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Severan Dynasty (193 - 235 AD)

Elagabalium/ Temple of Jupiter Ultor

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Death of Septimius Severus (211 AD)     Elagabalium/ Temple of Jupiter Ultor



Excavated site of the Elagbalium, with

the Palatine church of San Sebastiano behind

Following his acclamation in Edesa in 218 AD, Elagabalus began a leisurely progress towards Rome.  According to the ‘Historia Augusta’, almost as soon as he arrived:

  1. “... neglecting all the affairs of the provinces, he established [Heliogabalus] as a god on the Palatine Hill, close to the imperial palace; and he built him a temple, to which he desired to transfer: the emblem of the Great Mother; the fire of Vesta; the Palladium; the shields of the Salii;and all that the Romans held sacred, intending that no god might be worshipped at Rome save only [Heliogabalus].  He declared, furthermore, that the religions of the Jews and the Samaritans and the rites of the Christians must also be transferred to this place, in order that the priesthood of [Heliogabalus] might include the mysteries of every form of worship” (‘Life of Elagabalus’, 1:3:4).

Herodian also recorded this temple, although he did not specify its location:

  1. “[Elagabalus] erected a huge and magnificent temple to his god and surrounded it with numerous altars.  Coming forth early each morning, he sacrificed there [hundreds] of bulls and a vast number of sheep” (‘History of the Roman Empire’, 5:5).

The ‘Chronicle of St Jerome’ recorded that:

  1. “The temple of Heliogabalus [was] built at Rome [in the 2nd year of Elagabalus’ reign].

This is usually taken to mean that the temple was dedicated in that year (i.e. in 220 AD).

The remains of this temple have been excavated on an artificial terrace (south the Arch of Titus, open to the public) that formed part of Domitian’s palace, which is now usually referred to as the Vigna Barberini for the family who used it as a vineyard in  the 17th century.  (For a summary of the excavations, see the book by Françoise Villedieu, referenced below, 2007).  Clare Rowan (referenced below, 2012, at p. 195) described how these excavations had uncovered:

  1. “... the remains of a Flavian terrace ... measuring 180m by 120m.  This was built over older  Julio-Claudian houses, perhaps annexes to the imperial palaces [of that period].  The Flavian terrace likely housed a ‘hanging garden’ ...” 

She reproduced the position of the temple on the terrace (at Figure 62) and a reconstruction of it (at Figure 63).  The temple was surrounded by a colonnade, with eight columns across its facade, and set within a covered portico.  It was oriented along the short axis of the terrace, with its monumental three-arched entrance facing the road (now known as the clivus Palatinus) that ran from the Arch of Titus to the entrance of the palace.  The church of San Sebastiano (see the photograph above) now stands on the site of the entrance to the Elagabalium.  This reflects the legend that St Sebastian addressed Diocletian on the “gradus Heliogabali” (steps of Elagabalus) shortly before his martyrdom.

The Elagabalium was almost certainly depicted on the reverse of a medal of Elagabalus (RIC IV Elagabalus 339), which dated to his 4th Consulship, and thus to the last four months of his reign.  Clare Rowan asserted (2012, at p. 194) that:

  1. “The layout of the temple on [this] medallion matches the archeological remains of the temple excavated on the Vigna Barberini.”

Temple of Jupiter Ultor

When Elagabalus was murdered and replaced by Severus Alexander, the Syrian god, Heliogabalus, was banished from Rome and his temple became redundant.  Its subsequent fate is revealed by the fact that a very similar temple appeared on the reverses of:

  1. a bronze medallion of Severus Alexander, which is dated to 224 AD (an example of which is illustrated here), and

  2. three of his coins:

  3. -a silver denarius (RIC IV Severus Alexander 146);

  4. -a bronze sesterius (RIC IV Severus Alexander 412), illustrated by Philip Hill, referenced below, at Figure 50; and by Clare Rowan, referenced below, 2009, as Figure 2; and

  5. - a bronze as (RIC IV Severus Alexander 413). 

Clare Rowan observed (2012, at p. 223):

  1. “The pieces of both [Elagabalus and Severus Alexander] show a temple with a large area in front, surrounded by porticoes with a colonnade or gateway.  All also show evidence of opus quadratum.  One might suggest that the die engravers [of Severus Alexander’s coins] were conscious of Elagabalus’ earlier issue and set out to communicate the use of the same structure for a purpose more in keeping with ‘traditional’ Roman religion ... ”.

The reverse legend IOVI VLTORI on the pieces of Severus Alexander suggests that he had re-dedicated the Elagabalium to Jupiter Ultor (the Avenger).  Clare Rowan (referenced below, 2012, at p. 229) analysed the individual silver coins of Severus Alexander that have turned up in recovered coin hoards, as a means of assessing the relative sizes of these issues.  She reported that:

  1. “The [silver] denarius [RIC IV Severus Alexander 146] was completely absent from the hoard analysis, suggesting that it was a very small issue.  It may have been struck to mark the transformation of the Elagabalium.

