Honors in Rome - Summer 2008
“Rome was the temple of the whole world, and the Pantheon the temple of all that was Roman.” (MacDonald 24)
Hadrian’s Pantheon stands proudly in Rome today as one of the best preserved ancient Roman structures, as well as a symbol of the wealth, glory and power of that illustrious empire. It emerged in ancient Rome as an architectural and engineering marvel, and stood its ground as the golden glamour of the city fell away. It managed to survive, nurtured as a church, in the small village Rome slowly shriveled down to in the subsequent centuries. It stands today, though altered through the thieveries and evolving tastes of time, as a universally recognizable symbol of the city of Rome, whose roots of influence have spread throughout the world. It is an icon, a national treasure, and a shining example of the subtle rhetoric of that era.
The silhouette of the Pantheon is easily recognizable. It is composed of three distinct sections: a porch (portico), a domed rotunda, and an intermediate connecting section. The porch is Greek in style and consists of sixteen massive, Corinthian columns which all together support an elegantly designed triangular stone pediment. Its façade is mostly plain, save for a decorative border and an inscription. Eight of the Egyptian Marble columns constitute the first row, and the subsequent columns form two identical rows of four. Beyond them, one spies two large bronze doors, which had once been gilded. High up on the wall, to the right of the bronze doors, is an inscription by Urban VIII, in 1632: “Pantheon. Aedifivm toto terrarvm orbe celeberrimvm,” which translates to: ‘Pantheon. The most celebrated edifice in the world.’ (MacDonald 90)
The Layout of the Pantheon
Once the visitor enters the pantheon, they are greeted by a dome which, at the time of its conception, was easily the largest ever built by mankind. It is a remarkable structure – the proportions inside are such that a sphere with a diameter of 43.30 meters would fit perfectly inside it. At the top of the dome, covered in square recesses called coffers, lies an : a circular opening 8.92 meters in diameter (Vighi 53). The placing of this hole was obviously deliberate and important, as it necessitated an expensive drainage system during the rainy season. The building of this dome must have been an incredible challenge; unfortunately, little recorded information exists documenting the process. However, in the analysis of its composition, several clues to the process have been discovered; the composition of the concrete in the dome varies in four distinct layers. For instance, the top layer contains lumps of tufa and pumice, one of the lighter compositions, while the layer underneath contains lumps of tufa and brick fragments (Vighi 50). The dome, therefore, was poured over the years in incremental layers, most likely supported by a temporary wooden structure. The symmetry is perfect; the rotunda itself is divided into sixteen parts – a direct connection to the sixteen equal divisions of the Etruscan sky. The Etruscan sky-god was often associated with Roman deities, most notably Jupiter, and this view of the heavens was something deeply rooted in Roman culture. The sheer awe that a dome of this unprecedented magnitude would bestow upon the layman visitor is an important and central part of the Pantheon’s tremendous effect, both then and now.
The location of the Pantheon in the Campus Martius plays a large role in the interest of its symbolism and history (McEwan 55). The name is Latin for ‘Field of Mars,’ the Roman god of war, and was a spot associated with the deaths and lives of Roman rulers and deities, possibly as a direct result of the legend of Romulus’ mysterious disappearance from that very spot after the founding of the city.At the time of the Pantheon’s construction, this location was situated far from the cultural and economic centers of the city and could be described as rural in appearance – during the time of the last Kings of Rome, before the founding of the Republic, the land was royal; where “the horses of Tarquins grazed and their private grain was grown” (Thomas 164). During the republic, it was turned into public land, which went largely untended and was used as a spot for public congregations – Roman armies gathered there during times of war, and Roman citizens assembled there to vote.. Marcus Agrippa’s building program transformed the site into an urban one with the construction of his Pantheon. Because of the location’s history, Agrippa’s building program was able to recall the glories of the Roman empire in war, democracy, and the abandonment of monarchical government. All three of these ideas aided in the deification of his lineage.
The iconic building which now stands in Rome was by no means the original Pantheon, though it rests upon the same site. Agrippa’s Pantheon, erected in approximately 25 B.C., was a smaller, rectangular building – the norm at the time was for places of worship to be rectangular in design. Agrippa’s original intention had been to honor Augustus and the Julius family. Historically, it is known that there were large sculptures of Mars, Venus, Julius Caesar, and Augustus. Julius Caesar had been officially deified only a decade earlier (MacDonald 77). As a descendant of the same line, Agrippa could do nothing but gain from the deification of his line, which, as legend had it, directly descended from Venus, the Roman goddess of love. During the decades directly following its completion, this Pantheon was burnt to the ground, under unknown circumstances. It was then rebuilt and then struck down by lightning. In the superstitious nature of the culture, it is impossible to suggest that the Romans did not take these two events as a sign of some inherent divine unhappiness, perhaps due to the tainted tribute to the gods which was Agrippa’s “hubristic assumptions about the divinity of living emperors” (McEwan 59). Part of Hadrian’s objective in his complete reconstruction and redesigning of the Pantheon then had to be the deliberate avoidance of, and, to an extent, even the reparation for, this mistake. He purified the building and allowed it to serve as its name intended it to; as it name suggests, the Pantheon was a universal temple to all the gods.
