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December 27, 2005

Rembrandt and Ovid: The Abduction of Europa, 1632; Metamorphoses II.849-59 and the Myth Tradition

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Rembrandt Europa.jpg
Rembrandt: THE ABDUCTION OF EUROPA (1632, Getty Museum, 61 x 78 cm)

He moved among the cows, more beautiful than they or other bulls,
he strolled spring grasses, white as the snow untouched
by southern rains or footprint on the ground,
huge, silky muscles at his neck and silvered dewlaps hanging,
horns as white as if a sculptor’s hand had cut them out of pearl.
And no one feared his look, forehead and eye were gracefully benign…
Agenor’s daughter gazed at him in wonder.”

(Ovid, Metamorphoses II.849-59)

Rembrandt makes it abundantly clear in this painting that his literary source was Ovid. At the same time, his idiosyncratic genius is nowhere lost in a thoroughly Dutch landscape. He cleverly uses the Ovidian myth iconography. A few words about the underlying myth are helpful. Europa was a Phoenician princess, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, and sister of Kadmos. She became by Zeus the mother of Minos and Rhadamanthys, judges of the afterlife in the Underworld.(1) Zeus was enamored of Europa as Ovid tells above, so the god became a beautiful bull whose beauty Europa desired to stroke. The seduction and abduction of a mortal was easy for the experienced immortal who had eons of practice. Zeus took advantage of her wonder and innocence and swam away powerfully with her, soon crossing over to the continent that would ever after bear her name. Europa was also either the daughter (or sister) of Phoinix (also mentioned in Homer, Iliad XIV.321) who becomes the eponymous ancestor of the Phoenicians in myth tradition. (2) At the deepest structural level, this myth parallels the flow of civilization and early technology (accompanied by the alphabet and resulting literacy) from east to west, crossing from the Near East and Asia to Europe.

Although Rembrandt would be unlikely to know the long myth tradition he was more or less following, probably by far the most famous extant ancient image of Europa is on a Greek vase; that of the Tarquinian Red figure Attic stamnos, circa 480 BCE, now in the Tarquinia Museum, which shows the latent eroticism in the story by having the moment before she is abducted when she puts her hand on the almost-smiling bull’s horn. The Greek artist has left no doubt about the outcome: although she runs alongside and behind the bull in the two-dimensional scene, the bull’s massive testes are between her running legs and its sexual member is directly between her stride. Most important, however, the horn she touches looks suspiciously like a membrum virile itself with curly pubic hair at its base, an idea Ovid hints at as Rembrandt may also in imitating this Roman poet. That this is deliberate on the Greek vase seems unmistakable; the viewer is easily persuaded of Zeus’ seducing intentions even if Europa is yet unaware.

As an historical myth with long-reaching roots, it is also persuasive at the deeper structural level that the orientalizing Greeks were somehow aware that earlier and even contemporary Phoenician religion venerated bulls (their Levantine gods El and Baal were both bulls in form) and that the same religion was justifiably infamous for its rampant fertility and sexual emphases. In addition, the Greeks called "Kadmean Letters" the modified Phoenician alphabet, circa 9th-8th c. BCE, brought to Greece in myth by Kadmos, the brother of Europa, while searching for his sister.(3) These historical echoes are retained in the myth and thus in the vase, which myth Rembrandt has retold in typical contemporary garb from his source in Ovid without alluding to these historical precedents.

Greek Europa 8.jpg
Europa and the Bull - Red-Figure Stamnos, Tarquinia Museum, circa 480 BCE

Some earlier Greek vases, for example, in Archaic Black-Figure with popular versions of Europa and the Bull from the late 6th c. BCE (suggesting a literary myth source?) also show Europa grasping the horn in similar detail (although Maenads can also ride Dionysus in his bull form) but not as obviously a sexual image; other examples may not follow this possible early horn-grasping tradition.


Greek Vase3.jpg
Europa and the Bull, Black Figure Oinochoe circa 510-500 BCE, influenced by Athena Painter, former Robinson Collection, now University of Mississippi, MISS-1977-03-73

On the other hand, a 4th century Paestan Red-Figure vase below (Getty Museum # 81.AE.78, from 340 BCE, signed by Asteas but now returned to Italy) does show Europa riding on a white bull and with her hand touching the horn if not necessarily clearly grasping it. Although not visible in this image detail, sea figures like Scylla and Triton flank the bull on either side to conclusively prove it is the Europa myth painted. The white bull motif will addressed shortly.

