Pola - Pula
Cities, Towns and Hamlets

The Forum and Temple of Augustus

The main square in the Old City of Pula was and still is today called "the Forum" (il Foro). It was the principal gathering place of the Roman city, the nucleus of city life, the location of public events, political meetings, and religious ceremonies. It had  the market place nearby, shops with various merchandise and several inns. The Forum was the heart of city life because the blood of the whole city circulated through it: all the people who lived in the city, or visited it for whatever purpose, had to cross the Forum sooner or later. Therefore, it was the most important public open space, and in both the architectural and artistic senses it was the most organized and decorated part of the city.

In a classical city, the square had a flat quadrilateral area (its size in Pula was 39 x 82 meters), on three sides with arcades, whereas the fourth side was usually occupied by the most important temple, the one in which the official state cult of the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) was worshipped. The arcade provided protection from sun and rain, and people could use it to walk along the edges of the square. However, the arched doorway also served as an entrance to all public spaces situated in the Forum, as well as to spaces reserved for commerce. 

In a classical city, the Forum was a concept synonymous with a place where all the functions of the city were performed: there the rich members of the upper classes participated in the work of the city council, city officials and all public services had their offices in the forum; decisions were made there, messengers from the capital, Etemal Rome arrived at the forum to bring news. In short, the whole life of the city was mirrored in the forum.

It is difficult to envision the totality of everyday life in the main town square of ancient Pula from a contemporary perspective, but it was certainly mostly the everyday life so characteristic of the Mediterranean, taking place in the open air, in the constant socializing of citizens in the streets and in the Forum. This same spirit of the Mediterranean produced the classical civilizations of the Antiquity, in the first place the civilizations of Greece and Rome, whose democratic regimes, both in the Greek city-state and in the Roman republic greatly benefited from it. Needless to say, these political systems set the foundations of our contemporary western European political system. 

The Forum of Pula remained the main city square during the Middle Ages as well; at first, during the free medieval commune of Pula, a communal governmental palace was built on the site where the pagan temples had stood. The Forum also retained its importance during the period of Venetian rule, when the Venetian governor ruled the city and all of southern Istria from the aforementioned palace which was thoroughly reconstructed to serve its new purpose. In the meantime, the area of the square had been reduced because people started to build houses on it. Of course, the arcades, the decuria, and the judical basilica no longer served their original purposes, so that they were either rebuilt or demolished, and new structures were built above them. 

The Forum of Pula has retained its public functions to the present, and the historic communal palace has remained the centre of urban and regional governments. However, the palace is surrounded today mostly by homes rather than shops. The present-day Forum shows traces of almost all the historical periods of architecture in Pula: classical, medieval, and modern styles freely accumulate on it. The Forum is like a layered fresco showing the traces of many epochs.

However, the monument that attracts the attention of every modern visitor who passes through the Forum is undoubtedly the Temple of Augustus. It is a completely preserved religious structure. It was spared from demolition by a series of lucky coincidences so that the fate of similar buildings that were demolished and used as construction material did not befall it. 

In the Middle Ages, the temple was used for special purposes: first as a granary, and then for a short period, allegedly, as a Christian church. It was thus preserved, but many scars, caused by the construction of new windows and three floors, can be seen on its interior and exterior walls. The temple was also damaged in several fires that destroyed its roof. It was an irony of destiny that the temple was finally hit by an airborne bomb near the end of World War II. The bomb hit the interior directly and exploded between the columns, so that the temple was almost completely destroyed to the foundation level. It was reconstructed and rebuilt by Italian archeologists during the two years of the Allied military goverment in Istria (1945-1947), so that today it looks the same as before the bombardment. 

Unfortunately, a large part of the inscription carved on the entablature above the front columns was lost in the bombardment. The inscription stated that the temple had been dedicated to "the goddess Roma (fhe personificafion of Rome) and to the emperor Augustus, fhe son of divine Caesar; the father of the homeland". Only the first third of the inscription has remained, whereas the rest could not be reconstructed. The letters were made of bronze, but their shapes were carved into stone, so that the remnants of the inscription can still be seen on the left side of the facade cornice. This inscription is very important because it allows us to date the construction of the temple to the period while Augustus was still alive, i.e., before 14 AD when he died, but also after the year 2 BC, when he received the honorary title "the father of the homeland" (PATER PATRIAE) from the Senate. It follows that the temple must have been built sometime between these two dates.

