Temple of Portunus

Temple of Portunus

The Temple of Portunus, previously known as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis and constructed in the first century BC, is one of the few examples of ancient Republican architecture in Rome. It is dedicated to Portunus, the god of doors, keys, ports, and harbours. The temple is located by the river Tiber, next to the Piazza Bocca della Verita (The Square of the Mouth of Truth), to the north of the bridge Palatino (Ponte Palatino). Along with the Temple of Hercules, it is a characteristic feature of the Forum Boarium, the ancient cattle market and a place for religious activity.[1]

The rectangular temple has a tetrastyle portico and cella, raised on a high podium that is reached by a flight of steps. Its architecture is mainly Etruscan with Greek influences.[2] The Maison Carrée in Nîmes has great similarities with the temple [3] and the 18th-century Temple of Harmony in Somerset, England is based on it.

The Temple of Portunus has been restored many times and has been preserved until today due to its conversion into a church in 872, which was dedicated to Santa Maria Egyziaca (Saint Mary of Egypt). Today the two millennia old temple is under the protection of the World Monuments Fund.[4]

The present study on the location and architecture of the temple may help to reveal the meaning of temples in the religion, culture and economics of the Roman republican society.

1. Religion in the Roman Republic
1.1 Role of gods in life
1.2 Religious practice: ius divinum
1.3 Temples as houses of gods
1.4 Temples in the needs of the senate and individuals
2. Location: Forum Boarium
2.1 Place
2.2 Origin and development
2.3 Other artifacts in the forum
2.4 Now: Piazza Bocca della Verita
3. Meaning of the Temple of Portunus
3.1 The god Portunus
3.2 Problem of identification
3.3 Function of the temple
4. Architecture
4.1 Structure and style
4.2 Materials
4.3 Etruscan and Greek influences
5. Comparisons
6. Restorations
7. Conclusions

Religion in the Roman Republic

Role of gods in life

In Roman Antiquity gods played an important role in society. They provided answers to questions that Romans had about events and feelings they couldn’t control and understand. For example the outcomes of wars, droughts, earthquakes, lightning and pestilences were not in their control. Gods were ascribed the responsibility for those events. They fulfilled the function of giving a kind of security in an unpredictable world and giving an explanation for inexplicable events.[5]

Romans did not search for scientific explanations for natural phenomena as Greeks did. They thought that every aspect of life, such as pregnancy, war and trade, were controlled and influenced by a god, who played the role of a guardian. What happened to a Roman person was not a coincidence, but a direct consequence of the will of a god.[6]

Because Romans thought that gods influenced their lives, it was important to get their goodwill and to preserve the pax deorum ("peace of the gods"), i.e. a mutually beneficial state of peace between Rome and its deities. Accordingly, Romans would provide gods their desired worship and cult, whereas gods would safeguard Rome's public welfare. Gods were asked for cooperation mainly in the essential activities of life. Harvest, trade, war, pregnancy and health for instance were essential and each controlled by its own god.[6]

Religious practice: ius divinum

There were three main ways in which Romans tried to maintain a good relationship with their gods. First, by praying, through which requests and wishes would be expressed to gods. Another way of keeping the pax deorum was sacrificing, in which people would offer food, valuable objects or lives of animals to the deities. Lastly, divination served as a way through which the wills of the gods would be known to men. Romans believed that by following these procedures, called ius divinum, they could maintain a good relationship with the gods.[7] But to create a relationship with a god, people had to know the god. By naming a god, Romans thought they could make it listen to them.[8]

Building a temple was part of creating a good relationship between men and god. To succeed in life, Romans needed the support of gods. So they built temples for gods, where sacrificing could take place. Sacrifices were a way to both honor and worship gods. They were made according to special rules that specified which animals could be offered to certain gods. A Roman civilian would ask for the appropriate animal at the temple of the respective god and then sacrifice it to the god.[9]

Temples as houses of gods

A temple was considered the house of a god on the earth. Sacrifices would mostly happen outside the house of the god.[9] A statue of the respective god would be put inside each temple. People would pray in front of the statue.

