The Rostra (Italian: Rostri) was a large platform built in the city of Rome that stood during the republican and imperial periods. Speakers would stand on the rostra and face the north side of the comitium towards the senate house and deliver orations to those assembled in between. It is often referred to as a suggestus or tribunal, the first form of which dates back to the Roman Kingdom, the Volcanal.
It derives its name from the six rostra (plural of rostrum, a warship's ram) which were captured during the victory at Antium in 338 BC and mounted to its side. Originally, the term meant a single structure located within the Comitium space near the Forum and usually associated with the Senate curia. It began to be referred to as the Rostra Vetera ("Elder Rostra") in the imperial age to distinguish it from other later platforms designed for similar purposes which took the name "Rostra" along with its builder's name or the person it honored.
Magistrates, politicians, advocates and other orators spoke to the assembled people of Rome from this highly honored, and elevated spot. Consecrated by the Augurs as a templum, the original Rostra was built as early as the 6th century BC. This Rostra was replaced and enlarged a number of times but remained in the same site for centuries.
Julius Caesar rearranged the Comitium and Forum spaces and repositioned the Senate Curia at the end of the republican period. He moved the Rostra out of the Comitium when the Curia Cornelia was dismantled. This took away the commanding position the curia had held within the whole of the forum, having advanced extremely close to the Rostra during its last restoration. Augustus, his grand-nephew and first Roman emperor, finished what Caesar had begun, as well as expanded on it. This "New Rostra" became known as the Rostra Augusti. What remains in the excavated forum today, next to the Arch of Septimus Severus has endured several restorations and alterations throughout its historical use. while a few different honorary names are attributed to those restorations, scholars, archeologist and the government of Italy recognise this platform as the "Rostra Vetera" encased inside the "Rostra Augusti".
The term "Rostrum", referring to a podium for a speaker is directly derived from the use of the term "Rostra". One stands in front of a Rostrum and one stands upon the Rostra. While, eventually, there were many rostra within the city of Rome and its republic and empire, then, as now, "Rostra" alone refers to a specific structure. Before the Forum Romanum, the Comitium was the first designated spot for all political and judicial activity and the earliest place of public assembly in the city. The people of Rome gathered here to listen to orators beginning with the "Kings" of Rome to Cicero, delivering one of his epic orations. A succession of earlier shrines and altars is mentioned in early Roman writings as the first suggestum. It consisted of a shrine to the god Volcan, that had two separate altars built at different periods. This early Etruscan mundus alter originally sat in front of a temple that would later be converted into the Curia Hostilia.
During the late Republic the rostra was used as a place to display the heads of defeated political enemies. Gaius Marius and consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna captured Rome in 87 BC and placed the head of the defeated consul, Gnaeus Octavius, on the Rostra. The practice was continued on by Sulla and Mark Antony, who ordered that Cicero's hands and head be displayed on Caesar's Rostra after the orator's execution as part of the Proscription of 43 B.C..
Caesar spoke from the Rostra in 67 BC in a successful effort to pass, over the opposition of the Senate, a bill proposed by the tribune Aulus Gabinius (the Lex Gabinia) creating an extraordinary command for Pompey to eliminate piracy in the Mediterranean. Brutus and Cassius spoke from the Rostra to an unenthusiastic crowd in the Forum after the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Millar comments that during the late Republic, when violence became a regular feature of public meetings, physical control and occupation of the Rostra became a crucial political objective.
Tribal assemblies and tribunals
Until about 145 BC, the Comitium was the site for tribal assemblies (comitia tributa) at which important decisions were taken, magistrates were elected and criminal prosecutions were presented and resolved by tribal voting. Before an assembly, the convening magistrate, acting as augur, had to take the auspices in the inaugurated area (templum) on the Rostra from which he was to conduct the proceedings. If the omens were favorable and no other magistrate announced unfavorable omens, the magistrate summoned other magistrates and senators and directed a herald to summon the people. Heralds did so from the Rostra and from the City walls. During an assembly, magistrates, senators and private citizens spoke on pending legislation or for or against candidates for office. Before bills were presented for voting, a herald read them to the crowd from the Rostra. As the culmination of the process, the tribes were each called up to the templum on the Rostra to deliver their votes. After about 145 BC, the voting population of Rome grew too large for the Comitium, and tribal assemblies were then held at the opposite end of the Forum around the Temple of Castor, the steps of which served as an informal Rostra.
