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5 Key Roman Temples Before the Christian Era

5 Key Roman Temples Before the Christian Era



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Whilst Roman religion was complex and difficult to define, Roman authors often attributed Rome’s success and greatness to its devout religious practices. The sacra publica was the public aspect of Roman religion, responsible for the gods maintaining the community’s well-being. In return the Romans observed the correct rituals to celebrate the gods.

Some scholars have even argued that in this part of religious life, ritual observation was more important than faith and belief. As loci of ritual activity, temples were of supreme importance.

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Here are 5 key Roman temples before Christianity.

1. Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus

19th Century woodcut depicting an artist’s reconstruction of the temple.

Situated on the Capitoline hill, this was the most important Roman temple. It was dedicated to the important Capitoline Triad — the king of the gods, Jupiter “the Best and the Greatest”, his wife Juno, and daughter Minerva.

The oldest large temple in Rome, it was dedicated in 509 BC during the founding of the Republic, though it was later rebuilt several times. Its size remains a matter of debate, however it was supposedly larger than any other temple for centuries afterwards. One estimate is that it was 60 metres by 60 metres.

This is where triumphant generals sacrificed at the end of their grand processions through Rome. This is where consuls and praetors made vows to the gods on their first day in office. This is where the Ludi Romani, a great religious festival full of athletic shows, chariot races and theatre, began.

It is difficult to imagine the awe this building must have inspired.

2. Temple of Vesta

Remains of the Temple of Vesta in Rome. Image Credit GinoMM / Commons

Dating to the 7th century BC, this temple was supposedly built by the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. Heralded as the father of Roman religion and the king who civilised the warlike Romans, he brought the Vestal virgins to Rome from Alba Longa. They were intrinsically related with Rome already, as Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus, had been a Vestal virgin.

Once enshrined within their new temple, they became regarded as fundamental to the continuance of Rome. Many ascribed them mystical powers, and certainly their political power was very real — when a young Julius Caesar was included in Sulla’s proscriptions, it was the Vestals who interceded and gained him a pardon.

Mars and Rhea Silvia, a Vestal virgin and mother of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, by Rubens.

Architecturally distinct for being circular rather than rectangular, this temple housed several important items including the sacred flame of Vesta and the Palladium, two of the pignora imperii that guaranteed the continued imperium of Rome.

3. The Pantheon

The only one of this list that is still in use, though as a church rather than a temple, it strikes an impressive sight. The best preserved of any Roman building, it has inspired visitors over two millennia. The Venerable Bede supposedly declared in the 8th century that whoever leaves Rome without seeing the Pantheon, leaves Rome a fool. Michelangelo believed it to be angelic, not human.

The Pantheon is still in use today. Image Credit Roberta Dragan / Commons.

Contrary to its state of preservation, the actual purpose of the building remains unknown. Commissioned during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) by Marcus Agrippa, it was reconstructed by Hadrian around 126 AD. The name “Pantheon” has lead to the belief that it was a temple to all the gods, yet some scholars argue that it wasn’t a temple at all.

Truthfully we are uncertain as to what its true function was, as its architecture is distinct from any other building.

4. Temple of Saturn

Etching of the Roman Forum, reconstructed by the artist.

The ancient authors agree that this temple was the next oldest in the Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum) after the Temple of Vesta. They disagree on the exact date of construction, but it was dedicated in 497 BC.

It was likely built in response to Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and these would have been the two largest temples in the immediate vicinity.

We can still see the remains of the front porch, though this is the third incarnation of the temple. A trend with Roman temples is that they seem to be destroyed and rebuilt, a lot, often by fire.

Remains of the Temple of Saturn. Image Credit Sailko / Commons.

The temple is dedicated to Saturn, the father of Jupiter and associated with agriculture, time, wealth, dissolution, and renewal. He supposedly ruled Latium in a “golden age”, where humans enjoyed the bounty of the earth without labour, land ownership, animal slaughter, or slavery.

He had a contradictory nature — being one of Rome’s oldest gods yet originally a foreigner, and associated with liberation yet bound for most of the year. This binding was represented by Jupiter chaining him with stars, and physically with the legs of his statue wrapped in wool.

These wrappings were only removed during the Saturnalia, a great festival meant to reflect the lost golden age, where social customs were turned upside down. Gambling was allowed, and slaves even ate with their masters.

The great wealth associated with his rule is likely why the treasury was kept in the temple during the Republic.

Dan talks to Kevin Butcher about the Roman festival of Saturnalia, with its drinking, gift-giving, and sense of a world turned upside-down.

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5. Temple of Mars Ultor

Built by Augustus in 2 BC, this was the sole temple dominating his new forum — the Forum Augustum. Prior to this, no temple dedicated to Mars had been built within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome. Mars had been kept outside the city walls so that he could repel foreign invaders rather than foment internal dissent.

A miniature model representation of the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum Augusti. Credit: Rabax63 / Commons.

Augustus’ enshrining of him within the heart of Rome marked a re-conception of the deity. From the youthful hellene, Mars became the fatherly protector of Rome’s citizens. It is no coincidence that Augustus received the title pater patriae, “Father of the Fatherland”, the same year the temple was dedicated.

Specifically dedicated to his victory over his adopted father’s killers, and of the Parthians, a historic enemy of Rome, the temple represented the cult of Mars with his new title of “Ultor”, the avenger.

This temple celebrated the ideal of just war as the basis of Rome’s imperial dominion.