The Temple of Augustus is one of the most beautiful examples of Roman early Imperial temple architecture. Very strong influences of late Hellenistic art are still evident, which still prevailed throughout Italy in that period. The form of the temple reflects the pure Roman concept of such buildings: it has a simple quadrilateral shape with a frontal arcade supported by four columns. Four polished marble columns in the front section of the pronaos, and two placed laterally, terminate with classical capitals in the Corinthian style decorated with acanthus leaves. The capital, the upper element of the column, represents one of the basic architectural elements, and it is a compositional element always placed at the spot where the weight of the walls, or rather of the arches, had been transferred onto the underlying construction. Capitals in the Corinthian style are by far the most numerous on the Roman buildings, since they are rather imposing and thus reflect the power and glory of the Roman state with their rich decoration. In contrast to Greece, where this style is attested somewhat later - not before the Hellenistic period - and where it was treated very freely and variously on various monuments, the Romans introduced a firm rule determining the proportions and shape of a Corinthian capital. The basic form of the capital is composed of a nucleus in the shape of a papyrus, and two surrounding arrays, each containing eight upright stylized leaves of acanthus. From the four angles of the uppermost level, leaves protrude, supporting the volutes placed in the corners of the curved abacus. 


The capitals of the columns in the Temple of Augustus are distinguished by very thin acanthus leaves, soft and channelled stalks, burnished volutes, and curve edges, finely indented leaves, and abacus flowers with small triangular wreaths of petals. The capitals, as usual, have two friezes of open-work acantus leaves with broad central hollows. The stalks are slightly rounded and gentle, spirally twisted at the ends. The chalices have leaves incorporated in  their base. The background is covered with leaves of acanthus and feather. A palmette is the basis of the abacus flower which is decorated with a double wreath of petals. The longitudinal walls of the closed cella have their front side decorated by chanelled half-vaults on whose tops we also find Corinthian half-capitals. There is an architrave on the capitals and on the walls ot the cella; it is covered by a border that encloses the interior of the temple and the main frieze. 

The main entablature is richly decorated with acanthus flowers and grapevines, as well as by fruits and birds sitting on branches. It is constructed in a very precise and careful technique. The capitals, the decorations of the entablature and of the eaves are the on1y embellishments of the building, but they are rather abundant and they confirm that the temple was erected in the Augustan period when, moreover, the entire Forum was probably built. This was the period when the whole city was expanded by filling in part of the harbour to the south of the hill. Thus, the city retained these same dimensions throughout the Middle Ages. 

However, the Temple of Augustus had a twin, as an identical temple existed in the other corner of the northern part of the Forum. Only the back wall is preserved of that temple, and all of the rest was incorporated into the communal palace in the Middle Ages. It is unknown to which deity the latter temple was dedicated. There is a tradition claiming that it was consecrated to Diana, the goddess of the hunt, but this assumption cannot be confirmed. 

The story about the Forum does not end with the aforementioned temples. Their symmetry was probably enhanced by a centrally placed temple of the Capitoline Triad. The official gods of the Roman State must have been worshipped in that third temple, because their cult was mandatory in the centre of a Roman colony to stress its acceptance of Roman sovereignity. The fact that the third temple has completely disappeared should be attributed to the aversion that the early Christians felt towards paganism. That was the official doctrine propagated by the church after bloody persecutions since the 4th century AD.

The remains of arcades and public spaces have been discovered on several occasions on the eastern side of the Forum, near the bottom of the slope of the hill. There they had a better chance of being preserved, since they were continuously being covered by layers of waste from the hill. Remnants of an earlier building were found behind the so-called "Temple of Diana", probably stemming from the earliest period of the Pulan colony. In the southeastern corner of the Forum, during the archeological excavations in 1987-1988 several layers belonging to different buildings were found in an area covering 550 square meters; this only confirms the hypothesis that the appearance of the Forum changed even during the classical period.

Thanks to conservation actions and careful archeological research, it is possible today to survey the complexity of the space covered by the Forum through the constructions of medieval and Roman buildings whose function can only be guessed. In one part of the Forum that is presently enclosed within the ground-floor rooms of a modem building  one can still discern the richly decorated walls of a Roman room with simple fresco panels bounded by simple borders. The floor tiles were made of several sorts of yellow, green, and red marble, whereas the lower part of the wall was covered by white marble with a profiled edge. In the outside spaces, one can discern the remnants of a paving, as well as staircase, and atrium columns.


Three interesting finds drew the most attention during excavation: a marble head of a woman, a marble torso of a Roman emperor, and a large stone block decorated with a relief of Medusa's head. Considering the artistic perfection, the nobility of the material, and the forceful realism of expression, the head certainly represents a portrait of a very important female. The form of her hair-style and way in which it is incised provide the only safe criteria which enable us to date the sculpture to around 50 AD as this particular hair style was fashionable in that period. For example, Agrippina the Younger, best known as the mother of Nero, used to be depicted with that particular hair style. She was the daughter of Germanicus and Agripinna the Elder, born in 16 AD in a military camp on the Rhine (present-day Cologne).

