Thursday, April 19, 2012

From All Gods to One—The Roman Pantheon

By Patricia Winton

One of my favorite buildings in Rome is the Pantheon which happens to be the city’s oldest, intact one. An architectural marvel, the building’s vast dome spans 43 meters (142 feet) and rises 43 meters, the perfect sphere within a cylinder. I’m awed by this dome, the largest in the world for more than a thousand years until Brunelleschi built the one for the cathedral in Florence. Michelangelo studied it when planning the design for St. Peter's dome.

This area of Rome stood outside the city proper during ancient times. While horses and sheep grazed, the army trained there, giving it the name Campus Martius--dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war. Legend suggests that a temple to Mars stood on the site at some point, but there’s no proof. Emperor Marcus Agrippa built the first Pantheon, a rectangular structure dedicated to pan theos, “all gods,” in 27 BC. The Great Fire of 80 AD consumed this temple along with many neighboring buildings. Emperor Domitian quickly rebuilt it, only to have it struck by lightning and burned again in 110 AD.

Emperor Hadrian (known for erecting Hadrian’s Wall, the northern border of Roman Britain) constructed the current temple in 125 AD. Apparently mindful of fire, Hadrian crafted this building from concrete.

A 22-meter (72-foot) circular wall supports the dome. Huge niches along the wall originally held statues of Roman gods, the round design ensuring that no god stood higher, and thus more important, than the others. Today, the niches display a motley collection of statues, frescoes and tombs. The building’s only light source is a 8.2-meter (27-foot) open oculus in the center of the cupola.

For its first couple of centuries, the building functioned as a pagan temple. Worshipers burned animal sacrifices at the center, where smoke escaped through the oculus, and they honored the statues in the niches.

During this period, Christianity began emerging as a religion that threatened the status quo. The early Christians refused to revere the Roman gods or recognize the emperor as divine. Nor did they pay the Ficus Judaicus, a tax Jews paid to gain exemption from pagan worship. As a result, anti-Christian sentiment grew, and mobs in Rome began stoning suspected Christians in the streets.

This persecution was mostly random, but by the mid-third century, it became codified; Emperor Decius ordered commissions seeking written certification that every citizen across the empire had burned a sacrifice to the gods. I have seen no suggestions that some Christians may have been forced to burn sacrifices in the Pantheon, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

And then the tables turned. In 312, Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity after dreaming about the religion on the eve of a battle, which he subsequently won. He set about transforming the empire into a Christian state. By 346, law prohibited pagan worship, and ten years later, most pagan temples had closed.

Christian Worship Area
The Pantheon sat empty and unused for two and a half centuries. Unlike many other pagan temples, it survived destruction. Its architectural grandeur probably protected it: it has no windows, it’s difficult to open because of its massive doors, and it was built almost entirely of concrete. Even vandals couldn’t storm the fortress.

In 609, ownership of the building shifted to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Catholic church, consecrating it as the Church of Saint Mary and all the Martyrs. The Pope removed the pagan statues and installed an altar opposite the door. Mass is still celebrated there, and weddings occur regularly. While there is a small sign by the entrance naming the church, the massive carving on the portico, dating from Hadrian’s day, still proclaims it to be the Pantheon.

Raphael's Tomb
The painter Raphael and the composer Arcangelo Corelli are entombed in two of the Pantheon’s niches as are Italy’s first two kings following the country's unification. Like so many other facets of Italian life, the secular and the divine combine here with a military honor guard protecting the royal tombs, even within the walls of the church.

I am drawn to this building, awed by its architecture. Even when it’s full of tourists, it feels quiet and restful. Once, I encountered a church choir, from North Carolina I think, that had arranged themselves in a circle beneath the oculus. They had apparently sought permission to perform but had been denied. So they sang, standing under the dome, just for the joy of it. Worship, indeed.

I blog every Monday at Italian Intrigues  This week I blogged about the She-Wolf, the symbol of Rome and it's copy in Georgia.
The photo of the interior of the Pantheon comes from East Tennessee State University. 


  1. This is a fascinating history, Patricia, and how lucky you are to live in a city where Christianity, paganism and modern life all coexist. In reading all our pieces this week, I've been struck by how important these older belief systems were, so much that the people who followed them refused to give them up entirely even when adopting a new religion. They've really helped shape the cultures we write about here.

  2. So true, Heidi. When I was planning my post for this topic, I thought about showing how Christianity has incorporated pagan rituals into holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but it's a mammoth topic. I think I do it in bits and pieces on Italian Intrigues.

  3. I agree with Heidi! I enjoyed reading this a lot Patricia!

  4. Thanks, Patricia, for a fascinating mini-history. I especially love your anecdote about the choir from North Carolina. What a lovely memory!

  5. I think they were from North Carolina. It was lovely. I have a backpack with camp stool attached. When I'm being a tourist, I pack it with lunch, water, and books. That day, I was in the piazza outside when I first heard the music. I went inside, set up my stool, and listened in awe as they sang. The acoustics are remarkable in this vast space. It was truly lovely.

  6. I've been to the amazing Panthenon and yet I somehow forgot that it started out as a pagan temple.... and hadn't really thought about the meaning of the word itself. Such a fascinating history. Someday, you'll have to explain Hadrian to me. I have a fictionalized autobiography of his that was highly recommended to me (called Hadrian's Wall, I believe.)

  7. I went to a business meeting in Rome recently. The keynote speaker, a Scotsman, thanked the Italians for sending Hadrian to build the wall because it kept the Brits out of Scotland.

    In the Pantheon, you feel that you are inside a globe. I'm glad to know you've been there.

  8. So interesting, this history. It's sad to think how so much is destroyed when change comes. Constantine didn't fool around, did he? Ten years to convert a nation and outlaw the old religion is amazing to me.

    Wish I'd been there when the choir sang. It must have been awesome (in the old sense of the word).

    Thanks for such an interesting blog.

  9. The amazing thing about Rome is that so much has survived. It actually took more than thirty years from Constantine's conversion until paganism was outlawed. He was actually dead by that time, I think. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for commenting.

  10. It really is an awesome building, in the true meaning of the word. Thanks for providing this interesting background!

  11. Jenny, thanks for your comment. It is genuinely awesome. One feels so small, and yet uplifted,
    by its powerful architecture.

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