References: Newland C.E. (1985) ‘The Temple of Mars Ultor’ in Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti, Cornell University Press.

Title Image Credit: DannyBoy7783 / Commons


The Regal Period lasted from 753–509 BCE and was the time during which kings (beginning with Romulus) ruled over Rome. It is an ancient era, mired in legends, only bits and pieces of of which are considered factual.

These kingly rulers were not like the despots of Europe or the East. A group of the people known as the curia elected the king, so the position wasn't hereditary. There was also a senate of elders who advised the kings.

It was in the Regal Period that the Romans forged their identity. This was the time when the descendants of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas, a son of the goddess Venus, married, after forcibly abducting, their neighbors, the Sabine women. Also at this time, other neighbors, including the mysterious Etruscans wore the Roman crown. In the end, the Romans decided they were better off with Roman rule, and even that, preferably not concentrated in the hands of any single individual.


The Church in Rome

Nobody is certain of who founded the Christian movement in Rome and developed the earliest churches within the city. Many scholars believe the earliest Roman Christians were Jewish inhabitants of Rome who were exposed to Christianity while visiting Jerusalem -- perhaps even during the Day of Pentecost when the church was first established (see Acts 2:1-12).

What we do know is that Christianity had become a major presence in the city of Rome by the late 40s A.D. Like most Christians in the ancient world, the Roman Christians were not collected into a single congregation. Instead, small groups of Christ-followers gathered regularly in house churches to worship, fellowship, and study the Scriptures together.

As an example, Paul mentioned a specific house church that was led by married converts to Christ named Priscilla and Aquilla (see Romans 16:3-5).

In addition, there were as many as 50,000 Jews living in Rome during Paul's day. Many of these also became Christians and joined the church. Like Jewish converts from other cities, they likely met together in the synagogues throughout Rome alongside other Jews, in addition to gathering separately in houses.

Both of these were among the groups of Christians Paul addressed in the opening of his Epistle to the Romans:


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It is true that the early christians built huge churches and temples for believers to worship at. The inside of the churches would be decorated with an array of statues that portrayed various saints and the virgin Mary. In addition that there where the stain glass windows that showed biblical scenes such as the Nativity and the death of Jesus on the cross. The places where built in such a way the cross could be seen in the blueprints because some of the passages and corridors intersected each other. In addition to that paintings where on the ceiling that displayed God’s interaction with man and sometimes scenes from John’s revelation where shown such as the second coming.

The style of the longitudinal plan churches reminds me of the Greek temple in some ways though with a big Roman influence. Statues or paintings of Christ and Old and New Testament stories were given important, prominent locations something like the old cult statues. Unlike the Greeks the Christians may have wanted to move their worship inside either in remembrance of the times they were persecuted and had to hide or because Christianity spread north, out of the sunny Mediterranean region and people needed shelter from the rain. The more Roman central plan could be and was adapted for many purposes from churches to sports arenas- it’s just too good of a plan of the space to waste.

You see Roman Art and Greek Art have influenced naturalism on the sculptures from Early Christian Art. We also see similar compositions and influences on the tombs and churches, the ideal design and styles were directly adopted from the Roman Art style.


5 Key Roman Temples Before the Christian Era - History

The centurial plan, which prevailed from Flacius to Mosheim, is an improvement. It allows a much better view of the progress and connection of things. But it still imposes on the history a forced and mechanical arrangement for the salient points or epochs very seldom coincide with the limits of our centuries. The rise of Constantine, for example, together with the union of church and state, dates from the year 311 that of the absolute papacy, in Hildebrand, from 1049 the Reformation from 1517 the peace of Westphalia took place in 1648 the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers of New England in 1620 the American emancipation in 1776 the French revolution in 1789 the revival of religious life in Germany began in 1817.

The true division must grow out of the actual course of the history itself, and present the different phases of its development or stages of its life. These we call periods or ages. The beginning of a new period is called an epoch, or a stopping and starting point.

In regard to the number and length of periods there is, indeed, no unanimity the less, on account of the various denominational differences establishing different points of view, especially since the sixteenth century. The Reformation, for instance, has less importance for the Roman church than for the Protestant, and almost none for the Greek and while the edict of Nantes forms a resting-place in the history of French Protestantism, and the treaty of Westphalia in that of German, neither of these events had as much to do with English Protestantism as the accession of Elizabeth, the rise of Cromwell, the restoration of the Stuarts, and the revolution of 1688.

But, in spite of all confusion and difficulty in regard to details, it is generally agreed to divide the history of Christianity into three principal parts -- ancient, mediaeval, and modern though there is not a like agreement as to the dividing epochs, or points of departure and points of termination.

I. The history of Ancient Christianity, from the birth of Christ to Gregory the Great. a.d.1-590.

This is the age of the Graeco-Latin church, or of the Christian Fathers. Its field is the countries around the Mediterranean -- Western Asia, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe -- just the theatre of the old Roman empire and of classic heathendom. This age lays the foundation, in doctrine, government, and worship, for all the subsequent history. It is the common progenitor of all the various confessions.

The Life of Christ and the Apostolic Church are by far the most important sections, and require separate treatment. They form the divine-human groundwork of the church, and inspire, regulate, and correct all subsequent periods.