The Rostra was also used for meetings of courts. In Republican Rome, criminal prosecutions took place in the Forum either before a tribal assembly with a magistrate prosecuting (a procedure specified in the Twelve Tables and the normal mode of prosecution in the middle Republic) or in a jury-court (quaestio de repetundis) established by statute and presided over by a magistrate with a jury (after 70 BC) of about 50-75 jurors. For trials held in the Comitium, the Rostra served as the tribunal upon which the magistrate sat in his curule chair with a small number of attendants. "This was enough in itself to establish a court, though it was supplemented by benches (subsellia) for the jurors, the parties to the case, and their supporters." The circle of onlookers (corona) either stood or sat on nearby steps.
Underneath the Lapis Niger is the Vulcanal, an altar to the god Vulcan, two pedestals, an honorary column base and an ancient stele, which is the oldest part of the shrine. This spot is defined as the first Suggestum. This shrine and altar faced out to the forum.
The original structure was built during the middle years of the Roman Republic in approximately 500 BC It subsequently became known as the "Rostra" after the end of the Latin War in 338 BC when it was adorned with the prows (rostra) of ships captured from Antium as war trophies.
The Rostra was located on the south side of the Comitium opposite the Curia Hostilia (the original Senate house), overlooking both the Comitium and the Roman Forum. In addition to the prows of captured ships, the Rostra bore a sundial and, at various times, statues of such important political figures as Camillus, Sulla and Pompey. Private citizens also erected a number of honorary columns and monuments on the Rostra and throughout the forum. At one point, the Senate threatened to have them removed if the donors did not do so themselves.
In form, the original Rostra may have been a simple raised platform made of wood, similar to the roman tribunal. The Rostra had a curved form, possibly along the outer south rim of an Amphitheatre. The structure was described by Christian Charles Josias Bunsen, based on his examination of two Roman coins depicting the Rostra, as "a circular building, raised on arches, with a stand or platform on the top bordered by a parapet; the access to it being by two flights of steps, one on each side. It fronted towards the Comitium, and the rostrum were affixed to the back of it, on column supports. Its form has been in all the main points preserved in the ambones, or circular pulpits, of the most ancient churches, which also had two flights of steps leading up to them, one on the east side, by which the preacher ascended, and another on the west side, for his descent. Specimens of these old churches are still to be seen at Rome in the churches of St. Clement and S. Lorenzo fuori le mura.
Debate and confusion of architectural elements
Very few images survive depicting the pre-imperial period Rostra. Excavations show many layers of the comitium space and at least three separate stages of the Rostra. Disasters, such as fire and invasion destroyed the area and restorations never stayed faithful to the previous shape or form. Each consecutive restoration to the Rostra Vetera after its initial move into the forum gave the monument a new name only adding to the confusion. On top of these conflicting finds are further archaeological excavations in Republican settlements such as Cosa. The comitium excavated there was a completely circular stone amphitheatre located directly in front of the cities curia. It is believed that these settlements mirrored the architecture of Rome and that the Dictator Sulla rearranged the Roman Comitium in this manner and was copied by settlements of that time period. While this is not direct evidence, is does suggest that the hemicycle remains in the comitium of Rome are what is left of a similar structure.
In his book, "Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic", author Robert Morstein-Marx has theorized that there may never have been a reorganization of the comitium by Sulla. His claim is that there simply is no evidence of such. Marx uses the work of archaeologist Einar Gjerstad diagrams to suggest that the Rostra Vetera itself was the only part of the comitium that was circular.
There are several depictions of a large Rostra during imperial times on a number of monuments in Rome. They had been associated with the Augustan rostra at one time, leading early researchers to conclude that the rostra represented in these illustrations was the same structure from the early republican period. However, discoveries from translated writings now show that a structure in the forum during initial excavations 100 years ago misidentified the "Rostra Diocletiani" as a medieval building and was torn down completely. This structure is now credited for most of these depictions.
While the remains in the forum are today referred to as the Rostra Augusti as identified through historic writings, it is still believed to be, at its core, the original Rostra Vetera. Named so during Caesar’s time only to distinguish it with reverence and honor. With the move, the structure becomes referred to as the Rostra Cesarean. When Augustus expands it, it becomes the Rostra Augusti. Since the time of Augustus Caesar, the Rostra was restored and expanded further with additional names linked to this same building.
