#7: Niger Lapis and the Volcanal (Shrine of Vulcan)

Ok, you are still standing next to the 'Niger Lapis' (that fenced-off black paving in front of the Curia).

'Niger Lapis' means 'Black Stone' which was put over part of the 'Volcanal' area which is a 'Shrine to Vulcan' aka 'Volcanus' (a Shrine is an open air structure whereas a Temple is roofed building).

The Volcanal Shrine was cut-down heightwise and then paved over, the Niger Lapis marks it's partial underground location. The Volcanal was discovered and excavated in 1899 and that is where those fenced-off stairs lead to. You can peek down the stairs but you won't see too much.

You'll also notice squares of thick glass blocks in the pavement nearby, those are skylights for further underground Comitium excavations.

The Volcanal was probably the oldest man-made site in the Forum. Some parts of it that remain today are from the sixth possibly seventh Century BC. But it is possible some claim that an even earlier Shrine existed there before Romulus and the Founding of Rome. They were burying their dead in the Forum marsh and even pitching in a few live ones :=( (sacrifices? capital punishment?) before Romulus' time. So it's very possible that a type of shrine existed here on this higher dry ground. And some attribute this site's founding and cult worship to Romulus. But it's usually attributed to Titus Tatius the Sabine King who fought and later co-ruled with Romulus. So during or before the founding of Rome we have a 'Shrine to Vulcan' here. But by Julius Caesar's day and even earlier the *exact* meaning or purpose of this site was already lost.

Vulcan was very likely not an original Roman God and was probably taken from the Etruscans. It's also possible that this Etruscan God was originally a gentler God of the changing seasons and plant/crop growth but later changed by the Romans to a Fire God. Vulcan is a God of Fire who also has control of volcanos, earthquakes and lightning. Where the Vestal Virgins Fire was good (the home hearth, warmth, light, protection, cooking, etc), Vulcans Fire was the destructive and devouring side. But appeasing a God like Vulcan through worship and sacrificing keeps him happy and a happy Fire-God doesn't burn up ya stuff :-) .

Plus these boys are Iron-Age so worshipping a God who forges your weapons with his fire keeps you ahead in the Arms Race :-) .

Vulcan also had a bad-boy son named Cacus. He was a fire-breathing monster that lived on a Roman hill and was killed by Hercules.

Many years later when the Romans are going ga-ga over the Greeks they merge their Vulcan with the older and cooler Greek God of fire Hephaestus. Hephaestus is a Fire-God/Blacksmith who lives and works under a Volcano (the Roman word that we still use today). He makes everything for the Gods from their weapons and armor, Zeus' Lighting Bolts, Pandora's Box, Archilles' Armor, etc.

Bottom line: It seems *very likely* that this site was the *first* religious shrine/temple from 'Day 1' of Rome's beginning or even before. The worship of Fire and Fire-Gods goes back to the dawn of civilization. But even for these Iron-Age tribes a Fire God would still be 'The Main Man' :-) , cooks ya food, forges your weapons, keeps ya warm and keeps the wolves away.

Vulcan later becomes one of the twelve main Roman Gods and has a couple of festivals in his honor. There is a minor one in June where fishermen offer fish to Vulcan. But the main state sponsored festival/holiday is called the Volcanalia and is held on August 23.

In Rome live fish are thrown into bonfires as an offering to avoid his wrath, these fish are always from the Tiber River where the water is used to put out fires in Rome. It reads to me that the Volcanal had offerings of fish and possibly larger animals at it's Shrine but it was more low-key and religious, whereas bonfires in the other parts of the city were wilder party festivals (like the US Fourth of July).

On August 23, 79 AD the Roman towns around Mt. Vesuvius would also be celebrating Volcanalia and making offerings to Vulcan. The next day Vesuvius blows its top and becomes an active Volcano, the residents must have believed it was the wrath of Vulcan upon them! Vulcan is also the major God and cult in Ostia (Rome's seaport) where the major warehouses store Rome's foodstuffs (food + fire = famine). There is also a 'Temple to Vulcan' (215 BC) in Rome's Campus Martius. This is where they want the many 'offering fires' (bonfires), away from the city's central grand and flammable structures. Also if you search for 'Volcanal' you might sometimes find it placed behind the Rostra and alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus. During the nineteenth Century Forum excavations the 'Altar of Saturn' was mistakenly thought to be the Volcanal.

Well you can't see this Shrine unless you hop the fence and go down the stairs, if you hop the fence you'll need two things, a flashlight and the phone number of a good Rome Trespass Lawyer :-) . But PhotoFromTouristInRome("IMG_7766-20141007","this model");?> in the 'Museo Nazionale Romano' at the 'Baths of Diocletian' shows the open-air shrine. This museum is across the street from the Termini Train Station and often overlooked but it's a must for history buffs.

