantile Fora on the Banks of the Tiber River, Rome

At the political heart of the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire lay the Roman Forum and the Imperial Fora. Today the ruins of these sites are a major attraction for visitors to Rome. On the banks of the Tiber, between the Aventine and Capitoline Hills, were two other lessor known fora. Despite a more commercial focus the Forum Boarium (the cattle market) and the Forum Holitorium (the vegetable market) are every bit as interesting as their more monumental counterparts. And they are just as rewarding for those who like to explore archaeological sites away from the crowds.

Claudia Pinci, an archaeologist and licensed tour guide in Rome, starts us at one of the surviving entrances to the Forum Boarium and urges us on a self-guided tour of the remaining temples and structures of cattle and vegetable markets of ancient Rome. Arriving at the only surviving remains of a Roman theatre in Rome, we pass through the area that was once the fish market and on into the Eternal City’s historic Jewish Quarter. A relatively short tour of a couple of hours, that ends at a popular Kosher bakery.

The Temple of Hercules Olivarius in the Forum Boarium, Rome.

On the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, the Forum Boarium in ancient times, looking over Fontana dei Tritoni to the Tempio di Ercole Vincitore, or the Temple of Hercules Victor.

Good to know before you start

This self guided tour begins at Via del Velabro (1), just off Via di S. Teodoro which you can find at the north east corner of the Circus Maximus. A short walk leads from the Piazza della Bocca della Verità to the Theatre of Marcellus, and then though to a historic Jewish District.

The route is flat until you reach the theatre, when there is a slight incline. Depending on how long yu like to linger and take in the various points of interest along the way, two hours should be more than enough. Plan to end in the Jewish Quarter for lunch at one of the many good restaurants there, or get something from the bakery – read on for Claudia’s recommendations. For a good guide, you can not go wrong with Amanda Claridge’s Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide.

Archaeology Travel | A Self-Guided Tour of the Ancient Mercantile Fora on the Banks of the Tiber River, Rome | 1

This is the view looking down Via del Velabro, the Arch of Janus immediately catches your eye. This is a massive four-way marble arch, about 16 metres high and 12 metres wide, that straddles the ‘Great Drain’ that runs down to the Tiber River. It is thought to date from the early 4th century AD.

Beyond the arch lay the Forum Boarium, now the Piazza della Bocca della Verità.

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The first physical sign of the ancient cattle market is to your right, just before the Arch of Janus (2). Embedded into the side of a Catholic church (San Giorgio in Velabro) is the highly decorated Arch of Argentarii (1), which is more of a gateway than an arch.

Along the architrave is an inscription that states the structure was dedicated in 204 AD by the cattle merchants an their bankers of the cattle market to the divine emperors. To the left of the inscription is an image of Hercules with his club and lion skin. Hercules was closely associated with the cattle market here.

Forum Boarium

Walk around the Arch of Janus, a section of the ancient paved surface next to the arch has been left exposed. You are now standing in the Forum Boarium, the ancient cattle market for the selling of meat beside the Tiber River.

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Legend has it that the Greek hero Heracles came to the Forum Boarium bringing with him the Cattle of Geryone. A giant bandit called Caco who had devastated the flocks of the Palatine Hill also stole Heracles’ cattle. During a duel between the two Heracles killed Caco. To show their appreciation, the Arcadians (inhabitants of the Palatine) erected a monumental altar in the middle of the Forum Boarium, the Ara Maxima of Hercules. This ‘great altar’ was built as an important memory of Heracles and the first Greek merchants who came to the Forum Boarium for trading. The surviving tufa blocks of the Ara Maxima are still visible today and can be seen in the crypt of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (3).

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Several temples were built along the Tiber River in the Forum Boarium. Two that would have caught your eye as you entered the forum at the Arch of Janus are the Round Temple (4), also mistakenly known as Temple of Vesta because of its circular shape, and the Temple of Portunus (5). Both were made of Greek marble, and are well preserved because they were converted into churches in the early 12th century and late 9th century respectively. It is more likely that the circular temple was dedicated to Heracles Olivarius, who protected olive oil merchants who worked in the Fourm Boarium. Portunus was the harbour god.

With the Temple of Portunus on your left walk up the Via Luigi Petroselli and you will come to the Area Sacra di Sant Omobono (6) on the right hand side of the road.

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From the street you can see archaeological remains in front of the Sant Omobono church. These were discovered in 1937 when this site was to be redeveloped for government buildings. Fragments of terracotta statues and architectural features of what was possible a temple dating to the 6th century BC were recovered during initial construction work.