As mentioned earlier, divination was an important part of Roman religion. Romans believed that the will of the gods was expressed in natural phenomena. When Romans sacrificed animals, prayed to the gods and made requests, they did not get answers immediately. In order to know whether gods were in agreement with their wishes, they looked for signs, such as stars, earthquakes or floods.[10] They believed that these were created by gods.

Location: Forum Boarium


The Forum Boarium, the ancient cattle market, is home of the old temples of Portunus and Hercules. Originally the area was a swamp. In the sixth century BC, Servius Tullius, one of the Etruscan Kings, built a port here that was called the Portus Tiberinus. Together with the important trade routes, this gave the area a busy atmosphere. The cattle market evolved into a center of business and religious activities. In the first century BC it was the commercial hart of the city. Merchant ships came from Ostia and Etruria to the Tiber port. Commerce in this area was vital to the growth of Rome and to the prosperity of its people.[12]

Origin and development

The Forum Boarium is an extension of the Roman Forum. It extended from the boundary of the Velabrum to the Tiber, and from the valley of the Circus Maximus to the road leading from the Pons Sublicius (pons Aemilius) towards the Velabrum, until the Servian wall.[13] In other words, it sat near the river Tiber between three of the ancient hills: the Palatine, Capitoline, and Aventine.

Streets that were enhanced with porticoes radiated from the Forum Boarium to all directions. Next to the original route from the north and east came along the Vicus Lugarius (Vicus Tuscus) to the crossing of the Tiber at the Pons Sublicius (pons Aemilius) and intersected the road which ran from the Campus Martius between the Capitol and the river. It passed through the Porta Carmentalis and the Porta Flumentana onto the Porta Trigemina. The road along the valley of the Circus Maximus and the Clivus Publicius also opened into the same narrow place between the hills and the river.[13]

Other artifacts in the forum

The forum was often destroyed by fire. It was also subject to encroachment, indicated by two terminal stones from the period of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius, which were public property. A bronze statue of a bull (said to be brought from Aegina) symbolized its function and gave its name to the Forum. Apart from the Temple of Portunus, other temples in the Forum Boarium included the temples of Hercules Invictus, Fortuna, Hercules Pompeianus, Mater Matuta, and Pudicita Patricia. But all these temples have not been preserved; only the temple of Portunus and Hercules is still extant. Two fornices called the Busta Gallica and Doliola were primitive tombs that are discovered in the Forum Boarium in the Roman times.[13]

Now: Piazza Bocca della Verita

The Forum Boarium is now known as the Piazza Bocca della Verita, or the Square of the Mouth of Truth, referring to the famous monumental stone disc carved in the fourth century B.C.

Meaning of the Temple of Portunus

The god Portunus

The Temple of Portunus was built to honor the god Portunus, who was the god of trade and harbor. With this temple Romans worshipped Portunus. They wanted protection from him. They thought that Portunus could be in charge of trade. So they built a temple for him, where the Romans could go to pray and sacrifice. They hoped that this would lead to a successful trade.

The god Portunus is also shown on some reliefs. For example he is represented as a young man with long hair, with a serpent, and an anchor as his attributes on one relief of the Arch of Trajan located in Benevento. His dedication day Portunalia was on August 17. The Romans equated Portunus with the Greek god of the sea, Palaemon.[14]

Problem of identification

The Temple of Portunus was previously known as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis, which was dedicated to the virgin goddess of fortune. However, according to a description by Varro (116 BC - 27 BC) which was discovered in the 20th century, this temple was located next to the Forum Olitarium [15], and the rectangular temple on the Forum Boarium was dedicated to Portunus. Varro reports a temple on the bank of the Tiber, in portu Tiberino, near the Forum Boarium.[16]

The dedication of the Temple to Portunus was not only confused with Fortuna Virilis but also with Mater Matuta. Historians previously thought that the round temple on the Forum Boarium was dedicated to Portunus (identified by Hülsen)[17], whereas the rectangular temple was dedicated to Mater Matuta. According to Domaszewski, the gods and temple shown on the reliefs of the Arch of Trajan were Hercules Olivarius and Apollo Caelispex and the round temple.[18]Several people argued against this: they suggested that the reliefs showed Hercules Pompeianus.

