Honors in Rome - Winter 2006
It is easy to be overcome by the Pantheon’s immense rotunda and beautiful design when strolling through the interior for the first time. But with a close study of the history of the building’s design, a coherent meaning behind its design becomes apparent. The Roman Emperor Hadrian incorporated many elements of design that reflect the historical context of the 2nd century A.D. as well as the emperor’s background. I will survey the opinions of two critics and argue that the Hadrian designed The Pantheon in order to reconcile the complaints of the Gods and to make a political appeal to the citizens of the Roman Empire. Further, Hadrian’s universal design of The Pantheon has proved not only appealing to the Gods and the citizens of the Roman Empire, but to future generations as well.
Before diving into the question of meaning, it is necessary to understand Hadrian’s background and the historical context. The following passage from Elizabeth Speller’s Following Hadrian introduces this topic succinctly and thoroughly:
He traveled his empire, assiduously as he believed, recreating a lost Hellenistic earthly paradise, where his buildings stood not only as a Reminder to his subjects after he had gone but as a memorial to his Beloved Greece, to exceed his predecessors and as a legacy to the Posterity which would judge him. He used art to bind his empire with his Own past and an unknown future.
Publius Hadrianus (known in English as Hadrian) was born in 76 A.D. in a small Roman settlement in Spain. Although surrounded by Spaniards and North Africans Hadrian began to love Greek and Roman culture at a young age and received the moniker the “Greekling.” He admired Greek art, language, and science and studied it extensively. His understanding of the Greeks fell under a broader context. Hadrian was well read and had a strong sense of Mediterranean history—he even lived through five Roman emperors prior to his ascension to Roman Emperor.
When Hadrian’s cousin and close friend Trajan became emperor, it thrust Hadrian into elite Roman circles and onto a path destined for prominence in Roman public service. Hadrian was appointed general and led several military expeditions in Northern and Eastern Europe. He was also appointed governor of Syria. After a long and suspenseful wait, Trajan appointed Hadrian the Emperor of the Roman Empire in 117 A.D.
Hadrian’s ascension to the throne signaled a new direction for the Roman Empire. Unlike Trajan, Hadrian sought to consolidate the empire’s borders. He feared that the administration and defense of the massive empire exacted an unbearable financial and human onus. He also had a unique relationship with the empire’s client states. Hadrian conceived of himself as more of a father of the empire’s foreign land and people, as opposed to its master (Speller 77). He traveled the empire extensively. Hadrian spent 12 of his 21 years as emperor traveling, more than any other emperor. The travel was not solely for military purposes, but Hadrian also had an interest in interacting and connecting with people--likely for both political and personal reasons.
The emperor’s attitude towards empire manifested itself in his extensive building projects. In Athens, Hadrian built a library and several other monuments. The Greeks respected Hadrian and reciprocated his generosity by constructing and dedicating a triumphal arch to the Emperor. Hadrian understood the importance of traveling to Greece. There was much to learn from their rich culture (language, arts) and knowledge base (philosophy and sciences). Furthermore, over half of the people enveloped by the Roman Empire spoke Greek as their native language and to ignore their heritage would have been a political disaster.
The emperor also left his mark in many regions outside of Greece. In 122 A.D. Hadrian constructed the 73 mile long wall, spanning west/east across England, that is known as “Hadrian’s Wall.” This structure marked the northernmost boundary of the Empire as well as a boundary between the Romans and their enemies. Hadrian also constructed a lavish villa in Tivoli (near Rome). The grounds cover over one square kilometer and house over 30 buildings. Hadrian’s eclectic style manifests itself in his re-creation of a garden and reflecting pool reminiscent of an ancient Alexandrian resort (about 200 BC) . Hadrian also built a number of monuments in Rome, including one known as “The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” that honors his cousin and predecessor.
None of Hadrian’s building projects, nor those of other designers, attract as much veneration and scrutiny as the Pantheon. Pantheon means “all the Gods” and is located in the Campus Martius, the ancient and present-day heart of Rome. The original Pantheon was not built by Hadrian but by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law and minister of Emperor Augustus, in 27 B.C. Agrippa sought to honor Augustus and did so by creating a large rectangular structure (unlike the present structure). Inside, statues of Mars (the God of War), Venus (the God of Love), Caesar, Augustus, and Agrippa adorned the building. Augustus felt that placing a statue of himself alongside the Gods was disrespectful to the divine order. He felt that the Roman Gods should be symbolically venerated at a higher level than a living human, even if he was the Roman emperor. Agrippa accepted the plea and placed the statues of himself and Augustus outside of the Pantheon.
