The Roman Pantheon is a famous architectural monument from the pre-Christian historical era

Roman Pantheon

The Romans called their Pantheon “the temple of all gods” because they considered this grandiose structure a dedication to the entire cosmos, the entire universe, and thus to eternity, a constantly living future. The first stone in the foundation of the sanctuary was laid during the reign of Emperor Agrippa, about 20 years before the new era. According to the historian Dion Cassius, Agrippa in Rome “erected a temple called the Pantheon (temple of all the gods). The name of this temple may be due to the images of many gods on pedestals, including statues of Mars and Venus. I think the name comes from the fact that the temple is shaped like a Greek domed funerary structure, resembling the sky. Agrippa wanted to erect a statue of Augustus there and to name the building after him. But since Augustus would permit neither, Agrippa placed there a statue of the first Caesar and, in the anteroom of the temple, a statue of Augustus and his own.”

The building Agrippa built, however, did not last long, and in the 80s of A.D. it was a neglected and dilapidated structure. Fifty years later, Emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome from 117 to 138 AD, decided to recreate the Pantheon, but on a radically new basis.

The emperor himself was a great admirer of Greek culture. He traveled extensively and during these journeys he was always accompanied by artists who were instructed to make sketches of architectural monuments to make measurement of outstanding buildings. In his artistic policy, Hadrian was guided by the art of classical Greece, clear and majestic, with sublime and quiet forms. It was the classics that marked the architecture and sculpture of the period of his reign. But the Pantheon, conceived by the emperor, had to appear in its incarnation in an entirely new form.

In what was this novelty? The point is that the prospects for the use of string-beam structures, which dominated the ancient order, have ceased to satisfy the growing demands of the great empire. This problem did not arise in constructions designed for relatively small Greek polities, but in imperial Rome with its million-strong population (a figure unheard of at the time) it became acute. In looking for a solution, the builders turned to the experience of the ancient Eastern states, especially since many of them were then in the position of Roman provinces. From there, from Mesopotamia and Persia, the Romans adopted the simplest cylindrical vault design, and not only adopted, but firmly and permanently entered the vaulted design in the practice of construction art.

The original technique of monolithic concrete with brick formwork was used. In fact, the concrete dome of the Pantheon became the first large-span structure in the history of mankind, not at all similar to the modest stone and brick vaults of the ancient Eastern masters. And if the Colosseum perfectly embodies the idea of the earthly might of Rome, the Pantheon displays new trends beyond the limits of ancient civilization. The beauty and harmony of the Pantheon is in the organic combination of clear volumes: the rotunda cylinder, the dome hemisphere and the portico parallelepiped. The creators of the Pantheon managed for the first time in the history of architecture to combine a cylinder (rotunda) with a rectangular shape (portico), opening through the protruding rotunda a huge space of the temple, blocked by a dome. The span of the dome – 43,2 m, which surpasses any domes of the temples of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, modern times – up to XIX century. It was created by successive layering of horizontal layers of concrete filled with brick rubble and light pumice. The upper zone of the dome was made of reinforced concrete.

The wall of the rotunda consists of eight pylons, which are connected by arches. One of the spans of the arches serves as an entrance to the temple. The round plan of the Pantheon is designed along a longitudinal axis, which is accentuated by the strong projecting entrance portico, and is supported on the opposite side by the niche with a statue of Jupiter. The portico on the side of the entrance to the Pantheon is decorated with eight columns placed on either side of the entrance in four rows. The columns, imposing and monolithic without fluting, are of red Egyptian granite, while their capitals and bases are of Greek marble. With its splendor and richness the portico masks a heavy cylinder. It protrudes rather heavily into the small square in front of the Pantheon, so it appears large, large, and hides the massive rotunda of the temple behind it.

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Entering the portico of the temple, the visitor must have experienced an entirely new feeling, one that was befitting not a mere mortal, but a triumphant, equal to heroes and gods. An immense space opened before him, impressive in its truly cosmic scope. No one would have imagined that the huge vault rested on concrete walls up to six meters thick-so graceful did the structure look, lightened by deep niches and slender columns. The walls were decorated with bright marble slabs, colored stones, the floor was lined with the finest mosaics.

The basis of the artistic image of the Pantheon is a strict calculation which creates perfection and harmony of forms, embodies the idea of total peace. This majestic building, full of some special impression, simplicity and mystery, was the pinnacle of Roman architecture.

Sculptors placed twelve statues of the main Olympic gods in the Pantheon, which was supposed to symbolize the universality of the temple, its all-encompassing divine essence. In this form the Pantheon existed until the end of the 4th century, when the Christian emperor Theodosius I closed the “pagan temple” in his opinion, and two centuries later the Pantheon was transformed into a Christian temple, where the remains of martyrs were transferred in order to prevent their plundering by barbarians.

