Our Rome tours with a private guide include an overview of the Lapis Niger (Latin for ‘Black Stone’), a site in the Roman Forum where an ancient shrine surrounded by black slabs of marble sets it apart from ubiquitous travertine flooring. Along with the Vulcanal, a sanctuary to Vulcan, it is the only surviving remnant of the Old Comitium, an assembly which pre-dates the forum. It may also be the location of a 7th or 8th century BC. cult.
The Lapis Niger was unearthed in 1899 by Giacomo Boni and it’s discovery was recorded in the writings of Sextus Pompeius Festus, which alluded to a ‘black stone in the Comice’ (Lapis Niger in Comitio). Described as a fatal place, the tomb of Romulus, or at least where he was killed, the literary tradition according to which the first Roman king was killed beside a sanctuary initiated the misidentification of the site with Romulus’ grave. This hypothesis has been excluded in modern times.
Excavations have uncovered a monumental complex comprising a platform supporting a tuffaceous altar with three antas (shutters) and a circular basement, perhaps used to house a statue, and a trapezoid cippus (low pillar) – possibly the Lapis Niger as described in ancient Latin texts – the sides of which show bustrofedic inscriptions (‘the way of plowing oxen’, i.e. from left to right in reverse) which date back to 570-560 B.C. The inscriptions resemble ancient Greek alphabet, and the stone is chronologically linked to the period when Greek lettering was in use by the people of Italy. As only fragments of each line have survived the ravages of time, it is impossible to decipher the meaning with any degree of accuracy. However, scholars are of the opinion that it may be a warning.
The Lapis Niger, occasionally referred to as ‘Heart of the World’, is being restored to it’s original splendour in situ after centuries of concealment. At the foot of the Campidoglio, between the Curia Julia and Arch of Septimius Severus, a specialized project area is now strictly off limits, as archaeologists dismantle 300 square metres of reinforced concrete floor laid in the 1950’s. Project leader Pia Petrangeli reports that iron parts inside the paving, severely corroded by humidity, have been stabilized to reduce the possibility of collapse. In order to achieve such a delicate task, an innovative application has been used for the first time on an archaeological dig in Rome. Technicians will cut through the concrete with a sophisticated air-saw and ‘wagon-bridge’. At time of writing, the area is secure and works to uncover the stone are already underway. If you are interested in a tour of the Roman Forum in the company of an expert Rome tour guide, Ancient City, Piazzas & Fountains is a good place to start, as is Rome in a Day, Two Days in Rome and Three Days in Rome.