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How Were Roman Temples Designed, and What Were Their Functions?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 1910 words Published: 15th Mar 2021

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Roman temples were the visual embodiment of Roman religion and were central to Roman life and the interactions between the Romans and their gods. They were designed to accustom a deity and be a place of worship for that god. The aesthetic qualities of these buildings were decided by the temple’s architect and the features he wanted to include, as well as by a strong Greek influence, particularly in the 4th to 3rd centuries BC (Barton 1995; Boethius 1978) . Overall, temples were primarily built as religious buildings, though they also functioned as public buildings for other uses (Rupke and Raja 2011). The main functions of these buildings were to perform religious acts, these ranged from offerings to festivals, though they also operated as political monuments that expressed Rome’s growth as an empire and assimilation of other cultures and religions (Barton 1995; J.C.N. Coulston and Dodge 2000).

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Roman temples were usually designed by the patron’s architect, to create a temple for the specific deity or religion the patron was dedicating the temple to (Rupke and Raja 2011; Ziolowski 1992). New temples were often built when a new religion or deity was introduced to Rome (Ziolowski 1992). Temples were seen as “the seat of the gods” and were a space for sacrifice, prayer and offerings, usually for a specific deity (Barton 1995). This idea of the temple being a “house” for that deity was established when the possession of the land was given to the deity in a religious act called the “consecratio”, a sacred dedication to the god (Rupke and Raja 2011).  The god to which the temple was dedicated to specifically acquired the back part of the temple: the cella, a very important space in the temple, where the religious offerings were stored (Rupke and Raja 2011, Barton 1995).

Another key feature of temples was an altar (Rupke and Raja 2011). They were critically important for animal sacrifice and they were the most important part of the temples, some rural shrines consisted of only an altar (Rupke and Raja 2011).

Apart from these main features, the scale and proportion of temples could be adjusted to the vision of its architect and its location. As Boethius specifies in, “Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture”, the architect Vitruvius maintains that an ideal temple should have a  length and width that starts at a ratio 6 to 5 (Boethius 1978). He also believed that the breadth of the temple should be divided into two, each for different purposes, the front, for the columns and a stairway with an entrance, and the back for the cellas, or a cella, with an alae (Boethius 1978). However, Böethius argues that this proportion-focused architectural concept was not always followed. This can be seen by the “Ara della Regina Temple at Tarquinia”, which was built in the first half of the 4th century BC (Boethius 1978). It had a Greek style and split into three equal parts, not the two Vitruvius envisioned (Boethius 1978). However, the temple on top of the Acropolis of Ardea from a similar time period correctly fit Vitruvius’ plans as it “measures eighty-five by a hundred and thirty feet” (Boethius 1978; British School at Rome n.d.). I think Böethius is explaining that, apart from a temples’ main features, its design and size can be easily adjusted, depending on the amount of land available for the shrine and the architect’s vision, revealing that each temple’s design is unique because of these factors.

Style and time period also affected the appearance of Roman temples. During the first and second centuries BC, the Etrusco-Italic style, which had typically “hellenistic” features, dominated temple design (Boethius 1978). According to Böethius, these characteristics were “the podium, the frontal emphasis, the deep pronaus, and the closed back wall” (Boethius 1978). This Greek influence could also be found in other temples. There was also a want for high podiums at this time, which continued into the Imperial Age of Augustus, as can be seen in the Temple of Magna Mater, which was reconstructed by Augustus in 3BC or the “Temple of Apollo Sosianus and Divus Julius” (Barton 1995, Boethius 1978).

Temples were also designed to communicate the success and triumph of the Roman Empire; most were built from the loot of war, promised to a deity impulsively in the middle of war, or to commemorate military success (Barton 1995; Weigel 1982). This also influenced the materials used to create these monumental buildings (Rupke and Raja 2011). For example, the gold and ivory statues of the Imperial Age greatly differed from their archaic terracotta predecessors (Rupke and Raja 2011). As Dionysus’s speech on the reconstruction of the Capitolium explains, these Imperial temples “differed from the ancient structure in nothing but the costliness of the materials” (Boethius 1978). This Greek influence could also be found in other temples. Such as the Temple of Jupiter Stator 146 BC, which was founded by Metellus Macedonicus and was assigned to the Greek architect Hermodorus of Salamis, the first temple in Rome to be made entirely of marble, again showing the Roman progression in the use of luxury materials and their gain in money and success (Barton 1995).

However, the Romans did develop their own unique design features. For example, during Augustus’ sixth year as consul (in which he restored eighty-two temples), the Emperor developed Roman temple design by making Corinthian columns their own individual order (Barton 1995). This characteristically Roman order can be recognised by its archetypal “s-shaped modulations” (Barton 1995).

The beauty of these temples was to also inspire the viewer and to promote religious devotion and practice (Rupke and Raja 2011). The immensity of these buildings could have also been a reminder to the passer-by of the power and scrutiny of the gods.