Detail: Europa and the Bull, Asteas, Paestan circa 340 BCE, formerly Getty Museum, now Italy

Roman wall paintings and mosaics also represent this myth scene, as in the Pompeiian 1st. c CE painting from the House of Fatal Love (Regio IX, 5.18), now in the National Museum, Naples, an independent representation predating Ovid’s text. This painting is notable with a brown bull in a sacred landscape with columns and trees, itself probably derived from a Greek original. It is somewhat ambiguous in the Roman painting whether Europa is about to leave or has just arrived elsewhere, but the eyes and forelegs of the bull may give away his intentions of bolting, so it is most likely the deceptively lulling moment before the abduction when current inaction will suddenly be overwhelmed by action. Like Rembrandt's, the Roman version has a subdued sexuality but is also far less intense in nearly every other way than Rembrandt's. Rembrandt has memorialized the immediate moment of the abduction while perhaps hinting at both past (a disrupted playful beach party) and future (Kadmos' possible departure?).

Roman Europa-2.jpg
Europa and the Bull, Roman Wall Painting, House of Fatal Love, Pompeii, c. 1st c. CE

With emotive strength and dark drama in his The Abduction of Europa, Rembrandt follows both Ovid verbally and Titian’s 1575-80 Europa visually because in many ways Rembrandt saw himself as Titian’s successor. His use of Ovid's literary version is perhaps more faithful than most other artists,(4) in that his bull surging through the water away from the shore is white - although Titian's bull is also white and thus Rembrandt is likely to be following Titian as much as Ovid.

europa Titian.jpg
Titian, Europa, circa 1575-80, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Similar to Rembrandt after him, whose introduction to Ovid would have been in Latin at his Leiden grammar school, Titian had easy access to Ovid's Metamorphoses - even an illustrated version published in Venice in 1497 - and texts from earlier translations.(5) Perhaps Rembrandt's schoolboy Latin gave him an added advantage here.

Detail of Europa and Jupiter as Bull

In both Titian and Rembrandt, Europa also grasps the bull’s horn and turns her fearful eyes back to shore, another Ovidian detail (Metamorphoses II.860-75), the very Ovidian moment that Rembrandt also paints, although Rembrandt has the scene beginning closer to shore with the spring grass and opening slowness of Ovid, showing how closely he follows the poem. Rembrandt's bull is also more realistic than Titian's - although Titian's is clearly garlanded a la Ovid - and Titian has introduced putti (or amoretti), not in Ovid's poem, emblematic of the amorous intents of Zeus. Thus Rembrandt chooses the very moment of abduction whereas Titian already has the bull moving rapidly from the receding shore of what may be the Venetian coast with a skyline similar to the Alto Adige Alps in the distance:

“Then she became less shy, he gave his breast to her caressing hands
and let her garland even his horns with new-plucked flowers. The princess,
innocent on whom she sat, climbed to his back; slowly the god stepped out
into the shallows of the beach and with false-footed sureness took to sea,
swimming against full tide, the girl his captured prize; she fearful,
turned to shoreward, set one hand on his broad back, the other held
one horn, her dress behind her fluttered in the wind.”

Detail of Europa grasping Bull's Horn

These images show the myth tradition of grasping the bull's horn predates Ovid's text because even the red-figure Greek vase has the same iconography. There must have been at least a literary precedent for this graphic idea around or before the fifth century BCE, since Ovid - who certainly appreciated the sexual implication given his poetic output - could not have seen the Tarquinian example, as its excavation from the Tarquinian necropolis would have only been in the last few centuries. The Roman wall painting from Pompeii does not even clearly present this detail, but Ovid must have seen or read other examples of this motif from older Greek and even Roman tradition that have either not survived or are as yet unidentified.

Rembrandt underscores the emotional tension as Europa’s fear is very present in her open mouth, furrowed brow and the way she tightly grips the bull’s flesh, bunched under her fingers as Ovid relates on the bull’s “broad back.” Westermann points out that “the idyllic shore and finely drawn waves compete for our attention with the woman’s terror.” (6)

It is well known that Rembrandt at this time regarded history painting – the visual narrative and interpretation of great stories of antiquity – as his most important artistic activity.(7) This very Dutch Europa even looks much like Saskia van Uylenburgh, the relative of Rembrandt’s dealer partner and landlord whom he will later court and marry, although it seems too early for him to have modeled her since their first meeting seems to have been in 1633, unless it was an earlier meeting. His Dutch Europa is decked in pearls fitting for the heiress of an equally Phoenician or Dutch maritime empire, but since pearls are also an attribute of Venus, the pearls may equally be an amatory emblem in an appropriate marine setting. Rembrandt has also highlighted the water around the bull and Europa's wind-streaming hair. reflecting the bull in the water and with a patch of blue sky under his rigid tail pointing backwards like an excited rudder to his flight.

