The two temples in the Forum Boarium as illustrations of Rome’s cultural flux over the ages.

Show Notes

We return today to the Forum Boarium, where back in the heroic age, Aeneas’s ships put in after their long voyage following the destruction of their native city in the Trojan War. In the last episode, we focused on these stories and other events that never happened, namely, on the colorful if mythical reports concerning Rome’s very distant prehistory. These events reportedly occurred about five hundred years before Romulus’s founding of Rome, which of course was also a mythical event; and I think you will admit that it is difficult to measure the lapse of time that separates two events that never happened. For this episode, we’ll focus on the two temples that still stand in the piazza today.

You will remember that the piazza of which we are speaking is the former Forum Boarium, now called the Piazza della Bocca della Verita.’ In addition to our two temples, it also features a Catholic church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and a baroque fountain, but they will have to wait for a later episode. The piazza is also surrounded on two sides by busy roads and office buildings, a common feature of Modern Rome but a big change from just a hundred and fifty years ago.

If we use our imaginations to strip away the changes brought about since Rome became the capital of united Italy in 1871, the roads shrink into narrow paths, the banks of the Tiber disappear, the river flows right up to the edges of the piazza, and the two Roman temples become Catholic churches, one with an attached monastery. That’s right: these two temples were built to help the Romans worship the pagan gods Hercules and Portunus, who seems to have been a god of doors, keys, and possibly ports; but they were converted into churches during the Christian centuries and were not deconsecrated and converted back into temples until relatively recently, after the new Italy seized political power from the popes.

I mean, of course, that they were restored to look like pagan temples once again, not that they returned to their former roles in pagan times, when the worship of Hercules was carried out in and around the charming round temple in white marble, and when Portunus was worshipped in the rectangular temple made mostly of the local and less expensive brown tufa. The religious views of Romans and visitors alike have changed, and in our day, it is not always the Catholic Church that determines whether a church will remain a church, and whether one might be deconsecrated. The tourist dollar, the cost of maintenance, and political opinions just might affect such decisions. More on this in a later podcast.

These two temples are the oldest intact temples in all of Rome, and they are also among the relatively few—a dozen or so—that were converted into Christian churches. It is commonly said that those few temples to survive from the pagan period would not have done so had they not been converted into churches, and I believe this to be true. But this need not mean that unconverted temples were routinely destroyed out of superstitious ire on the part of the early Christians. For one thing, it is not that easy to tear down a well-built temple; and it is revealing that the Temple of Portunus was not Christianized until the ninth century. This means it survived five Christian centuries before being converted into a church. In particular, it survived the centuries of the most heated anti-pagan animus. But once it became a church, it gained an important reason to keep it from falling into ruin.

You may see the other temple in the piazza referred to as a Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, since it has the round shape and perimeter of columns that we see on the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum; but archeologists have rather recently found an inscription showing that the dedication was actually to Hercules Victor. This also fits with the fact that what the Romans called the Great Altar to Hercules was in this area, and if you visit the area, I suggest you also visit the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, just a couple of hundred yards from the temple. Apart from its main charms, to be discussed under a Christian heading, its crypt contains the foundations of the Great Altar to Hercules, allegedly built by Evander himself, to honor Hercules for having killed the bloodthirsty monster Cacus.

It was only in the twelfth century that the Temple to Hercules Victor became a church, so it survived about eight centuries without the protection afforded by serving the dominant religion of the day. It is unknown whether these two temples were damaged during the period of the most heated culture wars between Christianity and paganism, in the late fourth and fifth centuries, but at least they were not damaged irreparably, even if, as I would guess, the cult statues that inhabited them did not survive this period.

Although these two temples survived the Christianization of Rome, let’s remember the severity of the tensions at the time Christianity gained the ascendancy. Consider these entries from the Theodosian Code, which was a compilation of imperial law assembled in 429.

In 346: Pagan temples are to be closed, access to them is denied, and violators may face the death penalty.

In 356: Those guilty of idolatry or pagan sacrifices may be subject to the death penalty.

