Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Brief History of Hadrian
Hadrian’s Pantheon is one of the most famous and magnificent buildings of all time, having marked its influence on architecture contemporarily as well as in antiquity. As the most well preserved building in Rome, the Pantheon has a rich history, documented throughout time for its enigma of design, function, and meaning. Contemporary scholars still do not have a definitive answer for the meaning of the Pantheon, to the masses or its patron, Emperor Hadrian. However, scholars have many different interpretations about the meaning of the Pantheon.
In order to understand the grandeur of the Pantheon, a little background on its patron is necessary. Publius Hadrianus, known to many as Hadrian, was born in 76 A.D. in Spain. At an early age Hadrian took a strong affection toward Greek and Roman culture. This led him to be known by his peers as the “Greekling.” This fascination with Greek and Roman culture continued into his adult life, and partly explains his later choices in a building program.
During his lifetime, Hadrian lived through five Roman emperors prior to his own ascension to the title. Hadrian became emperor at age 41, after Trajan, his adoptive father died in 117. Throughout history, Hadrian was known for his undoubted intellectual and artistic brilliance. Hadrian was a special emperor compared to his contemporaries. It was this quality and genius that led scholar Edward Gibbon to describe the time when Hadrian ruled as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous…when the vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.”  He also had an interest in astrology and divination far beyond his call of duty as an emperor.
The concept and design of the Pantheon was original. It did not mimic any building program before or even any architectural forms of the time. This of course led to the complicated question of who the architect of the Pantheon was. Although Hadrian has been suggested, it is highly doubtful that Hadrian would have been the “head architect” in today’s sense of the word. A professional architect would have made the drawings and models, calculated the design details and the construction of the project, and the supervision of the complicated work.
Hadrian’s architects were known for their sophistication and audacity. Hadrian’s main projects were built during his reign, of which more than half was spent far away from Rome. This is one reason it is assumed he was not the architect mainly in charge of the projects, but heavily oversaw the building program. Also, it was less likely that in antiquity a passion for architecture was regarded to be as fitting for the educated landowner as it was in the eighteenth century. The phrase from Hadrian’s biography is “Hadrian built ‘with the aid of’ the architects Decrianus and Apollodorus,” although even these architects are strongly debated. This leads scholars to believe Hadrian had a strong hand in the conception of his building program unlike other emperors, but was not the chief architect in many cases.
Apollodorus could have designed the plans for the Pantheon; it was precisely his expertise as an engineer that could have completed its grandeur and sophistication. However, at this time Apollodorus was a popular name, which leads to problems with identification. Also, period texts debate whether Hadrian and Apollodorus were even on speaking terms. In a passage from the eighty volume history of Rome by Dio Cassius, in a volume abridged from Byzantine scholars, states that,
This passage is problematic, in that it is a mix of facts and fiction. Another period source that defamed Hadrian on various occasions, The Historia Augusta doesn’t mention him killing Apollodorus. It links the men without a bit of friction. The only period evidence provided thus far does not provide a concise answer to the architect of the Pantheon.
It seems difficult to understand the meaning of the Pantheon without an understanding of who the true architect was. However, in the 15th century, Antonio Filarete acknowledged the patron’s input with his analogy for the genesis of a building, likening the patron to its father, and the architect to its mother. As patron, Hadrian played a domineering role, unlike his predecessors. With an interest in architecture, unlike all emperors before him, Hadrian took his role of patron to a subsequent level. He became deeply involved in the execution and planning of his projects, so much so that scholars are easily able to distinguish his work.
Brief History of the Pantheon
The first Pantheon was constructed by Agrippa, Augustus’ general, son-in-law, and right hand man, between 27-25 BC as part of the Imperial building program for Augustus. However, Augustus refused this honor because he felt that placing a statue of himself alongside the gods was disrespectful to the divine order. Constructing a building for just one man or for one’s self as Emperor was not done at this time in history. This first building was probably destroyed or at least heavily damaged in the great fire of AD 80. It was then replaced or restored by Emperor Domitian, but then was struck by lightning in AD 110, after which a completely new building was required. The fact that the second building was hit by lightning would have been interpreted as extremely significant during the period. During this time, there were “lighting-interpreters” based on the fact that the Etruscan sky was divided into sixteen parts. They would try to figure out which part of the sky the lightning bolt came from. All that is known is that Hadrian rebuilt the building, altering its original design.
Hadrian began the building of the Pantheon in the Campus Martius on his first return trip to Rome as the new emperor in June or July of 118 AD. All structures in the Campus Martius were oriented on the cardinal points. This is important because Hadrian actually changed the orientation of the first two Pantheon buildings to coincide with these cardinal points, and faced the Pantheon to the north.