Detail of Shipping Harbor with the Island of Tyre (as if in Northern Europe)

Rembrandt evokes Tyre as a busy Phoenician port – but more like a Dutch port – on a second background cape on the left with several ships and harbor cranes. This is historically valid as the Phoenicians were the most renowned seafaring mariners of the ancient world just as the Dutch were in their Golden Age of commerce. Tyre, the island city Alexander conquered by building a causeway to the offshore fortress, is even accurately connected here by arched bridges. The surprised family members and entourage – seemingly royal judging by the jewelry – wring their hands or throw them up in consternation. It may even be Europa's brother Kadmos in the horse-drawn cart who will rush off after his sister and found his own dynasty in Greece. But the white bull in the water, wild and free, contrasts greatly with the bridled and yoked gray draft horses idly watching the departing couple. Clearly this is no ordinary bull and not the least bit domesticated or even capable of being domesticated with his surge into the water.

Where does the white bull originate in the original Greek myth? Its color does not appear in the story as told by Apollodorus (III.1.1), Diodorus Siculus (IV.60.2 & V.78.1) or Hyginus (Fabula 178). Since the myth symmetry so appreciated by Ovid has Europa become Minos' father in due time, perhaps the white bull of Ovid's poem (since the Roman painting above has a brown bull and it predates Ovid) is intended as a deliberate link to the other divine white bull of myth, although it may not be an Ovidian innovation or deliberate allusion if other prior examples like the above 4th c. Getty vase followed a tradition as yet unidentified. This is the one that Poseidon brought to Minos in Crete out of the Cretan water for sacrifice, although he disobeys and his wife Pasiphae lusts after it, producing the monstrous Minotaur. It seems white bulls run strongly in the story of this Phoenician-originated family. There is at least one other aspect of the bull historically associated with Phoenicia that the Europa myth may preserve structurally: the Greek root word for bull (tauros) is not originally Greek but Phoenician and its Western Semitic cognate languages where it was seen as t'r until borrowed into Greek. This myth may also be a dim memory of that Western Semitic borrowing as set in Phoenicia.

Rembrandt’s Europa may not have her soggy dress, here trailing in the water, fluttering exactly as Ovid describes but her streaming hair waves behind her instead as an Ovidian allusion. Although there is not much of a trysting place here or pasturage for cows on this shore, the frightened friends or family on the edge of the water remain on “the beach where the king’s daughter had a common playground with her Tyrian girls,” as Ovid relates.

Detail of Kadmos[?] in Cart and Europa's Entourage

This is a locus pregnant with change as well as a transport they cannot follow over water in their cart, or, more important, their skilled wind-guided ships despite their Phoenician seamanship. Europa leaves them behind, while now against her will, but she will soon turn forward and grasp the future. Rembrandt’s fusion of classical and Dutch elements is both consistent with myth while highly individual, balancing the somewhat stormy Jovian (and very Dutch) sky against the watery low horizon. The highlight intensifies Jupiter's identity behind the huge white bull who swims much like he thunders over the waves.

The great East India Company merchant Jacques Specx owned this painting at the end of his life, and Schwartz suggests the subject is a glorifying allegory of Specx’s mercantile interests shipping Asian goods, “enticing the treasures of Asia on to ships bound for Europe,” (8) possibly commissioned while Specx was still in the Asian colony of Batavia overseeing exotic shipping and stewarding its profits like a modern Phoenician merchant prince.

In conclusion, Rembrandt demonstrates his fidelity to Ovid and the iconography of Europa in this myth history painting, perhaps proudly wanting his clients to know he too had studied Latin and the Classics at the Leiden Grammar School, much like the gentlemen burghers of Amsterdam to whom he felt at least equal in every way save one, the wealth that usually eluded him and which he often pursued to his eventual downfall, like the tantalizing bull that Europa finds will seduce her.

Note: This essay is excerpted from Patrick Hunt's book REMBRANDT, released in November, 2006, Ariel Books, New York.

(1) Patrick Hunt. "Ekphrasis: Rembrandt and Ovid, The Abduction of Europa (1632: Metamorphoses II.849-59, and the Myth Tradition". Ex Libris: Journal of the Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, vol. 14, October, 2006, 18-21.

(2) H. J. Rose. A Handboook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen-Routledge (1929) 1991 repr., 183.

(3) Herodotus IV.147; Diodorus Siculus V.59.2 & ff; Pausanias V.25.12; Andrew Robinson. The Story of Writing. Thames and Hudson, 1995, 166 ff.

(4) Amy Golahny. "Rembrandt's 'Europa', in and out of pictorial and textual tradition," in L. Freedman and G. Huber-Rebenich, eds. Wege zum Mythos, Berlin, 2001, 39-55.

(5) Paul Joannides. Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, 77 .

(6) Mariët Westermann. Rembrandt. London: Phaidon, 2000, 118.

(7) Mollie Holtman. Handbook to the Collections. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. 1997, 118.

(8) Gary Schwartz. Rembrandt, his life, his paintings. New York: Viking, 1985.

Rembrandt's painting © 2005 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.

