5 Key Roman Temples Before the Christian Era

Aditya Chakravarty

5 mins

20 Jun 2019

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. 

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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