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Rome: Pantheon


Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. The Pantheon in Rome is one of the best-preserved buildings of the ancient world. Seen from the inside, it resembles a giant sphere with a diameter of 43.30 m. The Graeco-Roman historian Cassius Dio already was in doubt whether it was dedicated to 'all gods' or 'the all-divine' (i.e., heaven).
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering.
It has this name, perhaps because it received among the images which decorated it the statues of many gods, including Mars and Venus; but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens. Agrippa, for his part, wished to place a statue of Augustus there also and to bestow upon him the honor of having the structure named after him; but when the emperor wouldn't accept either honor, he placed in the temple itself a statue of the former Caesar and in the ante-room statues of Augustus and himself.
[Cassius Dio, Roman History, 53.27.2-3]

Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering.
Dio is confusing two buildings. Agrippa, a close friend of the emperor Augustus, did indeed build a sanctuary named Pantheon on the Field of Mars: a circular open air sanctuary that played a role in the cult for the emperor. A wide lane connected that building with the Mausoleum of Augustus. It was destroyed by fire in 80 and restored by the emperor Domitian; again destroyed during the reign of Trajan, it was rebuilt between 118 and 125 by the emperor Hadrian, and it was only at this moment that it received its famous vaulted roof.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. It is true that the inscription informs us that the building was built when Agrippa was consul for the third time (M. Agrippa L.f. cos. tertium fecit; CIL 6.31196), in 27 BCE, but this is because Hadrian had the habit of reconstructing monuments under the names of the original builders. Because every Roman knew who was responsible for the rebuilding, he could be ostentatiously modest. (A second line in the inscription refers to a restoration by Septimius Severus and Caracalla in 202 CE; CIL 6.896).
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. Cassius Dio was right that the spherical shape of Hadrian's building represented the heavens. It was a very common idea. Hadrian's contemporary, the philosopher Plutarch, believed that circular temples were miniature copies of the universe (Numa Pompilius, 11). But Agrippa's original design had nothing to do with heavens - inm his age, the Pantheon was a sanctuary for the emperor.

Today, the walls of the Pantheon have lost much of their splendor. Once, they were covered by white Pentelian white marble (from Athens) and stucco. Some remains are still visible.

Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. This photo shows that the triangle-shaped hall in front of the temple (Dio's "ante-room") does not really fit the square substructure of the cupola. A possible explanation is that the columns which supported the hall's roof were lost at sea, and that shorter columns had to be used. Few people will have noticed this construction error, because the Pantheon was surrounded by other buildings (e.g., the Baths of Agrippa).

Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. In Antiquity, a visitor would have reached the hall in front of the temple itself after climbing four stairs of yellow marble from Numidia. This hall, which faces due north and was consequently almost lightless, was made from all kinds of natural stone from Egypt: the pavement was made of grey granite, purple porphyry decorated the walls, and the columns were made of grey and pink granite. (The fact that columns of different colors were used, is one of the arguments for the hypothesis that the hall ought have had taller columns.) White travertine and fragments of Lucullan black-red marble alternated with the Egyptian stones. Many people must have spent their siesta in the shade on this cool spot.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. The capitals of the ancient columns are often damaged, except for the three columns on the eastern side of the portico. The explanation is that they do not belong there. In 1666, they were removed from the nearby Baths of Severus Alexander and placed in the Pantheon.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. A photo of the roof of the hall.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. This was the site of one of the two statues of Augustus and Agrippa that, according to Cassius Dio, were erected in the "ante-room" of the temple. According to Pliny the Elder, there were statues of Caryatids in this hall as well (Natural History34.13), but it is not known where they may have stood - if there were Caryatids at all in the second Pantheon.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. Finally, the capitals of two pilasters in the hall in front of the temple.

On the next page, we will see the sanctuary itself.

>> to part two >>

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 30 March 2007
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