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The Temple of Hercules
by Q. Aurelius Symmachus

The Temple of Hercules situated in the Forum Boarium has undergone a splendid renovation which was carried out for the Millennium celebration.

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As can be seen in this accompanying photo, the temple is a graceful addition to the Roman landscape. Positioned just across the Via Lungotevere from the Tiber, it has now been graced by a semicircle of slender Mediterranean cypress trees which mirror the shape of the temple. Of a Greek style, its circular configuration caused it to be termed a Temple of Vesta for many years. Although the actual name of the temple may be a bit in doubt, it appears quite likely that it was dedicated to some form of Hercules, demigod of victory and commercial enterprise. (Claridge, 1998). This area, bordered by the Tiber, the ancient cattle auction and the Circus Maximus is supposedly the general location of Hercules’s victory over Cacus during his return from the eighth of his labours. According to legend, as he was passing through Rome, and I would imagine this site, on his return from stealing the cattle of Geryon, when the monster Cacus made off with a few cattle and hid them in a nearby cave. Hercules located them and slue the monster Cacus. To celebrate his victory over Cacus he made a sacrifice of some of the bulls at or near this site. The Great Alter (Ara Maximus) of Hercules Invictus is thought to have also been in this area and possibly today included in the site of the nearby church of S. Maria in Cosmedin.

The temple itself, which dates from some time in the late 2nd century to the early 1st BCE, is 50 RF (14.8 m) in diameter and consists of a circular cella wall surrounded by a circular colonnade consisting of 20 Corinthian columns. The columns are 36 RF (10.66 m) in height.

The design of the round temple is Greek and there were two types. The first was the monopteros which consisted of a circular arrangement of columns which supported a circular system of beams which carried a cupola. Within this arrangement would be placed a representation of the deity the to whom the temple was dedicated. This type of temple did not incorporate a cella and therefore the statue of the god or goddess would be visible to passers-by. The second type of round temple was the peripteros which did incorporate a cella, had a greater number of columns forming a circular colonnade carrying an entablature supporting with a beam system and roof or cupola. (Guhl and Kroner, 1995) The Temple of Hercules we are discussing is of the second or peripteros type.

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Admittance to the cella was achieved by a doorway flanked by two rectangular windows. These are noted as being part of the original design and structure with the window on the right of the doorway falling between the 3rd and 4th columns (counter clockwise) while the one on the left is placed between the 17th and 18th coloumns. The general layout of the temple is pictured in these drawings from Claridge 1998, Figure 120, page 255.

The plan figure as taken from Claridge did not include the windows, however a plan design from Guhl and Kroner did incorporate them. As I preferred the Claridge figure, I have added the windows in the cella wall to her plan.

Like many other buildings from ancient Rome, the fact that the round Temple of Hercules is still with us is due to its having been converted into a church. By 1132 CE it was known as St Stephen ‘of the carriages’. The upper part of the cella wall along with the original roof and marble entablature have been lost. The upper part of the cella was replaced with brick and concrete during the 12th Century. Claridge states that ‘further restorations (and a fresco over the altar) were made in 1475’ and there is a plaque in the floor dedicated by Sixtus IV. There are very good remains of the fresco which are pictured below. Whether this is the 1475 effort or is from a the 17th Century when the temple was rededicated as St Mary ‘of the Sun’ I am not certain but as can be seen from the following picture the fresco is quite well preserved.

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Also on display in the temple are various artefacts from the site. The pieces of fluted column in this photo may have been from bits that were discarded during the restoration of the temple or they be from one of the 10 columns that had to be replaced during a 1st CE rehabilitation of the temple.

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This next photo shows a clear representation of some Christian era adornment (indicated by the black arrow) which may have been part of the temple during one of the periods when it was a church.

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This next picture shows a beam end (which appears to be slightly charred) which may have been part of one of its various roof systems during antiquity. If so, this would have rested on the now non-existent entablature.

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That marble entablature which would have supported the roof system would have rested on column capitals such as the one in the next picture. This picture shows one of the columns with the original lower half of a capital in quite a good condition, however, the excellent top

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portion of this capital is not one of either C2 BCE or C1 CE. These capitals were made in two pieces which is demonstrated here by the imperfect alignment. Just below the misalignment on the stem of the carved leaves supporting the corner scrolls you can find two horizontal bands or rings carved on each of those stems. This is characteristic of the original capitals from the original construction in C2 BCE. A thicker but single band was carved on the later capitals that were used in repair of the temple. The vertical spacing between the levels of the leaves on the lower part of the capital were also different on the replacement capitals. As can be seen, the columns on either side of this one have lost the upper part of their capitals which have been replaced by travertine blocks. Originally these columns would have supported the missing marble entablature which would have supported the roof. The original roof and beam system would not have rested directly on the columns as it does now.

Below is a surviving original upper half of a capital. One of the primary identifiers is the diagonal lines on the flower type adornment at the top of the carving. Below it is a picture of one of the surviving capitals from the C1 CE repair of the temple. On the C1 CE capital it can be seen that the carving on the top has some sort of strange curlicue rather than the original element; there is a greater spacing between the levels of the top of the leaves on the bottom half of the capital (a bit difficult to identify as the tops of the leaves on the 2nd or upper row have had their tops broken off); and the leaf stems supporting the corner scrolls have the single band previously mentioned.

The flat ends of the fluting on the column shafts are indicative of the early period to which this temple is dated.

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As we walk around the temple we can see part of the original base where it has been excavated (excavation by Valadier 1810). Notice the foot of the columns in this picture. On some of the more intact units you can see what appears to be a marble slab under the base. Actually, in the original state, the carving of the foot of the column shaft, the base of the column and the plinth were of one piece and integrated into the top step of the temple. Another reason why, besides the use of Grecian ( Pentelic ) marble, why this was a very expensive temple when it was built.

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Continuing on to the back of the temple we come upon a little Christian graffiti from some time in antiquity.

The restoration and maintenance of the round Temple of Hercules is another example of the fine work being done by the Italian Ministry of Culture and Antiquities.

Reference cited / used in the preparation of this article:

Claridge, Amanda, Oxford Archaeological Guides Rome, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 019288003-9

Guhl, E. and Kroner, W., The Romans Their Life And Customs, Tiger Books International, 1994, ISBN 1 85958 055 6

Platner, Samuel Ball, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Oxford University Press, 1929