Hadrian was born in Roman Spain in 76 AD to an established colonial family. He served in a series of prestigious military posts, befriending along the way the emperor Trajan, for whom, well versed in the art of rhetoric, he would often write speeches. During Trajan’s reign, from 98 to 117 AD, Hadrian was repeatedly given special preference and, as the official story goes, was named by Trajan as his successor on his deathbed (MacDonald 6). There was some outrage at this story, which was publicly denied by some notable figures, providing an instant need for Hadrian to prove his worthiness. The Pantheon was the most celebrated of a small number of building projects Hadrian commissioned immediately upon the start of his reign in 117. Hadrian has been referred to as the most versatile of the Roman emperors and had substantial interest in many notable arts, such as poetry, architecture, and philosophy. Hadrian was abroad for the five to six years, during which the foundation of the Pantheon was laid, visiting the far reaching corners of the Roman Empire, at its largest, and negotiating the return of some of those lands. It is this fact, among others, which many cite as proof that Hadrian was not the main architect of the Pantheon. The head architect of the project is unknown, though many are suspected. . It is true that an architect needed to be on site to draft up the plans, make the arrangements, and oversee the general construction of the site. However, the general design for the Pantheon is most probably Hadrianic in nature, partially due to his passion for Greek architecture.
A bust of Hadrian.
The true origin of the Pantheon was not cemented in academic communities until the late 1800s. This ambiguity occurred for several reasons, the most notable being the inscription on the porch, which, translated, reads: ‘Marcus Agrippa, consul for the third time, built this’ (MacDonald 13). This led to the faulty assumption that this was Agrippa’s pantheon still standing. The dating of the building was first approximated using information stamped on the bricks of the parts of the building, which had naturally begun to crumble and were the subject of restoration efforts. The Pantheon exists “as a valuable, national treasure and not as an archaeological ruin in which for the sake of scientific knowledge it is possible to dig and delve as much as one wishes,” (Licht 9) and because of this only these small restoration efforts have allowed archaeologists and historians to really access the building. They were able to trace the information stamped on the bricks back to the various brickyards from which they originated and the consuls who held office at that time, a procedure most likely followed for both inventory and taxation purposes. The unanimous conclusion from these bricks is that construction did not begin before 117 AD and ended roughly 126-128 AD.
The Pantheon was built at a transitional point in Roman History, when the old stories and beliefs of the ancients had not yet been completely abandoned, but more modern belief systems, such as Christianity and Mithraism, were beginning taking hold. Its meaning is often interpreted as completely universal – a temple dedicated to all the gods and to the unifying power of the Roman Empire, intertwining them and granting an increased sense of legitimacy to the latter. One significant change which Hadrian made to the idea of the original pantheon was a complete reversal of its entrance – while the entrance of the original pointed south, the doors of Hadrian’s opened to the north. This was a further step to separate his own pantheon from Agrippa’s, but beyond that it was also in order further connect his building to the gods who historically occupied northern realms: Jupiter and the god of doorways, Janus. In addition to this reference to classical Roman mythology, there currently reside fifteen empty niches around the perimeter of the rotunda which, most likely, were once inhabited by statues of roman gods, heroes, or pagan symbols. Unfortunately, they have long been empty and no written record has ever been recovered which would indicate the original figures in those positions – something which would lend quite a bit of information to the endless search for a unifying reason to this architectural wonder.
As one of the most recognizable structures ever built, the Pantheon has had a remarkable impact on modern architecture. At that time, the general form of the Pantheon was practically unheard of, though that idea may seem strange to the modern visitor, who has seen the touch of the influence of the Pantheon on countless modern buildings. Famous examples include Jefferson’s Monticello, the Library rotunda at the University of Virginia, and the Round temple at Osita, which was constructed in 230 AD (MacDonald 50). The domed rotunda and rectangular have become absolutely commonplace in modern architecture – each building, in a way, a tribute to, and reminder of, the unmatched glory and prestige of the ancient Roman empire.
In researching this topic, the element which interested me the most was definitely the idea that this Pantheon could have been constructed in order to, in a way, make up for the previous Pantheon. It is definitely, in modern times, a symbol of all that is Roman - especially, as I’ve heard some say, because the Colosseum is tainted by the numerous deaths which took place within its walls. I was surprised, as well, at the sheer engineering marvel that was its construction – I hadn’t realized the scope of the project! Something that struck me as interesting was that the layout, when the rectangular porch is also taken into effect, has been compared to the proportions of the Vitruvian Man, who lies within a similar shape. This is not because of any notion that they reflect each other, merely the idea that they both reflect some sort of basal, human symmetry and a powerful, emotional response to it. My image of the pantheon, before writing this paper, was significantly different from the one I have now, which I both expected and welcomed.
Licht, Kjeld. The Rotunda in Rome: a Study of Hadrian's Pantheon. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1968.
MacDonald, William. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
McEwen, Indra Kagis, "Hadrian's Rhetoric I: The Pantheon", RES, vol. 24, Autumn, 1993
Thomas, Edmund. "Pantheon." Hephaistos: New Approaches in Classical Archaeology and Related Fields. Luneburg: Camelion-Verlag, 1997. 163-186.
Vighi, Roberto. The Pantheon. Rome: Editrice, 1962.