Area Sacra di Largo Argentina

Area Sacra di Largo Argentina.

The Sacred Area of the square that is called the Largo Argentina is one of the most picturesque spots in all of Rome. Here we find, apart from one of the most famous cat sanctuaries of the city, the remains of four Roman temples which once adorned the Field of Mars (the Campus Martius). For the sake of simplicity these are usually labelled Temples A, B, C and D. This suggests that we do not know to which deities they were dedicated, and lazy writers of mediocre travel guides will claim that this is indeed the case. The truth, however, is that we have a fairly good idea to which gods the buildings were dedicated. In this post, I aim to discuss the situation as it would have been in Antiquity. I will start in the north and then progress towards the south.

Temple A is the northernmost temple. It dates from the middle of the third century BCE. According to the information panel in the square the temple may have been dedicated to Juno Curitis. It also suggests a link with the Etrurian town of Falerii. In 241 BCE, Falerii had revolted against Rome, presumably because it was angry about heavy taxation during the First Punic War. De rebellion was crushed by the consul Aulus Manlius Torquatus, who razed the town to the ground. It was not unusual for the Romans to take the gods of defeated enemies back to Rome; when the Romans had conquered the Latin town of Praeneste in 380 BCE, they for instance confiscated a statue of Jupiter Imperator.

Remains of Temple A, presumably the temple of Juturna.

It is nevertheless more likely that Temple A was the temple of the water nymph Juturna.[1] In the Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Vergilius, she is the sister of king Turnus of the Rutulians, an important adversary of the Trojan hero Aeneas. According to the Atlas of Ancient Rome, the sanctuary of Juno Curitis stood south of the current Area Sacra, between a sanctuary of Jupiter Fulgur (‘Jupiter Lightning’) and a temple of Vulcanus.[2] The temple of Juturna may have been built by the consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus to celebrate his victory over a Carthaginian fleet at the Aegates Islands, west of Sicily. It was this victory in 241 BCE which brought the First Punic War to a close. It is not entirely clear why Catulus would have chosen to dedicate a temple to Juturna. It was possibly related to the fact that she was a water nymph and he had just won a battle at sea.

In the eighth or ninth century, the temple of Juturna was converted into a Christian church. This church was rebuilt in 1132 and dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari. In the seventeenth century it was known as the San Nicola dei Cesarini. The church was demolished in 1929, but parts of the central and left apse were left standing. The central apse still features the remains of a fresco.

Temple B, the temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei.

There is no doubt that Temple B was the temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei, “the Fortune of this Day”. This circular temple is the youngest of the four. When in 101 BCE the Romans were about to fight a decisive battle against Germanic invaders (the Cimbri), the proconsul Quintus Lutatius Catulus promised to dedicate a temple to Fortuna. The Romans subsequently won a magnificent victory and Catulus made good on his promise. The consul was quite likely related to the Gaius Lutatius Catulus who had built the adjacent temple of Juturna. The spot where the temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei arose may have previously been occupied by a small enclosed sanctuary (sacellum). It is uncertain to which deity this sanctuary was dedicated, but it has been hypothesised that it was Juno Caprotina, ‘Goatskin Juno’, who had her own feast day (the Caprotinia) on 7 July. If the sanctuary was indeed dedicated to Juno Caprotina, this makes it rather unlikely that Temple A was the temple of Juno Curitis.

There is compelling evidence that Temple B was the temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei. During excavations in the Largo Argentina in 1925-1928 the enormous head of the statue of Fortuna was discovered. An arm and two feet were also found. The finds can now be admired in the Centrale Montemartini. Images of the finds can be viewed here.

Temples C (on the right) and D (on the left), dedicated to Feronia and the Lares Permarini.

Temple C is the oldest of the four temples. It is generally accepted that it was the temple of Feronia, a fertility goddess who was venerated by, among others, the Sabines. In 290 BCE, the consul Manius Curius Dentatus defeated this people and he may subsequently have built this temple of the Field of Mars.[3] At an unspecified moment in the second century BCE, an altar was set up in front of this temple by Aulus Postumius Albinus. It is not entirely clear whether this was Aulus Postumius Albinus, the consul of 180 BCE and censor of 174 BCE, or his son, the consul of 151 BCE.[4] It was probably the father, who as censor was responsible for several public works. Feronia did not just have a temple in Rome, she also had a famous sacred grove at Capena, north of Rome. The grove was reportedly looted by Hannibal when he marched on Rome in 211 BCE.