Then, at the beginning of the fourth century, the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, marks a decisive turn Christianity rising from a persecuted sect to the prevailing religion of the Graeco-Roman empire. In the history of doctrines, the first oecumenical council of Nicaea, falling in the midst of Constantine's reign, a.d.325, has the prominence of an epoch.

Here, then, are three periods within the first or patristic era, which we may severally designate as the period of the Apostles, the period of the Martyrs, and the period of the Christian Emperors and Patriarchs.

II. Medieval Christianity, from Gregory I to the Reformation. a.d.590-1517.

The middle age is variously reckoned -- from Constantine, 306 or 311 from the fall of the West Roman empire, 476 from Gregory the Great, 590 from Charlemagne, 800. But it is very generally regarded as closing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and more precisely, at the outbreak of the Reformation in 1517. Gregory the Great seems to us to form the most proper ecclesiastical point of division. With him, the author of the Anglo-Saxon mission, the last of the church fathers, and the first of the proper popes, begins in earnest, and with decisive success, the conversion of the barbarian tribes, and, at the same time, the development of the absolute papacy, and the alienation of the eastern and western churches.

This suggests the distinctive character of the middle age: the transition of the church from Asia and Africa to Middle and Western Europe, from the Graeco-Roman nationality to that of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavonic races, and from the culture of the ancient classic world to the modern civilization. The great work of the church then was the conversion and education of the heathen barbarians, who conquered and demolished the Roman empire, indeed, but were themselves conquered and transformed by its Christianity. This work was performed mainly by the Latin church, under a firm hierarchical constitution, culminating in the bishop of Rome. The Greek church though she made some conquests among the Slavic tribes of Eastern Europe, particularly in the Russian empire, since grown so important, was in turn sorely pressed and reduced by Mohammedanism in Asia and Africa, the very seat of primitive Christianity, and at last in Constantinople itself and in doctrine, worship, and organization, she stopped at the position of the oecumenical councils and the patriarchal constitution of the fifth century.

In the middle age the development of the hierarchy occupies the foreground, so that it may be called the church of the Popes, as distinct from the ancient church of the Fathers, and the modern church of the Reformers.

In the growth and decay of the Roman hierarchy three popes stand out as representatives of as many epochs: Gregory I., or the Great (590), marks the rise of absolute papacy Gregory VII., or Hildebrand (1049), its summit and Boniface VIII. (1294), its decline. We thus have again three periods in mediaeval church history. We may briefly distinguish them as the Missionary, the Papal, and the pre- or ante-Reformatory [5] ages of Catholicism.

III. Modern Christianity, from the Reformation of the sixteenth century to the present time. a.d.1517-1880.

Modern history moves chiefly among the nations of Europe, and from the seventeenth century finds a vast new theatre in North America. Western Christendom now splits into two hostile parts -- one remaining on the old path, the other striking out a new one while the eastern church withdraws still further from the stage of history, and presents a scene of almost undisturbed stagnation, except in modern Russia and Greece. Modern church history is the age of Protestantism in conflict with Romanism, of religious liberty and independence in conflict with the principle of authority and tutelage, of individual and personal Christianity against an objective and traditional church system.

Here again three different periods appear, which may be denoted briefly by the terms, Reformation, Revolution, and Revival.

The sixteenth century, next to the apostolic age the most fruitful and interesting period of church history, is the century of the evangelical renovation of the Church, and the papal counter-reform. It is the cradle of all Protestant denominations and sects, and of modern Romanism.

The seventeenth century is the period of scholastic orthodoxy, polemic confessionalism, and comparative stagnation. The reformatory motion ceases on the continent, but goes on in the mighty Puritanic struggle in England, and extends even into the primitive forests of the American colonies. The seventeenth century is the most fruitful in the church history of England, and gave rise to the various nonconformist or dissenting denominations which were transplanted to North America, and have out-grown some of the older historic churches. Then comes, in the eighteenth century, the Pietistic and Methodistic revival of practical religion in opposition to dead orthodoxy and stiff formalism. In the Roman church Jesuitism prevails but opposed by the half-evangelical Jansenism, and the quasiliberal Gallicanism.

In the second half of the eighteenth century begins the vast overturning of traditional ideas and institutions, leading to revolution in state, and infidelity in church, especially in Roman Catholic France and Protestant Germany. Deism in England, atheism in France, rationalism in Germany, represent the various degrees of the great modern apostasy from the orthodox creeds.

The nineteenth century presents, in part, the further development of these negative and destructive tendencies, but with it also the revival of Christian faith and church life, and the beginnings of a new creation by the everlasting gospel. The revival may be dated from the third centenary of the Reformation, in 1817.

In the same period North America, English and Protestant in its prevailing character, but presenting an asylum for all the nations, churches, and sects of the old world, with a peaceful separation of the temporal and the spiritual power, comes upon the stage like a young giant full of vigor and promise.

Thus we have, in all, nine periods of church history, as follows:

First Period:
The Life of Christ, and the Apostolic church.
From the Incarnation to the death of St. John. a.d.1-100.

Second Period:
Christianity under persecution in the Roman empire. From the death of St. John to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. a.d.100-311.

Third Period:
Christianity in union with the Graeco-Roman empire, and amidst the storms of the great migration of nations.
From Constantine the Great to Pope Gregory I. a.d.311-590.

Fourth Period:
Christianity planted among the Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavonic nations. From Gregory I. to Hildebrand, or Gregory VII. a.d.590-1049.

