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The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome Photographs from the Ernest Nash Fototeca Unione Collection

The Porticus of Octavia

Porticus of Octavia, main entrance, as viewed from the south, with opus latericium from the Severan period

Little remains of the once sprawling compound of the Porticus of Octavia, but photographs in Nash’s collection help to illustrate various aspects of its complex history.

Located in the southern Campus Martius, near the Circus Flaminius, the Porticus Octaviae was essentially a restoration of an earlier structure called the Porticus Metelli. The Porticus Metelli, built around 147 BCE by Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, was largely constructed as an enclosure for the temples to Juno Regina (Juno the Queen) and Jupiter Stator (Jupiter the Stayer). These two temples survived when the Porticus Octaviae replaced the Porticus Metelli.

There remains some disagreement about who built the Porticus Octaviae. It is generally accepted that Octavia, Augustus’s sister, was responsible for its construction, although both Roman author Suetonius and Greek author Cassius Dio insisted that Augustus was its true creator. Most sources (including Livy, Ovid, and modern scholars such as Richardson and Favro) indicate that Octavia undertook work started by her son Marcellus after he died. The portico was constructed around 27 BCE and completed by 14 BCE. The fire of 80 CE ruined it and inspired restorations by Domitian. Another fire in 203 partially destroyed the complex and instigated a reconstruction under Emperor Septimius Severus and his son, Emperor Caracalla. Though some of the portico was destroyed during an earthquake in 442, what remains today is primarily the work of Severus and Caracalla.

Temple of Juno Regina, large column in situ at the corner of a house on Via S. Angelo in Pescheria, nos. 9, 10

The Porticus Octaviae, was not just a portico, but rather a complex coined Opera Octaviae by Pliny the Elder. It included the aforementioned temples to Juno Regina and Jupiter Stator, a library dedicated to Marcellus, at least one school, and a curia, or meeting house. According to Cassius Dio, the Senate met at least once in the Curia Octaviae. According to Andrea Carandini’s Atlas of Ancient Rome (2017), the curia was located just south of the library. In Rodolfo Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romae (1901) a school is located just south of the northern end of the portico. All scholars agree that the temples to Juno Regina and Jupiter Stator were located in the middle of the compound—that of Jupiter to the east, while that of Juno to the west. Little remains of either temple today, and little is known of their post-Roman fate. The column to the left, photographed by Ernest Nash, is one of the few remains of the Temple of Juno Regina. It is found at numbers 9 and 10 of Via di S. Angelo in Pescheria and measures 12.50 meters high with a diameter of 1.25 meters.

The complex also included a number of works of art described by Pliny, including one statue that made an impression on the author for its peculiar footwear: “There is the statue of Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi and daughter of the elder Scipio Africanus. This represents her in a sitting position and is remarkable because there are no straps to the shoes.” The temples to Juno Regina and Jupiter Stator, as mentioned earlier, predated the whole Opera Octaviae. Some sources (Richardson) even argue that the Temple to Juno Regina was built earlier than the Porticus Metelli by censor M. Aemilius Lepidus in 187 BC. This, however, may have been a different temple and other sources indicate that both temples were built in conjunction with the “Porticus Metelli” by Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus around 147 BC. Roman author Vitruvius attributed the building of the Temple of Jupiter Stator to architect Hermodorus. When the Porticus Metelli was rebuilt as the Porticus Octaviae, Pliny mentioned that the temples were also rebuilt: “Nor should we forget Sauras and Batrachus, who built the temples that are enclosed by the Porticoes of Octavia." Interestingly, the interior decorations of the two temples were supposedly swapped by the porters of Sauras and Batrachus, as related by Pliny: “One of these temples is that of Jupiter, in which the subjects of the paintings and of all the other embellishments are concerned with women. For it had been intended as the temple of Juno; but, according to the tradition, the porters interchanged the cult-images when they were installing them, and this arrangement was preserved as a matter of religious scruple, in the belief that the gods themselves had allotted their dwelling-places in this way.”

In antiquity, the portico was roughly 120 meters wide. Its principal entrance was located on the south-west side, not far from the Theatre of Marcellus. The portico continued from this south-west entrance to the north-east toward the Circus Flaminius, following a path which consisted of two rows of twenty-eight granite columns on each side, which formed the colonnade. Some columns of the colonnade remain today, as seen below in photographs by Nash. In the second photo, the Theatre of Marcellus is visible on the right, with the white columns of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus in the background and the trees of the Capitoline Hill behind it.

Porticus of Octavia, eastern entrance and stylobate of the southeast side
Porticus of Octavia, stylobate of the southeastern side

The entrance on the south-west side (see the photo below from 1938) consisted of four white marble Corinthian columns, which supported a triangular pediment, much of which is still visible today.

Behind the columns (and subsequently added brick archway) was the backside of the grand entrance—or propylon—to the portico. This consisted of four additional Corinthian columns, which supported a second triangular pediment. Three of those four columns remain, as does much of the rear pediment, though it is in worse condition than the outer, front entrance. A roof would have connected the two pediments of the propylon. At some point after the 442 earthquake, two of these four columns were destroyed and in their place a brick arch was installed. The height of the remaining columns is 8.6 meters.

Porticus of Octavia, main entrance, as viewed from the interior of the columns and from the pediment with the upper part in opus latericium from the Severan period
Porticus of Octavia, main entrance and columns of the southwestern side

The partial ruin caused by the fifth-century earthquake changed the form of the portico as rebuilt by Severus and Caracalla. Three centuries after the earthquake, in 770, the church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria was built into the ruins of the portico. The church’s name derives from the presence of a nearby fish market, or pescheria, from the Middle Ages. The Jewish ghetto was established near the site of the portico in 1555. According to Nash's Pictorial Dictionary, when the ghetto was abolished much of the ruins he photographed were discovered: “The monumental entrance, with the inscription of Septimius Severus was exposed when the houses of the Ghetto were pulled down in 1878, and at the same time several columns from the south-west wing were discovered.” Rome’s synagogue is pictured on the far left of the photo below.

Porticus of Octavia, southeast side featuring a walled up window and entrance, as viewed from the east

Fortunately, most of what was photographed by Nash in the 1930s and 1950s remains standing today; indeed, more recent excavations have uncovered further portions of the Porticus of Octavia.

Researched and written by Marcus Helble, Bowdoin College.