Roman Forum: Miliarium Aureum
To the left of the Arch of Septimius Severus, there is a large wall full of holes. This is another very important place in the city’s life: it was the new orators’ tribune.
The holes in its face were where the “rostra” were placed, the forward-most point of the enemy ships captured in battle as war trophies. This tribune, ordered built by Julius Caesar, symbolized Rome’s power and became the stage for all public trials and popular assemblies that, at the time, were no longer being held in the Comitium.
Here was where the great lawyers harangued the crowd. Some orators were so brilliant that sometimes the trial became a show, almost like theatre. The greatest of all was without doubt, Cicero, who with his oratorial ability, hypnotized all who were present.
Then, as now, being a lawyer could make you very famous, but above all, very rich. However, payment wasn’t made with money but with houses, animals, land. Cash payments were considered vulgar and were used only when dealing with soldiers, merchants and prostitutes. Over his more than 30 year career, Cicero accumulated a fortune of over 100 million Sestercia.
Lawyers’ orations weren’t the only show on the tribune: it was right here that, hoisted on poles for all to see, were placed the heads of those who had committed grave crimes, among which, Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins.
The area beyond the Arch of Septimius Severus was always considered the exact center of the city. According to legend, it was here that Romulus had begun to draw the perimeter of Rome. Today, a small monument indicates this very important spot called the “Umbilicus Urbis”, the Navel of Rome, the center of the Empire and, for the Romans, the “zero point” of their world.
To accent even more the importance of this part of the Forum, a little further on there are the fragments of a large column called the Miliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone.
It was set up by Augustus and was a fundamental point of reference: it marked the starting point of all roads leading out from the Empire. It might seem somewhat banal today but paved streets had never existed before. They were a Roman invention and perhaps the greatest monument they’ve left us. At the height of Rome’s glory, the network of roads extended for more than 100,000 kilometers over three continents.
Roman roads can be considered as one of the major contributions to the development of civilization. Smooth and compact, they facilitated contact between peoples and commerce but they were also Rome’s secret weapon: they allowed the rapid disposition of legionnaires and armaments throughout the Empire.
Imperial messengers were able to cover long distances every day and on their speed depended the efficiency of administration, which was in turn, based on contact between Rome and its far-off provinces. Roman roads were an engineering feat so stupefying that, during Medieval times, they were called “The Devil’s Paths” because it was thought that they couldn’t possibly be the work of man.
The Golden Milestone represents their fulcrum and also the point from which began all measurement of distance in the Empire. When we say “all roads lead to Rome” maybe it would be better to say “all roads lead to the Golden Milestone” or even “all roads leave from it”.