Roman Republic

Roman Italy (1st century BC)

Temple of Apollo Palatinus


Vowing of the Temple

In September 36 BC, Octavian’s general, Agrippa, defeated Sextus Pompeius (the son of Pompey and self-proclaimed son of Neptune) off the Sicilian port of Naulochus.  His fellow triumvir, Lepidus, then attempted to take over Sicily, but Octavian entered his camp and faced him down in front of his own army, which duly defected.  Octavian sent him into exile, so that he was now in control of the entire western part of the Roman state.  According to Appian, when Octavian returned to Rome:

  1. “... the Senate voted him unbounded honours, giving him the privilege of accepting all, or such as he chose.   ... The next day he made speeches to the Senate and to the people, recounting his exploits and his policy from the beginning to the present time. ... Of the honours voted to him, he accepted an ovation and annual feriae on the day of his victory, and a golden image to be erected in the forum, with the garb he wore when he entered the city, to stand on a column covered with the beaks of captured ships.  There, the image was placed bearing the inscription:


Cassius Dio recorded another honour that had been offered to Octavian:

  1. “The people ... resolved that, because he had:

  2. opened to the public the place on the Palatine that he had bought for his residence; and

  3. consecrated it to Apollo, after a thunderbolt had descended upon it;

  4. a house should be presented to [him] at public expense.  Hence they voted him [funds for the building of] the house ... ”, (Roman History’, 49: 15: 5).

Velleius Paterculus indicated when Octavian had made this gift of of land to the people:

  1. “[Octavian], on his victorious return to the city, announced that he meant to set apart for public use certain houses which he had bought through his agents, in order that there might be an open area about his own residence.  He further promised to build a temple of Apollo with a surrounding portico, a work that he [subsequently] constructed with rare munificence”, (‘Roman History’, 2: 81: 3).

Oliver Hester (referenced below at p. 151) argued that:

  1. “Taken with the accounts of Appian and Dio, this passage [by Velleius] enables us to pinpoint the moment at which Octavian announced his gift of the site to the Roman people and his intention to build a sanctuary of Apollo there.  Although not mentioned at that point by Appian or Dio, it was evidently one of the announcements made in the speeches which, as they report, Octavian delivered when he arrived at Rome in early November.”

He also pointed out that Suetonius revealed precisely why Octavian had made this gift:

  1. “He erected the temple of Apollo in that part of his house on the Palatine for which the haruspices declared that the god had shown his desire by striking it with lightning.  He joined to it colonnades with Latin and Greek libraries...”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 29:3)

Oliver Hester (referenced below at pp. 151-2) then summarised the probable sequence of events:

  1. “When lightning struck [Octavian’s land on the Palatine], haruspices were consulted and responded that the place was desired by Apollo.  The lightning strike and the consultation of the haruspices may well have taken place during Octavian’s absence in Sicily in the campaigning season of 36 BC, although an earlier date is not impossible. On his return to Rome in November 36 BC, Octavian announced in his addresses to the Senate and people that he would implement the haruspices’ ruling by making public the part of his Palatine property where the lightning had struck and building there a temple of Apollo, accompanied by porticoes, ... [although he] still retained [some land] for his own residence property. ... [Although] he was voted a house at public expense in compensation for his gift to the Roman people, ... [it is likely] that he declined the offer of a house at public expense.”

The sense of Suetonius’ testimony is that the construction of a temple of Apollo on the land that had been struck by lightening during Octavian’s absence in Sicily was the direct result of the haruspices’ ruling was desiderari a deo (desired by the god’).

Oliver Hester discussed the haruspices’ choice of Apollo.  He observed (at p.161) that:

  1. “It is ... [conceivable] that it was the haruspices who began [Octavian’s attachment to Apollo] by identifying [him] as the god who sent the Palatine thunderbolt.  However, despite the weakness of our evidence, it remains more likely that Octavian had already formed the association and that, in naming Apollo, the haruspices were giving the answer which they knew he wanted.

He observed (at p. 162) that the matter is complicated because we do not know whether Apollo (Etruscan Aplu or Apulu) was among the nine gods who, in Etruscan lore, delivered thunderbolts:

  1. “If Apollo was one of the gods whom their lore regarded as a sender of thunderbolts, we may readily imagine that the haruspices would have found it easy to identify him as the author of the Palatine thunderbolt.  If he was not, they must in this case have consciously subordinated their religious expertise to political expediency.

Robert Gurval (referenced below, at p. 115) observed that, contrary to what is sometimes claimed:

  1. “Whatever the circumstances may have been leading up to Octavian’s vow of a temple to Apollo, neither Velleius nor Cassius Dio indicates [either] that the promise fulfilled any vow taken at battle or that [Octavian] sought to commemorate his military success at Naulochius by the erection of a temple.”

Dedication of the Temple

After his victories in the east, Octavian returned to Rome in 29 BC and celebrated a triple triumph (on August 13th-15th, for his victories in Dalmatia, at Actium and in Egypt respectively).  Cassius Dio recorded that, in his 6th consulship (28 BC), he:

  1. “... completed and dedicated the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, the precinct surrounding it, and the libraries”, (‘Roman History’, 53: 1: ).

A number of sources, including the fasti Antiates, record the dies natalis of 9th October.

Decoration of the Temple


  1. “You wonder why I'm late, my love? The mighty Augustus

  2. Just opened Apollo's golden portico.

  3. Columns of African marble border the temple grounds,

  4. And the fifty daughters of Danaus stand between them.

  5. A marble Apollo seems to outshine the god himself,

  6. Lips parted to sing along with his silent lyre,

  7. And spaced around the altar, looking almost alive,

  8. Four bulls from the famous hand of Myron stand.

  9. Then, in the middle, a temple of radiant marble rises,

  10. A home more dear to the god than Delos itself.

  11. The chariot of the Sun is upon its pediment.

  12. The doors are Libyan ivory, finely wrought,

  13. One door lamenting the Gauls tossed from the peak of Parnassus,

  14. The other mourning the death of Niobe's children.

  15. Next, the god himself, between his mother and sister,

  16. The Pythian Apollo sings in a lengthy robe.

  17. I wish that you, in your free time, would stroll such grounds!”, (‘Elegies’ 2: 31; 32.7-8)

[Propertius and Apollo aetiology 4:6]

Read more:

O. Hester, “Octavian and the Thunderbolt: The Temple of Apollo Palatinus and Roman Traditions of Temple Building”, Classical Quarterly, 56.1 (2006) 149–68

R. A. Gurval, “Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of. Civil War”, (1995) Ann Arbor, MI

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