The oldest building in Rome doesn’t call much attention to itself. For a culture which showed the world how to build big, it’s rather petite. Instead of occupying a lofty hilltop or an illustrious avenue, it sits in the middle of an old cattle market. It doesn’t have any inscriptions proclaiming the glory of its patron. For centuries, it was confused with a different building entirely – and even today, its identification remains more theory than fact.
Yet the round structure in the Forum Boarium – now known as the Temple of Hercules Victor – has survived for over two thousand years. It’s a monument to Rome’s Republican years – before the megalomaniac emperors – and a tribute to the refinement of Greek culture. In a city where pomp and grandeur reigned supreme, this little building holds its own by virtue of its elegant lines. It’s also remained remarkably intact, even compared to Roman structures built hundreds of years later.
The temple hides in plain sight, by the river’s bank between the Circus Maximus and Tiber Island. We stumbled across it more than once without knowing what it was. It sits in the middle of the Forum Boarium, a park-like block at the foot of the Palatine Bridge. Across the street, busloads of tourists line up to see the Mouth of Truth, all of them seemingly unaware of one of Rome’s most remarkable structures.
The Round Temple in the Forum Boarium
Rome’s first set of docks, the Portus Tiberius, clustered around a flat area where the Capitoline, Palatine, and Aventine hills meet. The surrounding site grew into the Forum Boarium, a thriving market area where cattle and other goods entered the city. Trading activities in turn prompted the construction of temples where merchants could seek the gods’ blessing.
After much debate, most scholars now date the circular temple to the second century BCE. 19 of the original 20 columns survive, although about half the capitals were probably replaced in the first century. In spite of its diminutive size, the papacy ordered the temple consecrated as a church in 1140. Originally dedicated to Santo Stefano and later to Santa Maria del Sole, the structure picked up windows and some interior frescoes over the years. No one seems to know when the roof disappeared or what the original looked like.
Vestal Virgins famously worshipped in round temples, and for centuries most people assumed this one had been dedicated to goddess Vesta. By the time of Napoleon’s invasion, more excavations and written sources indicated Hercules instead.
Hercules in Ancient Rome
Hercules’ physical strength, courage and cleverness made him especially appealing to ancient Romans. They expanded the original Greek myths about him – especially his adventures in the Italian peninsula. In the Aeneid, Virgil described the hero killing a giant near the Aventine hill, then setting up an altar on the spot where the locals could show their gratitude. The Ara Maxima, or Great Altar, disappeared in the fourth century, but archaeologists have identified its foundations within the crypt of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
Cult worship of Hercules developed in the Forum Boarium, which surrounded the Ara Maxima. Besides making sacrifices at the altar, Romans honored Hercules by staging contests of strength and prowess. In 264 BCE, a wooden arena at the Forum Boarium held the city’s first gladiatorial contest.
Two ancient statues of Hercules have been found on the site, although their exact age remains unclear. A gilded bronze featuring ancient Greek proportions (rather than the burlier versions favored later) now rests in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on Capitoline Hill. A large, heavily-restored marble rendition is in the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Altemps.
A Roman Temple in the Greek Style
Other than its circular form, the temple’s most distinctive aspect is its pure Greek style, right down to its walls of solid marble imported from Attica. Most structures in Rome adapted Hellenistic architecture rather than copying it outright, especially when it came to using stone. Pragmatic Romans preferred to build with lightweight, locally-available materials like volcanic tufa and brick, limiting marble to a thin layer on top. The unusual and extravagant all-marble construction of the Temple of Hercules required labor-intensive carving for each and every piece.
Although scholars continue to debate the temple’s origins, one prominent theory links it with a second-century BCE general who conquered much of Greece. Lucius Mummius Achaicus served as both consul and censor – the most powerful positions of the Roman Republic – during years of intense construction in and around the Forum Boarium. Sponsoring a costly temple in the area would help him compete with his aristocratic co-censor and rival Scipio Aemilianus Africanus. Its Greek style would remind Romans of Mummius’ victory, right down to the Corinthian capitals evoking the city he sacked.
Renaissance architect Bramante’s iconic Tempietto was inspired by the Temple of Hercules Victor.
The round temple inspired many Renaissance architects, although they often added domes to their interpretations. Presumably they were unaware that the temple pre-dates Roman domes. Palladio’s sketch of the temple includes a dome, as does Bramante’s influential Tempietto in Trastevere.
Besides the Temple of Hercules, the Forum Boarium also contains the Temple of Portunus. Similar in style to the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, it dates to around 100 BCE. Like its neighbor, the Portunus inspired Palladio and other Renaissance architects. It too went by a different name – in this case, the rather suggestive Fortuna Virilis, or Manly Fortune. Given its location by the docks, scholars now associate it with Portunus, the god of ports, gateways, and food.
Across the street, the medieval Santa Maria in Cosmedin church holds the Bocca della Verità and the Ara Maxima’s foundation. Nearby, the Arch of Janus dates to the fourth century CE, while the 12th century Casa dei Cresenzi incorporates fragments of ancient architecture into its walls.
On the other side of the forum, a single span of the Aemilian Bridge sits in the middle of the Tiber – hence its common name, the Ponte Rotto or Broken Bridge. Final construction of its arches coincided with the erection of the Temple of Hercules. Nearby, the ultra-ancient Cloaca Maxima still drains into the Tiber River. For more information, see our post on Rome’s historic bridges.
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