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Rome: Temple of Elagabal


Terrace seen from the east. Photo Jona Lendering.
Terrace seen from the east.
Temple of Elagabal: one of Rome's temples dedicated to the Sun god.

The boy-emperor Heliogabalus was an enthusiastic worshipper of the Syrian sun god Elagabal of Emesa, or, as the Romans sometimes called him Sol Invictus, "the invincible sun". During Heliogabalus' reign, which began in 218 and lasted until 222, he dedicated a temple on the Palatine hill. After all, Elegabal was also a mountain god.

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Terrace seen from the northeast. Photo Jona Lendering.
Terrace seen from the northeast. 

The terrace of the temple, the Elagabalium, had already been built by the emperor Domitian(81-96) and there may have been a place of worship dedicated to Jupiter. Heliogabalus, however, expanded the terrace and rededicated it to Sol Invictus Elagabal.

The second photo shows the terrace from the northeast; the little church to the right, dedicated to the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, marks the site of the ancient temple. After Heliogabalus' death the temple was once again dedicated to Jupiter by Severus Alexander. Today, only the terrace and a few remains are visible in the garden of the church of San Sebastiano.

The remains of the five-arched gate. Photo Jona Lendering.
The remains of the five-arched gate.

In front of the sanctuary, on its western side, was a large, five-arched gateway of which a few remains are left. When you enter the little modern gate, you reach the church garden.

The author of the Historia Augusta reports that after building the temple, Heliogabalus moved the emblems of the Great Mother, the fire of Vesta, the palladium (a statue of Minerva), the shields of the Salii and other sacred objects to the new building (SHA, Heliogabalus, 3.4). 

Model of the temple of Elagabal. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Jona Lendering.
Model of the temple of Elagabal (KMKG, Brussel)

For traditional Romans, these were extremely sacrilegious acts. For instance, the statue of Minerva had always been hidden from sight and was not to be moved from its place - and yet the emperor had not only entered the holy temple, but had also touched the statue, and had even ordered its removal. He soon gave back the statue under the pretense that his god was displeased with the goddess. Instead, the goddess of the celestial Venus (Tanit) was ordered to come from Carthage.

Northern terrace wall. Photo Jona Lendering.
Northern terrace wall.

It seems that Heliogabalus wanted his temple to be a place of worship for Elagabal and two goddesses, as had always been the case in Syria. At the same time, venerating a triad on a hilltop was a challenge to the temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva on the Capitol.

A satellite photo of the terrace can be found here, and another article on this temple is here.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 2 Jan. 2009
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