On this day in the year 138, the Emperor Hadrian, nearing the end of his life after a protracted illness, formally adopted as his son one Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, better known to history as the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Going back to the days of Julius Caesar, and the transformation of the Republic into an Empire, adoption had become the standard way of designating a successor, and Antoninus acceded to the throne when Hadrian died less than five months later.

Antoninus had been married, very happily, by all accounts, to Hadrian’s niece Faustina, with whom he had four children. Three of these died before his accession to the throne; the fourth and youngest is called Faustina the Younger to distinguish her from her mother and married her father’s eventual successor as Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The elder Faustina died sometime in late 140, and, in keeping with another practice of the principate that went back to the days of Julius Caesar, was declared a goddess by the Senate. A large temple was built in her honor in the Roman Forum, which fronts on the Via Sacra, “the Sacred Way”, so called from the number and importance of the religious buildings located on it, including the temple of Caesar himself. Faustina thus became the first divinized Empress to have her temple in Forum.

Over twenty years later, when Antoninus died at the end of one of imperial Rome’s most peaceful and prosperous reigns, he was in turn divinized, and added to his wife’s temple. To this day, there can be seen on the front of the temple the original dedicatory inscription, “Divae Faustinae ex s(enatus) c(onsultu) – to the divine Faustina, by decree of the Senate”, and the line added above it in 161, “To the divine Antoninus and (to the divine Faustina, etc.)” The letter I is taller than the other letters in the lower line, but even with them in the upper line, the result of a stylistic change in public inscriptions that had taken place between the wife’s death and the husband’s.

(Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by David Castor: image cropped, full image below.)

Notwithstanding extensive despoliation of its building materials, this temple remains one of the better-preserved ancient structures in the Forum, but modern visitors to the site are wont to be rather baffled by the church façade standing in the middle of it. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the cella, the central part of the temple that housed the cult statues, was transformed into a small church dedicated to one of the Patron Saints of Rome, the deacon Lawrence, who was roasted alive on a grill during the persecution of Valerian in the 250s. An unreliable medieval tradition held that the steps of the temple (now seen in the form of a modern reconstruction) were the place where St Lawrence was tried and condemned to death.

Even more baffling to many is the sight of a completely inaccessible door within the middle of the façade, at least 20 feet above the level of the via Sacra. Prior to the construction of the modern retaining walls, the Tiber flooded into Rome fairly often, and the Roman Forum is within its former flood plain. Between the mud deposited in the Forum by the winter flood, and general neglect of the low-lying site, by the early 17th century, the ancient Forum was known as “the cow pasture”, and was in fact buried that deeply. Therefore, when the Pope commissioned the architect Orazio Torriani to rebuild the church of St Lawrence in 1602, that door was actually at ground level.

A drawing of the year 1575 by Étienne Dupérac, showing the church of St Lawrence before the façade mentioned above was added by Torriani. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)