The Pantheon

Of all the sights of Rome, the Pantheon was the one I was most looking forward to seeing. I had heard that it was the best preserved structure of ancient Rome, that it contained enormous statues of the seven most important gods in the Roman pantheon, and that its enormity was awe-inspiring even today.

Pantheon, front

As we approached the Pantheon, I began to see what they meant, compared to the other buildings of ancient Rome. The original Pantheon was built in about 25 BC by Agrippa. It was completely destroyed in the fire of 80 AD. Emporer Hadrian had the building reconstructed in 125 AD, including a copy of the original inscription on the portico. It is thought to be a product of the transition from the ancient religion of Rome to the increasingly Greek-influenced religion. It is built in a perfect circle, and remains an influence and inspiration for architechts to this day.

Pantheon, celing

It is the only building of the ancient world which has retained its original roof. The roof is a dome with a hole in the center. The hole is intended to represent the sun, and also functions to cool the ancient temple. What's really amazing is that this structure would be impossible to build with modern concrete - it would collapse under its own weight - but the Roman concrete of which it is made has stood for nearly 2000 years. Exactly how the Romans achieved this is still not known. In composition it is not too different from modern concrete, but it is thought that perhaps the patient application of the concrete in layers, and careful tamping during the drying process, may be the reason for its amazing strength and durability.

Pantheon, central recess

Looking down from the celing, though, things get a bit more disappointing. The place was re-consecrated as a Christian church in 609 AD. While this almost certainly saved it from being sacked, looted, and destroyed like all the other ancient temples, the emptiness of the recesses looms above all else in the room. The tiny crosses and coffins (yes, that's what those are) containing kings of Italy do little to fill the omnipresent void.

Pantheon, empty recess

The stonework is beautiful. And Rome is a city of change... the Pantheon was built as a temple to the new gods of its time, perhaps it is appropriate that now it is a temple to the God of our time.

Pantheon, emtpy recess

But I found it impossible to look around without seeing a sad echo of past glory. The building was designed to contain statues, and it feels empty without them. The seven largest recesses probably contained statues of the seven planetary deities. It is known that statues of Agrippa and Augustus Caesar stood in the original building.

Pantheon Jesus

Both the inside and outside of the building were once gilded in gold, bronze, and marble. If you look carefully you can see the holes in the brick where an enormous bronze relief sculpture once hung. The entire roof of the building was once plated in bronze. One can imagine the effect with the Mediterranian sun shining down on it.

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