Notitia, Sites in Region VIII:
The Roman Forum (sometimes called the
“Great” Forum), contains the following:
… the Temple of Concord;
the Umbilicus of Rome;
the Temple of Saturn;
the Temple of Vespasian and Titus;
the Golden Milestone,
the Basilica Julia;
the Temple of the Castors …
Notes: The existence in ancient
Rome of three sites—the Mundus, Milestone, and Umbilicus—all
dedicated to a ritualistic centering of the community and all
located at the head of the Forum, seems redundant, and there is some
confusion over the identity, terminology, and location of these
three sites. The trouble begins with Plutarch's description of the
Mundus as the trench drawn around the Comitium; he calls the Mundus
the center of the wider boundary ploughed around the city by
Romulus, whereas other accounts of the Romulean foundation place the
Palatine Hill at its center, and do not even include the Comitium
area of the Forum as part of Romulean Rome. Perhaps some
anachronisms are at play in Plutarch's account. Richardson,
moreover, believes that Festus and Macrobius [32.2-32.4] all refer to another Mundus, separate from the one
described by Plutarch and dedicated to the spirits of the
underworld, perhaps related in form and origin to archaic
underground granaries on the Palatine. Coarelli (in LTUR 3.288-9), again favoring the organic whole (as with
his location of the Tarpeian Cliffs), considers not only that the
sources refer to one Mundus, but that this unified Mundus can be
further identified with the Umbilicus Romae. Richardson addresses
the redundancy by equating the Umbilicus and the Milestone
(discounting the division of the two terms in the Notitia).
That a ceremonial milestone, decorated in some way with
gold and therefore often called the Golden Milestone, stood at the
head of the Forum near the Temple of Saturn, and that Augustus first
set this up, seems fairly certain from the sources. Whether this
monument was the same as the Umbilicus Urbis (“Navel of
the City”) or existed separately nearby is disputed. There
is no evidence that either such monument recorded distances to other
The first reference to an Umbilicus Urbis is found in the
Notitia [c. AD 300] as part of a list which
places it after the Temple of Concord and before the Temple of
Saturn. This list also contains a reference to the Milliarium Aureum
as a separate item. There are three mentions of the Umbilicus in the
Einsiedeln Itinerary for pilgrims [c. AD 800] that place it in the
same area. None of the sources tells us anything about the monument,
except that it was selected for the list and therefore considered
more worthy of mention than many other monuments.
One thing that does emerge from the references to the
Mundus, the Milestone, and the Umbilicus is the importance for the
Romans of a symbolic center of the city, its center considered not
as a talismanic or essential power (the Capitoline temple and the
Temple of Vesta rather embody that) but as an earthbound
geographical center, perhaps of a small agrarian community at first
(Plutarch's Mundus), and then of an urban empire with distant
reaches measured out in every direction by milestones on the major
The notion of a Mundus, however hazy its nature and
despite the lack of physical remains, has had a life of its own and
appears—creatively interpreted as a global fountain and basin—in
newly founded towns of Fascist Italy such as Littoria near Rome,
where it was placed at the crossing of the two chief roads in the
city center. The Foro Italico in Rome has another such Mundus
fountain across the plaza from Mussolini's obelisk.
Sources have it that the Capitoline Hill was originally
called Mt. Saturnius, and from this Latium got the name
“Land of Saturn,” as the poet Ennius in fact
calls it. It is also written that an ancient town named Saturnia
once existed on this hill.
Varro, The Latin Language
When Sempronius and Minucius were consuls [in 497 BC],
the Temple of Saturn was dedicated and the festival day of the
Saturnalia [on December 17th] was established.
The founders of the Temple of Saturn wanted the
building to be Rome's treasury as well, because it was said that
under the reign of Saturn no robberies took place within Italy's
borders, or because under his rule private property did not exist.
“It was forbidden to own the earth and to divide up fields
with borders; everyone strove for the common good,” as
Virgil describes that time [in Georgics 1.126-7]. Therefore, the
public funds of the people were lodged in the temple of the god
under whose rule the wealth of the community was held in
common.… Apollodorus says that the statue of Saturn is bound in wool
fetters throughout the year, and is freed of them only on the day of
the festival in his honor.
[Caesar's men advanced on the Temple of Saturn.]
The tribune protecting the Treasury was thrown aside,
And the building was opened; the Tarpeian Cliff
Echoed the great groan of the doors swung back.
With that, the wealth of the Roman people vanished,
A treasure amassed since the temple's founding—
Booty from the Punic Wars, from Philip in defeat,
Whatever our frugal ancestors saved
And the rich lands of the East sent in tribute.
Grim the spoils that come from a Roman temple.
Then for the first time was Rome poorer than a Caesar.
Lucan, The Civil War
3.153-8; 161-2; 167-8
Julius Caesar, entering Rome for the first time after
the beginning of his civil war, took from the Treasury 15,000 gold
ingots, 30,000 silver ingots, and 30,000,000 sesterces in coin.
Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia
Old olive-oil is considered useful in preventing ivory
from rotting: at any rate, the statue of Saturn in Rome is filled
inside with the oil.
Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia
Munatius Plancus rebuilt the Temple of Saturn [in 42
BC] using the spoils of the war [against alpine Raetia].
ILS 886 = CIL
[Inscription on the pediment of the Temple of Saturn
from late C4 AD]
SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS INCENDIO CONSUMPTUM
The Senate and People of Rome restored this temple
after it was destroyed by fire.
ILS 3326 = CIL
Father Apollo and stern Minerva:
Take holiday with the polished Muses:
We will call you all back on the first of the year.
Now Saturn, slip your shackles and reign
With drunken December, insolent Wit
And the smiling god of Mockery.
Let Jupiter wrap the world in cloud
And threaten to flood the fields
With winter rain, so long as Saturn
Showers us with abundant gifts.
Today one table feasts us all
In common, mixing young and old,
Men and women, high and low:
Here Liberty puts Rank in its place.
Statius, Occasional Poems
1.6.1-7; 25-7; 43-45
[Horace to his slave:]
Come now, speak up!
Take advantage of the freedoms December allows,
As our ancestors intended.