Stanford University


copyright © 2005 Patrick Hunt

December 18, 2005

Arborisms in Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon from Metamorphoses 8.620-720

Posted by Patrick Hunt


This woodsy passage is an arborist’s delight. Perhaps to intensify the transformation of the two old people whose theoxeny - hospitality to their anonymous divine guests (Jupiter and Mercury) - is unique, Ovid fashions and foreshadows their future nature as trees by filling his poetic text with at least 30 references to wood or forest plants. This is a brief catalog of Ovid's passage with possible arboreal interpretations and allusions.

First, Ovid has his narrator (Lelex) tell about what he has seen growing side by side in the Phrygian hills, long after the transformation in their anonymous almost endless life as the yet-unnamed Baucis and Philemon are an oak (quercus) and linden (tilia) tree intertwined (tiliae contermina quercus 8.620).

Second, Philemon welcomes the gods to enter the poor couple’s forest hovel – whose roof is reeds and stalks of straw (stipulis et canna 8.630) - by way of a [wooden] gabled doorpost (vertice postes 8.638) (1). Baucis pulls off dry twigs and stems (ramaliaque arida 8.644) from the thatched roof as tinder for the meal’s fire. Then, using a forked stick (furca…bicornis 8.646) Philemon unhooks dried meat from a blackened wooden beam (nigro…tigno 8.648) and also unfastens a beech wood tub (alveus…fagineus 8.652-3) tub for bathing limbs.(2) Baucis sets up a couch of willow (salignus 8.656) and a wooden table for the fare. The mattress for the gods’ couch is also of soft sedge plants (molli…ulva 8.655). On the one hand, Ovid is accentuating their poverty, as Due mentioned - "praise of the poor but honest simplicity"(3) - so that all their furniture, old and battered, and all household accoutrements mentioned are of wood, hardly surprising given their meager resources, but the wood references are unnecessarily ubiquitous unless Ovid is creating an extended metaphor.

Third, after wiping the table with freshening mint (mentae 8.663), the meal itself also consists mostly of plants, including olive berries (baca 8.664), cornel cherries (corna autumnalia 8.665), radishes (radix 8.666) and dried fruit harvested in nuts (nux 8.674), figs (carica 8.674), dates (palmas 8.674), plums (pruna 8.675), apples (mala 8.675 ) grapes from vines (vitibus 8.676), all products from trees or woody plants. Even the cups are made of beech wood (fago 8.669).

Fourth, the old couple obey the revealed gods and climb the hill together leaning on old walking sticks (baculis 8.693) – an apt metaphor for themselves – and watch from the summit as the wooden forked gable poles (furcas 8.700) and twiggy roof straw (stramina 8.701) of their house are transformed to marble and gold. Their own delayed transformation concludes as branches and leaves (frondere 8.714-5) spring from over their faces, bushy bark (frutex 8.719) covers their mouths, and they become a double tree trunk (gemino…truncos 8.720).

Fifth, to make part of his extended metaphor of arborisms depend on the duality of the old couple, Ovid deliberately mentions several dyads: “the two of them were the whole household” (tota domus dua sunt 8.636) and continues the dyad in such subtleties as two-pronged forked branches and house gable (furca…bicornis and furcas 8.646 & 8.700), bi-colored pure olive berries (bicolor sincerae baca 8.664), among others, all of which are likely figures for the old couple themselves,

Finally, how did Ovid choose oak and linden for Philemon and Baucis? I can only offer tenuous but interesting associations. Theophrastus might be a textual source for Ovid, since he divides trees into ‘male’ and ‘female’ types with oak apparently being 'male' and linden both 'male' and 'female' (4). Theophrastus also describes oak as having a black core – recalling the blackened wooden beam (nigro…tigno 6.648) (5). Furthermore, he distinguishes oak (drus in Greek) as “heavy” and linden (philura in Greek) as “light”,(6) a dichotomy possibly reflected in the old couple. Theophrastus also mentions that both oak and linden can have winter budding,(7) perhaps like Philemon and Baucis in old age. He also quotes Hesiod (Works and Days, 233) saying that the oak produces honey and that the leaves of the linden are sweet (8), a gracious sweetness in common with the old couple who so hospitably receive the gods. Later in Book 10, Ovid describes the oak and linden in direct sequence with the thickly-foliaged oak and soft linden (arbor... frondibus aesculus altibus nec tilia mollis 10.90-92). In a passage where mention of linden follows directly after oak, Meiggs annotates the common use of these two woods for furniture (another transformation?) in the Roman world.(9) Although after Ovid, Columella also praises both oak and linden as among the most suitable woodland trees for bees (with beehives in the oak trunks) in producing honey (ac silvestrium commodissime faciunt [mellis] robora...ac tiliae) (10), perhaps common Roman knowledge, as Virgil before Ovid praises the rich linden (pinguem tiliam) for bees in the Georgics 4.183, just the sort of image for Ovid to subtext a possible transformation of oak and linden leaves into golden honey like their house (which also embodies them) into a gold-roofed temple. This may be a subtle connection with bees and honey that Ovid intends as he also mentions the inside of the beechwood cups lined with wax (fago...flaventibus inlita ceris 8.670) and clear white honey placed in the center of the table (candidus in medio favus est 8.677). Last but not least, it is also likely an important detail that Jupiter’s tree is the oak (=Philemon); could Mercury’s tree here be the light and graceful linden (=Baucis?). (11)

