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Part VI – ‘Blending the sacred and the political’

Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls meet with Prof Christopher Smith to discuss how religion permeated every aspect of public and private life in ancient Rome.
So one thing you really notice as you go around Rome today is there are churches everywhere. Every piazza, every street corner you’re going to see a church. And what traces do we see for the way religion permeated people’s lives here in this city? One of the things that would really strike us if we could step back and walk into the ancient city is just how much religious activity and architecture is visible. We invest a huge amount of energy into particular moments and particular celebrations, whereas for them religion is something which is thinly spread across absolutely everything they do. If you go into the city, almost every aspect of it has got some kind of religious element.
There is a sacred boundary, the walls are to some extent sacred. There is a sacred way, the Via Sacra. So everywhere you look, you’re going to see something. And you would also have seen it on crossroads with little altars. You would have seen it in sites like the Largo Argentina where there are four big temples, but there are also lots of smaller dedications around.
This is a great place to find out about temple architecture in the Republican period. It’s a site called Largo Argentina cleared out in the 1920s where a string of four temples clusters along the immensely important sacred processional route of the triumph trying to get close to the action. And looking at these temples individually and collectively, we see clues about the developing style of temple architecture and also about how temples fit into a landscape blending the sacred and the political here in the heart of the city of Rome.
The picture here is complicated with lots of different building and rebuilding and layers, but the overall picture is fairly simple. There are four temples here in a row, three rectangular ones, one round one, dating as far back in their origins as the third century BC, and then successively rebuilt. These temples line up along a significant route, because look their steps, their fronts, their direction they face is all in a line along what must have been an important thoroughfare or way. And we think perhaps it’s associated with the triumphal route, and that, therefore, these might be victory temples of the type that a general or a admiral would give in gratitude to a god for overseeing a particular victory.
Now this was a safe architectural gesture, because it was pious and religious and dutiful giving honour to the gods. But, of course, it was also political, because the victorious general was cementing his name, his victory in the landscape of Rome forever.
A big temple complex like the Largo Argentina complex is an interesting one, because it’s obviously it’s constructed by the triumphal route. So it really comes into its own when you’ve got a triumph coming by, and people are, kind of, aware that these triumphal temples are off to the side, and that they are markers of previous triumphs and so forth. These temples face in the same direction, so they have an emphasis. They have a direction and a front. And the front is the important part where the altar to the god was outside the temple where people would gather in front of the altar and below the temple steps to look up at the sanctuary above them and behind them.
Roman temples have columns holding up the roof, and here they’re are columns in the local tufa stone and travertine as well. And those columns, though now crumbly and fragmentary and partially re-erected by the archaeologists, give us a sense of the height and dimensions of these temples. Those steps are also important. These temples stand up on high bases raising the temple itself above the street level. And that raising up, practically it keeps the temple clear of the clutter of the street and above flood waters. We’re quite close to the river here.
But symbolically that raises the temple and the god up above the crowd, and when worshippers are standing around the altar in the forecourt, they’re looking up towards the great temple and the sanctuary of the god. It increases the visual effect of the complex.
Here’s another place where we can see a row of republican temples. This time we’re in Rome’s ancient vegetable market, the Forum Holitorium, and the temples behind me were preserved by being sandwiched into a 12th century church, the church of San Nicola in Carcere. You can see behind me the columns disappearing into the church wall. These temples dated from the third to the second century BC, and again they’re temples along a victory processional route lining up and making the most of their prestigious location. The architecture’s the same, high podiums, rows of columns, and the rectangular temples towering above.
Here at the bend of the river was early Rome’s first port, the area known as the Forum Boarium, and behind me is a temple probably dedicated to the harbour god, Portunus. It goes all the way back to the fourth or third centuries BC, and though this is a later rebuild perfectly preserved by being turned into a church, it shows us many of the features we’ve come to associate with those early temples. The high podium to raise it above the flood waters, the columns all the way around here of travertine stone at the front in the Ionic order, and the frontal emphasis, the temple pointing very definitely towards the crowd of worshippers gathered below.
As it happens this temple had another nice function. Here you could buy your garlands of flowers if you were on your way to a temple sacrifice. It was a sort of flower market too.
Here at early Rome’s first harbour district on the river, the Forum Boarium, we see another beautiful temple, a round temple, that reminds us that this area and Roman religious architecture, generally, actually had to do with exchange, mobility, people, materials, ideas, goods, even gods coming and going into the city– sometimes through this very harbour. This temple here is dedicated to a god that we don’t know. It may have been Hercules, Greek Heracles, the god of the merchants who swarmed around this area doing their deals. Either way it’s a fantastic early example of round temple architecture.
It dates from the second or maybe the early first century BC, and at that date most of the temples here were built of local materials– tufa or travertine stone. But this temple does something different. Because it’s in the harbour area, an area long associated with the presence, in particular, of Greeks, perhaps because of that it uses a Greek marble. Pentelic marble, a lovely gleaming white stone that takes a fantastic crisp edge and creates this beautiful temple behind me. A temple that speaks of the power and wealth of this area, and the interest even in the second or first century BC Of serving the gods in architecture that was trying to be bold, doing something new and delicate and different.
Isn’t it a beauty?
So we’ve developed a picture now of a city that’s full of gods, full of religion, and we’ve looked quite closely at the buildings, the architecture of these great temples. But can we put some flesh on these bones? Could you paint a picture for us of what someone would have encountered, seen, heard, smelled as they went to a festival, a sacrifice, a procession at one of the sites we’ve been looking at. Perhaps the Largo Argentina temples, for example. What do you think it would really have been like? I think on a festival they probably would have been a bit busy. We’d have had all the business of procession. Procession is a critical thing within the context of Roman religion.
You’d have had animals being brought to procession, sacrificed, the smell of meat being burnt. Religious experts often think that rituals are unchanged, but they actually change quite a lot. So I think we can imagine a certain amount of improvisation. If you’re a young woman looking towards your first child, if you’re an elderly aunt, if you’re a boy who’s about to come into manhood, all of these different phases in life where you would have particular celebrations and particular deities who would be of interest to you. So religion was really pervasive through the city, or perhaps to such an extent that for the ancients they were maybe less aware of it than we might be going back and seeing it so visible.

Welcome back. Last week, we looked at political architecture in Rome and explored how the designs for these magnificent structures went hand-in-hand with religion.

If we were to step back into ancient Rome, we would have experienced religion in every aspect of public and private life. The city was full of places of worship, from the smallest shrines in individual homes to vast temples such as the Capitoline which towered over the city. In this video, I introduce you to some of these ‘grand gestures to the gods’ and explore what they tell us about the ways in which religion permeated ancient Rome.

I’ll revisit the British School at Rome to ask Professor Christopher Smith about how the Romans worshipped their gods. He’ll describe the sights, sounds and smells of the religious festivals and processions that would have taken place in the ancient city.

As you watch the video, you may like to think about the following, sharing your thoughts in the comments area:

  • Why do you think that even everyday structures such as walls and roads were considered sacred?

  • How was architecture used to serve the deities, and why were certain temples dedicated to a particular god?

You can view the Republican temples at Largo Argentina in our 360° panorama picture.

You can also view the Temple of ‘Hercules Victor’ in Rome in our 360° panorama picture.

Please note: these links take you to the external site ‘Panellum’.

Course facilitation

A reminder that you’ll see comments from myself and Bunny and we’ll aim to answer your queries in the course discussion between 12 Oct to 13 Nov, but we can’t respond to everyone. To view our comments, you can can follow our profiles.

Don’t forget you can view or download the course supplement and A-Z glossary as you go through the week.

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