The Pantheon, situated in the heart of The Eternal City, is arguably one of Rome’s most interesting monuments. Rebuilt nearly 1900 years ago under Hadrian rule, complete with a mysterious alignment to the sun and legends galore, what’s not to love?
Pailing only in comparison to Athens’ Parthenon, it’s no wonder historians all over the world admire it to this day. Hadrian, as it turns out, had a total crush on the Greeks and their way of temples which explains a lot of the incredible architecture that makes up the Pantheon given that it was built 600 years after Athens’ Parthenon.
Here are what I consider to be some of the most fascinating things about this ancient Pagan temple!
1. A Christian Church for Pagan Gods
Like most ancient structures that leave you in awe, they were pretty much all built for Pagan deities; The Pantheon is no exception. The massive Roman temple is easily the best of it’s kind and was dedicated to all Gods and Goddesses. In fact, the name Pantheon comes from the Greek words pan, meaning “all,” and theos, meaning “gods.” It’s still unclear which Gods were the main focus of the temple Pantheon, obviously the Roman deities all the way from Jupiter to Neptune; However, it’s known that Hadrian was well-traveled and had an admiration for other spins on Paganism such as Greek and Egyptian spiritualities. Nonetheless, it remained a Pagan temple until around 7th century when Christians declared it a church. Fortunately for all of us today, this saved it from being destroyed in the Middle Ages and made it the first Pagan temple to be converted into a church. Today, the Pantheon also functions as a church dedicated to St. Mary of the Martyrs. Though, it’s still a bit of a mystery how the Pantheon survived the barbarian raids centuries earlier when most of the city was destroyed. Jupiter, maybe?
16 Corinthian columns at a whopping 60 tons each, brought all the way from Egypt, were dragged more than 100 km to the River Nile, floated through the river during spring floods and then transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea where they’d eventually end up in Ostia. After that, they were put back on barges and pulled on and on up the Tiber River where they landed on Hadrian’s doorstep. These columns (which show just how far Hadrian would go for Greek architecture) support the triangle pediment which reads “M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT” meaning “It was built by Marcos Agrippa in his third consulate.” Hadrian included this as a tribute to the original builder, Agrippa. It’s agreed that the Pantheon is at least 1900 years old, but there were actually two structures there previously. The first Pantheon was built by Agrippa in 25 BC only to be destroyed by a fire years later in 80 AD. After that, a second Pantheon was built by Emperor Domitian, but it was struck by lightning and burned down. Some luck, right?
3. They Knew A Thing Or Two About Celestial Alignment
The sun was very important to ancient Romans (and pretty much all pagans modern and ancient) and played a big role in their worship. In the center of the dome, which, by the way, is the world’s largest unreinforced dome, has a large opening in the center referred to as the oculus or the eye of the Pantheon. The oculus has a few uses, but one of the main ones is a direct alignment with the sun on special dates such as the equinoxes and the annual founding day of Rome which is April 21.
Without so much as a calculator, the Romans built the Pantheon perfectly to coordinate with these celestial events and to honor these dates so that the sun would shine through at midday to reflect on the metal grille above the entrance and illuminate the courtyard – I mean, wow.
4. What if it rains?
I feel like it goes without saying that if the Romans were smart enough to align the oculus with equinoxes, then they probably had a solution for rain, right? Middle Age legends say that it never rained over the Pantheon simply because there was never flooding or water on the floor, but that’s just due to a purposeful but subtle slope and 22 well-placed holes that are perfect for drainage during storms and heavy rain. However, it’s also speculated that the thousands of candles that illuminated the top level of the Pantheon helped to evaporate a good deal of the rain before it reached the ground.
5. A hopeless engagement
La Fornarina | Raphael | 1519
Most know that Raphael, the legendary Renaissance painter, is buried inside the Pantheon. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Maria Bibbiena, his fiancée, is as well—right next to him. While that might seem sweet, it’s also tragic. Raphael became engaged to Maria, the niece of a powerful cardinal and in an attempt to stall, he put off the marriage for six years. In the meantime, he was knee-deep in a passionate love affair with the daughter of a local baker named Margharita. It’s said that he was in love with her and that they even had a secret marriage. She is known to be represented in many of his paintings such as La Fornarina and secretly had planned to continue on the affair and be with her forever. Maria eventually passed on and Raphael died quickly after from a fever at just 37 years old. He left plenty of money for Margharita to live a lavish life and instead, she retreated to Trastevere where she lived out the rest of her days in sadness.