In conclusion, Ovid uses at least 30 references to trees, plants, their products or their various parts, many of them dried, wrinkled or shriveled (arida…rugosis 8.644 & 8.674 ), rustic, bent or old and well-used like Philemon and Baucis.(12) One of the few Ovid commentaries that mentions trees at all as focal to the story, Hollis suggests "Sacred Trees" as an Asia Minor and Phrygian tradition, (13) but that is about the only connection raised with this wood-rich passage. With such a "density of correspondences" (W. S. Anderson),(14) this multiplicity of wood and plant references can hardly be coincidental, and Ovid’s subtle humor and poetic intertextual consistency throughout in his extended metaphor are anything but wooden.



This study on Ovid's use of arborisms in the myth of Philemon and Baucis derives solely from lectures in Dr. Patrick Hunt's MYTHOLOGY course (CLASSGEN 18) at Stanford University, first in December 2004 from his own myth analysis, repeated in early fall of 2005 and in tutorials thereafter. Subsequent to writing this above text, the author has been made aware of a somewhat similar but more substantial prior paper published by Dr. Emily Gowers on "Talking Trees: Philemon and Baucis Revisited" in Arethusa 38 (Fall, 2005) 331-65. Dr. Gowers, an emiment Ovid scholar at Cambridge University, has also been kind enough to correspond with this author, who most highly recommends Gowers' magisterial paper for its thorough literary and myth analysis and extended commentary of the tree imagery in Ovid's text.


(1) Their gable is a “forked branch” according to W. S. Anderson’s commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books 6-10. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1972, 398-99, esp. line 8.700.
(2) Ehwald omits this line and the following two lines as well as the preceding line (8.652-654); others hold them to be original, but the cups are also of beechwood in 8.669.
(3) Otto Steen Due, Changing Forms: Studies in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1974, 80.
(4) Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants 1.8.2; 1.14.5; 3.8.1; 3.10.4; 5.4.1; 5.5.1, with oak being hard and hard to work, whereas linden is soft and easy to work.
(5) ibid., 1.6.2
(6) ibid., 1.5.5
(7) ibid., 3.5.5
(8) ibid., 1.12.4 & 3.7.6 respectively
(9) Russell Meiggs. Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 295.
(10) Columella De Re Rustica 9.4.3, where he only mentions four trees in total for this category.
(11) In yet another "transformation", Meiggs also notes the common use of wood - including easily-carved linden - for small sculpture, particularly for such works as portable Herms and Mars figures, 320; Hellmut Baumann. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art and Literature. Portland: Timber Press, 1993 (Die griechische Pflanzenwelt in Mythos, Kunst und Literatur, Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1993), 48, 64.
(12) Perhaps it is only coincidental that Theophrastus says prune and apple are “dry”
trees. De Causis Plantarum 3.7.12.
(13) A. S. Hollis. Ovid: Metamorphoses Book VIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970, 109; also connecting this idea "of a sacred tree with a wall around it" (sort of a poemerium or sacred threshold perimeter?) with Martin Nilsson's pre-Greek models (proto-temenos?), 108.
(14) W. S. Anderson. "Lecture on Roman Poetry", The Latin Workshop, University of California, Berkeley, Summer 1983, Keynote Lecture "Poetic Craft of Virgil and Ovid", California Classical Association (Fall Conference, November 1985); published under similar title in Laetaberis: Journal of the California Classical Association (1987).

Oak tree image from New York Public Library, Digital Gallery #113423 (http://digitalgallery.nypl.org)


Stanford University

Patrick Hunt © 2005

December 16, 2005

Imperium in the Pantheon of Rome and its Pavimentum

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Pantheon from Hadrianic Rome c. 125 CE to Modern time

Few great buildings in the world have a history parallel to the Pantheon; none are so glorious to better represent the genius of Roman architecture. Even in its altered state where much of its outer decoration has been stripped over the millennia and its incredible interior modified, the Pantheon still exemplifies the Roman aim for perfection in structural integrity and philosophical harmony. Three points are notable at the outset of this essay: The Pantheon is a remarkable achievement of 1) Roman engineering, 2) sacred geometry and cosmography and 3) as a statement of political imperium and Roman stability. Dio Cassius (c. 220 CE) said, “Thanks to its dome it resembles the vault of heaven itself.” But it is mostly the floor – the pavimentum - that will be newly interpreted as a statement of imperium in this brief architectural essay.