These finds were identified as the from the temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta, the goddess of fertility and the goddess of dawn and childbirth, respectively. Given their age and association, these two temples were quickly linked to the famed Etruscan twins, Romulus and Remus.

The 6th century temple was destroyed at the beginning of the Roman Republic and covered with earth and rubble forming a new terrace on which two new temples were built. The current church was built in 1482, and dedicated to Saint Homobonus, patron saint of tailors, in 1700.

The Area Sacra di Sant Omobono is at the intersection of Via Luigi Petroselli and Vico Jugario – named after the ancient Roman street Vicus Jugarius that continued up over the shoulder of the Capitoline Hill and into the Roman Forum, where it entered at what is thought to have been the Arch of Tiberius between the Temple of Saturn and the Basilica Julia.

The Porta Carmentalis in the Servian Walls, Rome.

On the other side of Vico Jugario are the remains of Porta Carmentalis (7). This was a double-arched gate within the Servian Walls, built around the city of Rome in the 4th century BC. Porta Carmentalis was one of about 16 gates – the exact number is not known.

Forum Holitorium

Crossing the street (the Via Luigi Petroselli becomes the Via del Teatro di Marcello) you are leaving the Forum Boarium and entering the Forum Holitorium, the ancient vegetable market. This space between the southern edge of the Capitoline Hill and the banks of the Tiber River was an ideal spot for the delivery of fresh produce close to the city by boat. A tradition that lasted for centuries; there was a vegetable market in the Piazza di Monte Savello until the 20th century.

The Porta Carmentalis in the Servian Walls, Rome.

On the left hand side of the road is the Church of San Nicola in Carcere (8) – so named because there was a Roman Prison in the area. The Medieval church, reconsecrated in 1128, was built into the remains of three Republican temples. Looking at the north and south flanks of the church, the columns of the lateral colonnades of two of the ancient churches are still visible.

Within the Forum Holitorium three temples were built side by side, dedicated to the gods of Spes, Juno Sospita and Janus. Although it is unknown which temple is which. The Church of San Nicola in Carcere is built directly on top of and covers completely the temple in the middle, and it is the columns (Ionic on the southern flank, and Doric on the north) of the colonnades of the two outer temples that can be seen still today.

By now you would have already noticed the Theatre of Marcellus (9), the only Roman theatre that has survived intact in Rome today.

The Porta Carmentalis in the Servian Walls, Rome.

Although started by Julius Caesar, it was Augustus who brought the theatre to fruition to honour his nephew Marcellus – son of his sister Octavia. Marcellus would have been his heir, but he died at a young age in mysterious circumstances during 23BC. With a seating capacity of over 20,000, this was the most important of Rome’s three theatres. And in the rise of monumental building projects initiated by Augustus throughout the Empire, many of the theatres built throughout Italy and the western Empire were modelled on this one.

The Porta Carmentalis in the Servian Walls, Rome.

Next to the theatre of Marcellus are three striking marble Corinthian columns. Erected on a modern travertine and tufa base, this was the front right-hand corner of a marble temple, the temple that would have served the theatre. The late 1st century BC Temple of Apollo Medicus Sosianus (10) had a distinctive porch, and judging by the remains recovered it had a richly decorated interior.

As with many buildings from ancient Rome there is debate about who built the temple. The epithet Sosianus (used by Pliny) would indicate that the temple was erected by Caius Sosius, one of Julias Caesar’s Lieutenants, following his victory in Judea. Surviving decorative friezes show a battle with northern Barbarians, not Jews. Other aspects of the build show it was built with someone with extensive wealth. So if Sosius started construction, someone else completed it, namely Augustus. Augustus had Apollo’s anniversary changed to coincide with his birthday, 23 September.

Augustus did much to transform Rome as the capital of the Empire, embellishing the city and its architecture in a Greek style, hence the theatre, baths and marble temples. For his sister Octavia Augustus built a large porticus, the porticus of Octavia (11), the beautiful marble columns and other remains of which are on the edge of Rome’s ancient Jewish district.

The Porticus Octaviae was part of the fish market in ancient Rome.

The porticus Octavia was built over the previous porticus of Quintus Cecilus Metellus Macedonicus. You can still see the remains of the marble columns and a portion of the double porticus that would have enclosed the courtyard. Within the courtyard were two temples, dedicated to Juno Regina and Giove Statore, and Octavia’s library. In the Middle Ages the Church of Sant Angelo in Pescheria was built on the ruins of the two temples. Pescheria, fish, alludes to the function of the porticus as a fish market at that time. As does the name of the path you can follow through the archaeological area, Via del Foro Piscario.

