• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Capitoline Temple of Rome



“Here is the Capitol where in the old days a human head was found and declared to be an omen, for in that place would be fixed the supreme sovereign power of the world.” Livy (5.54.7)

Heads beneath important temples – like threats from the mafia – spring up now and then. Carthage, for instance, had an ox’s head beneath it which supposedly provided an omen for prosperity and servitude (to the city). Its major temple (to Juno) was raised on a spot where a horse’s head was found (again interpreted as a sign of martial prowess). Back in Rome the Capitoline temple trumped its future nemesis by standing over an ever-gushing caput humanum. Dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (a rather eccentric Greco-Etruscan triad foreign to the ancient Roman religion) the temple was vowed by Tarquinius Priscus during a Sabine war. He chose the the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, renamed Tarpeian, though most of the work was completed by Tarquinius Superbus using spoils from the sack of Suessa Pometia (which Q. Fabius Pictor calculated at forty talents). Dionysius of Halicarnassus gives a circumference of 800 Roman feet and excavations reveal a podium just over 53m wide and 62m deep. The archaic Capitol was therefore a colossal temple built on a scale that catapulted it into a premier league that included the Olympian Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (built to celebrate the survival of Greek independence against the Carthaginians at Himera, 480 BC). Such was its size that Tacitus called it a “pignus imperii” (a pledge of empire), while Livy reckoned it a “prophetic anticipation of [the city’s] future greatness.” Sculptors from Etruscan Veii filled the temple with life-like statues, though this may be a fabrication. It’s possible they were pillaged during the ten-year war between Rome and Veii which ended with the latter’s conquest in 396. Yet the Capitol of the Tarquins, whose terracotta thunderbolt-wielding Jupiter was protected by Doric columns and wooden entablature – capped by an acroterion of the same god riding a quadriga (which Pliny and Plutarch claimed as a positive omen, it having grown outrageously large in the furnace) – went up in smoke on 6th July 83 BC. Perhaps the greatest casualty was the Sibylline Books kept in a stone chest. Cicero’s Verrines imagined the new, higher Capitol (which looked a little disproportionate/silly on the old stylobate) to be a symbol of world rule (but then he also upheld many odd ideas such as the fact the Roman senate had always reckoned only Carthage, Corinth and Capua were worthy competitors as the potential capitals of rival empires). Its roof was supported by eagles and covered with plates of gilt bronze, while Jupiter’s terracotta statue was replaced by one of gold and ivory made by Apollonius in imitation of the Zeus at Olympia. In AD 69 the temple was stormed and burned by the Vitellians. Vespasian rebuilt it along its original lines but at a still greater height as hexastyle with Corinthian columns. This temple fell to fire again only a decade later and rebuilt in a bling manner with white Pentelic marble (used nowhere else in Rome), doors plated with gold, and a roof covered with gilt tiles. Four bronze columns – made from the rostra of ships captured at Actium – probably stood within it.

The three divine lynchpins that kept Rome’s wheel of fortune turning were the Capitol (cast as the couch of Jupiter), the temple of Vesta in the Forum (repository of the Palladium) and, finally, the Aventine temple of Diana. The last was a central node for Italian unity. The reasoning given was that the Latins conceded Roman hegemony thanks to its cult which centred on the tale of a gigantic heifer that had been born in the Sabine country. According to the narrative seers had prophesied that the city of the person who sacrificed it was destined to be the seat of empire (ibi fore imperium), a task completed by a Roman priest. History could throw up rather awkward facts, which Romans had an endearing manner of accepting rather than denying. Romulus, for instance, appeared to have two huts (one of the Palatine, another on the Capitol), while there was also an older Capitolium than Tarquin’s site. It stood on the Quirinal and was known as the Capitolium Vetus (which may have been the natives’ original shrine for Jupiter, who the Romans turned into Janus).

The triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were not the only divinities to be worshipped at the temple. Dionysius of Halicarnassus noted that when the altars to each god on the site were being removed (after consultation with each deity) two gods refused permission. One was Terminus, god of boundaries, the other was Juventas, goddess of youth. In the historian’s day, one shrine stood in the pronaos of Minerva’s shrine, the other in the cella near her main idol. Jupiter can be confusing because he was known as the threefold god, a little like how armed forces around the world collapse their functions into “air, land and sea,” though the god’s last dominion was the underworld not the ocean. Juventas was more fixed and had her cult linked to the life-cycles of the citizens by ensuring all males – on assumption of the toga virilis – deposited a fixed sum to her treasury on the Capitol. Meanwhile Terminus’ annual festival, the Terminalia, involved a sacrifice at the sixth mile of the Via Laurentina, a spot that once marked the southern border of Roman territory.

The Romans “nationalised” Jupiter’s cult by linking sacrifices to both the state’s military triumphs and the inauguration of each new consular new year when a white ox was offered on the 13th September. The god was also worshipped as Jupiter “Fulgur” [fulminator] at an altar in the Campus Martius, and all places struck by lightning were made his property. The god, however, remained popular with Latins whose common cult of Jupiter Latiaris was celebrated in a grove of oaks on the summit of Mount Alban. There he was honoured as a source of piety, duty and victory (at Rome this last virtue was celebrated by wedding the god to Victory – a giant golden idol weighing 220 pounds presented to the senate by Hiero of Syracuse in 216 BC). Indeed, everybody knew the tale of Romulus/ Remulus/ Alladius who mocked Jupiter only to suffer a storm upon his house that drowned him and his family.

The oak-connection continued in Rome where, according to legend, the earliest temple was that of Jupiter “Feretrius,” planned by Romulus when he’d slain the king of the Caeninenses, Acro, and deposited his spoils on an oak held sacred on the Capitol. His title derives from feretrum, the feretrum in question being the trunk to which the votive armour was offered (though it could derive from ferire “he who strikes” a fitting epithet for both Jupiter and the death-dealing Romulus). That this habit was already a tradition seems to have stemmed from an ancient custom that insisted the king (as priest of the oak-god) must be able to slay all-comers. In Jupiter’s temple were kept two objects of peculiar sanctity: a sceptre and lapides silices (pieces of flint). The sceptre was probably an oversimplification of Jupiter’s oak idol who could not feasibly be carved or sent on travels every time the state wanted to sign a treaty with a distant tribe (Jupiter was associated with moral order i.e. oaths, treaties, marriages and leagues). Instead the sceptre served as a substitute, a symbol. The flint was probably taken to be frozen thunderbolts, especially if native populations had left axe-heads around. It was used by priests who officially declared war or made treaties on behalf of the Roman state. The last temple is referred to in glowing terms by Ammianus but then sacked by Stilicho who departed with its gold-plated doors. There was still enough standing for the Eastern Roman general Narses to deem it necessary to remove its statues but it appears to have fallen into decrepitude shortly after. By the twelfth century a pope (Anacletus II) could refer to it simply as a “major” temple that overlooked the district of Alafantum (an obscure name that survives only in the name of a medieval church known as S. Abbacyri et Archangeli ad Alafantum). In the heyday of the popes the Capitol had become less head of a world (a title assumed by the Vatican just over a mile to the NW) than a hill. And even that title was threatened by Sancta Maria in Capitolio (now “Santa Maria in Ara Coeli,” after its main icon of the Virgin, a twelfth-century image modelled on the famous San Sisto icon) founded in the eighth century. The temple’s only connection with the latter being a fable, which (as described in the Mirabilia Urbis Romae [c.1140]) claimed Augustus, accompanied by the Tiburtine Sibyl, had a vision of the Virgin and Child standing atop a celestial altar, an “ara caeli.”

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