The Pantheon temple to “all the gods” [pan theon] was originally part of Augustus Caesar’s plan to rebuild Rome in his image. Marcus Agrippa, friend and general of Augustus, likely designed the first Pantheon, and his inscription still fills the architrave above the portico from when he (“son of Lucius”) was consul in Rome for the third time [M∙ AGRIPPA∙ L∙ F ∙ COS ∙TERTIUM ∙FECIT]. Agrippa originally built it as an ovatio ("non-military triumph") to Augustus but the philhellene emperor Hadrian transformed and finished the rebuilt monumental temple a century later around 122-24 C.E. He may have envisioned it as a personal Pythagorean philosophical summation of what a Roman monument should entail and mean in its Greek name and cosmopolitan Roman structure as an imperial statement of power. Hadrian also intended the use of Agrippa’s memorial to show his own connection to former Augustan glory.

Original Interior of the Pantheon as reconstructed in virtual reality

In its sacred geometry, it has three main architectural components. A rectangular portico or porch with its triangular pediment connects to a cylindrical drum in the cella or main temple structure, and is surmounted by a rotunda or dome. Thus it contains the basic Pythagorean units. Viewers could see the sacred geometry of the cosmos in the triangle of pedimental portico roof, rectangle of portico and hemisphere of roof that actually becomes a full sphere in that space between roof and marble floor. This is a perfect 44-meter [around 150 ft.] sphere matching the 44-meter width of the cylindrical main cella. Hadrian intended its mathematical polygons to be harmoniously integrated, although the portico may not be as carefully connected to the drum as is the marvelous rotunda. The 9 meter (around 30 feet) diameter oculus in the ceiling serves as a mirror of the round heaven – appropriately open to the sky - and its graduated ribbed ceiling coffers immediately below corresponded to the five planetary gods.

Pantheon Interior looking up into the oculus (heavenly symbolism)

For its engineering genius, the Pantheon’s construction includes composite materials such as brick, concrete, tufa, basalt, pumice, granite columns, and leaded bronze roof, with much of the structure veneered inside and outside with marble over seven arched alcoves. The primary external marble veneer was white whereas the interior veneer was multi-colored. Well-planned foundations are of volcanic-related stone including basalt, with walls of tufa (in this case compressed volcanic ash), brick and concrete, and coffered ceiling of light pumice covered with leaded bronze sheets. Basalt is the optimum foundation stone with its great compressive strength; pumice concrete equally understood as optimum for ceilings with its durable lightness. Thus the structure proceeds from bottom to top in ever lighter materials which have served it well for durability.

Original Pantheon pavimentum as reconstructed in virtual reality

In its statement of imperium, even the marble inlaid opus sectile floor shows stone from all over the empire, even though such use of these marbles is by no means the earliest example of these individual marbles, rather it is more important that all are used simultaneously in this and other earlier as well as contemporary Roman contexts. The specific marbles here suggested as related to the idea of imperium include purple Imperial Porphyry from Egypt (Mons Porphyrites), Docimian pavonazzetto from Asia Minor (Marmor docimenium) and yellow Giallo Numidiana marble from Carthage (Marmor numidicum) and - perhaps to complete a Mediterranean "square" - an as-yet unprovenanced gray Granito Grigio probably from the northwest (Pyrenees, Gaul or the Alps?). Thus all four corners of the Roman Mediterranean (Mare Nostrum) world could be shown on the pavimentum floor as a squared circle as in the geography of Ptolemy, much like the Pantheon floor patterns. These opus sectile patterns are in repeated squares and circles that echo the overall structural geometric shapes of the building design. This geographical stone representation from the four corners of the empire is also significant because these floor stones can be understood as spolia expressing conquest of Egypt, Asia, Carthage and Gaul. Conquest of Greece is implied as well in the green Lapis Lacadaemoni[u]s bands (seen in the walls parallel to and including the frieze units in the arced and pedimented aediculae), truly a “government program translated into stone” (Bernard Andreae).

Map of Roman Empire around time of Trajan to Hadrian (circa 117-125 CE)

Imperial Porphyry from Egypt (southeast)
Giallo Numidiana from west Numidian Carthage region (southwest)
Docimian Pavonazzetta from Asia Minor (northeast)
Grey Granite from Gaul/Alps (northwest)?

