The Pantheon is a building in Rome which was originally built as a temple to all the gods of the Roman state religion, but has been a Christian church since the 7th century AD. It is the only building from the Greco-Roman world which is completely intact and which has been in continuous use throughout its history.

The Pantheon, Rome

The original Pantheon was built in 27 BC under the Roman Republic, during the third consulship of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and his name is inscribed on the portico of the building. The inscription reads M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT, meaning "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this."

The interior of the Pantheon

In fact, Agrippa's Pantheon was destroyed by fire in 80 AD, and the Pantheon was completely rebuilt in about 125 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, as date-stamps on the bricks reveal. Presumably some or all of the facade, including the inscription, survived from the old Pantheon.

Hadrian was a cosmopolitan emperor who travelled widely in the east and was a great admirer of Greek culture. He seems to have intended the Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, to be a sort of ecumenical or syncretist gesture to the subjects of the Roman Empire who did not worship the old gods of Rome, or who (as was increasingly the case) worshipped them under other names.

The building is circular with a portico (sometimes also called by the Greek term pronaos) of three ranks of eight huge granite Corinthian columns under a pediment opening into the rotunda, under a coffered dome, with a central opening (oculus), open to the sky. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same (43 metres), so the whole interior would fit exactly within a cube.

In 609 AD the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who reconsecrated it as a Christian church, the Church of the Mary and all the Martyr Saints (Santa Maria ad Martyres), which title it retains. The dome is the largest surviving from antiquity, and was the largest dome in western Europe until Brunelleschi's dome of the Duomo of Florence was completed in 1436.

The building's consecration as a church saved it from the vandalism and deliberate destruction which befell the majority ancient Rome's buildings during the early mediaeval period. The only loss has been the external sculptures, which adorned the pediment above Agrippa's inscription. The marble interior and the great bronze doors have survived, although the latter have been restored several times.

Under the portico of the Pantheon

Since the Renaissance the Pantheon has been used as a tomb. Among those buried there are the painters Raphael and Annibale Caracci, the architect Baldassare Peruzzi and two kings of Italy: Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, as well as Vittorio Emanuele's wife, Queen Margharita.

Although Italy has been a republic since 1947, volunteer members of Italian monarchist organisations maintain a vigil over the royal tombs in the Pantheon. This has aroused protests from time to time from republicans, but the Catholic authorities allow the practice to continue.

As the best preserved example of monumental Roman architecture, the Pantheon was enormously influential on European and American architects from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Numerous city halls, universities and public libraries echo its portico-and-dome structure. Examples of notable buildings influenced by the Pantheon include Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Low Library at Columbia University, New York, and the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

See also:

  • The Panthéon in Paris, an 18th century building today used as a burial place for famous people.

  • The Pantheon in London, an 18th century building now used as a theatre.