It’s One of the Most Familiar Buildings of Ancient Rome — But Who Built It and Why?
Although the Forum Boarium includes several striking sites — such as the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the Arch of Janus, and the temple of Portunus — the first thing that always catches my eye is the Temple of Hercules Victor.
The well-preserved temple’s round shape and height makes it prominent and stunning. Surrounded by a spacious piazza, the monument is composed of 20 Corinthian columns (only 19 full columns currently stand), which are over 10.5 meters high.
Over the centuries the temple has had several name changes. Similar to other well-preserved ancient sites, the Temple of Hercules Victor still stands almost complete because it was converted into a church. The oldest mention of the church was in a papal bull of Innocent II from October 1140. The temple was dedicated to Santo Stefano and the appellative “Rotondo” was added (because of this name in the following centuries the church was confused with the church of the same name on the Caelian Hill). In the 16th century the church was also called Santo Stefano delle Carozze. By the mid-17th century the church had changed its name to Santa Maria del Sole. At the end of the 19th century the church was deconsecrated and the ancient temple was restored.
The original temple, which can be dated to the end of the second century B.C.E., is the oldest standing marble building in Rome. It is believed to have been constructed by the Greek architect Hermodoros of Salamina, who was working in Rome during the second half of the second century B.C.E. The temple is designed in the style of a round Greek Temple and built of Greek Pentelic marble (the same stone as the Parthenon). The circular shape has caused the Temple of Hercules Victor to be misidentified as a Temple of Vesta. Then the building was thought to be a Temple of Cybele.
Despite being a large and prominent building in a busy area of Rome, not too much about the temple is known. It is often debated whether Marcus Octavius Herrenus, a wealthy Roman merchant, or Lucius Mummius Achaicus, an accomplished Roman politician, commissioned the building of the temple.
Because the temple is located in the Forum Boarium it supports the theory that Marcus Octavius Herrenus built the temple. The Forum Boarium, positioned between the Palatine, Capitoline, and Aventine hills, was a swamp until it was claimed by the Etruscan kings. In the 6th century B.C.E. Servius Tullius, an Etruscan king, built the the Portus Tiberinus in this location. The Forum Boarium became a bustling commercial area.
Scholars believe that the rich merchant Herrenus created his wealth from the olive trade since Hercules was the patron deity of the olive merchants (olearii). In 1895 an inscribed marble block was found near the temple, resembling the base of a cult statue, with the inscription, “[ — — — — — — -]o Olivarius opus Scopae minoris.” After having restored the inscription, Coarelli argues that the original inscription stated, “[Hercules Invictus cognominatus volg]o Olivarius opus Scopae minoris” (Unconquerable Hercules commonly called Olivarius, a work of the younger Scopas). Scopas Minor was a Greek sculptor who lived during the end of the second century BCE. Since the block identifies the god as Hercules Olivarius and was found near the temple, it helps support the idea that Herrenus built the temple in honor of his profession’s patron deity.
Furthermore, the writer Macrobius wrote that Marcus Octavius Herrenus was the founder of a Temple of Hercules Victor. Macrobius writes in his Saturnalia,
Marcus, inquit, Octavius Herrenus, prima adolescentia tibicen, postquam arti suae diffisus est, instituit mercaturam, et bene re gesta decimam Herculi profanavit. Postea, cum navigans hoc idem ageret, a praedonibus circumventus fortissime repugnavit et victor recessit. Hunc in somnis Hercules docuit sua opera servatum. Cui Octavius impetrato a magistratibus loco aedem sacravit et signum, Victoremque incisis litteris appellavit” (Saturnalia 3.12).
Marcus Octavius Herrenus, a flute-player in his early youth, after he was despaired of his craft, he took up trade, and since business was carried out well, he dedicated one tenth of his wealth to Hercules. Later, when he was sailing making a trading journey, he having been surrounded by pirates fought back most bravely and left as victor. Hercules informed him in his dreams that he was saved by his (i.e. Hercules’) works. After land was obtained from the magistrates, Octavius dedicated a building and statue to him, in engraved letters he called him Victor.
According to Macrobius, the merchant Marcus Octavius Herrenus built the temple in order to give thanks to Hercules from saving him from pirates (praedonibus).
However, Ziolkowski has published several arguments which dismiss the idea that Herrenus was the founder of the temple we see today. One of his most compelling arguments is that in Rome a merchant would not have the audacity to build such an extravagant temple. Pentelic marble was seldom used in grand building projects because of the rarity and great cost of the marble.
In Rome, at the time of the building of the Temple of Hercules Victor the only other marble buildings were the Temple of Jupiter Stator, which was dedicated by Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, who was consul in 143 B.C.E. and the Temple of Mars in Circus Flaminius, which was dedicated by D. Junius Brutus Callaicus, who was consul in 138 B.C.E. If Lucius Mummius Achaicus was the temple’s sponsor, his funding of the temple would suggest that he was competing with Metellus and wanted to show off his own wealth and success to the Roman public since in 146 B.C.E. Mummius conquered the Achaean League at Corinth. After this victory, he demolished Corinth.
In 1786 on the Caelian Hill an inscription which commemorates Mummius’ defeat of the Achaean League was found on a slab of peperino. The inscription states, “ L. Mummi(us) L. f. Cos. duct[u] auspicio imperioque eius Achaia capt[a] Corinto deleto Romam redieit triumphans ob hasce res bene gestas quod in bello voverat hanc aedem et signu[m] Herculis Victoris imperator dedicat” (Consul Lucius Mummius son of Lucius with leadership, augury, and power returned to Rome victorious after Achaia was seized and Corinth was destroyed since these things were managed and because in the war he had promised this temple and as commander he dedicates a symbol of Hercules).
Like Herrenus, Mummius dedicated something to Hercules Victor. If this inscription refers to the Temple of Hercules Victor near the Tiber and indicates Lucius Mummius as the sponsor, then the temple would have a symbolic political message. The use of Greek architecture and materials would suggest that spoils from Mummius’ Greek campaigns paid for the project. The monument would embody political significance since it celebrates a Roman victory in Greece. Mummius is reminding the public and his aristocratic competition of his power. Since Metellus built the first marble building in Rome, one could speculate that in response Mummius also built a marble work in order to keep up with his rival.
Although the history of the temple is uncertain, it is valuable to consider whether Herrenus or Mummius paid for the building of the Temple of Hercules Victor. The two different possible founding stories are insightful frameworks to examine the intersection of wealth, politics, and religion in second century Rome.
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