Images of Pantheon in cross section and spherical mathematical modeling

Link to 360 degree floor view, somewhat truncated but good marble plan:
(thanks to Peter Watts for the link)

After Rome became Christianized, the Pantheon became the Church of Santa Maria Rotunda, consecrated by command of the Byzantine emperor Phocas in 609 C.E., although the much later 17th c. dual towers – wrongly assigned to Bernini - were removed only a few generations ago. Although it has been altered and partly stripped by later Roman noble houses – producing the quip, “What the barbarians did not dare desecrate, the Barberini did”, the Pantheon now also contains the tombs of Raphael and Italian kings such as Vittorio Emmanuelle (partially reintegrated in 1878) that obscure the numerous original internal Roman apses containing shrines for major and minor gods. The entire internal volume of the monument was 1520 square meters without any reinforcing support. No structure had eclipsed the vast internal diameter of its rotunda dome until the 20th c. Although Brunelleschi with the Duomo of Florence [42 m] around 1420-30 and Bramante and Michelangelo in St. Peter’s [42 m] in Rome (between 1514-1564), Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul's in London in 1674 [around 30 m] and many others - including Les Invalides in Paris and the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. - attempted unsuccessfully to eclipse the Pantheon dome, it remains the finest rotunda in the world. It is almost universally accepted that the massive Pantheon is the most impressive surviving Roman monumental building in the world.

(Note: This essay is a copy of many lectures at Stanford University since 1994 and previously published in a prior version by Patrick Hunt. "Pantheon" in Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Salem Press, 2002, 868)


Jean-Pierre Adam. Roman Construction: Material and Techniques. Paris: Picard, 3rd ed. 1995.

Bernard Andreae. “Pantheon” in The Art of Rome. New York: Abrams, 1977, 513-15.

Axel Boethius. Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994 impression, 235n27.

Gabriele Borghini, ed. Marmi antichi. Rome: Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientale/ Edizioni de Luca, 1997, 214 pl.65, 264 pl.109, 274 pl.116.

Amanda Claridge. Rome: Oxford Archaeological Guides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 201-6.

Patrick Hunt. “Pantheon” in Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Salem Press, 2002, 868.

William L. Macdonald. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard [1976] 1998 repr.

Henri Stierling. The Roman Empire, vol. I. “The Pantheon”, pp. 153-8. Cologne: Taschen, 1996.

John Ward-Perkins. "Tripolitania and the Marble Trade" in Journal of Roman Studies 41 (1951) 88-104, esp. 96 & ff.

Photo and image credits:

Modern photo of Pantheon from www.greatbuildings.com

Virtual reality images of Pantheon: http://www.vrac.iastate.edu/ArchVR/pantheon/snaps/panth_int1.jpg

Oculus photo by Thomas Slijper, Netherlands

Mathematical interior from Gert Sperling “The Quadrivium in the Pantheon of Rome”, Fuldatal, Germany.
Map of Roman Empire from www.wwnorton.com

Stanford University


Patrick Hunt © 2005

December 9, 2005

Dante and Trajan: How a Roman Virtuous Pagan Can Leap from Purgatory to Paradise

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Gustve Dore, Trajan and the Widow, Purgatorio X.73-94

What does Dante have to say about the Roman Emperor Trajan and why? Certainly Dante must have known that Trajan was regarded as one of the Good Emperors and as a Virtuous Pagan as well, especially given the traditions and legends associated with Pope Gregory, as Singleton, Vitto and others attest. (1)

Apparently, as a Virtuous Pagan, Dante regarded Trajan so highly that he was said to be rescued by the prayers of St. Gregory when first mentioned in Purgatorio X.68 and converted, a likely result of his known tolerance of Christians relieved after Domitian's persecutions. Then Dante places him even higher in Paradiso XX.44-48. Knowing the answer already, we might ask how many Roman emperors thus end up both first in Dante's Purgatorio, but it is merely rhetorical:

"The exalted glory of the Roman prince
whose mighty worth moved Gregory to earn
his great conquest, Trajan the Emperor."

Secondly, Trajan is elevated even to the Paradiso where the constellation of the heavenly eagle of divine justice describes past just and temperate rulers, this time in the asterism of its eye:

"The one whose glory shines closest to my beak...
he has known the bitter way though he now learns the sweet life".

Dante cleverly has Gregory "conquer" Rome in the salvation of Trajan in this passage above with the very eye of the constellation of the eagle Aquila so connected to heavenly flight. The "bitter way" was Dante's perception of the futility of Trajan's paganism despite his imperial status. Dante also alludes to the story of Trajan, while with his troops, consoling a widow who had lost her son as part of earthly proof of his virtue. (2)

Here is Dante's version of the story of the widow:

"The wretch appear'd amid all these to say:
'Grant vengeance, sire! for, woe beshrew this heart
My son is murder'd.' He replying seem'd;
'Wait now till I return.' And she, as one
Made hasty by her grief; 'O sire, if thou
Dost not return?'—'Where I am, who then is,
May right thee'"—'What to thee is other's good,
If thou neglect thy own?'—'Now comfort thee,'
At length he answers. 'It beseemeth well
My duty be perform'd, ere I move hence:
So justice wills; and pity bids me stay.' " (Purgatorio