Temples functioned as a place of worship for not only the Pagan gods, but for other deities as well (J.C.N. Coulston and Dodge 2000). Their space could symbolise the globalisation of Rome and its incorporation of other cultures into the Empire. In particular, the Sanctuary of Mater Magna (“Great Mother”) contains deities from many religions. The Sanctuary contained Greco-Roman sculptures including “Heracles Victor, Artemis with Iphgeneia, Athena, Venus, Dionysus, Silvanus and Apollo” as well as “Eygptian deities like the uraei of Isis, and a combined relief, containing Isis, Serapis with Jupiter Dolichenus and his female partner” (J.C.N. Coulston and Dodge 2000). It also contained Mithrathic reliefs, which was unusual, as Coulston argues in “Ancient Rome: The Archeology of the Eternal City”,  it is rare for Mithraic shrines to contain other gods, possibly because of the sanctuary’s central location contributed to it containing a combination of religions (J.C.N. Coulston and Dodge 2000).

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Although religious buildings, temples were not only for religious practices.  They were meeting places and public buildings (Rupke and Raja 2011). They were “assembly rooms of the senate, as museums, treasure chambers and archives, trading places and markets, as a unique, meeting place and representative backdrop for diplomacy receptions” (Rupke and Raja 2011). Rural shrines even provided accommodation and a bath to people travelling past (Rupke and Raja 2011).

As previously mentioned, temples could function as a device to express military success and were a visual representation of the power of Rome. This is explored in R.D Weigel’s article, “The Duplication of Temples of Juno Regina in Rome”. The second temple of Juno Regina was built by a dictator of Rome, Marcus Furius Camillus (Weigel 1982). According to Livy, a tunnel running into the temple of Juno at Veii was crucial in Rome’s success during the invasion of this sacred shrine, Camillus performed the ritual of “evocation”, where he rid the Veii of its divine protection by promising Juno a “new home and worship in Rome” (Weigel 1982; Ogilvie 1976). The Romans decided to perform this rite as they believed it was sacrilege to invade Veii’s “pomerium” (religious boundary) and to destroy its temples and gods (Weigel 1982). Therefore, the rite of “evocatio” was used as a precaution and would ensure the support of the enemy deity (Weigel 1982). Before the final sack of the city, Camillus promised a temple to Juno and after the eventual seizure of Veii, the Roman army readily pillaged the city, although pillaging of its temples was forbidden (Weigel 1982). However, Camillus and a small group of soldiers went to remove the statue of Juno Regina from its temple (Weigel 1982). According to Livy, the soldiers asked the statue of the goddess if she wished to go to Rome and she nodded (Livy, n.d.; Weigel 1982).The Romans never removed a goddess against her will, hence the statue was brought back to Rome, where it was housed in the temple of Diana until a temple was built for it (Weigel 1982).  I believe this myth highlights the importance and sacrality of temples, as even in times of war they were deeply respected. This myth also affirms Rome’s power, as they had enough capability to shift the patronage of the queen of the gods.

The previously mentioned deity of “Magna Mater” was fully integrated into Rome’s “pomerium”, which was unusual for a foreign religious cult (Orlin 2002). The reason a temple was built for the “Magna Mater” on the Palatine Hill in 191 BC was that the Romans believed that the goddess came from a province near Troy, so she was seen to be “a long-lost relative rather than a complete foreigner” (Orlin 2002). It is interesting to consider that the Romans only fully integrated foreign cults when they believed they were somehow connected to the Roman sense of self. This questions Rome’s belief of their religious superiority and their refusal to accept foreign cultures.

In the second century BC, there was a switch from “victory” temples, paid for by generals from “one off military campaigns”, to buildings built and funded from public taxation (J.C.N. Coulston and Dodge 2000). These buildings focused on the people of Rome and their valuable role in maintaining religious practice.

Temples were also the foundation of religious festivals, such as the festival Augustalia, which occurred on the twelfth of October (Michels 1999). In Agnes K. Mitchel’s article ‘ROMAN FESTIVALS: October to December’, it is explained that, in the year 19 BC, Augustus travelled to Rome from Syria (Michels 1999). His safe journey was accredited to the goddess Fortuna Redux, who was said to have protected him on his journey. As a result of this, the Senate made an altar for the goddess, naming it the Augustalia, a reference to their emperor and their belief and celebration of him as a living deity (Michels 1999). It is interesting that an altar, the simplest form of a temple, was used in such an important festival and as a declaration of Augustus’ power.

To conclude, temples were essential to the practice of religion in Rome. They were designed to display the prowess of Rome and its gods, to allow successful religious worship and maintain the favour of the Pagaen deities. Their main purpose was to ensure correct religious rites, as well as to offer a public meeting place. They were paramount to Roman culture and the everyday lives of Rome’s citizens.


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