If so, and if (as seems likely) the coins and the medallion were struck at the same time, then the temple’s re-dedication took place in 224 AD.

Michele Salzman (referenced below, at  p 127) listed the 13 the festivals recorded in the so-called ‘Calendar of Philocalus’ in the ‘Chronograph of 354 AD’ that had been added to Roman calendar after the mid 1st century AD.  These included a festival involving 24 chariot races on 13th March:


We may reasonably assume that this ‘CVLTORI’ should read ‘VLTORI’ and that the festival related to the dies natalis of a Temple of Jupiter Ultor.  The ‘Feriale Duranum’, a calendar used by a garrison stationed at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates (in modern Syria) in the reign of Severus Alexander is included the following entry:

  1. “[On 13th March]: because Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander was acclaimed emperor, to Jupiter a male ox, to Juno a female ox, to Minerva a female ox,… to Mars a male ox; and because [he] was first acclaimed emperor by the soldiers …, public prayer.”

Since the dies natalis of the temple in the ‘Calendar of Philocalus’ thus coincided with the dies imperii of Severus Alexander, we may reasonably assume that it was Severus’ Alexander’s temple, which he had dedicated on the second anniversary of his acclamation as Emperor.  Since the festival appeared in this calendar of the 4th century AD, we can also assume that the temple was still extant at that time.  The iconography used for the cult statue in the temple (at least on the medallion) is described as:

  1. “Jupiter [seated, facing front], holding a globe (or patera) [in his right hand] and a [vertical] sceptre [in his left hand]”

The additions in square brackets include my observations from the illustration.

Severus Alexander probably introduced Jupiter Ultor into the Roman pantheon: the only earlier numismatic record of the cult is on an aureus of Commodus (RIC III Commodus 200), and this might have been incorrectly catalogued (as Clare Rowan observed, at 2012, p. 224 and note 24).   The importance that he attached to it is evidenced by a further 10 coins from his reign with reverses depicting Jupiter Ultor (not in the context of a temple).   There was an interesting difference in iconography: Jupiter now held a statue of Victory in his right hand (as he did as Jupiter Victor), while the cult statue in the temple on the medallion held a globe (or patera) in his right hand (as noted above).  The coins of Severus Alexander cannot be easily dated.  However, Clare Rowan (2012, at p. 229), following the chronology put forward by Robert Carson in a catalogue of coins in the British Museum, dated these ten coins of the ‘IOVI VLTORI’ type to 225 AD, the year after ‘temple’ medallion above.  On her analysis of the silver coins found in hoards (as summarised in Figure 77), she suggested that Severus Alexander switched his allegiance to other cults of Jupiter, principally that of IOVI PROPVGNATORI (Jupiter the Defender) after 230 AD, the year in which King Ardarshir of Persia invaded the Empire.

The interesting question is: why did Severus Alexander claim the patronage of Jupiter the Avenger in the early part of his reign?  This question has to be considered in the context of the political climate, as summarised by Clare Rowan (referenced below, 2009, at p. 123):

  1. “Elagabalus’ reign had been characterised by the worship of a cultic stone from Emesa, a move that proved unpopular with the élite of Rome.  Severus Alexander came to power as the restorer of Roman mores, Roman culture and religion.  The cult stone of Emesa was banished from Rome and the public space dedicated to the cult was intentionally transformed to signal the return to ‘traditional’ Roman cultic practices.”

Against this scenario, Severus Alexander might well have justified the murder of Elagabalus by claiming that Jupiter had sanctioned it in order to punish Elagabalus’ sacrilege.  As Jupiter the Avenger, he now looked benevolently on Severus Alexander himself as the restorer of the traditional religion of Rome.

Precursors of the Elagabalium?

In my page on Flavian Dynasty: Domitian's Temples to Jupiter, I assembled the evidence for the hypothesis that the Elagabalium was modelled on Domitian’s Temple of Jupiter Victor on the Flavian terrace in the Vigna Barberini.   The excavations of the site unearthed a burned layer that was reasonably related to the fire of 191/2 AD, and this might well account for the lack of any archeological evidence for this earlier temple. 

The temple identified above as the Elagabalium was subsequently built on the terrace, in two phases that were close to each other in time.  Françoise Villedieu (referenced below, 2007, p. 376) observed that:

  1. “... a quarter of a century separates the fire from the election of Elagabalus (in 218 AD), which is a long time for the realisation of an architectural project ... Nevertheless, we cannot rule out this hypothesis knowing that the alternative is that the site remained undeveloped over the period.  Now, the observations that we have made during the excavations are unfavourable to this second option.  ... [Certainly, the disorder that followed the fire probably slowed things down, and] Septimius Severus is unlikely to have taken an interest in the project before his return to Rome in 202 AD.  But we cannot go beyond these considerations and propose a specific timetable for [the construction of the temple]” (my translation).


The implication is that Elagabalus more probably inherited a complete or nearly-complete building than an undeveloped site.  In this context, Clare Rowan (referenced below, 2012, at p. 197) observed that:

  1. “If Elagabalus converted an existing structure, then this [might explain] Jerome’s dedication date of 220 AD, just a year after he [Elagabalus] arrived in Rome.”

