The Pantheon: the emergence of modern religious practice?

Once you get over the size of the Colosseum, it loses a large part of its appeal. It’s something I enjoy more from the outside than in, if I’m being honest (although the current exhibition on gladiators is pretty good). The Forum, on the other hand, is an incredible place to visit, but you only get real satisfaction if you know a lot about it already. To anybody else, it takes an awful lot of imagination to appreciate the place after both time and archaeology have wreaked their havoc. The Pantheon, however, is almost as good as it ever was. 500 years ago, Michelangelo attributed its splendour to “disegno angelico e non umano” (angelic and not human design) and very little’s changed since then.

Originally built by Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa, the Pantheon was destroyed by lightning in the reign of Trajan. These days, Hadrian is usually given credit for the building, although his decision to recreate the original inscription coupled with Cassius Dio’s claim that it had been built by Agrippa* might suggest that the ancients focussed less on the building as its function. There have been some recent claims that Trajan might have been responsible for the start of construction after the discovery of some early date stamps on some of the bricks used in the building. However, it’s hardly impossible that these bricks had sat waiting to be used in a builder’s yard, and the vast majority of stamped bricks are from Hadrian’s reign. Furthermore, the writers of later histories (such as the Historia Augusta) probably had access to the Emperor’s now sadly lost autobiography, and as they ascribe the building to him, I’m sticking with Hadrian.

Originally, the building would have looked pretty traditional from the outside to your average Roman schmo. High Podium, facade orientation, colonnaded porch ya da ya da ya da. However, everything changed the moment you walked through the giant bronze doors. Anybody standing in Piazza San Pietro can’t make out the famous dome of the Church; the angles in play mean that the facade blocks it off entirely until you walk down Via Risorgimento. Something similar happened with the Pantheon, although there was no Via Risorgimento equivalent. The ‘Piazza’ it was built in was much smaller that the modern day Piazza Rotonda, and the complex which the Temple was a part of was designed to conceal the revolutionary shape from view. Not until you entered would you realize the dome was there.

So we’re inside now. Our Roman has entered the Temple. He’s clocked the multi-coloured floor and recognizes the imperial message of the materials used to build it. With material from Egypt (North West Africa), Carthage (North East), Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and (we think) Gaul, that’s material from literally every corner of the Roman Empire. He’s noticed the oculus (the big hole in the roof), and the circle of sunlight streaming through it (which is moving around the room as the day progresses). If he’s a vaguely astute chap, he’ll immediately get the connection with Hadrian; this Emperor was famous for his attention to the Provinces and spent the majority of his rule visiting them all in person. At the same time, he’d have been giving some thought to the shape of the place. Generally, Roman temples were not round (although there were exceptions) but ever since their Etruscan roots, the Romans had often built circular tombs (check out the Mausoleum of Augustus for an example). By adding this element of death to the godliness of a temple, what emerges at the other side of the equation is the imperial cult. The only entities who would both die and be worshipped as gods were the emperors themselves. The Pantheon may well be a temple to “all the gods” as its Greek name suggests, but it seems that it’s to some of the newer ones in particular.

There’s something strange going on, however. The modern idea of a congregation meeting inside a religious building to pray together etcetera was incongruous in traditional Roman religion. The rites would happen outside the temple; inside was a private ‘house’ for the god worshipped there in which only his or her priests were allowed in. Yet obviously, Hadrian did not go to all this effort for a couple of priests. Turning to Cassius Dio again, there is a mention of the Senate meeting in the Pantheon, but certainly not on a regular basis and even this doesn’t seem enough. I would suggest that the Pantheon was designed to be seen by the rank and file Roman as well, and if so the building marks a transition from ancient to modern religious practice.

And if none of that excites you, the Queen Marherita buried in there is the woman the pizza was named after. The Pantheon: something for everybody.

*This is usually explained away as a mistaken attribution. However, Cassius Dio tells us that a fire destroyed the original Pantheon in 80 AD, so he’s well aware that Agrippa hadn’t built the version he knew.

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