If, after the fact, Paradiso might seem far-fetched to some, Trajan deserves at least a place in Dante's Purgatory where, as Dante scholarship opines in Schnapp, "a mere tear of repentance can atone for a lifetime of evil", (3) rightly representing an empathetic pagan Roman emperor, among those who loved and exercised justice (spiriti giudicanti)." (4)

Trajan Bust, British Museum

Trajan's decennial bust in the British Museum (5) is one of many celebrating his first decade as emperor and thus dated at least from CE 108. This bust may be the best likeness of him surviving from Roman sculpture; perhaps even one of the most remarkable of all Roman sculptures. There may be some cultural hybridity in this bust: not only is the general idea of veritas followed in his unidealized features - like the Flavian return to portraits of traditional austerity (6) - but the overall effect appears to simulate Hellenistic style in its athletic upper torso. It is certainly the least flattering of all his surviving portraits (4) and is even more realistic than his relief triumphal portrait crowned by Victory in the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, marked by its pietas and whose stark features are likely exaggerated for viewers to compensate for its lofty height. (7)

Perhaps as an evidence of its representational truth, this is a Roman bust whose face has one of the strongest imprints of character in Roman art. While observation makes it clear that this is an unidealized portrait, interpretation beyond this fact suggests that Trajan's visage here is not what would be traditionally called a handsome face by any stretch. It is asymmetric, almost horsy and his forehead is not going to be high enough for those who have at times foolishly measured intellect thereby. Yet if there is any strong likeness to the real Trajan, this is not a complimentary image of good looks but more likely one rather governed by an aesthetic of mimetic honesty even as a carryover of Hellenistic pathos where the portrait ought to convey its own narrative.

What might be conveyed in this anonymous honest narrative? Is it that Trajan's strength of character and strong determination made him among the wisest rulers in Roman history? If he is not easily bent by any flattery in his personal image, preferring instead the truth of his powerful will to be shown, what a mark of good character this sculpture carefully articulates. This is the real Trajan.

No wonder, having long been cited by his contemporaries as taking his responsibilities seriously, (8) that he is often the very first listed among the Good Emperors. After the immediate damnatio memoriae of Domitian following his death in CE 96, Trajan's rule beginning in CE 98 was welcomed as a meritocratic change and a restimulus for the cursus honorum of public service. His correspondence with Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia, (Pliny, Epistula 10.96-97) over the fate of Asia Minor Christians was enlightened not only in comparison to his predecessor but to most pre-Constantine emperors as he mandated that "Christians are not to be sought out" and he repudiated "anonymously-posted accusations" as dangerously wrong. (9)

In the British Museum sculpture of Trajan's face, there are several strong character aspects combined in his serious mien: both a farsightedness and a rigorous sternness - as one who surveys and guards the whole Roman world and whose frown can almost correct Senatorial corruption - demonstrated in this bust of the emperor who ruled over Rome's greatest geographic stretch from Spain, his birthplace as the first provincial-born emperor, and Mauretania in the west to far Dacia edging the Black Sea and Armenia in the east and from Egypt and Nubia in the south to Britannia in the north. This sculpture is not of an emperor inclined to frivolous pursuit. There might also be the suggestion in this sculpture that Trajan honestly rather than nobly bears in his deeply furrowed brow the dignified entire weight of empire.


(1) Cindy Vitto. The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature. Transactions of the American Philosphical Society, 79.5, Philadelphia, 1989, esp. pp. 45 ff.; Charles Singleton, Journey to Beatrice, vol. 2 Dante Studies, Harvard University Press, 1954.

(2) Fiore di Filosofi e di mosti savi (also in Novellino LXIX). cf. Gospel of Matthew 25:34-40.

3) Jeffrey Schnapp. "introduction to Purgatorio" in R. Jacoff. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 93.

(4) Paget Toynbee. A Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1968. “Traiano” 618; also see Nancy Vickers. “Seeing is Believing: Gregory, Trajan and Dante’s Art” Dante Studies 101 (1983) 67-85.

(5) British Museum number GR-1874.7-12.11; acquired from the Charles Townley Collection in 1893.

(6) Susan Walker. Roman Art, London: British Museum Press, 1994, 28.

(7) Eleanor Leach at Indiana University has carefully recorded the range of surviving Trajan portraits in her course on Roman Art and Archaeology "Trajanic Portrait and Relief Sculpture" where she surveys at least 28 portraits (http://www.indiana.edu/~leach/c414/trajport.html).

(8) Bernard Andreae. The Art of Rome. New York: Harry Abrams, 1977, 204.

(9) Gregory Starikovksy, Columbia University (2002) "Letters of Pliny the Younger", reminds that "Tr[a]jan, according to Pliny’s Panegyric becomes princeps because of his high moral principles." (http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/starikovsky2.html)

Stanford University


Patrick Hunt © 2005