Now stand behind the 'Niger Lapis' facing the Forum, the Stairs are in the right rear corner and I want you to stand in the left rear corner facing that tall marble base with the erased 'Stilicon' inscription in the Forum I mentioned earlier. This is roughly the direction that this shrine is facing and the 'Niger Lapis' only covers-over part of it. Look at the photo: The Shrine is U-shaped like this [TT] and in front of it is a rectangular Altar. The Niger Lapis corner where you are standing is over the lower right corner of that structure that is the left part of the U or this [T section. It extends over to the lower right corner of the Altar and covers-over the entire right section of the U or this part T] and that square and circular object.

It also extends over a well (not shown in photo) that is below the right lower corner of the right part of the U. This square Well I'm guessing is a 'Pozzi Rituali' (Ritual Pit, there are quite a few in the Forum. It's believed that they were for discarding the remains of animal sacrifices), if so it's possibly that this is the first one in the Forum. {If So} The Altar in front of the Volcanal would be where the animals were sacrificed by the Priests.

The Priest(s) would then look at the animal's entrails/intestines and organs for a sign from the Gods and announce their findings good/bad, yes/no, pro/con etc.

Example: On the day Julius Caesar was murdered the Priests told him the bird they sacrificed for him had no heart, so a bad omen (stay home and don't go to the Senate Meeting).

I've read that the entrails/organs are then burned. Of the pits excavated in the Forum nothing was found in them except one had some broken pottery in it, which could be there for any reason. So if these Pozzi Rituali were used for discarding the sacrifices there should be animal bones in them I'd imagine? I wonder if *just* the entrails/organs (which after all that is where the Gods intervened with their Signs) were sacredly burned and then deposited into the pits? In 2000 years ashes mixed in soil would be had to find and even if the intact organs were dumped into these pits their evidence would be long gone? The other Pozzi Rituali we'll see later are six or more pits in a straight line except for the ones (I believe) at the Arch of Augustus which are in a square like this [: :].

So in the the model photo [another view] you can see what is left of the actual horse-shoe shaped Shrine.

It just seems odd to me that this ancient shrine was not only covered-over but also partly demolished. It was destroyed by the 390 BC Gaul invasion and torching of Rome but rebuilt.

Why did they cover it over it? (it was *very probably* paved-over by Julius Caesar's reconstruction and burying of the Comitium in the mid to late 40's BC although some attribute it wrongly to Sulla's about 80 BC reconstruction) Caesar paved-over the area at a higher level but he could have left this shrine intact at the lower level and fenced-off with steps down to it or disassembled the stone block shrine and reassembled it on the newer pavement?

Also the shrine would have to be cut-down to be paved-over but it looks like it was destroyed a lot more than need be. Romans were fearful of destroying shrines and temples to their Gods, that whole wrath of god thing.

Julius Caesar was a dictator and he could get what he wanted. But I've never read anything negative about him doing this nor was it ever rebuilt after his reign to appease the God Vulcan. It's also odd that the Lapis Niger only covers around one-third of the actual shrine (that small stone pedestal? in the center of the 'U' and basically the entire right side of the 'U') but does cover over the Cippus and Pillar (the square and round objects in the model photo) and also that Well (Pozzi Rituali?) I mentioned.

So was that area and those objects the most sacred (especially the Cippus )? Or is there another reason for this small Black Pavement site? It did become known as an unlucky or ill-omened place. That Shrine is from about 350-300 BC but it replaced an earlier one. It's believed that the Shrine was used as the earliest speaker's platform (rostra) for the Comitium and also for public assemblies in the Forum (the Shrine and Comitium was higher than the Forum back then). And they're fairly certain that early VIP cremations were done before this Shrine.

We don't know what this Shrine looked like before it was chopped down but it's *claimed* that each side of the 'U' had a Lion's statue on it. Perhaps this is from an ancient source that said there was a Lion statue in honor of Romulus' stepfather (Faustulus) located around there? And one source *claims* that the center section of the 'U' is a grave? Also notice that the sides of the 'U' look like tombs, at least to me. Later day Romans believed that this Shrine was supposed to be where Romulus was to be buried but his body was never found. Remember this is the location I mentioned early on where one tradition claims Romulus was killed here by the Senators and his body was cut up and snuck away hidden beneath the Senators togas. The modern Italian inscription in the staircase wrongly claims it's the Tomb of Romulus. Also it's believed that Romulus' stepfather Faustulus was buried here in his place.

And also that it is the grave of Hostus Hostilius whose was the grandfather of the third Roman King Tullus Hostilius.

