In Rome it sometimes happens that a building or monument is unintentionally given the wrong name. That name then sticks, even though people later realise that it is actually incorrect. A good example would be the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which was long thought to have been built over the remains of a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom and art. Later it was established that the church had actually been built on the remains of a colonnade where the Roman popular assembly met (the Saepta Julia) and on a temple for the Hellenistic-Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, but the name Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not changed. This post is about two other examples, the ‘temple of Minerva Medica’ near the Roma Termini train station and the ‘trophies of Marius’ on the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, a piazza not far from the station. The former building is not a temple and has nothing to do with Minerva, while the latter building has no relation whatsoever with the famous Roman general Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE).
The so-called ‘temple of Minerva Medica’
Southeast of Roma Termini, hemmed in between the railway tracks leaving the station and the Via Giovanni Giolitti, we see the skeleton of what must have once been an imposing building. The building was decagonal, had a diameter of about 24 metres and a height of 32-33 metres. At the top it was closed off with a dome that had a round hole or oculus, just like the famous Pantheon. The builders used a technique called opus latericium, which basically means concrete on the inside and brick on the outside. Even though it is ruinous, the dome collapsed in 1828 and some parts have clearly been reconstructed using modern bricks, the building is still very impressive. Unfortunately the ruins can no longer be visited; the terrain has been sealed off completely.
The main question is of course: what kind of building was this? It was certainly not a temple, and it is in fact not entirely clear where the name ‘temple of Minerva Medica’ originated. Usually a connection is made with a passage in Cicero’s work and the discovery of a statue of the goddess Pallas Athena, whom the Roman equated with Minerva. Now it should be noted that, while the great orator in his De Divinatione does attribute healing powers to Minerva, he does not ever mention a temple. The building I discuss in this post is furthermore associated with a famous statue of the goddess Athena that is commonly known as the Athena Giustiniani and that can currently be admired in the Vatican Museums. The goddess is depicted with a snake at her right foot. And since the snake is the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of healing, it was assumed that this snake was also associated with healing. And that is probably how Minerva Medica was born.
One of the many problem with this theory is, however, that it is far from certain that the statue was found at the presumed ‘temple of Minerva Medica’. According to a rival theory it was in fact found at the aforementioned church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, located almost three kilometres further to the west as the crow flies. The original owner of the statue Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637) could no doubt have told us the exact location where it was found, but unfortunately we can no longer ask him. It does not matter much, as we know that the mysterious building was not a temple. But what was it then?
In order to answer that question, we must first consider the nature of this area in the Roman age. During the Late Republic and the early Imperial era, Rome was surrounded by horti, which literally means ‘gardens’. These gardens were basically large estates belonging to noble Roman families. Famous examples include the gardens of the general and statesman Lucius Licinius Lucullus (ca. 118-56 BCE) and those of the statesman and historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (ca. 86-35 BCE). Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) owned gardens on the other side of the river Tiber (in modern Trastevere) which were turned into a public park after his assassination. On the Esquiline Hill, which is where we find the remains of the ‘temple of Minerva Medica’, there were gardens as well. Probably since the Late Republic or early Imperial age, these were the property of the gens Licina, and they are therefore called the Horti Liciniani.
A scion of the gens Linicia who loved to spend time in these gardens was the emperor Gallienus (253-268), whose full name was Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus. Together with his father Valerianus he had seized the throne in the year 253. Valerianus had previously been proclaimed emperor by the troops and then made his son co-emperor. It was subsequently agreed that Gallienus would rule the western provinces, while Valerianus travelled to the east to lead an offensive against the Persians. When in 260 Valerianus was captured, Gallienus was the sole remaining emperor. His reign was pretty long for a Roman emperor in the turbulent third century: it lasted fifteen years. There are quite a few (Latin) sources that vilify Gallienus and portray him as a useless party animal, but he actually seems to have been quite a competent emperor who did what he could given the limited means at his disposal. I personally consider Gallienus to be one of the most underrated emperors in Roman history. In 268 he was murdered as the result of a conspiracy by his own officers. In the years prior to his assassination the emperor frequently retired to the Horti Liciniani, where multiple buildings must have stood, including a working palace. Whenever the emperor travelled to the gardens, he was accompanied by his court. We can only speculate how large the entire complex was.