In 378: Altars and worship places of non-Catholic religions shall be confiscated.

In 385: Sacrifices and divination are forbidden; violators will be severely punished.

In 391: Idol worship is forbidden as is pagan sacrifice.

In 391: No person shall enter the pagan temples or perform sacrifices.

The publishing of a law does not guarantee its enforcement, and the redundancy of these measures makes me think that it was sometimes difficult to secure compliance, but the drift is clear, that temples and their users were in for hard times. This should help us understand why these two temples are among a very few survivors of the over four hundred pagan temples that once dotted the Roman cityscape. We are often impressed by the vast structures that remain of ancient Rome, but what has been lost is vastly more, as walk through the Forum makes and especially plain.

It is unknown what use was made of these rare survivors between the time paganism was outlawed and the time they became churches. We are talking about five to seven hundred years! Were they used as homes, forts, or markets, or were they looted and then simply neglected? Remember that the population of Rome goes into sharp decline once Constantine moves the capital of the empire  to Constantinople in the fourth century, a prelude to the sacks of Rome by Germanic tribes in the fifth, so many structures used by Romans when they numbered one million were no longer needed as the population began to drop toward its final low point of a mere 20,000, roughly speaking, a decline that required several centuries. And the causes of depopulation also brought poverty, so in addition to there being no religious reason to preserve Rome’s old temples, there was also limited labor and money to protect and maintain unneeded buildings. Since writing, record-keeping, and literacy also went into sharp decline, we are in the dark.

Even for the few temples that became churches, little is known about their precise histories, though some notes have turned up recording the churches’ changing dedications. The Temple of Hercules first became the church of San Stefano Rotondo, later became Saint Stephan of the coachmen, and still later was rededicated as Santa Maria del Sole, St. Mary of the Sun. The reason behind this last rededication takes us back to the subject of myth, or at least to a story that was more easily accepted when it was first told, in 1560, than today. It had to do with a paper icon given to a virgin who then had a vision of the icon shining like the sun. A popular devotion ensued, the icon was enshrined in the church, and the church was rededicated to Mary of the Sun. When the church was deconsecrated and restored to look like a temple again, the icon was moved to a church in central Rome, the Oratory of the Santissimo Crocifisso, where it apparently still resides. I suspect those dedicated to remembering the virgin’s vison would be differently affected by this story than those old Romans who honored Hercules for having killed  Cacus on his way through the piazza. The same structure has played vital but very different roles in its past.  I wonder whether it is much more than a curiosity for tourists today.

After becoming a church, the Temple of Portunus also had several dedications. Apparently, it was first dedicated to Santa Maria in Gradellis, may have later been dedicated to Santa Maria in Secundicerio, and was later and with greater certainty dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. These changing dedications mean little to me, but perhaps the devotion to an eastern saint, Mary of Egypt, is a reminder that the church was at this point used by an Armenian population in Rome. Put together with other bits of evidence, this may help us to see that in some respects, Rome was a surprisingly cosmopolitan city even early in its history, notwithstanding such uniformity as came from its dominant Christianity.

After these two structures had survived centuries without having performed either a pagan or Christian function, their conversion into churches would have added an important reason to maintain them; and, as all homeowners know, maintenance is crucial for a structure’s survival. This was especially so in medieval Rome, when many old Roman structures were treated as quarries from which to seize materials for new construction. (As we saw earlier, this helps to explain, for example, why only about half of the Colosseum remains. See Podcast 93 and Podcast 91, as listed on my website, for details.) It thus seems reasonable to conclude that their use as Christian churches helps account for the survival of their core structures over the last millennium, when they otherwise stood a good chance of having been scavenged to provide materials for other purposes.

We’ll take a look in the next episode at a few of the other cases in which pagan temples were converted into Christian Churches.

And if you have any interest in hearing me try to do some podcasting in Italian, try my new series, called Get Ready for Rome Italiano. I make some mistakes, and my pronunciation is not the best, but I hope to get better and, so far at least, I don’t think I’ve done any permanent damage to the beautiful Italian language.

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