On September 13, the ancient Romans commemorated the dedication of one of their city’s most important temples, that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. This dedication is said to have taken place in the very first year of the Roman Republic, 509 B.C. The temple was destroyed by fire and rebuilt three times: in 83 B.C., during the civil wars that took place during the dictatorship of Sulla; again in A.D. 69, in the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors; and yet again only 11 years later, in the brief reign of the Emperor Titus.

In its original form, the temple would have been modeled on the architectural style of the Etruscans; like any important religious building with a long history, it underwent many modifications and embellishments. But whatever its decorations, looming over the city from its position on the Capitoline, it could not have failed to impress for its sheer size, estimated by some to be as large as 200×200 feet, plus the large precinct around it. Over time, the area came to be filled with military trophies votive offerings of various kinds, and innumerable decorative sculptures. Jupiter was honored there as part of the Capitoline Triad, with Juno and Minerva, and each of these gods had their section within the massive complex.

The later buildings, which came after the Romans had learned to take so many things from the culture of the conquered Greeks, would certainly have been far more impressive than the original. For its second iteration, Sulla plundered columns from the great Temple of Zeus in Athens, which he sacked in 86 B.C. Vespasian’s short-lived third temple was taller than its predecessor; Plutarch reports that his son Domitian expended 12,000 gold talents for the gilding of the fourth and final building’s roof and numerous other lavish decorations. But this very richness would also have spelled the building’s eventual doom. In 392, Emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of all pagan temples, and as the taboo on interfering with old religious structures faded, the need for decorative materials was most often satisfied by plundering them from the most beautiful abandoned pagan temples. Nonetheless, it was still impressive enough to the writer Cassiodorus a century and a half alter that he could write, “To climb the lofty Capitol is to see all (other) works of the human ingenuity surpassed.” Today, there remain only ruins of the foundations and the cella wall under the part of the Capitoline Museums housed in the mid-16th century Palazzo Caffarella.

(A 19th century reconstruction of the temple. Engraving from La patria, geografia dell’Italia, by Gustavo Strafforello, Torino, 1894.)

In his account of the dedication (Ab Urbe Condita 2.8), Livy tells a story that exemplifies the classic stoicism for which the Romans were so well known in the ancient world.

“Nondum dedicata erat in Capitolio Iovis aedes; Valerius Horatiusque consules sortiti uter dedicaret. Horatio sorte evenit: Publicola ad Veientium bellum profectus. Aegrius quam dignum erat tulere Valeri necessarii dedicationem tam incliti templi Horatio dari. Id omnibus modis impedire conati, postquam alia frustra temptata erant, postem iam tenenti consuli foedum inter precationem deum nuntium incutiunt, mortuum eius filium esse, funestaque familia dedicare eum templum non posse. Non crediderit factum an tantum animo roboris fuerit, nec traditur certum nec interpretatio est facilis. Nihil aliud ad eum nuntium a proposito aversus quam ut cadaver efferri iuberet, tenens postem precationem peragit et dedicat templum.

The temple of Jupiter on the Capitol had not yet been dedicated, the consuls Valerius (Publicola) and Horatius drew lots to decide which should dedicate it. The lot fell to Horatius. Publicola set out for the war against Veii. His friends showed unseemly annoyance that the dedication of so illustrious a temple should be given to Horatius. Having tried every means of preventing it, after all, other attempts had failed, they tried to strike fear in the consul as he was actually holding the door-post during the prayer to the gods with the disgraceful message that his son was dead, and he could not dedicate a temple his family was in mourning. There is no certain tradition as to whether he did not believe that this had actually happened or was of such strength of mind (as to ignore it), and it is not easy to decide from the records. He only allowed the message to interrupt him long enough to order the body to be brought out (for burial); then, with his hand still on the doorpost, he finished the prayer and dedicated the temple.”