As part of his reconstruction of the Roman Forum in 44 BC, Julius Caesar is believed to have moved the republican Rostra Vetera. This Rostra, referred to as the "Caesarian Rostra" by archaeologists, reused and incorporated nearly all of the original Rostra. Located on the southwest side of the new Julian Forum (Forum Iulium), the new Rostra was no longer subordinated to the new Senate House of the time (Curia Cornelia); Caesar had it placed on the central axis of the Forum Iulium opposite the Temple of Caesar. Left uncompleted at Caesar's death, Augustus finished and extended the new Rostra into a rectangle at the front. The new Rostra was called the "Rostra Vetera" to distinguish it from another Rostra, built by Augustus in 29 BC at the opposite end of the Forum. This Rostra was part of the Temple to the Divine Caesar and was decorated with the rams from the Battle of actium. The late John E. Stambaugh, professor of classics at Williams College, described the new arrangement as "a reflection of contemporary taste and the relentless Augustan desire for order."
As the Rostra Augusti incorporates the old Rostra vetera, so does the Rostra Vandalica to the Augustan monument. This portion is either a simple modification to lengthen the front of the old rostra or to give a space on it specifically for the common people of Rome. This add-on of simple brick, appears to be hastily and poorly constructed. It only constitutes a tiny section of the Rostra as a whole, but may well have given name to the entire structure at that time and not just that specific section as was common after restorations. The section also had the beaks of ships mounted on its front, but to what battle they would be attributed to is unclear as the Romans had no naval enemies at that time and may simply have been replicas fabricated to keep the exterior architectural elements the same. Even its marble veneer was of the same type as the rest of the structure, suggesting that it was not as noticeable an add on in ancient times.
A marble plaque with inscriptions has been located and replaced on top of the spot. Its odd placement and lower stance as well as the inscription itself have been the subject of much discussion and debate.
Rostra Ad Palmam/Domitian/Flavian Rostra
These names appear to simply be the Rostra Augusti renamed after subsequent restorations by those specific patrons. All writings refer to these in the same topographic location.
The structure visible today is the result of an early 20th-century restoration. Only the large brown tufa blocks are original and are believed to have been moved by Caesar from their original Comitium location. All of the stone masonry to the left, when facing the rostra, (which constitutes almost 90% of the visible structure) is a modern reconstruction using contemporary materials. Up until the early-to-mid-19th century the site was home to a group of ramshackle buildings, torn down after the Italian government purchased the land to excavate the forum monuments and structures. The brick add on to the structures right end was built at the time of Septimus Severus. Archaeologists continue to debate which Rostra the ruins represent, but they are commonly believed to be that of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
In contemporary news
In November 2008 heavy rain damaged the concrete covering that has been protecting the Vulcanal and its monuments located in the Imperial comitium space since the 1950s. This includes the stele accorded the name of "The Black Rock" or Lapis Niger. The marble and cement covering is a mix of the original black marble, said to have been used to cover the site by Sulla, and modern cement used to create the covering and keeping the marble in place.
Professor Angelo Bottini, Superintendent of Archeology in Rome, stated that an awning or tent covering is in place to protect the ancient relics until the covering is repaired, giving tourists of this millennium a look at the original suggestum for the first time in 50 years.
Other known Rostra
In 29 BC Augustus ordered the construction of another Rostra in front of the Temple of Caesar, at the opposite end of the Forum Iulium from Caesar's Rostra. This was used as a tribunal and was adorned with the prows of galleys captured at the Battle of Actium.
Located directly in front of the Temple of Caesar, this rostra was on the Roman forum on the opposite side from the Rostra Augusti. It is approximately as large as the Augustan rostra but has several access doorways underneath the top platform. It is this rostra that has come to confuse researchers and historians because it was not known to exist even after the initial excavations of the forum. Due to a misinterpretation of the age of the structure and lack of translated written accounts as well as the different names given this structure and others incorrectly, nearly the entire rostra was torn down and dismissed as a medieval building. Until its discovery in the 20th century, many references and images of this structure were incorrectly attributed to Rostra Augusti and debate continues as to whether the form of the Augustin monument is correctly reconstructed. It is believed the Rostra Diocletiani is depicted on the Arch of Constantine and not the Augustan structure.