Fifth Period:
The Church under the papal hierarchy, and the scholastic theology. From Gregory VII. to Boniface VIII. a.d.1049-1294.

Sixth Period:
The decay of mediaeval Catholicism, and the preparatory movements for the Reformation.
From Boniface VIII. to Luther. a.d.1294-1517.

Seventh Period:
The evangelical Reformation, and the Roman Catholic Reaction. From Luther to the Treaty of Westphalia. a.d.1517-1648.

Eighth Period:
The age of polemic orthodoxy and exclusive confessionalism, with reactionary and progressive movements.
From the Treaty of Westphalia to the French Revolution. a.d.1648-1790.

Ninth Period:
The spread of infidelity, and the revival of Christianity in Europe and America, with missionary efforts encircling the globe. From the French Revolution to the present time. a.d.1790-1880.

Christianity has thus passed through many stages of its earthly life, and yet has hardly reached the period of full manhood in Christ Jesus. During this long succession of centuries it has outlived the destruction of Jerusalem, the dissolution of the Roman empire, fierce persecutions from without, and heretical corruptions from within, the barbarian invasion, the confusion of the dark ages, the papal tyranny, the shock of infidelity, the ravages of revolution, the attacks of enemies and the errors of friends, the rise and fall of proud kingdoms, empires, and republics, philosophical systems, and social organizations without number. And, behold, it still lives, and lives in greater strength and wider extent than ever controlling the progress of civilization, and the destinies of the world marching over the ruins of human wisdom and folly, ever forward and onward spreading silently its heavenly blessings from generation to generation, and from country to country, to the ends of the earth. It can never die it will never see the decrepitude of old age but, like its divine founder, it will live in the unfading freshness of self-renewing youth and the unbroken vigor of manhood to the end of time, and will outlive time itself. Single denominations and sects, human forms of doctrine, government, and worship, after having served their purpose, may disappear and go the way of all flesh but the Church Universal of Christ, in her divine life and substance, is too strong for the gates of hell. She will only exchange her earthly garments for the festal dress of the Lamb's Bride, and rise from the state of humiliation to the state of exaltation and glory. Then at the coming of Christ she will reap the final harvest of history, and as the church triumphant in heaven celebrate and enjoy the eternal sabbath of holiness and peace. This will be the endless end of history, as it was foreshadowed already at the beginning of its course in the holy rest of God after the completion of his work of creation. Footnotes:

[5] This new word is coined after the analogy of ante-Nicene, and in imitation of the German vor-reformatorisch. It is the age of the forerunners of the Reformation, or reformers before the Reformation, as Ullmann calls such men as Wicklyffe, Huss, Savonarola, Wessel, etc. The term presents only one view of the period from Boniface VIII. to Luther. But this is the case with every other single term we may choose.


10 key Roman dates you need to know

What are the key dates in the timeline of Roman history? From what the Romans believed to be the foundation of Rome in 753 BC, to the Punic Wars in 264–146 BC and the fall of Rome in AD 410 – here are 10 key dates in the history of Rome and its mighty empire…

This competition is now closed

Published: June 29, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Writing for History Extra, Dr Harry Sidebottom highlights 10 key moments in the rise and fall of one of history’s mightiest empires…

753 BC: The “foundation of Rome”

By the last century BC, Romans believed that Rome had been founded in exactly 753 BC. The story was that the twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars, were left to die by being put in a basket, set adrift on the river Tiber. The makeshift vessel eventually came ashore at the future site of Rome. Here, the babies were suckled by a she-wolf, then raised by a shepherd. When the twins reached adulthood, Romulus founded a city on the Palatine Hill. When Remus jumped over the furrow that marked where the walls would be built, Romulus killed him.

Yet despite the immense popularity of that divinely ordained – if bloodstained – foundation myth, it has no basis in fact. The name Romulus clearly was made up from that of Rome itself, and archaeology has revealed evidence of settlement on the Palatine Hill as early as 1,000 BC.

509 BC: The creation of the Roman Republic

As with the foundation of the city, later Romans believed they knew the precise date of the beginning of the Republic: 509 BC, when the seventh and last king of Rome, the tyrannical Tarquinius Superbus, was thought to have been ousted by an aristocratic coup. Although sources for the early Republic are better than those for the preceding regal period, the veracity of this tale is also in doubt.

The Republican system itself was based around the idea that only an assembly of the people had the right to pass laws and elect magistrates. The power of the magistrates was limited – they could only hold office for a year, and always had a colleague who could veto any actions. The most senior annual magistrates were the two consuls. In theory the senate, a body made up of serving and ex-magistrates, did no more than offer advice.

There is still lively scholarly debate on the nature of Republican politics in Rome. The traditional view holds that a small number of aristocratic families monopolised the magistracies, and dominated both senate and assemblies. Yet more recently the Republic’s more democratic elements have been emphasised above all the need for elite politicians to use oratory to persuade assemblies of the people.

338 BC: The settlement of the Latin War

Between 341 and 338 BC the Romans faced a rebellion by their neighbouring Latin allies. After Rome emerged victorious, the settlement they imposed underpinned subsequent Roman conquests of Italy and overseas territories. The Latins, and other Italian allies, were forbidden to conduct diplomacy or enter into treaties with other states. They were not taxed, except in having to provide men to fight in Roman commanded armies, which bolstered their ranks significantly.

