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This is the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy Photograph by Anne Dirkse

The Roman Pantheon: National Treasure and Legacy of a Powerful Empire

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Anyone who has paid a visit to Rome will know that around just about every corner of the historic center lies a reminder of Rome’s glorious and inglorious history. Be it buildings, fountains, statues or steps you are always in sight of something pretty special. So why is the Pantheon remarkable in such a city of treasures?

View of the Pantheon in Rome, Attributed to Master of the Langmatt Foundation Views circa 1760

View of the Pantheon in Rome, Attributed to Master of the Langmatt Foundation Views circa 1760 (Public Domain)

Honor All Gods

The Pantheon is an ancient building located in Rome, Italy. This monument once functioned as a Roman temple, and was later on converted into a Christian church, which it still is today. The Pantheon is regarded as the best preserved ancient Roman building in the city (or even in the Roman world), and has had a great influence on later European architecture.

The Pantheon in Rome.

The Pantheon in Rome. (Public Domain)

The word ‘pantheon’ means ‘all gods’, and it is commonly thought that the temple was originally dedicated to all the gods. The structure that we see today dates to the 2 nd century AD, and was built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. The construction of this temple began in AD 118, and was completed around AD 125. It may be pointed out that the original Pantheon was commissioned around 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa, a close friend of Augustus. For centuries, it was thought that the present structure was Agrippa’s Pantheon, due to the inscription under the pediment, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT”, which in full is “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,”, and means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Roman General (63 BC – AD 12) dating from Augustus’ time.

Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Roman General (63 BC – AD 12) dating from Augustus’ time. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

During the 19 th century, however, excavations revealed the remains of an earlier temple under the present one. Due to this discovery, we now know that the present structure was built over the ruins of the old one. Additionally, it has been pointed out that the Pantheon was burnt down in AD 80, and was first rebuilt by the Emperor Domitian. It was burnt down again in AD 110, when it was struck by lightning. Therefore, the present structure is in fact the third Pantheon. Bricks marked with dates from the time of Hadrian were found during the excavation, and therefore suggested that the current Pantheon was built during his reign.

Panoramic interior of the Pantheon, Rome

Panoramic interior of the Pantheon, Rome (CC BY 2.0)

Christianity Conquers All

The Pantheon remained as a temple to the pagan gods of Rome until the 7 th century AD. In AD 608, it was consecrated as a Christian church. The Pantheon still functions as a Christian church today, and is known officially as the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres. Like many other Christian churches, the Pantheon also served as a burial site. Some of the most notable figures buried in the Pantheon include the painter Raphael (and his fiancée, Maria Bibbiena), and the Italian kings Vittorio Emmanuel II and Umberto I. Thanks to its conversion into a Christian church, the Pantheon was largely spared from the plundering that many of the other ancient Roman buildings were subjected to during the Middle Ages. It may be remarked, however, that its roof tiles, which were of gilded-bronze, were removed, and bronze from its portico used in the construction of Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Dome of the Pantheon in Rome

Dome of the Pantheon in Rome (Public Domain)

Enduring Engineering

In spite of this, the Pantheon remains very much intact, and is still an imposing piece of architecture. Its famous dome, for example, was the largest dome in the world for more than a millennium, and remains the largest unsupported dome in the world today at 43 meters (142 feet) in diameter.By lightening the structure as much as possible, the ancient Roman engineers were able to create this massive dome. In order to reduce the weight of the dome, the thickness of this part of the building was progressively reduced as it went up. Additionally, the material used to create the upper part of the dome is lighter, and spaces were created within the dome’s walls.

The hole (oculus), 7.8 meters (25.5 feet) in diameter, is the only source of light and serves as the connection between the temple and the gods above. It is open and so rain will occasionally fall through it, but the floor beneath is slanted and drains the water if it ever manages to hit the floor. What the oculus does allow through is sunlight and this is almost the only natural light that enters. The sunlight streams through in a beam which moves around the room throughout the day imitating or illustrating the movement of the heavens.

The Pantheon is also notable for its 16 massive Corinthian columns, each carved out of a single block of Egyptian granite, and reaching a height of almost 12 meters (39.4 feet). This differs from the Greek columns which were articulated and built in sections. The importing of these from where they were manufactured in Egypt shows an expression of the reach and power of the Roman Empire.

The interior of the Pantheon (Roma) by Giovanni Paolo Panini

The interior of the Pantheon (Roma) by Giovanni Paolo Panini (Public Domain)

Since the Renaissance, the Pantheon has inspired a number of other buildings in the world. Brunelleschi, for example, modelled the cupola of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence after the dome of the Pantheon, whilst the Panthéon in Paris has a façade inspired by the original Roman one. Other buildings inspired by this ancient Roman temple include the Rotunda of the University of Virginia (which was designed by Thomas Jefferson), and the church of Santa Maria Assunta in Ariccia by Bernini.

Top image: This is the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy Photograph by Anne Dirkse (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Wu Mingren


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Rolling Rome S.r.l, 2014.  10 Facts about the Pantheon. [Online]
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Walks of Italy, 2016.  6 Surprising Facts about the Pantheon in Rome. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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