Rome’s Jewish Ghetto

You are now standing on the edge of the historic ‘Jewish Ghetto’ of Rome. It was here in 1555 that Pope Paul IV enclosed the Jewish community and issued antisemitic laws for not following Catholic orthodoxy. Gates were built to create an enclave, a ghetto, to confine the 3,000 strong Jewish community in an eight acre area on the banks of the Tiber River.

This area was called the ‘ghetto’, named after a similar enclave of Jews was established in 1516 in Venice. There the area was in the vicinity of a copper foundry – called a ghèto in Venetian.

Turn left and walk down the Via del Portico d’Ottavia towards the Tiber River. Before long you will reach the Great Synagogue of Rome (12), built soon after the unification of Italy in 1870.

The Great Synagogue in Rome is home to the Jewish Museum of Rome.

Rome’s Jewish community claims to be the oldest in the world, dating back to the 2nd century BC. And the Great Synagogue, the largest in Rome, is at the religious and historical heart of this community. Besides being the religious centre of the Jewish district it also houses the Jewish Museum – a visit is a must (closed on Saturdays). The museum has a vast collection of artefacts telling the story of 2,000 years of the Jewish community in Rome. These include a collection of Medieval marbles, over 900 textiles, Medieval manuscripts and many precious liturgical objects. After the Synagogue head back up the Via del Portico di Ottavia into the historic Jewish district.

You will not fail to notice the façade of the home of Lorenzo Manlius built in 1468 called Manliana. Famous for its inscription that runs the length of the building on a cornice at the first floor level. Carved in a classical antique typeface, this inscription is visually reminiscent of ancient inscriptions. So much so that it has been considered ancient. It is in fact one of the earliest examples of the revival of monumental ancient inscriptions.


At the time, when the city of Rome was reborn in its ancient form, Laurentius Manlius, for love of his homeland, built up from its foundations this house in the forum of the Jews for himself and for his descendants, within the limits alowed by his mediocre wealth, and called it Manliana after his name, 2221 years after the founding of Rome, at the age of 50 years, 3 months and 2 days, on the eleventh day before the beginning of August.

In the fabric of the building there are fragments of sculptures, a part of a sarcophagus depicting a lion killing an antelope, an ancient Greek stele with a deer and her foal, and a small fragment of a funerary monument from somewhere along the Via Appia Antica. These fragments from antiquity were used to mirror the patchwork nature of many of the nearby buildings. A sign of the rebirth of the ancient city. Manilia built in a very obvious classical style is a sign of the emerging Renaissance and its rediscovery of Classical antiquity.

Besides the many fascinating Roman and Renaissance architectural sights, you will also encounter an area that prides itself in Roman-Judaic traditions. For instance, the kosher shops and restaurants adhere to culinary religious practices – you will not find pork or shellfish. The shops windows, the entrances, the counters, all project the visitor back to the early 1900s. Croissants, jewish pizza and biscuits based on honey and dry fruit as tradition requires. And look out for the unique, Kosher pastries made of ricotta cheese and chocolate or cherries.

At the end of your self-guided walking tour stop at the Boccione bakery at Number 1 Via del Portico d’Ottavia. The mouthwatering aroma emanating from the bakery will almost certainly catch your attention as it wafts along the Portico d’Ottavia. The line of knowing customers queuing at the entrance will tell you all you need to know. There are no words to explain this knowledge, but the dedication of a family that has traded here for generations.

Sweet delights from Boccione, a Kosher bakery in Rome.

If you are looking for something more substantial, have lunch at Giggetto’s restaurant. Try their delicious carciofi alla giudia, a traditional Roman-Judaic recipe. Or try something more extravagant: a 6-Course Lunch or Dinner with authentic Roman and Jewish Dishes.

Claudia Pinci is a licensed tour guide for Rome.

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The itinerary for the self guided tour of these lessor known fora in Rome presented above is the creation of Claudia Pinci. Claudia is a professionally trained archaeologist, working with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and the Museum of London Archaeology Service. Ancient Rome is her field of expertise, and she has chosen to share her passion for the archaeology and history of this great city by setting up Roman Trails with art historian Alessandro Mazza. Together they lead walking tours and day trips exploring some of the more unusual aspects of the city’s past. Roman Trails is a featured tour provider for Italy Travel in 2019 >>.

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