[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Journal Homepage]

2.0 Visibility of urban temples in ancient literature and modern scholarship

Any number of factors could influence the choice of a site within a Roman city where a temple would be built. A builder may have selected a plot of land to meet political or ideological goals, for ritual reasons, or simply because of the availability of affordable 'real estate'. One concern in the selection of sites for temples that has interested both ancient and modern scholars, however, has been visibility. Without question, ancient builders understood that a temple that was visible from a great distance could have an impact on many citizens. In relating the story of the sedition trial of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, the Roman hero who had earlier led the defence of the Capitoline Hill during the Gallic invasion of Rome around 390 BCE, Livy describes the scene on the Campus Martius in the following way:

[A]fter rehearsing his services in war, in a speech as magnificent as the height of his achievements and equalling his deeds with its words, he (Manlius) is said to have bared his breast, marked with scars of battle, and gazing steadily at the Capitol to have called on Jupiter and the other gods to help him, that they might inspire the Roman People in his hour of danger with the same spirit they had given him when he defended the Capitoline Hill; and to have implored the Romans one and all to fix their eyes on the Capitol and Citadel, and turn to the immortal gods while they judged him (Livy 6.20.8-9; trans. Foster 1984, 265).

In order to gain a conviction, officials were forced to move the trial to another location from which the Capitoline temple of Jupiter was not visible. Regardless of the veracity of this story, it is clear that Jupiter Capitolinus was a very real presence in the daily lives of Rome's ancient residents. Other ancient authors report on the visibility of some urban temples from a great distance and from many points within ancient cities, which suggests that other gods had an equally strong daily presence in Rome and other cities across the Empire (cf. Livy 40.51.3; Cic. Nat. D. 2.61; Dio Cass. 37.3.43-4; id. 37.9.1-2; Procop. Aed. 1.1.27-28; see also Strabo 17.1.9 in conjunction with Vitr. 4.5.2). Vitruvius acknowledges the importance of visibility when he states that an ideal temple location will allow 'the greatest possible part within the walls of the city [to] be visible from the temples of the gods' (4.5.2, trans. Granger 1931, 233). By positioning temples in this way, Vitruvius reasoned the gods were able to protect the city from external invaders and watch over the city's inhabitants (1.7.1). Although Vitruvius does not state it, the converse of this would be that a temple could be seen from many parts of the city. Thus it is clear that among the great number of factors influencing decisions about where new urban temples should be located and laid out, visibility was an important consideration.

Modern classical scholars have also expressed interest in the visibility of temples in Greek and Roman urban landscapes and how these visual dynamics impacted on the activities of ancient urbanites. As early as 1939, William Dinsmoor was interested in knowing what was visible from the Athenian Parthenon in antiquity and how this affected the cult of Athena Parthenos as well as the orientation of the goddess' temple. Later Vincent Scully (1979, 186 ff.) argued that Greek and Roman temples were placed in order to unite and define cities visually, from the time of the first Greek polis through the height of Roman imperial power. John Anderson noted that temples were often used as landmarks in ancient texts describing life in Roman cities, which led him to conclude that they could be seen from afar and gave the gods a presence in the city (1997, 243-4). William L. MacDonald argued that Roman imperial cities were laid out to provide long vistas along important streets, punctuated by imperial monuments including temples, thus making temples important visual reference points within the urban street plans (1986). In trying to reconstruct the sensory experience of walking through ancient Rome or Pompeii, the assumption that temples were highly visible has played an important part (Favro 1996; Laurence 1994, 20).

[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Journal Homepage]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue14/2/2.0.html
Last updated: Thu Jun 12 2003