It is appealing to think that Roman acquisition of a massive empire was, in large part, a result of the organisation, equipment, and tactical flexibility of its famous legions. Yet, although less glamorous, numbers also played a vital role. The extraordinary levels of manpower that the Roman army could call upon meant that they could suffer crushing defeats in battle, yet still put new men in the field and eventually emerge triumphant.

264–146 BC: The Punic Wars

Rome fought three wars against the great North African city of Carthage. These are known as the Punic Wars, from the Latin name for Carthaginians, Poeni.

The First Punic War (264–241 BC) was fought over control of the island of Sicily, and many of the crucial clashes were naval battles. Rome demonstrated its adaptability in building its first large war fleet, and its almost limitless manpower in building several replacements after repeated catastrophic disasters. Victory gave Rome her initial overseas possession in Sicily.

The Second Punic War (218–201 BC) saw the famous invasion of Italy by Carthaginian general Hannibal. Although Roman resilience and resources were stretched to near breaking point by a string of defeats, Rome ultimately emerged victorious, and the war marked the end of Carthage as a regional power.

The Third Punic War (149–146 BC) was a foregone conclusion, in which Rome was finally successful in destroying its hated rival.

The Punic Wars left Rome as the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. Later Romans looked back on the wars with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the conflicts were glorified as Rome’s finest hour, especially the refusal to submit after Hannibal`s shattering victory at Cannae in 216 BC. Others, though, saw the elimination of Carthage, the only credible threat to Roman existence, as the ushering in of an age of luxury and moral decline.

The second and first centuries BC: the Hellenisation of Rome

During the last two centuries BC, Rome conquered the Eastern Mediterranean by defeating the Hellenistic [ancient Greek] kingdoms founded by the successors of Alexander the Great. These conquests had profound implications for Roman society.

Rome’s relationship with Greek culture was different from that of any other people incorporated into its empire. From the start Romans recognised that Greek culture was both older and more sophisticated than their own. The Roman upper classes embraced Greek literature and philosophy, art and architecture, and by the last century BC it was necessary to be thoroughly conversant with Greek culture to be accepted as a member of the Roman elite. Young boys from rich Roman families learned Greek alongside Latin.

Yet a deep ambiguity remained around these borrowings from a conquered people. Greek culture could be seen as undermining the very manliness of the Romans. As late as the second century AD, the emperor Hadrian was derided as a Graeculus (a ‘little Greek’) for what some saw as his excessive interest in Greek culture.

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67–62 BC: Pompey in the East

Although far less well known than Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58–51 BC), the exploits of Pompey in the eastern Mediterranean were more significant in the expansion of Rome. Pompey initially went to the east in 67 BC as part of his campaign against pirates who were infesting the Mediterranean. Having crushed the pirates in just three months, in 66 BC Pompey succeeded to the command against the long-term enemy of Rome, Mithradates VI of Pontus. Again quickly victorious, Pompey then became the first Roman to lead an army to the Euphrates river.

In his so-called ‘settlement of the east’ (a modern term which obscures the expansionist nature of his activities), Pompey established two new Roman provinces (Syria and Bithynia-Pontus), vastly expanded a third (Cilicia), and conducted diplomacy that turned numerous local rulers into clients of Rome. It has been estimated that his ‘settlement’ more than doubled the annual income of the Roman empire.

31 BC–AD 14: Augustus reintroduces monarchy to Rome

The expansion of the empire destroyed the Roman Republic. Institutions designed for a small city-state could not rule a world empire. Above all, vast military campaigns required generals who commanded armies over wide territories for several years. By the last century BC, these generals would lead their armies against Rome and each other.

After a welter of civil wars, Augustus emerged the victor, boasting that he had restored the Republic. However, with overriding military authority and the right to make law, he had in effect reintroduced one-man rule, and become Rome’s first emperor. Augustus spent years experimenting with his constitutional position – his aim was neither to ‘hide’ his sole rule, nor to create a joint rule between himself and the senate, but to find a blend of offices and powers that would allow the touchy pride of Roman senators to serve his new regime. The balance he hit upon has to be considered one of the most successful political settlements in history, as it remained the legal basis of every emperor’s reign for three centuries.

AD 235–284: the third century crisis

In the 50 years between AD 235 and 284, the Roman empire suffered chronic political and military instability. Amid endemic civil wars and defeats at the hands of barbarians, emperors came and went with bewildering rapidity. The average reign was no more than 18 months, and many survived for much shorter periods.

Three factors brought about the crisis. In the east, repeated Roman attacks had undermined the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia, who were consequently overthrown by the far more aggressive power of the Sassanid Persians. In the north, beyond the Rhine and the Danube, Roman trade and diplomacy had encouraged the formation of large and dangerous barbarian confederations, including the Franks, Alamanni, and Goths.

The final factor was the monopolisation of military glory by the emperor. A major war called for an emperor. If the emperor could not or would not campaign in person on a frontier and one of his generals was successful, the latter would sometimes be proclaimed emperor by his troops, perhaps even against his will. The resulting civil war stripped troops from the frontier, encouraging further barbarian attacks, and opening up the possibility of another local commander being elevated to claim the throne. This vicious circle was finally halted, and the empire given breathing space, by the emperor Diocletian (r284–305). He created the tetrarchy: a ‘college’ of four rulers, one for each of the major frontiers, and one in reserve.

AD 312: Constantine converts to Christianity

At the battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, the emperor Constantine sent his troops into combat with crosses painted on their shields. By the end of his life, he claimed that before the battle he had experienced a vision in which he was given the divine command: “in this sign conquer”. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had a profound effect on European, and world, history.