The view that the round temple was dedicated to Portunus became less plausible when people stated that the round temple would be too far away from the Pons Aemilius then the distance mentioned in Fasti Amiterni, a calendar in which religious events were mentioned. Also the idea of dedication of the rectangular temple to Mater Matuta was not believable anymore, due to excavations in the neighbourhood that showed that an expected adjacent temple was not there. However, two other temples were found, even older than the rectangular temple, which were located close to each other. There were arguments that those temples were the Temple of Fortuna and the Temple of Mater Matuta.[17] This discovery confirmed that the rectangular temple could be dedicated to Portunus. In 1925, Portunus was first identified with the temple by Marchetti Longhi.[18] There were still concerns because no earlier foundations had been found, while it was obvious that the Temple of Portunus should have had an earlier foundation. However, people assumed that the temple had been constructed in the same time as the origin of the Portus Tiberinus.[18]

During excavations in 1936-1937 and 1947-1948, the 6 meter high podium was discovered, dating back to the second century BC.[18] This corroborated the identification of Portunus with the rectangular temple even more strongly. Nowadays, there is mostly consensus about the identification with Portunus, except for a few scholars who are still sceptical about it.[17]

Function of the temple

As mentioned above, Roman temples were mainly built for gods to honor them and to house the cult statue. By honoring Portunus, by building a temple for him, Romans expected that trade would be successful.

The location of the temple explains the reason behind the dedication of the temple to the particular god, to Portunus. Portunus was not only the god of trade and harbor, but also the god of keys and doors. The temple stands between the port of Rome and the center of the Forum Boarium. When trade ships came from Ostia into the city [19], the traders would first pass the temple of Portunus before they would go to the Forum Boarium, where the cattle market was.[1] With this temple Portunus had a place to watch over the goods that came to Rome. The temple functioned as a door to Rome. Portunus' temple was the door and the key to Rome: the traders had to pass his temple first before entering the city of Rome. Passing the Temple of Portunus was also an opportunity for the traders to thank Portunus for their safe journey.

The location of the temple being next to a cattle market is also a significant point for interaction. Because Roman people sacrificed animals for the gods and since most inhabitants did not have their own animals, they went to the cattle market and bought animals to be sacrificed.

Building a temple like the Temple of Portunus was a very expensive project. An average citizen could not afford to build a temple like this. Probably a group of traders built this temple together to guarantee their interests. Although the decision to build a temple was made by individuals, its construction might have been supported by the senate. Trade was important for the economy and therefore in the interest of the senate. The senate often financially supported the construction and vowing of temples, built by generals after a successful war. This act was not only for the benefit of the Roman senate in its pursuit to keep the pax deorum, but also enhanced the glory and prestige of the generals.[11] We suppose that the Temple of Portunus is an exception to the rule, since its builders may not be generals.


Structure and style

The temple is built on a raised platform. The stairs on the front side of the temple lead to a porch, or pronaos; the porch has four columns at the front – this is called tetrastyle – and two columns on the sides.[14] These columns are all freestanding. The cella, or naos, is the actual inner room of the temple that is enclosed by walls.[15] The cella of the temple of Portunus consists of five columns on the sides and four on the back. Those columns are all incorporated in the wall and are therefore also called semi-columns.[20] A temple that is composed of free-standing columns around the porch in combination with the engaged columns on the sides is called a pseudoperipteral temple.


