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Matthew’s virtual tour: The Capitoline

Dr Matthew Nicholls explains more about the triad of temples on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome through a video tour of his virtual model.
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Rome was a city abounding in religion. Gods were everywhere. As you’ll hear when we talk to Professor Smith, religion was thinly spread across almost everything the Romans did. But some places were particularly sacred. The Capitoline Hill, the Capitolium, the smallest and steepest of Rome’s hills, was one of these particularly important sites. Housing Rome’s great state temple to Jupiter and the Capitoline Triad, Jupiter, his wife Juno, and Minerva. Long before that, the hill was a focus of human settlement. One of the earliest excavated sites in Rome, San Omobono, where the hill slopes down to the river, shows mid-second millennium pottery.
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And there’s evidence for habitation on the hill from the early first millennium, so it’s not surprising that myths and legends linking the hill to Rome’s origins grew up. On one of the Capitoline hill’s two summits was a temple of Juno, associated with the Roman mint and famous for the story of the sacred geese who cackled to raise the alarm when the Gauls tried to sack the Capital in 390 BC. The other summit was sacred to Jupiter.
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There was a small temple there to Jupiter Feretrius associated with the spoils of military victory, shrines to Fides and Ops, various monuments including a store for the ceremonial wagons used in religious processions, but above all, the great Capitoline Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Jupiter Best and Greatest. And this, appropriately, was the greatest of the Roman temples, started by the Etruscan kings of Rome in the sixth century BC, but as legend has it, dedicated in the first year of the new Republic 509BC. Very little survives of this temple. The huge grey tufa foundation platform on which it stood does partly survive and is now encased inside the Capitoline museum and gives us at least an idea of its huge scale.
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The temple pointed out southwards to the Palatine Hill. There was a porch with columns and behind that, three cellas or cult chambers for the triad of deities worshipped here. The temple showed the standard elements of what we think of as Roman temple design, evolving from Etruscan origins with Greek stone decoration elements added in, that we saw evolving through the Republican period. So the porch, the podium on which it stood, the row of columns across the front, the cult statues inside their cella or inner chamber– all of these became standard features of Roman Republican temples, but here, on a truly massive scale.
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The temple burned down in 83 BC, with lots of precious artefacts, including books of sacred prophecies lost in the fire. It was rebuilt of course, but burned down again in AD 69 in a civil war, rebuilt, burned down again in AD 80 after a devastating fire. So the temple you see here is a later rebuild, made by the Flavian emperors around AD 89. And its massive marble columns over 20 metres high, gilded bronze roof tiles, and thicket of statues reflects imperial tastes and budgets. This is the temple that we know from descriptions and literature and representations in carving.
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But in its wide proportions, there’s still a trace, a respect for the earlier Etruscan design of the initial temple, pointing to the very early origins and the sacred character of worship on the site. The temple towered out over the Forum and was visible from many points in Rome, its roof tiles and rooftop statues gleaming in the sun.
Join me on a tour of what would have been one of the most dominant and overwhelming structures in ancient Rome: the Capitoline Hill.
As you explore the model in this tour and the following digital walkaround, take a look at the large Capitoline Temple. How many great bronze doors does it have? Why might this be?
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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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