However, she commented that:

  1. “ If Septimius Severus completed and dedicated a temple on the Vigna Barberini before the reign of Elababalus, no suggestion of it can be found in the other source evidence.”

Indeed, both the the ‘Historia Augusta’ and Herodian claim that Elagabalus built the temple himself. 

Despite the literary evidence (or rather, the lack of it), a case can be made for the hypothesis that Septimius Severus built the temple that became the Elagabalium, and that it represented a rebuilding of Domitian’s Temple of Jupiter Victor.  This follows from an analysis of those of his coins that had reverses depicting a seated Jupiter holding a statue of Victory.  These can be grouped as follow:

  1. three coins (RIC IV Septimius Severus: 363 (6); 396 (Aureus);  and 396 (Denarius)) that have an eagle at the feet of Jupiter, inscribed IOVI PRAE[SES] ORBIS (Jupiter, Governor of the world), from 193-5 AD;

  2. eight coins with the conventional Jupiter Victor iconography (i.e., without the eagle), from 193-7 AD:

  3. two coins (RIC IV Septimius Severus: 441B; and 454) inscribed IOVI VICT[ORI], from 193-4 AD;

  4. four coins (RIC IV Septimius Severus: 34 (Aureus); 34 (Denarius); 48 and 464) without inscription, from 194-5 AD; and

  5. two coins (RIC IV Septimius Severus: 480A; and 480B) inscribed IOVI INVICTO, from 196-7 AD; and

  6. four coins (RIC IV Septimius Severus: 111A; 130 (Aureus); 130 (Denarius); and 5o4 A) inscribed IOVI CONSERVATORI, from 197-202 AD.

The eight coins in the middle group, from 193-7 AD covered a period in which Septimius Severus’ hold on power was heavily contested.  However, he defeated Clodius Albinus, his last real rival for power, in February 197 AD and then marched east against the Parthians.  He had some initial successes in this campaign, including the sacking of Ctesiphon, albeit that he failed in his subsequent attempt to take Hatra.  He nonetheless declared victory and took the title of Parthicus Maximus (as evidenced first by RIC IV Septimius Severus 90, which must date to late 197 AD).  The Senate voted him a triumphal arch in the Forum which was dedicated in 203 AD, after his return to Rome (and which still survives as the of  Arch of Septimius Severus).  I suggest that the evidence from the middle group of coins above supports the hypothesis that the reconstruction of Domitian’s Temple of Jupiter Victor in the Vigna Barberini (perhaps on its original site and with its original orientation) initially ran in tandem with that of the Arch of Septimius Severus and had the same political significance.  It seems to me that this temple could not have been completed and dedicated to Jupiter Victor before Elagabalus took it over: the outrage that such an act would have engendered would certainly have been recorded by his many enemies.  It is more likely that he took over a nearly completed temple, and that this explains why he was able to dedicated it soon after his arrival in Rome.

I recognise that this scenario depends on a long series of hypotheses, and that the disproving of any one of them could well demolish it.  Nevertheless, it can at least attempt to address the problem of the “aedes Iovis victoris” in the regionary catalogues.  It could be that:

  1. the temple’s dedication to Jupiter Victor was reinstated in them soon after the damnation of Elagabalus’ memory in 220 AD;

  2. the new games that Severus Alexander introduced for Jupiter Ultor following the rededication of the Elagabalium to this cult on 13th March 224 AD were duly recorded in the official calendars and remained there in the ‘Calendar of Philocalus’ of the 4th century AD; but

  3. the regionary lists were not updated after 220 AD, either through oversight or because the epithets Victor and Ultor were considered to be essentially interchangeable.  

If one accepts that Domitian’s temple lived on as the Temple of Jupiter Ultor, and was represented in the regionary catalogues under its original dedication (for whatever reason), then the case for locating Fabius’ temple on the Palatine is considerably strengthened.  This is discussed in my page on Victory Temples and the Third Samnite War.

Read more:

F. Coarelli, “Palatium: Il Palatino dalle Origini all' Impero”, (2012) Rome

C. Rowan, “Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period”, (2012) New York

F. Villedieu, “La ‘Coenatio Rotunda’ Neroniana e altre Vestigia nel Sito della Vigna Barberini al Palatino”, Bollettino d’ Arte, 12 (2011) 1-28 (online abstract)

C. Rowan, “Becoming Jupiter: Severus Alexander, The Temple of Jupiter Ultor,

and Jovian Iconography on Roman Imperial Coinage”,  Journal of the American Numismatic Society,  21 (2009) 123-50

F. Villedieu, “La Vigna Barberini II: Domus, Palais Impérial et Temples: Stratigraphie du Secteur Nord-est du Palatin”, (2007 ) Rome

P. Hill, “The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types”, (1989) London

Severan Dynasty (193 - 235 AD): Main Page

Death of Septimius Severus (211 AD)     Elagabalium/ Temple of Jupiter Ultor

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