The temple of Portunus was built before marble was commonly used as construction material. The raised platform is made of Roman concrete, or opus caementicium, covered with tufa and travertine, which is a sort of limestone.[14] The free-standing columns on the porch are all travertine; the semicolumns are made of tufa, as well as the walls of the cella and the cornice. Besides that, the entire temple was originally coated with a thin layer of stucco, in imitation of Greek marble.[15]

Etruscan and Hellenistic influences

The high podium and deep porch in
the temple of Portunus

Both Etruscan and Hellenistic architecture and style played an important role in the form of Roman temples. Since Rome was ruled by a few Etruscan kings before the Roman Republic [21], not only the architecture but also the religious and political traditions were still influenced by the Etruscans for a long time. The first Roman buildings, both temples and houses, were based on Etruscan architecture.[22] For instance, the podium and the frontal emphasis applied in Roman temples had Etruscan characteristics.[20] However, the Etruscan influence declined during the Roman Republic. In this time the cultures of Romans and Etruscans diverged from each other. Architectural influences from the Mediterranean were adopted more and more. Especially the second century BC was an important period, as Greek architects and craftsmen came to Rome.[22] They brought their Hellenistic style with them; this style was then used increasingly in Roman building practices. Hellenistic architecture was particularly dominant towards the end of the Republican Era.

Romans were not afraid to use or borrow other architectural traditions, just like they were not afraid to incorporate foreign gods into their religion. They did not copy buildings completely, but they changed architectural elements derived from other cultures in such a way that the elements would match the desires of the Romans. They would show their pride, power and superiority over different cultures by adopting various elements from them. These elements were mixed with those of the Roman culture. For example, they would show their pride in their conquest of the Etruscans. The use of Hellenistic architectural elements was also important for the Romans. It served as a means to show the power of Rome and the imperial conquests.[14]

The temple of Portunus is a great example of how a combination of different styles was applied: the architecture of the temple of Portunus possessed a combination of Hellenistic and Etrusco-Roman influences.[20] The raised platform, on which the temple is built, is typically Etruscan. Another Etruscan characteristic is the strong attention given to the front side that is seen in the deep front porch and in the single staircase in the front of the temple.[20] The use of a single staircase forms a contrast to the use of staircases in Greek temples. Greek temples mostly have one staircase on the front side and one on the back side.[1] Hellenistic influences can be seen in the entablature as well as in the Ionic columns of the temple.[14] The Ionic order was one out of three main orders in Hellenistic architecture which had distinctive entablature and columns. Chronologically the Doric order preceded the Ionic order, whereas the latter was followed by the Corinthian order. The entablature consists of the cornice, the frieze and the architrave (see image on the right). Especially the use of decorative figures on the frieze was a typical Hellenistic influence on the Roman architecture in the second century BC.[23] Although the decorations on the frieze are lost, it is possible to reconstruct them with the help of drawings of Renaissance architects.[24] The entablature elements of Ionic order are obviously visible in the temple of Portunus (see image below).

Differences between the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian order Elements of the Ionic order in the temple of Portunus


Temple of Sybil, Tivoli Temple of Hercules, Cori

As mentioned above, the Temple of Portunus has a delicate combination of Etruscan and Hellenistic characteristics. The combination of Hellenistic, Roman and Etruscan elements is not restricted to the Temple of Portunus. A few other temples that are closely related to the Temple of Portunus do exist. These are built in the same period as the temple of Portunus and show resemblances in their style, architecture and size. The temple of Sybil, which is located in Tivoli, is a prominent example. This temple is also pseudoperipteral: it has four Ionic columns on the front and six columns along the sides, of which five are incorporated in the walls of the cella. Its porch is two columns deep, indicating that the wall is also present at a part of the porch.[14] Another example of a temple which has similarities with the Temple of Portunus, is the Temple of Hercules at Cori. Its columns are not Ionic but Doric. It has four columns at the front side and nine columns on the sides, of which six are engaged on the walls. That means that the Temple of Hercules has a deep porch of four columns.[20]