Although Christianity was still a minority religion in the reign of Constantine, two events in the third-century crisis had brought the faith into unexpected prominence. Christians had been persecuted from the earliest days of the religion. Yet, with the exception of Nero seeking scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in AD 64, emperors had not sponsored this persecution.

In AD 249, in the face of mounting troubles and seeking to restore divine favour to Rome, the emperor Decius ordered all his subjects to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Later, in AD 257 and 258 the emperor Valerian issued edicts explicitly commanding Christians to return to the traditional gods. The fate of these two imperial persecutors gave a huge boost to Christianity.

Fighting the Goths in AD 250, Decius became the first Roman emperor to die in battle against the barbarians. In AD 260, Valerian was captured alive by the Sassanid Persians, the only emperor ever to suffer such a misfortune. Christians exulted in the vengeance taken by their God, and pagans were given reason to think about the power of the deity of this previously obscure sect.

AD 410: The fall of Rome

In AD 410 the Goths sacked the city of Rome. Sixty-six years later Romulus Augustulus (the ‘Little Emperor’) was deposed, and the Roman empire in the west was at an end.

It has been estimated that more than 200 modern explanations have been put forward to explain the fall of Rome. These range from the rise of Christian monks and clergy (so many unproductive mouths to feed) to impotence brought on by too many hot baths.

In recent times, some scholars have argued that Rome’s collapse was a process of accommodation and compromise between the Romans and the various barbarian peoples. Others, more convincingly, have reiterated the violence, destruction and horror of its downfall. Such vibrant debates underpin the perennial fascination of this world-changing event.

Harry Sidebottom is a lecturer in ancient history at Lincoln College, Oxford, and author of the Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars series of novels.

This article was first published by History Extra in November 2016.


An introduction to ancient Roman architecture

Roman architecture was unlike anything that had come before. The Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Etruscans all had monumental architecture. The grandeur of their buildings, though, was largely external. Buildings were designed to be impressive when viewed from outside because their architects all had to rely on building in a post-and-lintel system, which means that they used two upright posts, like columns, with a horizontal block, known as a lintel, laid flat across the top. A good example is this ancient Greek Temple in Paestum, Italy.

An example of post and lintel architecture: Hera II, Paestum, c. 460 B.C.E. (Classical period), tufa, 24.26 x 59.98 m

Since lintels are heavy, the interior spaces of buildings could only be limited in size. Much of the interior space had to be devoted to supporting heavy loads.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, c. 1734, oil on canvas, 128 x 99 cm (National Gallery of Art)

Roman architecture differed fundamentally from this tradition because of the discovery, experimentation and exploitation of concrete, arches and vaulting (a good example of this is the Pantheon, c. 125 C.E.). Thanks to these innovations, from the first century C.E. Romans were able to create interior spaces that had previously been unheard of. Romans became increasingly concerned with shaping interior space rather than filling it with structural supports. As a result, the inside of Roman buildings were as impressive as their exteriors.

Materials, methods and innovations

Long before concrete made its appearance on the building scene in Rome, the Romans utilized a volcanic stone native to Italy called tufa to construct their buildings. Although tufa never went out of use, travertine began to be utilized in the late 2nd century B.C.E. because it was more durable. Also, its off-white color made it an acceptable substitute for marble.

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as, Fortuna Virilis), c. 120-80 B.C.E., structure is travertine and tufa, stuccoed to look like Greek marble, Rome

Marble was slow to catch on in Rome during the Republican period since it was seen as an extravagance, but after the reign of Augustus (31 B.C.E. – 14 C.E.), marble became quite fashionable. Augustus had famously claimed in his funerary inscription, known as the Res Gestae, that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble” referring to his ambitious building campaigns.

Roman concrete (opus caementicium), was developed early in the 2nd c. BCE. The use of mortar as a bonding agent in ashlar masonry wasn’t new in the ancient world mortar was a combination of sand, lime and water in proper proportions. The major contribution the Romans made to the mortar recipe was the introduction of volcanic Italian sand (also known as “pozzolana”). The Roman builders who used pozzolana rather than ordinary sand noticed that their mortar was incredibly strong and durable. It also had the ability to set underwater. Brick and tile were commonly plastered over the concrete since it was not considered very pretty on its own, but concrete’s structural possibilities were far more important. The invention of opus caementicium initiated the Roman architectural revolution, allowing for builders to be much more creative with their designs. Since concrete takes the shape of the mold or frame it is poured into, buildings began to take on ever more fluid and creative shapes.

True arch (left) and corbeled arch (right) (image, CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Romans also exploited the opportunities afforded to architects by the innovation of the true arch (as opposed to a corbeled arch where stones are laid so that they move slightly in toward the center as they move higher). A true arch is composed of wedge-shaped blocks (typically of a durable stone), called voussoirs, with a key stone in the center holding them into place. In a true arch, weight is transferred from one voussoir down to the next, from the top of the arch to ground level, creating a sturdy building tool. True arches can span greater distances than a simple post-and-lintel. The use of concrete, combined with the employment of true arches allowed for vaults and domes to be built, creating expansive and breathtaking interior spaces.