Not long after the construction of the Pantheon several bad omens struck. Agrippa’s building was destroyed in a fire in 80 A.D. Domitian, who became emperor in 81, restored The Pantheon in order to display his loyalty to the popular age of Augustus. A lightning strike in 110 A.D. incinerated Domitian’s newly restored building. The lightning interpreters (Fulgatores—part of the Etruscan beliefs) must have subscribed a certain meaning to these events but they were not recorded for our knowledge.
What is certain however, is that Hadrian’s construction of the new Pantheon (120-124 A.D.) was entirely different from that of previous designs. According to Indra McEwen, a contributor to RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, the new design reflected Hadrian’s desire “to prove that the Imperial order, with its rule of law and its care for the republic, was part of the divine order, initiated by it and subsumed to it” (60).
McEwen’s article “Rhetoric of the Pantheon, is an analysis of the meaning of The Pantheon. Her fundamental argument is that Hadrian hoped to reconcile the imperial order (emperors) with the divine order (gods). The Gods were unhappy with Agrippa’s placement of a living emperor alongside deities and their displeasure manifested itself in the two aforementioned fires as well as a lightning strike the jostled the spear from the arms of Augustus’ statue. Hadrian sought to vindicate Rome from the wrath of the Gods and prove once and for all Augustus and Agrippa were right to build The Pantheon.
Hadrian incorporated a number of new design aspects to the Pantheon. Firstly and most significantly, Hadrian reversed the direction of The Pantheon 180 degrees so it now faces north. In the center of the porch, a frieze of Hadrian showed the Emperor dispensing gifts. The intermediate block is decorated with various religious rituals, including augurs (foretellers). Following the rectangular porch and intermediate block is the rotunda. It is a cylinder with a 43 meter diameter with a 9 meter oculus that permits the entrance of sunlight. The interior wall of the Rotunda has eight apses (arched recessions), including the entrance. There are also eight piers (arched protrusions), thereby creating 16 divisions. Behind the rotunda Hadrian constructed a rectangular basilica for Neptune, God of the Sea.
As McEwen explains, Hadrian’s new design reflected his desire to pay homage to the Gods and avoid their onslaught of fires. The 16 divisions of The Pantheon are a significant design component because of their connection to the Etruscan Discipline. Part of this discipline includes the 16 divisions of the Etruscan Sky (and all regions contain connections to deities). The first region is located in the north, just as The Pantheon is oriented. Janus, the guardian of entrances has his realm in the northern sky. Furthermore, 16 columns form the vertical support for the porch of Pantheon. Therefore Hadrian’s “plea” to the gods is that the imperial order must be vindicated because the number of divisions and columns of the Pantheon corresponds to the 16 parts of the Etruscan Sky.
As Emperor, Hadrian would have sat at the southern apse facing north with Neptune at his back. Hadrian used The Pantheon to write laws, govern and judge. From his imperial seat, Hadrian must have looked upwards through the oculus and pondered the Gods and endless sky. McEwen believed that since the width of this main apse (in the southern end) is 9 meters, the same as the oculus, Hadrian would have become Neptune (ruler of the sea) who’s brother is Jupiter (ruler of the sky).
William MacDonald is another critic who offers an explanation for the meaning behind the Pantheon’s design. In his book entitled The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny, MacDonald explains that The Pantheon was likely a dedication to wider audiences which included Augustus, the empire and the Gods. He believes that it was a dedication to Augustus because Hadrian kept the inscription above the porch that boldly states “Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times consul, built this,” despite the fact that it was undoubtedly Hadrian that built this reconstruction. The structure of the building is also reminiscent of the forum of Augustus. For instance, both monuments have large rectangular forecourts preceding immense temples.
MacDonald believes several pieces of evidence support his argument that the Pantheon is a dedication to the Roman Empire. The large rotunda is a bold declaration of the empire’s authority. At the time of its construction, it is unlikely that any rotunda challenged its grandiosity. The Gods, especially Zeus (the Sky God) overlook this symbol of empire from their heavenly position.
