Originally it had been a market place, some 600 by 200 feet; now (A.D. 96) the sellers had retired into the near-by streets or into other forums, but in the adjoining basilicas men sold shares in the publicans’ corporations, made contracts with the government, defended themselves in the courts, or consulted lawyers on how to escape the law. Around the Forum had been built, as around New York’s Wall Street, some modest temples to the gods, and some larger ones to Mammon. A population of statues adorned it, and the colonnades of great edifices provided the shade that could hardly come from a few ancient trees. From 145 B.C. till Caesar it had been the meeting place of the assemblies. At either end stood a speaker’s platform, named rostrum because an earlier stand had been decorated with the rostra or prows of ships captured from Antium in 338 B.C. At the western end was the Millenarium Aureum, or Golden Milestone, a column of gilded bronze set up by Augustus to mark the junction and origin of several consular roads; on it were inscribed the major towns reached and their distances from Rome. Along the southwest side ran the Sacra Via, or Sacred Way, which led up to the temples of Jupiter and Saturn on the Capitoline hill. North of this Forum the visitor would find a larger one, the Forum Iulium, built by Caesar to relieve the older area; near by were additional forums laid out for Augustus and Vespasian; and soon Trajan would clear and adorn the greatest of them all.
Even in so hasty a circuit the ancient tourist would have felt the crowded diversity of the city’s population and the tortuous inadequacy of its haphazard streets. A few of these were from sixteen to nineteen feet wide; most of them were meandering alleys in the Oriental style. Juvenal complained that carts rumbling over the uneven pavements at night made sleep impossible, while the jostling crowds made daytime walking a form of war. “Hurry as we may, we are blocked by a surging host in front, and by a dense mass of people pressing upon us from behind. One digs an elbow into me, another a sedan pole; one bangs a beam, another a wine cask, against my head. My legs are beplastered with mud; huge feet trample upon me from every side; a soldier plants his hobnail boot squarely upon my toes.” The main thoroughfares were paved with large pentagonal blocks of lava stone, sometimes so firmly set in concrete that a few have remained in place till our time. There was no street lighting; whoever ventured out after dark carried a lantern, or followed a torchbearing slave; in either case he ran the gauntlet of many thieves. Doors were fastened with locks and keys; windows were bolted at night, and those on the ground floor were guarded- as now- by iron bars. To these perils Juvenal adds the objects, solid or liquid, thrown from upper-floor windows. All in all, he thought, only a fool would go out to dinner without making his will.