The Best Preserved Roman Temple? From Emperors to Founding Fathers, Elite Connections Maintained the Maison Carrée
The Maison Carrée (which means ‘Square House’ in French) is an ancient monument located in Nîmes, a city in the Occitanie region of southern France. This building was built during the 1st century BC, when France, then part of Gaul, was ruled by the Romans. The Maison Carrée originally served as a temple, though its function changed several times over millennia. It is due to its almost constant use throughout the ages that the survival of this ancient building has been ensured. The Maison Carrée is often considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman temples that is still in existence today.
Construction of the Roman Imperial Temple
The Maison Carrée was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ right hand man, son-in-law, and intended successor. Whilst it is not known when exactly the temple was built, it has been speculated that the construction of the Roman monument took place at some point of time between 19 BC and 12 BC. Agrippa is known to have been in Gaul in 19 BC, and he died in 12 BC, hence these dates.
Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa dating from Augustus’ time. By Egisto Sani (CC BY-NC SA 2.0) The Maison Carrée was commissioned by the Roman Marcus Agrippa.
Originally, the Maison Carrée was dedicated to the emperor’s protective spirit (the genius Augusti) and the goddess Roma ( dea Roma). Shortly after that, the Romans rededicated it to Lucius and Gaius Caesar, the sons of Agrippa and Julia the Elder (Augustus’ only biological child), who were adopted by the Emperor.
As this adoption made the boys heir to the imperial throne, it has been suggested that it was meant to serve as an effort to promote the imperial cult. A bronze dedicatory inscription, which read, “To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth”, could be seen by those visiting the temple. This dedication was removed during the Middle Ages, but has since been reconstructed based on the holes in the temple’s façade. The temple may have been rededicated to the Emperor and Roma again at a later point in time.
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Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Front view. (Public Domain)
The Maison Carrée After the Romans
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Maison Carrée was used for various purposes, including as a church, as part of the palace of the Visigothic kings, and as stables. From 1821 until 1907, the Maison Carrée housed the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes. It is due to this continuous usage that the building has survived so well over the millennia, making it one of the best-preserved Roman temples today.
The Maison Carrée is a good example of Vitruvian architecture, and was constructed using local limestone. The temple stands on a podium, and can be approached by a flight of monumental stairs on the western side of the structure. The structure is supported by Corinthian columns, on top of which is an architrave with reliefs of rosettes and acanthus leaves. The present roof was added to the Maison Carrée as part of a restoration program carried out between 1988 and 1992. It was also during this project that the square around the temple was cleared, which revealed the outlines of the ancient forum.
The Maison Carrée during restoration. By H2k4. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
How the Roman’s Temple Became an Inspiration
The Maison Carrée has been an inspiration behind several other monuments. In Paris, for instance, the Neo-Classical Église de la Madeleine was based on this ancient Roman temple. In Rogalin, Poland, the St. Marcellinus Church also drew inspiration from the Maison Carrée. Finally, the Virginia State Capitol in the USA was modelled after the Maison Carrée.
This building was designed by Thomas Jefferson, an American Founding Father and the third President of the United States. In 1787, Jefferson was a minister to France, and he saw the Maison Carrée whilst he was in the country. Inspired by this monument, he had a stucco model made of it, which then served as a basis for the Virginia State Capitol. Interestingly, Jefferson’s new building was a re-interpretation of this ancient Roman monument - from a temple dedicated to an imperial cult to a civic building for the government by the people.
Virginia State Capitol Building. By Skip Plitt. (CC BY-SA 3.0) This building was inspired by the Roman temple that became known as the Maison Carrée.
Top image: The west side of the Maison Carrée. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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