During Gallienus’ reign the building discussed here was not yet part of the complex, as it was only built between about 300 and 325. As was already mentioned, it was decagonal. The entrance was in the northwest, and the other nine sides were semi-circular niches. Light entered the building through ten windows and the interior must have been splendidly decorated with marble, mosaics and stucco. Between 325 and 350 the building was extended and rooms were added near the entrance and on the sides. Nowadays the ‘temple of Minerva Medica’ stands in a rather isolated position along the road, but in Antiquity this must have been quite different. In publications the building is often called a nymphaeum, i.e. a monument or fountain dedicated to a nymph. However, excavations have also unearthed the remains of a floor heating system (hypocaustum) and of boiler rooms (praefurnia) of the type known from thermal complexes. We therefore cannot rule out the possibility that people bathed in this building. The authors of the Atlas of Ancient Rome mention a third option, and that is that the building may have been a cenatio or triclinium, a dining room. There is another example of a possible dining room from the fourth century in Rome, i.e. the present church of Santa Balbina. That presumed dining room is, however, rectangular, with niches on the sides.
Nymphaeum, baths or dining room, it is all possible. Although the terrain and the surrounding area have yielded a lot of archaeological finds, we will probably never have certainty about the function of the building. If you want to see these archaeological finds, visit the Centrale Montemartini museum on the Via Ostiense, not far from the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura. The museum is part of the Capitoline Museums and is housed in a former power station. Here we find, among other things, two statues of magistrates excavated at or in the vicinity of the ‘temple of Minerva Medica’. According to an interesting, but unprovable theory the two magistrates are Quintus Aurelius Symmachus and his son. Symmachus was a famous statesman and orator who held various public offices at the end of the fourth century. He served as urban prefect (praefectus urbi) and in 391 as consul. In the latter year, Christianity – state religion since 380 – became the only permitted religion in the Roman Empire. All the traditional cults were henceforth prohibited. Symmachus, who was not a Christian, had always opposed this ban, but his opposition had been in vain. The beautiful statues show us an old and a young man. Both are holding a mappa, a piece of linen which was used during the circus games. Once the consul had dropped the mappa, the games could begin.
Even more beautiful than the statues, and also in the Centrale Montemartini, is the mosaic floor that was found in 1904 just northwest of the alleged temple at the church of Santa Bibiana. On the mosaic we see hunting scenes that are highly reminiscent of those of a famous Roman villa in Piazza Armerina on Sicily. According to the information panel in the museum the mosaic has two types of hunting scenes: some people are hunting animals for the games in the arena while others are on a boar hunt. The scenes are cruel to say the least, but the details and colours are magnificent. One man is for example trying to catch a bear by luring him into a crate using a ham. The man can be seen standing on the crate, ready to close the hatch once the bear has walked into the trap.
The so-called ‘trophies of Marius’
The Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first king of a unified Italy, is a little west of the ‘temple of Minerva Medica’. The piazza is now a city park where people go for a stroll and children play. The ruins of a large building near the western entrance of the park immediately draw the visitor’s attention. In Italian the ruins are called the Trofei di Mario, but they are actually a nymphaeum or large fountain built in the third century by the emperor Severus Alexander (222-235). This used to be the spot where the ancient Via Tiburtina and Via Labicana met. The construction of the large fountain can be dated fairly precisely. In 222 Severus Alexander became emperor, after the assassination of his cousin Elagabalus. The monument is depicted on a golden coin from 226, so it must have been completed before that. Once it was completely covered in marble, but that has been looted long ago. All we see now is naked brick.
Severus Alexander’s nymphaeum is nonetheless very impressive because it is simply immense. It once consisted of four storeys and was connected to a branch of an aqueduct that provided the fountain with water. The central niche had a statue of the emperor with his wife Sallustia Orbiana or his mother Julia Mamaea. In front of these statues was a reclining statue of the sea god Oceanus. In the niches on either side of these statues trophies had been set up. A trophy or tropaeum was a monument erected on the battlefield after a victory, consisting of a cross from which battle gear (spolia: armour, helmets, weapons, shields) of defeated enemies was hung. Apparently the inhabitants of Rome later linked these trophies to the victories that the great general Marius won in the late second century BCE. Marius first defeated the Numidian king Jugurtha and then two Germanic peoples, the Cimbri and Teutones. But the trophies of Severus Alexander’s nymphaeum have nothing to do with Marius. They date from the age of the emperor Domitianus (81-96) and were apparently reused in this monument. Nowadays they can be found on the Piazza del Campidoglio in the heart of Rome, where they adorn the balustrade of the piazza.
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 323, p. 333-337 and p. 341;
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 126, 129, 133 and a.t. 21;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 155-156.
 According to the Vatican Museums the statue was found at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
 For a map, see Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. III.