Temple D was dedicated to the Lares Permarini, the Lares of the Sea. These Lares were regarded as the protectors of sailors. The temple was built in 179 BCE by the censor Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. While the temple of Jurtuna is possibly linked to a naval battle, the temple of the Lares Permarini has a definite connection to such a battle. The praetor Lucius Aemilius Regillus, who may have been a relative of the censor from a different branch of the family, had promised a temple to the Lares Permarini during the naval battle of Myonnesos in 190 BCE. In this battle, a combined Roman and Rhodian fleet led by Regillus destroyed a Seleucid fleet. The remains of the temple of the Lares Permarini are partly below the Via Florida.

The Via di Grotta Pinta. The street follows the curve of the Theatre of Pompeius.

In the 50s BCE, the Theatre of Pompeius was built behind the four temples, i.e. west of the Area Sacra.[5] Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BCE) was a Roman general and politician. He fought on Sulla’s side during the civil war against Marius and his supporters and subsequently in Spain against Quintus Sertorius, one of Marius’ generals. He was just 35 years old when he held his first consulship. Next, Pompeius dealt with the Cilician pirates and conducted the war against king Mithridates of Pontus in the East like a genuine Alexander the Great. Pompeius was from a well-to-do family, and his campaigns made him even richer. His fortune enabled him have gardens (horti) laid out on the Campus Martius at the end of the 60s BCE and he also had a private residence constructed there. His next project would be a theatre. As it was to be built in stone, it was to become the first permanent theatre in Rome.

Theatrical performances were very popular in Late Republican Rome, but they were sometimes frowned upon by members of the aristocracy. A previous theatre had been demolished again in 153 BCE after protests from an influential senator, apparently because plays were seen as a danger to public morals. Pompeius’ theatre was built about a hundred years later. Moreover, it was a private theatre outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city. It was inaugurated in 55 BCE in spectacular fashion. According to Plutarchus, Pompeius had found inspiration for his theatre in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Between the seats of the cavea, he had a temple built which was dedicated to Venus Victrix (victorious Venus). This allowed him to present the complex as a sanctuary and thus even please people who hated the theatre. Behind the scaenae frons (the permanent background), Pompeius had a quadriporticus erected, four colonnades forming a square. Between the galleries was a beautiful garden with fountains. A path led to the Curia Pompeia, which stood directly behind – and thus west of – the temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei.

The Mastai Hercules.

In 44 BCE, the Roman Senate met in this building on the ides of the month of Mars (i.e. 15 March). It was here, in the Curia Pompeia, that Gaius Julius Caesar was murdered on that day. The theatre, quadriporticus and Curia are all long gone. The spot where Caesar was stabbed to death is now somewhere below the Via di Torre Argentina. Evidence that an immense theatre once stood here can be found in the Via di Grotta Pinta further to the west. Here the street follows the curve of the cavea of Pompeius’ Theatre. In the Piazza del Biscione, just west of the Via di Grotta Pinta, a statue of Hercules was dug up which must have once adorned the theatrical complex. This ‘Mastai Hercules’ was hit by lightning at the end of the second or beginning of the third century and subsequently ritually buried.[6] The statue can now be found at the Vatican Museums. It was provided with a fig leaf that is most definitely not ancient.

In case you wonder about the origins of the name Largo Argentina (or Largo di Torre Argentina in full): it has nothing to do with the country Argentina. Argentina refers to Argentoratum, which is the Latin name of the city of Strasbourg, home of Johannes Burckardt (ca. 1445-1506), the papal Master of Ceremonies who was known in Italian as Giovanni Burcardo. It should be noted that he had actually bought Strasbourg citizenship, but that was not unusual at the time. The Largo di Torre Argentina is named after the tower (‘Torre’) of his residence in the nearby Via del Sudario. If the tower is still standing, it is in any case invisible from the square. We do see another tower, in the southwestern corner. It is called the Torre del Papito, the ‘tower of the little pope’. The identity of this little pope is not known with certainty. It is often assumed that it was antipope Anacletus II (1130-1138), the great rival of Pope Innocentius II (see Rome: Santa Maria in Trastevere).


[1] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 500.

[2] See Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 208 (for the period 240-150 BCE) and Tab. 214 (for the period 150-110 BCE).

[3] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 499.

[4] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 543.

[5] See Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 505.

[6] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 523.

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