Roman architects

We don’t know much about Roman architects. Few individual architects are known to us because the dedicatory inscriptions, which appear on finished buildings, usually commemorated the person who commissioned and paid for the structure. We do know that architects came from all walks of life, from freedmen all the way up to the Emperor Hadrian, and they were responsible for all aspects of building on a project. The architect would design the building and act as engineer he would serve as contractor and supervisor and would attempt to keep the project within budget.

Building types

Forum, Pompeii, looking toward Mt. Vesuvius (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Roman cities were typically focused on the forum (a large open plaza, surrounded by important buildings), which was the civic, religious and economic heart of the city. It was in the city’s forum that major temples (such as a Capitoline temple, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) were located, as well as other important shrines. Also useful in the forum plan were the basilica (a law court), and other official meeting places for the town council, such as a curia building. Quite often the city’s meat, fish and vegetable markets sprang up around the bustling forum. Surrounding the forum, lining the city’s streets, framing gateways, and marking crossings stood the connective architecture of the city: the porticoes, colonnades, arches and fountains that beautified a Roman city and welcomed weary travelers to town. Pompeii, Italy is an excellent example of a city with a well preserved forum.

House of Diana, Ostia, late 2nd century C.E. (photo: Sebastià Giralt, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Romans had a wide range of housing. The wealthy could own a house (domus) in the city as well as a country farmhouse (villa), while the less fortunate lived in multi-story apartment buildings called insulae. The House of Diana in Ostia, Rome’s port city, from the late 2nd c. C.E. is a great example of an insula. Even in death, the Romans found the need to construct grand buildings to commemorate and house their remains, like Eurysaces the Baker, whose elaborate tomb still stands near the Porta Maggiore in Rome.

The tomb of Eurysaces the baker, Rome, c. 50-20 B.C.E. (photo: Jeremy Cherfas, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Romans built aqueducts throughout their domain and introduced water into the cities they built and occupied, increasing sanitary conditions. A ready supply of water also allowed bath houses to become standard features of Roman cities, from Timgad, Algeria to Bath, England. A healthy Roman lifestyle also included trips to the gymnasium. Quite often, in the Imperial period, grand gymnasium-bath complexes were built and funded by the state, such as the Baths of Caracalla which included running tracks, gardens and libraries.

Aqueduct (reconstruction). Aqueducts supplied Rome with clean water brought from sources far from the city. In this view, we see an aqueduct carried on piers passing through a built-up neighborhood. Elements of the model © 2008 The Regents of the University of California, © 2011 Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, © 2012 Frischer Consulting. All rights reserved. Image © 2012 Bernard Frischer

Entertainment varied greatly to suit all tastes in Rome, necessitating the erection of many types of structures. There were Greek style theaters for plays as well as smaller, more intimate odeon buildings, like the one in Pompeii, which were specifically designed for musical performances. The Romans also built amphitheaters—elliptical, enclosed spaces such as the Colloseum—which were used for gladiatorial combats or battles between men and animals. The Romans also built a circus in many of their cities. The circuses, such as the one in Lepcis Magna, Libya, were venues for residents to watch chariot racing.

Arch of Titus (foreground) with the Colloseum in the background (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Romans continued to perfect their bridge building and road laying skills as well, allowing them to cross rivers and gullies and traverse great distances in order to expand their empire and better supervise it. From the bridge in Alcántara, Spain to the paved roads in Petra, Jordan, the Romans moved messages, money and troops efficiently.

Republican period

Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Capitoline Hill, Rome (reconstruction courtesy Dr. Bernard Frischer)

Republican Roman architecture was influenced by the Etruscans who were the early kings of Rome the Etruscans were in turn influenced by Greek architecture. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, begun in the late 6th century B.C.E., bears all the hallmarks of Etruscan architecture. The temple was erected from local tufa on a high podium and what is most characteristic is its frontality. The porch is very deep and the visitor is meant to approach from only one access point, rather than walk all the way around, as was common in Greek temples. Also, the presence of three cellas, or cult rooms, was also unique. The Temple of Jupiter would remain influential in temple design for much of the Republican period.

Drawing on such deep and rich traditions didn’t mean that Roman architects were unwilling to try new things. In the late Republican period, architects began to experiment with concrete, testing its capability to see how the material might allow them to build on a grand scale.

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, from the archeological museum, Palestrina (image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia in modern day Palestrina is comprised of two complexes, an upper and a lower one. The upper complex is built into a hillside and terraced, much like a Hellenistic sanctuary, with ramps and stairs leading from the terraces to the small theater and tholos temple at the pinnacle. The entire compound is intricately woven together to manipulate the visitor’s experience of sight, daylight and the approach to the sanctuary itself. No longer dependent on post-and-lintel architecture, the builders utilized concrete to make a vast system of covered ramps, large terraces, shops and barrel vaults.