The Pantheon has been looted more than once, but on the whole its fate, unlike most monuments of antiquity, has been most fortunate. It is, in fact, the only building in Rome that has not become a ruin and has never been rebuilt since Hadrian’s time. Another, perhaps even more important, point is noteworthy. In later centuries, in the abundance of vaulted and domed structures, builders seemed to have completely abandoned Roman technology for their construction. And only the invention of reinforced concrete – a material with entirely new plastic properties – forced a new way to evaluate the Roman experience, to see in it the forerunner of the great constructive idea, which was truly developed two millennia after its inception.

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History of the Pantheon

The initiative to erect the main temple of the Roman Empire belonged to the military leader Marcus Agrippa. The statesman launched a large-scale construction campaign after the defeat of Cleopatra and Antony`s fleet at the Battle of Axius in 31 BC. According to the general`s idea the Pantheon was to become a part of the architectural complex on the Champ de Mars. According to legend, the temple was built on the very spot from which one of the founders of Rome, Romulus, ascended to heaven.

Roman Pantheon in 1836

In addition to the temple, the complex included Agrippa’s Thermae and Neptune’s Basilica. Historians believe that both the Pantheon and the basilica were private property of the general and, unlike public temples, were closed to the general public.

It used to be believed that the Pantheon building had travelled a long way from the Roman times to the present day and still kept its original appearance. The reason for the misconception was a carved inscription that adorns the facade today. In Latin it means: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, thrice elected consul, did this.” Archaeological excavations have refuted this theory: for example, the Pantheon building in Rome, with the exception of the facade, was completely destroyed and then reconstructed according to previous drawings.

Opposite the Pantheon, in the Rotunda Square, there is a fountain created in 1711 that uses an Egyptian obelisk found on the site of the ancient temple of Isis.

Pliny the Elder described the temple of Agrippa in his work Natural History. Mention is made of Syracuse bronze column capitals, the figure of Diogenes of Athens surrounded by caryatids, statues of the gods, and Cleopatra’s pearl cut in half – a worthy decoration for Venus’ ears. The fire of 1980 took with it the grandeur of the Roman temple and the nearby buildings. The sanctuary was rebuilt by order of Domitian, but 30 years later the Pantheon suffered the same fate.

The reconstruction of the temple was undertaken by Hadrian, who was proclaimed ruler of the Roman Empire twice. Unfortunately, it is not known exactly how significant contribution to the restoration of the Pantheon was made by the architects of the emperor. Only the fact that Hadrian did not perpetuate his name, recreating only the former “signature” of Marcus Agrippa, is certain. Emperor Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla did not follow the example of their predecessor. Having partially reconstructed the Pantheon in 202, the Roman rulers marked this fact with an inscription on the temple’s architrave.

The Middle Ages were a watershed era for the fate of the sanctuary. In 609, the Byzantine emperor entrusted the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV. In the same year, the temple was consecrated in honor of St. Mary and the Martyrs, thus making it Christian. Thanks to this ceremony, the Pantheon avoided the fate of being forgotten or destroyed by the opponents of paganism. During the Renaissance, the temple became the tomb for the famous personalities of the time.

Unfortunately, the Roman Pantheon has lost many of its decorative elements. The place of the two carved columns was taken by medieval buildings. At the beginning of the 17th century, Urban VII removed the bronze decorations from the ceiling and erected two towers, disparagingly called “donkey ears” (they were demolished in the 19th century), on either side of the dome. The interior is largely intact, although not without restoration.

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The Pantheon in Rome is now used as a Catholic church. Masses are held here on Sundays and holidays. Sometimes the dome of the temple becomes an unwitting witness to marriage ceremonies.

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Architecture of Pantheon

The main sanctuary of Rome is built as a rotunda and a portico leading to it.


In ancient times the pediment of the portico was decorated with an imposing sculpture – probably of gilded bronze. The position of the openings into which the statue was mounted gives clues as to its appearance. The sculpture was probably an imperial eagle with ribbons extending to the corners of the pediment.

On the walls behind the portico there are empty niches for the statues. Probably earlier sculptures of Marcus Agrippa, Octavian Augustus and Julius Caesar may have stood here. Alternatively, statues of the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Minerva, Juno) or other Roman gods may have been possible. The massive bronze doors leading to the interior of the temple did not originally belong to the Pantheon. They were installed around the 15th century.

The first images of the Roman Pantheon show a flight of stairs leading up to the entrance of the temple. Over time an embankment was formed near the building and the need for a separate staircase was no longer necessary.


The concrete and brick rotunda of the sanctuary is covered by a hemispherical dome. Its lower tiers are made of a heavier material than the upper ones: the latter include pumice. Small chambers are designed inside to reduce the weight of the roof. Perhaps a similar role was assigned to the oculus, an opening in the center of the hemisphere with a diameter of 9 m. Here the mass of the vault is much less than at the base. Light penetrates into the temple through the oculus. The “Eye of the Pantheon” does not prevent rainfall, but thanks to the drainage system and a small angle of slope of the floor (about 30 °), rainwater gathers in special cavities.