In analyzing these critiques of the Pantheon as a whole, it becomes clear that although both authors touch on similar issues, there are important differences between the two viewpoints. McEwen is convinced that Hadrian deeply desired to reconcile the divine order with the imperial order and attempted to do so by creating divisions and columns reminiscent of the Etruscan Sky, reorienting the entrance to the north, and building a temple for Venus. MacDonald on the other hand, feels that Hadrian was more concerned with appealing to the golden Augustan Age. This is evidenced by the fewer explicit design connections to the Gods. MacDonald also sees the Pantheon as being a tribute to the Roman empire’s extensive size.
It is hard to determine exactly what the Emperor had in mind when he began the reconstruction of The Pantheon only three years after his ascension to power. The two most striking points about Hadrian’s background, when considering his vision for the Pantheon’s design, is his understanding of how the Gods operate and his self-consciousness of legitimizing his rule. Being well-read, he had a strong sense that the gods required reverence and the best way to demonstrate this was through incorporating design elements in the Pantheon from the Etruscan Discipline. Considering that Hadrian’s building still stands nearly two millennia later, he succeeded in his new design.
With regard to legitimizing his rule, I believe that the appeal to the age of Augustus is a very important point. Not everyone easily accepted his rise to power. Elite circles in Rome whispered that conspirators had forged the letter from Trajan in which he appoints Hadrian as his successor. Although no evidence so supports such a conspiracy, it must not have escaped the new emperor’s mind. Most people living under the Roman Empire understood the glory associated with Augustus’s rule. Under Augustus, commerce thrived and peace prevailed. One testament to this is the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) built for Augustus by the Roman Senate. By bridging the connection with Augustus, Hadrian could legitimize his rule with the people of the Roman Empire.
Thus, McEwen and MacDonald both make valid points, but for different reasons. I agree with McEwen because the design is motivated by Hadrian’s personal desire to appeal to the Gods. MacDonald makes a valid point because Hadrian is motivated to make a political appeal (by way of Augustus) to those living in the Roman Empire (and thereby legitimizing his rule).
Hadrian’s design of the Pantheon was conceived nearly two millennia ago, yet its design has endured because of its universality (MacDonald). As the critic states, the design “made it possible for the building to be meaningful in different ways in different historical periods” (94).
This has proved itself true over the duration of The Pantheon’s existence as people from many other countries in different time periods have used The Pantheon’s design and legacy for local projects. In the 2nd century A.D. it was copied as a victory shrine in Scotland and during the Renaissance, it was studied for inspiration and education. In the 1700s and 1800s, similar structures were built in Paris, Berlin, and on a wealthy estate in London. In the U.S., Thomas Jefferson apparently had an affinity for The Pantheon; Monticello and several structures at the University of Virginia harken back to this monument. At the U.S. Capitol, statuary hall has a Pantheon-like Rotunda and interior.
My personal experience at the Pantheon confirms this analysis. I have found it to be my favorite monument in Rome, for unique reasons. When I first entered the rotunda I felt dwarfed by this gigantic structure surrounding me in all directions. But as I looked up to the sky I saw light and a sense of endlessness. I got the sense that while we should be humble on earth, there are unlimited possibilities for humans. I suspect many people are impressed so vividly with the imposing rotunda and the small yet dramatic opening of the sky.
Adembri, Benedetta. Hadrian's Villa. Milan: Electa, 2002.
"The Ancient Roman Builders: Builders of Empire." (VHS). Chatworth, CA: Chathworth Multimedia, 2002.
Benario, H.W. A Commentary on the ‘Vita Hadriani’ in the ‘Historia Augusta’. Chico, CA: 1980.
"Hadrian." Grove Art Online. 12, Nov 2005. http://www.groveart.com/shared/views/article.html?from=search&session_search_id=806011108&hitnum=1§ion=art.036033
Henderson, B.W. Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian . London: 1923.
MacDonald, William L. The Architecture of the Roman Empire. New Haven: Yale University, 1965.
MacDonald, William L. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1976.
Speller, Elizabeth. Following Hadrian. Oxford: Oxford University, 2003.
Syme, R. Tacitus. 2 vols . Oxford, 1958.