Imperial period

Severus and Celer, octagon room, Domus Aurea, Rome, c. 64-68 C.E. (photo source)

The Emperor Nero began building his infamous Domus Aurea, or Golden House, after a great fire swept through Rome in 64 C.E. and destroyed much of the downtown area. The destruction allowed Nero to take over valuable real estate for his own building project a vast new villa. Although the choice was not in the public interest, Nero’s desire to live in grand fashion did spur on the architectural revolution in Rome. The architects, Severus and Celer, are known (thanks to the Roman historian Tacitus), and they built a grand palace, complete with courtyards, dining rooms, colonnades and fountains. They also used concrete extensively, including barrel vaults and domes throughout the complex. What makes the Golden House unique in Roman architecture is that Severus and Celer were using concrete in new and exciting ways rather than utilizing the material for just its structural purposes, the architects began to experiment with concrete in aesthetic modes, for instance, to make expansive domed spaces.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Markets of Trajan, Rome, c. 106-12 C.E. (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nero may have started a new trend for bigger and better concrete architecture, but Roman architects, and the emperors who supported them, took that trend and pushed it to its greatest potential. Vespasian’s Colosseum, the Markets of Trajan, the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of Maxentius are just a few of the most impressive structures to come out of the architectural revolution in Rome. Roman architecture was not entirely comprised of concrete, however. Some buildings, which were made from marble, hearkened back to the sober, Classical beauty of Greek architecture, like the Forum of Trajan. Concrete structures and marble buildings stood side by side in Rome, demonstrating that the Romans appreciated the architectural history of the Mediterranean just as much as they did their own innovation. Ultimately, Roman architecture is overwhelmingly a success story of experimentation and the desire to achieve something new.

Additional resources:

James C. Anderson Jr., Roman Architecture and Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

Diana Kleiner, Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide (Kindle) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

William J. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire, vol. I: An Introductory Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Frank Sear, Roman Architecture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).


5. Temples of Baalbek

Temples of Baalbek. Image credit: Eva Mont/Shutterstock.com

The Lebanese city of Baalbek is home to not one but three ancient wonders of Rome. Begun in the first century BC, temples to Bacchus, Venus, and Jupiter still dominate the landscape. The Temple of Jupiter, king of the gods, is befittingly the largest. Once 54 columns of carved granite reached 70-feet high but centuries of looters, war, and earthquakes have diminished the temples - but not the interest in them. Each year thousands of visitors flock to see the ruined temples, which are still active archaeological digs and World Heritage Sites.


3. Funerals and the Afterlife

The way in which the dead are treated changes with every civilization in history and the Romans had their own specific traditions. Over time, there have been significant changes in their beliefs regarding the handling of the dead and the concept of the afterlife, especially with the introduction of Christianity.

The Romans followed a very specific series of steps when dealing with the bodies of the dead. A relative would close the eyes of the dead body, calling the name of the departed. The body was then washed and a coin was place in the mouth. The coin was to pay Charon, who carried the dead across the river into the underworld.

The social status of the individual determined the length of time he or she was put on display for. If the person was from an upper-class family, the body was put on display for as long as a week. Lower-class members of the public were put on display for only a day. The funeral was generally held at night to discourage large public gatherings. In the case of major political figures, musicians led the parade, followed by family mourners who often carried portrait sculptures or wax masks of other dead family members.

Funeral societies called collegia handled the proper burial of the body. They were paid monthly wages, and guaranteed a spot in the columbarium.


The divinities of the later Regal period

Two other deities whose Roman cults tradition attributed to the period of the kings were Diana and Fors Fortuna. Diana, an Italian wood goddess worshiped at Aricia (Ariccia) in Latium and prayed to by women who wanted children, was in due course identified with the Greek Artemis. Her temple on the Aventine Hill (c. 540 bc ) with its statue, an imitation of a Greek model from Massilia (Marseille), was based on the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus. By establishing such a sanctuary, the Roman monarch Servius Tullius hoped to emulate the Pan-Ionian League among the Latin peoples. Fors Fortuna, whose temple across the Tiber from the city was one of the few that slaves could attend, was similar to the oracular shrines of Fortuna at Antium (Anzio) and Praeneste (Palestrina). Originally a farming deity, she eventually represented luck. She came to be identified with Tyche, the patroness of cities and goddess of Fortune among the Hellenistic Greeks.

In Roman tradition, Servius Tullius reigned between two Etruscan kings, Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus. The Etruscan kings began and perhaps finished the most important Roman temple, devoted to the cult of the Capitoline Triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (the dedication was believed to have taken place in 509 or 507 bc after the expulsion of the Etruscans). Such triads, housed in temples with three chambers (cellae), were an Etruscan institution. But the grouping of these three Roman deities seems to be owed to Greek anthropomorphic ideas, since Hera and Athena, with whom Juno and Minerva were identified, were respectively the wife and daughter of Zeus (Jupiter). In Italy, Juno (Uni in Etruscan) was sometimes the warlike high goddess of a town (e.g., Lanuvium [Lanuvio] in Latium), but her chief function was to supervise the life of women, and particularly their sexual life. The functions of Minerva concerned craftsmen and reflected the growing industrial life of Rome. Two gods with Etruscan names, both worshiped at open altars before they had temples in Rome, were Vulcan and Saturn, the former a fire god identified with the Greek blacksmiths’ deity Hephaestus, and the latter an agricultural god identified with Cronus, the father of Zeus. Saturn was worshiped in Greek fashion, with head uncovered.

The focal point of the cult of Hercules was the Great Altar (Ara Maxima) in the cattle market, just inside the boundaries of the primitive Palatine settlement. The altar may be traced to a shrine of Melkart established by traders from Phoenicia in the 7th century bc . The name of the god, however, was derived from the Greek Heracles, whose worship spread northward from southern Italy, brought by traders who venerated his journeys, his labours, and his power to avert evil. In a market frequented by strangers, a widely recognized divinity of this type was needed to keep the peace. The Greek cult, at first private, perhaps dates from the 5th century bc .


Watch the video: Ancient Rome 101. National Geographic (August 2022).