The circular column base in the photo is from the third Century BC and probably supported a statue.

The square base in the photo website above is an inscribed tufa stone block called a Cippus (an inscribed upright stone often used as gravestones aka a stela). Cippus model photos are here and here. This Cippus dates from the sixth Century BC (570-550 BC) some even say earlier (seventh Century BC). The Cippus inscription is the oldest Latin writing ever found and it's style is called Boustrophedonic meaning it's read up and down in alternating directions.

Seeing that its height was cut-down for the new pavement only 1/3 to 1/2 of each line survives. It seems that the inscription is a set of laws for a religious rite where the King and his Herald perform sacred duties involving 'beasts of burden' or yoked animals. They believe that it means that the King sacrified animals (bull, oxen. etc) at this Shrine. And because his Herald is with him it's believed it was in connection with the Comitium meetings (an opening sacrifice?).

Some think that the Cippus' original location was atop that small rectangular stone block in the middle of the 'U'. And it was moved to a lower location so that more of it could be saved due to the cutting-down of the site for the pavement.

Ok now, look to the Arch and past it to the modern stairs and the scant remains of the Temple of Concord on the left of the stairs at the base of that large building from where you are standing next to the Niger Lapis. That area was called the 'Area Volcani' and was part of this Shrine's sacred area. It was an large open area but probably marked or fenced-off. It had quite a few inscriptions and statues within it. The earliest was said to be a bronze quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses statue) from Romulus.

A statue of Horatius Cocles (early military hero) who's statue was in the Comitium but after it was struck by lightning it was moved here. And oddly a player who was performing in the Circus Maximus and was struck down by a lightning bolt was buried here and had a statue atop a column over his grave. Lightning strikes were considered a sign from the Gods and in his player's circumstance it was considered a good sign it seems :-) . Also Vulcan had lightning in his realm of control, so perhaps that is why the both ended up here?

In 304 BC a bronze 'Shrine to Concordia' was erected in this area. And also history records two 'Rains of Blood' falling in this area, the last in 181 BC. And if you couldn't guess it's a bad sign from the Gods :-) . An ancient Lotus and Cypress tree also grew in this area, the Lotus tree was huge.

Over the years this Area Volcani shrunk in size like when the 'Temple of Concord' was built about 367 BC.

A statue base has been found (nearby the Curia) dedicated to Vulcan from Augustus in 9 BC. But it seems this God although one of the 'Big 12' was kind-of pushed to the back of the pack and his cult worship put on the back burner.

Emperor Maxentius 306-312 AD tried to revive this cult (his nearby pedestal base facing the Niger Lapis) but if he had any success it would be short lived, Christian Emperor Constantine kicks his butt and takes over.

NIGER LAPIS: So Julius Caesar (mid-to-late 40 BC) paves-over the Comitium and buries the all the remains. He did this in his reorganization of the Forum, with a new Senate Building (Curia Julia, that you see before you) and a new Rostra in a new location at the western end of the Forum Square And in this new pavement he puts in the 4 m x 3 m Black Stone (Niger Lapis) site.

It is actually a 'bluish-gray limestone' and the short side facing the Forum isn't exactly square for some reason. And as I have already mentioned it covers about 1/3 of the Shrine including the small stone base in the center of the 'U', the Cippus, the short circular column which perhaps held a small statue and the Well (Pozzi Rituali?).

Why *just* that area and those objects, who knows. If it was to revere the Cippus you would think it would be in the exact center which it is not (it's centered but at the top of this rectangular site. Plus by doubling the size you could cover the complete site, it's only paving stones after all.

And why bury and partially destroy such an ancient and revered site in the first place?

And now after the Niger Lapis is built it becomes known as an inauspicious (ill-omened, unlucky, evil, unfavorable) place. The theories are that *that* underground section in Caesar's day was believed to be either a grave or crime scene :-) . Either Romulus or his foster father Faustulus or the third King of Rome's grandfather was believed to be buried there. Or that is the location where Romulus was murdered by the Senators.

Julius Caesar has the Curia Julia built *directly* facing the Niger Lapis and not square to the Forum Square as it should be. So this site was revered by the Romans in his day. In 9 AD after a fire Emperor Augustus has this whole area repaved except for the Niger Lapis.

You'll notice that the Niger Lapis is one pavement level below the surrounding pavement. Augustus also put the slotted curb around it which held upright marble slabs (only the south side survives) which formed a fence around the Niger Lapis.

Whether it was fenced-off or open originally I do not know but it probably was being a sacred site.

In 1955 they excavated beneath the 'Shrine of Vulcan', no human remains, grave goods or tombs were found.

Next: #8.1: Curia Julia (Senate Building) - Exterior
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