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Temple of Venus and Rome


"The temples of the City and Venus rise to the same high top and incense is burned to the pair of goddesses together."

Prudentius (Against Symmachus, I.221-222)

The Temple of Venus and Rome was designed by the emperor Hadrian, who once asked Apollodorus, himself the architect of the Forum of Trajan, to comment on his work. He allegedly replied that the temple was too low and the statues of the gods too tall for the space they occupied. "'For now,'" he said, 'if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so'" (Dio, Roman History, LXIX.4.1-5). Apollodorus further suggested that "it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone's being aware of them beforehand" (LXIX.4.4). To be sure, the temple platform facing the Colosseum is almost thirty feet higher than at the top of the Velia hill (one still can see the exposed vaulted chambers) and apparatus for spectacles in the amphitheater could have been stored there, although there is no other basis for the suggestion. Hadrian was so exasperated at the presumption of these remarks that he banished Apollodorus and later even may have had him put to death.

Construction on the temple began in AD 121 and required that the Colossus of Nero be relocated nearer the Flavian Amphitheater, which later took its name (Colosseum) from the colossal bronze statue, said to have been transported by twenty-four elephants (Historia Augusta: Life of Hadrian, XIX.12; Suetonius, Life of Nero, XXXI.1; Pliny, Natural History, XXXIV.45). The temple itself probably was dedicated in AD 135, although it still was unfinished when Hadrian died three years later. Sometime within the next decade it was completed by his successor Antoninus Pius. Damaged by fire in AD 307, the temple was restored "in magnificent manner" by Maxentius (Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, XL). Indeed, when Constantius visited Rome fifty years later, it was one of the sights that he most admired (Ammianus Marcellinus, History, XVI.10.13).

Receiving a special dispensation from Heraclius in AD 625, Pope Honorius stripped the gilded bronze roof tiles to repair St. Peter's. Then, during a twelve-day visit to Rome in AD 663, Constans II "pulled down everything that in ancient times had been made of metal for the ornament of the city, to such an extent that he even stripped off the roof of the church of the Blessed Mary which at one time was called the Pantheon, and had been  founded in honor of all the gods" (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, V.11) and had all such decoration shipped to Constantinople. In AD 847, an earthquake further contributed to the despoliation of the temple, and a church was built in the ruins.

The Templum Venus et Roma had two cellae, each sacred inner chamber holding a cult statueVenus Felix, ancestor of the Roman people, and Roma Aeterna, the genius (personification) of the city, a symmetrical arrangement that may have been influenced by the palindrome that the two deities evoked: Roma and Amor. With the Arch of Titus at one corner of the sacred precinct and the Via Sacra passing along the side, the immense temple, which effectively served as Hadrian's own forum, joined the Roman Forum (upon which Roma looked) and the Colosseum (faced by Venus).

The temple was decastyle, the largest in Rome and the only one to have ten columns across its principal façade, with twenty columns along the long sides. Robinson further describes it as "dipteral at the ends, pseudo-dipteral along the sides, with a pronaos at each end tetrastyle in antis." Whereas a dipteral temple had two rows of columns along all four sides of the cellae, a pseudo-dipteral temple omits the inner course of columns. The only sense of there being two rows of columns is in the front and rear, where the four columns between the antae of the portico (pronaos) at both the front and rear give the impression of the temple being dipteral. Stamper has emphasized the similarities between the Temple of Venus and Rome and that of Olympian Zeus in Athens, which Hadrian visited in AD 124-125, dedicating the temple there on his second visit four years later. Both temples, for example, are surrounded by a paved court enclosed by a portico from which the stylobate is approached by steps on all four sides and both are dipteral. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, however, is octastyle, with eight columns across the principal façade.



"He [Hadrian] was quite considerably learned in literature and was called by many 'Greekling.' He devoured the pursuits and customs of the Athenians, having mastered not merely rhetoric, but other disciplines, too, the science of singing, of playing the harp, and of medicine, a musician, geometrician, painter, and a sculptor from bronze or marble who approximated Polycletus and Euphranoras....He was diverse, manifold, and multiform; as if a born arbiter with respect to vices and virtues, by some artifice he controlled intellectual impulse. He adroitly concealed a mind envious, melancholy, hedonistic, and excessive with respect to his own ostentation; he simulated restraint, affability, clemency, and conversely disguised the ardor for fame with which he burned."

Aurelius Victor (De Caesaribus: Hadrian II, VI)

The columns (left) of gray Egyptian granite on their white marble bases mark the perimeter of the massive platform that enclosed the temple precinct, which here faces the Colosseum. Access from this end was by two flights of steps at each corner of the platform. From the Forum, the approach was by a single broad flight of steps.

The picture taken through an arch in the Colosseum shows the rear wall of the Church of San Francesca Romana, which was built in 1612 on the site of the ninth-century church. It preserves the apse of the temple cella that held the statue of Venus. To the right is displayed a large white section of the cornice. The same view is recreated above in the état restauré by Léon Vaudoyer (1830).

Twenty year after the removal of the altar and statue of Victory from the Senate House by the emperor Gratian in AD 381, and a plea by the pagan aristocrat Symmachus that they be restored, the Christian poet Prudentius responded in two books of hexameter verse, Contra Symmachus. The senator had argued that no-one was so friendly with barbarians as not to require an Altar of Victory. The defeat of the Goths in AD 402 may have been the occasion for Prudentius' retort that the Christian God could indeed protect Rome. If so, the burning of incense to the deities that he mentions in his poem must have been among the very last acts of such veneration in Rome, as the temple itself presumably had been closed ten years earlier, when in AD 391 Theodosius promulgated a series of decrees prohibiting pagan worship.

References: The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Ages (2005) by John W. Stamper; A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) by L. Richardson, Jr.; History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon (1907) translated by William Dudley Foulke; Epitome De Caesaribus (2009) translated by Thomas M. Banchich (which differs from the Liber De Caesaribus translated by H. W. Bird).

See also Victoria, Apollodorus, and Temple of Olympian Zeus.

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