Maison Carrée, Nîmes

Besides the ancient temples in Italy, also artifacts exist in other places throughout the world which show resemblances in their structure and architecture with the temple of Portunus. Firstly, the Maison Carrée, which is located in Nîmes, France. The temple originates from the Roman period and was built in 19 BC, one century after the temple of Portunus was built. In that time, Nîmes was a wealthy city in Gaul. The Maison Carrée was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also the original builder of the Pantheon. Agrippa dedicated the temple to his two sons Gaius and Lucius, who both died young. They were the adopted heirs of Augustus.[25] But the inscription on the front side of the temple, which said that the temple was dedicated to Gaius and Lucius, was removed in the Middle Ages. However it was reconstructed in 1758, only now the inscription said that the temple is dedicated to Augustus. The Maison Carrée is completely preserved: it is the best preserved Roman temple. It owed its preservation to its transformation to a church just like the temple of Portunus.

The architecture of the Maison Carrée is similar to the architecture of the Temple of Portunus, however, the Maison Carrée is larger. The temple of Portunus has only four columns in the front, whereas the Maison Carrée has six columns. Instead of Ionic columns, which are used in the Temple of Portunus, the columns of the Maison Carrée were Corinthian. Both temples are pseudoperipteral and are built on a raised platform.

The Maison Carrée was an inspiration for the Église de la Madeleine in Paris and also for the Virginia State Capitol in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was not only inspired by the French constitution when he came back to the United States and wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he was also inspired by the Maison Carrée. With this temple in his mind, he designed the Virginia State Capitol.[26]

Virginia State Capitol, US Église de la Madeleine, Paris
Temple of Harmony, Somerset(UK)

Secondly, there is the Temple of Harmony, built in Somerset in Great-Britain in the 18th century. It is a replica of the Temple of Portunus.

Apparently, the style and architecture of Roman temples, especially the Temple of Portunus, has influenced the form of several other buildings.


The Temple of Portunus was originally built between the fourth and third century B.C. In the first century B.C. it was reconstructed. This was finalized during the major works on the Tiber embankment. It is known that in 872 a devout Roman by the name of Stephen commissioned the painting in the cella of the monument already used as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The temple appears under the name of St. Mary the Egyptian in a list of churches in Rome from 1492. This is probably due to some of the cella frescoes that depicted episodes from the saint’s life. In 1566 Pope Pius V gave the church to the Armenian community. The community made major changes to the church. In 1925, the architect Antonio Muñoz undertook major restoration work. He removed all the modifications in order to reveal the original temple structure. In 2000, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici of Rome started new restoration work for the Jubilee. Between 2006 and 2008, work on the interior of the cella (roof, ancient surfaces, paintings, and stone fragments) was completed. This resulted in structural and antiseismic improvements. Since 2009, large sections of old intonaco have been discovered while the team concentrated their work on the pediment and the pronaos. Some of the work is supported by the World Monuments Fund through the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage, the Antiqua Foundation, and American Express.[27]


The investigation of the Temple of Portunus may help to understand the meaning of temples in the Late Republic. Religion mostly consisted of gods that controlled each aspect of life. The wellbeing and prosperity of the Roman society was believed to be dependent on their relationship with gods, i.e. the pax deorum.

Praying, sacrificing and divination were ways to honor gods. In turn, gods would provide a sense of security in vital yet unpredictable events, such as wars, plagues and trade. Temples were the ultimate place to connect with the gods, since they were their home on the earth.

Historians predominantly argue that the construction of temples in the Republic wase undertaken by generals with the money they had made after a successful war. This is argued to be mostly done to thank the gods for their success and to hope for success in future wars. The Temple of Portunus brings a different kind of example.

Presumably, its construction may have been undertaken by several merchants. As the Forum Boarium emerged as a center of trade, a god that would help Romans in trade was naturally incorporated into the religion. The temple that is made for the god may have helped to make the god known among Romans. This way, it was possible for them to honor Portunus and keep the pax deorum in good order.

Apart from the function of the temple in religion and in economy, the architecture of the temple reflects the power and superiority of the Romans in the Mediterranean. Its details reveal Etruscan and Greek influences. The two millennia old temple in the modern city of Rome still represents the values of the ancient Roman society.


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