The rich decoration of the Forum of Augustus has been convincingly interpreted as the expression of an iconographic programme conveying political, religious and cultural messages as they were promoted by the first emperor. This approach, while conducive to fundamental insights about Augustan ideology, does not explain how the decoration functioned in actuality. In particular, it fails critically to consider the relationship between the forum’s pervasive imagery and the ritual practices and routine activities that were meant to take place within the forum’s framework. With the help of well-known, but hitherto underutilised evidence, this paper argues that, in order to understand the kinds of attention commanded by the various components of the forum’s imagery, and thereby to fully appreciate its impact, we need to focus closely on the interaction between space, decoration and viewers in the context of such practices and activities. Furthermore, by taking into account not only the correspondences, but also the discrepancies between decoration and social practices, this paper proposes a more complex interpretive model for understanding ancient ornamenta - one that both incorporates and goes beyond traditional iconological approaches.