Pantheon Eye rotunda against the roofs of Rome

There is an amazing legend associated with the famous dome of the temple. Thus, its perfect outline and the sunlight penetrating the “hole” of the oculus inspired N. Copernicus to the final formulation of the heliocentric theory.

There are niches in the walls of the room, where the statues of the gods whose names corresponded to the 7 planets of antiquity: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon and Sun. By penetrating through the oculus, the sun’s rays fell on each of the sculptures in turn, thereby turning the Roman Pantheon into a kind of observatory.

The Roman temple still holds the record for the most monumental unreinforced concrete dome in the world.


The building is entered through a pronaos, a rectangular room located at the front of the sanctuary. Above the entrance is a semicircular hollow – a tympanum – bounded by a lintel and an arch. In ancient times the sculpture The Battle of the Gods and Titans was located here, but unfortunately, it was not preserved.

The temple welcomes tourists with a huge cylindrical room. On either side the Roman Pantheon splits into two naves (except for the central part of the room). There are no windows. The space is visually divided into three tiers (floors), smoothly tapering to the upper one. The surface of the dome is decorated with the caissons – sunken panels – forming five rows of 28 units. These decorative elements may have had a specific meaning: lunar, geometric or numerical.

As the Pantheon dome in Rome symbolized the sky, the caissons could also have been used to hold ornaments such as bronze stars, so historians believe. In addition to their decorative role, these panels unload the overall composition, making the roof lighter both visually and technically.

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The interior is dominated by geometric shapes: rectangles, squares and circles. They are mainly embodied in the marble floor of the Pantheon: “chess cells” alternate with (presumably) omphalias – purple circles. The latter are usually reserved for emperors and priests, but whether this was relevant to the Roman temple of all the gods is unknown.


In the walls of the sanctuary found their last resting place outstanding minds, rulers and even saints of Italy. The former include artists such as the violinist Arcangelo Corelli, the sculptor Flaminio Vacca, the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, the painters Giovanni da Udine, Taddeo Zuccaro, Annibale Carracci and Perino del Vaga. A special place is given to the sarcophagus of Raphael Santi, a saint, and his wife Maria Bibbiena.

The Pantheon in Rimestal is also the tomb of some august personalities. Here are buried King Victor Emmanuel II, his son Umberto I and his wife Margherita. Volunteers from the National Institute of Honorary Guard, founded in the second half of the 19th century, stand guard over the royal graves.

About the Pantheon in numbers

There are many amazing facts associated with this sanctuary that amaze tourists:

  • In the history of the Roman Pantheon two periods of oblivion are known: for 400 and 900 years. Everything that happened to the temple during this time is a mystery behind the seven seals. Perhaps the Pantheon was subjected to more extensive reconstructions, otherwise it would not have survived in such good condition.
  • The dome around the Pantheon Eye is 1.2 meters thick, although it seems much smaller when viewed from below.
  • The height of the room and the diameter of its vault are: 43,3 м. This gives the structure an amazing harmony.
  • After the reorganization of the pagan shrine into a Christian temple, Pope Boniface IV ordered the bones of the saints from the catacombs of Rome to be transported to the Pantheon. According to records, they barely fit into 28 wagons.
  • The portico is supported by 16 marble columns. Each weighs about 60 tons, is 1.5 m in diameter and almost 12 m high.
  • The walls of the building are 6 meters thick. Historians believe that the Pantheon in Rome could have been used as a defensive fortress during riots and rebellions of the Middle Ages.
  • In 609 the Pantheon became the first pagan temple to be consecrated according to Christian canons. From this arises more than one legitimate question. Who kept the statistics of the pagan sanctuaries in ancient times? How has it survived to this day? What were the other temples like?
  • The obelisk of Ramses II placed in front of the Pantheon is not the only one in the city. A total of 13 Egyptian obelisks are placed in Rome, testifying to the Pope’s unusual love for the theme of the Land of the Pharaohs.

Roman Pantheon attracts not only the history and architecture. Looking at the majestic construction, more than 2 thousand years old, you cannot help but feel respect for the architects of those times who created the main masterpiece of Rome.

Practical information

The Pantheon in Rome is open to the public from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 to 19:30 and on Sunday from 9:00 to 18:00. On public holidays the temple closes at 13:00; it is closed on January 1, May 1, and December 25. Visiting the Pantheon is free, so everyone can admire the magnificent monument of Roman architecture. The temple is definitely worth seeing.

How to get there

The Piazza della Rotonda adorns the Piazza della Rotonda with its majestic image of the Roman Pantheon. Take public transportation to reach this place:

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