Physical Description of the Pantheon
In antiquity, the area surrounding the Pantheon would have looked completely different than the view we see today. A rectangular forecourt on the northern side of the Pantheon would have surrounded a three-sided portico. Also, during Hadrian’s reign the south, east and west sides of the rotunda were flanked by other buildings, and most importantly, on the south side, the Basilica Neptunis was erected during the time of Hadrian. On the east side the back walls of the Saepta Iulia reached the outer face of the rotunda. Unlike today, only the northern façade of the Pantheon was visible.
The structure of the Pantheon is very complex, however there are three constituent parts of the building, the rotunda, transitional block, and portico. The pediment on the portico was decorated with a frieze – you can still see the holes where the clamps which held the sculpture in place were fixed. The symbolism in Hadrian’s pediment would have linked the new building to the spirit of the old one. Some scholars believe the frieze was of an eagle, while others argue the pediment displayed a bronze cast of the Battle of the Titans.
The rectangular structure, called the transitional block, links the portico with the rotunda. As you enter the rotunda, around the oculus, the interior features a coffered ceiling, which during Hadrian’s time contained bronze star ornaments. This coffering was not only decorative, but also reduced the weight of the roof and lantern. The coffers for the concrete dome were poured in molds, probably on the temporary scaffolding; the oculus admits the only light (and rain). The original bronze doors still mark the entrance to the building.
The absence of windows in this space is vitally important. The dome provides all the illumination you need to see everything. Walking into the Pantheon you cannot see any other buildings. Not having any windows denies you any distractions from the building. This space was designed explicitly for this reason.
How the Pantheon addresses the goals of Hadrian’s Building Program
Hadrian’s building program was relentless. He has been likened to Louis XIV and Versailles or Justinian and the Hagia Sophia. As mentioned previously, Hadrian’s building program involved the participation of the emperor himself. He pushed the architects in directions he approved of. Hadrian was in power when Rome was in its peak of political and economic power, which allowed Hadrian to instigate new building projects continually. Hadrian must have expected to set the tone for important building programs in Rome, and other cities as well. He was a patron with noted philhellenic leanings. This explains his decision to include a typical Roman rotunda, while the portico is specifically Greek in inspiration.
Scholar William McDonald claims “Hadrian, the Pantheon, and the cultural texture of the early second century are all inextricably interwoven, and there can be no doubt that the conception of the building and the motivating personality behind its creation were Hadrian’s.”  Hadrian designed the Pantheon in its entirety in order to reconcile the opinions of the gods toward Rome. The Pantheon became a building to celebrate the imperial institution rather than its individual dynasties, as Agrippa had originally envisioned. This differentiation is precisely the aim Hadrian had while rebuilding the Pantheon, to celebrate the imperial order. He had the unique challenge to prove that the Imperial order was part of the Divine order. This is one of the reasons the Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon with a new design.
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”.  Hadrian believed the gods were unhappy with Agrippa’s placement of Augustus alongside deities and this lead to the fire and lightning that ruined the first two Pantheon structures.
Hadrian completely rebuilt the building of the Pantheon, and altered the original design. He transformed the original structure into an octastyle porch, and created a large forecourt. The rotunda is a sphere of brick-faced concrete. The interior wall of the rotunda had eight exedras, with eight alternating apses, making the sixteen divisions in the interior space. Also behind the rotunda Hadrian built a basilica dedicated to Neptune. Hadrian held court in the Pantheon rotunda, so that as his biography described it, “So that whatever was done was made public.”
Hadrian even used simple details, such as the marble floors that recall of the earth, with sphere and square shapes, just as the dome recalls the heavens. This symbolism also relates to the large scale shapes of the Pantheon. Some scholars argue this reinforces the symbolism of the Pantheon as a symbol of the Roman world, with Rome and the emperor at its center.
McKwen explains that Hadrian’s plea was to the celestial gods. It seems the Imperial order could be vindicated because of the way the Pantheon corresponds with the order of the 16 part Etruscan sky that orients the earth. Hadrian used design elements in the Pantheon in order to spread the message of the monument, and cement the symbolism he created.
The Pantheon has been extremely monumental to future generations. Various copies have been made, including monuments in Paris, London, and even a modern copy at the University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. Lastly, the Corinthian capitals on the façade of the Pantheon were a standard used by Renaissance architects.
While researching this topic there were many period stories and anecdotes that surprised me. However, the most surprising was the first time I actually saw the building. After reading and doing so much research, I was awe inspired. When I finally stepped inside, I was overcome by the enormous oculus and the feeling it evoked inside me. I had so much fun learning about the Pantheon, but even more fun being inside and wondering about the rich history of such an important monument.
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