In her first marriage with Gnaeus Domitius Achenobarbus, she gave birth to Nero in 37 AD; subsequently she married Crispus Pasienus. Her third marriage in 49 AD to the emperor Claudius was the most important. He adopted Nero in 50 AD as his successor. All of her husbands died under suspicious circumstances, and it is believed that she had Claudius poisoned in order to install her son Nero, the fabled burner of Rome, on the throne. However, Agripinna the Younger also came to a violent end: Nero had her killed in 59 AD. During her 1ifetime she was venerated as an empress, the wife of Claudius, and later as the mother of the emperor; therefore her statues were often consecrated in public places as a part of the ubiquitous imperial cult, which was extended as the cult of the imperial family.

The other marble monument, the torso of a Roman emperor, was found broken into two pieces; it was used as construction material in the wall of a house built during the late Roman period, which also contained other recycled stone blocks. The hands and legs of the statue are missing, as well as the head, which is understandable since such statues had heads made of other kinds of marble in order to produce a colourful impression. The head of  "Agrippina" also belonged to such a statue. Thus, only the body of the Roman emperor remains; it is dressed in ceremonial armour with a short tunic and leather pteryges, decorated with symbolic reliefs only around the waist, while the thoracic armour is smooth and without any embellishment. A careful stylistic examination of the torso has yet to determine which emperor was represented by this statue, but it is probable that it belongs to the 2nd century AD rather than to any earlier imperial period.

A similar Imperial torso was found in Pula in the late 19th century. Today it is kept in the Temple of Augustus, but it was found on the northern slopes of Monte Zaro and probably belonged to the complex of the large Roman theatre once located there.

The area of the Forum yielded another similar finding in the early 20th century: a fragment of the lower part of an imperial statue, also made of marble, which was the only material worthy of imperial figures. That fragment consists only of the legs of the emperor, up to his knees, but a figure of a Gaulish captive or slave lies bent under his feet; thus, the humiliated captive was used to symbolize the power of the emperor and of the state. It is a Hellenistic concept of imperial propaganda whose purpose was to magnify the idea of despotism and dictatorship - monarchy, in a sense - but such propaganda was occasionally used in a slightly modified form until the late Antiquity whence it was taken over by Byzantium.

The third stone monument discovered during the excavations in the southeastern part of the Forum belongs to the architectural decoration of the atrium. It is a square block of stone, that was decorated with a relief depicting Medusa on one side. It had also been incorporated into a wall from the late Roman period that contained other such material taken over from an earlier period. The motif of Medusa is rather common in Roman art, imported, of course, from Greek mythology. It appears in large monuments as an incidental element, always in relief; only the head is depicted without the body, because only the head had a magical meaning after it was cut off by Perseus.

This particular stone block was originally a part of the first floor atrium of the Forum. There it served as the base of a column and as an orthostate that connected the panels of the enclosure. Such a concept of decorating the atrium on the Forum is well known not only from Pula, but from other cities in the Adriatic region, e. g. Aquileia and Zadar, as well as from other provinces of the Empire. In the Archeological Museum of Istria, there are several such column bases that originally belonged to the enclosure of the Forum. The particularly beautiful ones are those that contain high reliefs of Jupiter Ammon depicted with ram's horns. The preserved fragments of enclosure panels also show the motif of eagles holding garlands in their beaks. One can imagine other motifs that appeared on the upper part of the Forum atrium; apart from Medusa the Gorgon and Jupiter Ammon, this sort of mythological gallery could also have contained the figures of Satyrs, Pan, and other wonderful creatures that sprang from the rich imagination of the classical artists.

An entire series of statues and fragments of architectural decorations was found from sites other than the Temple of Augustus and the Arch of the Sergii; they all point to a strong indirect Hellenic influence that was mediated by the local Roman art. A marble portrait of an elderly man should be brought to a closer inspection: Unfortunately; it is severely damaged, but it expresses the typical verisimilous elements imported into Roman naturalism from the Hellenistic tradition. The strong and severe shape of his face, and the skill with which details of his. physiognomy were recorded, make this portrait one of the most valuable works of Roman art from the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century AD.

Most Roman portraits found in Pula - there are around ten of them - represent figures of private individuals. In addition to the aforementioned portrait of an elderly man, and the so-called "Agrippina the Younger", there is also a marble head of a woman that probably represented Antonia the Younger, the mother of Germanicus and the subsequent emperor Claudius. Such attribution can cautiously be confirmed on the basis of the following elements: a hair-style typical of the Tiberian era (symmetrically divided curly hair), but also the precisely defined features of her face such as the eyes, strong bones with soft musculature, and a melancholic expression. The dimensions of the portrait - somewhat larger than natural - point to a conclusion that it was part of an official statue of a member of the imperial family that once stood on the Forum together with many others.


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Created: Sunday, February 25, 2001; Last updated:Saturday November 03, 2007
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