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Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn

Dedicated in the 490s B.C., the Temple of Saturn is the oldest sacred place in Rome after the Temples of Vesta and Jupiter. It was rebuilt in 42 B.C. and again, in the fourth century A.D. The temple's high podium and the columns of the porch can still be seen. The state treasury was located here. Saturn's cult statue was filled with oil and bound with woolen bonds. The festival of the cult was held each year on December 17, the Saturnalia. The woolen bonds were taken off, public gambling was allowed, and a public banquet was held, ending with a shout of “Io Saturnalia!” In Roman homes, slaves and masters reversed roles at meal-time, with the masters waiting on the slaves. The holiday, which lasted for seven days, has been called Rome's most popular.

Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    34. The Navel of Rome (Umbilicus Romae). Sources.


    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 Capitolium;

    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 cities.

    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 roads.

    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.

    35. Temple of Saturn. Commentary.

    The worship of Saturn played an important part in both the mythology and calendar of Rome. His origins, which go further back than Livy's comment might suggest, are obscure, although very early his divine powers and domain included liberation. Later he became identified with the Greek god Kronos (since Dionysus, the wilder god of liberation in the Greek pantheon, was not an option for the Forum), and was subsequently styled in myth as the deity who was ousted from the gods' throne by Jupiter and ruled for a time over an agrarian Golden Age Italy, before Jupiter went on to occupy the Capitoline as well. His worship thus allowed the Romans to honor a simpler past even as they extended Jupiter's iron dominion in every direction, and his connection with myths of the Golden Age provided the poets the means to explore complex attitudes towards urban society and Roman rule.

    The sources included below on the Saturnalia, the festival in honor of Saturn, fills out Saturn's role as a god of liberation. Held on December 17 and eventually lasting several days, it was a time in which the strict hierarchical social world of Rome was held in abeyance, or in many cases inverted. This inversion was symbolically represented in a ceremony on that day that apparently unwrapped the woolen bonds kept around the cult statue of Saturn for the rest of the year. Statius's description of the Saturnalia (an excerpt of a longer poem praising an especially lavish Saturnalia in Rome put on by the Emperor Domitian) indicates some of the terms of the inversion, in a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere [35.9]. Horace simply invites his slave to speak what is on his mind [35.10].

    In light of this Saturnian spirit, it may seem odd that his temple was also the site of the public treasury of the Roman Republic. Macrobius offers two attractive explanations for this; perhaps the temple's solid vault within a large podium also had something to do with it.

    The gloomy remains of the Temple of Saturn are from a late C4 restoration, perhaps carried out as part of the final spirited resistance mounted by pagan Senators to the advance of regulations favoring Christianity in these years. The restoration is second-rate, and involved the reuse of damaged components from various ages.

    35. Temple of Saturn. Sources.


    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 5.42


    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.

    Livy, History 2.21.2


    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.

    Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.8.3-5


    [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 33.56


    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 15.32


    Munatius Plancus rebuilt the Temple of Saturn [in 42 BC] using the spoils of the war [against alpine Raetia].

    ILS 886 = CIL 10.6087


    [Inscription on the pediment of the Temple of Saturn from late C4 AD]


    The Senate and People of Rome restored this temple after it was destroyed by fire.

    ILS 3326 = CIL 6.937


    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.

    Horace, Satires 2.7.4-5

  • Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project
  • German Archaeological Institute
  • Flickr images
  • Wikipedia

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