Aesthetic Analysis

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Date: 126-128 AD
Location: Rome
Style: Classical
Materials: Roman concrete, Egyptian marble and granite
Architect: Unknown

brief summary

The Pantheon, one of the greatest examples of Classical Roman architecture, is also the best-preserved building from ancient Rome. Considered one of the world’s most important buildings, of both religious and civic nature, its use of a single dome, unprecedented in Roman architecture, greatly influenced, not only the subsequent Roman style, but also many other architectural styles and movements that followed, particularly Renaissance and Neoclassicism.

general description

The Pantheon derived its name either from the devotion to multiple deities (from the Greek words pan, meaning “all,” and theos, meaning “gods.”), or because it’s dome resembled the canopy of heaven. Completed around 126-128 AD, During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, it possessed a monumental portico and interior round space, with a domed ceiling, the largest ever built until Brunlleschi’s dome in Florence. Believed to have been designed as a temple for Roman gods, it is said that Michelangelo, upon visiting the Pantheon, claimed that it was the design of angels, and not of man.

3D Models of the Pantheon

The Pantheon is the best-preserved building from ancient Rome, and,  although it is only a fraction of its original opulence, as a fundamental example of the spirit of Imperial Rome, it still commands awe to millions of visitors every year. It is widely considered one of the world’s greatest religious and civic buildings. As a great archetypal example of Classical Roman Architecture, its use of a single dome, unprecedented in Roman architecture, greatly influenced, not only the subsequent Roman style, but also many other architectural styles and movements that followed, especially Renaissance and Neoclassicism.

The Pantheon was built on the exact same location of two previous other Pantheons. It is known that the first temple was commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (27-25 BCE) and the second by Domitian. Both were destroyed either by natural forces or fires. The third Pantheon and current pantheon, is believed to have been commissioned by Trajan (98-117 CE), and concluded in 125 CE under Emperor Hadrian who was the emperor at the time. The original purpose of the Pantheon is still unknown, however, the architectural features and its dimension suggest that it was a temple. It is also believed to have been the place where the Emperor made his public appearances, convening large numbers of people under its large dome, and where he convened the Roman Senate, as well. Emperor Hadrian dedicated the temple to Marcus Agrippa – noted in the large inscription over the colonnade. Independently of its original purpose, the Pantheon quickly became associated with the power of the emperors. The structure acted as a symbol of the Empire.

Bust of Emperor Hadrian (CC BY-SA 4.0, Livioandronico2013)

Classical Roman Architecture, developed throughout the Roman Republic (509 BC to about the 4th century AD), can be largely characterized by its energy. As Rome grew in power and influence, its architecture spread and evolved in design and technology. Architects were pushed to new limits creatively, using concrete, columns and arches, they produced various typologies such as temples, baths, theatres, villas and arenas. Adopting the Greeks’ external language, the Romans developed their own style, and, borrowing from the Greeks, they adopted the columnar and developed the arch, vault and dome of the Etruscans, creating a combined style. The Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders of architecture were defined and used by the Greeks, whereas the Romans added the Tuscan and Composite orders. Developing various public buildings, works of civil engineering, bathing, housing and public hygiene, the Romans were also the first to develop the Dome, realizing its potential and applying it to the various interior spaces of temples, palaces and later, of churches.

Table of architecture by James and John Knapton

Comparative Greek and Roman Orders, by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher

Verona Arena, Italy

Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) became emperor in 117. It was a time marked by the height of the Roman Empire expansions and conquests, owning much of Europe, Middle East and northern Africa. However, Hadrian abandoned most of the expansionist policies of Trajan (53-117), his predecessor, choosing to focus on his own personal interests. Instead, he dedicated his time to the unification of the Empire and the strengthening of the Empire’s defense, by constructing border walls and by having a prepared military force. One example of these is the Hadrian’s Wall (begun in 122), which marked the border of Roman Britannia, in today’s northern England. He was also the commissioner of many buildings of both civil and religious nature, which he personally supervised, including the reconstruction of the Pantheon and the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma (121-141), in Rome, his villa in Tivoli (120), and it is also believed he reconstructed the Serapeum of Alexandria, in Egypt.

Hadrian’s arch, a tribute to the Emperor, in Attica, Greece (CC BY 3.0, Askii)

Part of Hadrian’s wall, East of Cawfields quarry, Northumberland, England

Temple of Venus and Roma seen from the Colosseum, Rome, Italy (CC BY-SA 2.0, daryl_mitchell)

he Pantheon was built on the exact site of two earlier Pantheon buildings. It is speculated that the site first held a nymphaeum, for plants and running water and other temples. When the Rotunda was constructed under the supervision of emperor Hadrian, it reused the portico of the former Agrippa’s temple, forming an imposing and monumental entrance. It was completed in c. 125 CE in his reign, and it is generally accepted that Hadrian had a fundamental role in the design of the temple. In the time of Imperial Rome, the Pantheon was decorated with exuberant sculptures, marble sheathing, iridescent bronze, and glittering gold. On this account, Pliny (1st century CE Roman author) described rich and exuberant statues of Venus (wearing a pearl once owned by Cleopatra), and Julius Caesar.

Coins of Hadrian (CC BY 3.0, CGB Numismatique)

It was built and rebuilt as a Roman Temple, and fell into a long decline when Rome stopped being the capital of the empire. It was then, consecrated as a Catholic Church, in 608 a.d., when Pope Boniface IV dedicated it to Sancta Maria ad Martyres (St. Mary and the Martyrs), due to the bones of martyrs that were brought to the temple from the catacombs. It was the first Roman pagan temple to be consecrated as a Christian church. The Pantheon has survived centuries; although many changes have occurred (removed and restored), the walls and vaulting of the structure, as well as its frontal collonade remain the same. It is now still devoted to religious practices serving as a church for the Catholic religion. There are numerous additions to the Pantheon conducted by the Catholic Church. There are various high altars and apses, commissioned by Pope Clement XI (1700–1721), and some niches now hold Christian statuary, including one that holds a 7th-century Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child. During the Renaissance, the Pantheon was used as a burial place, holding the remains of significant artists and composers such as Raphael. It also holds the remains of various monarchs, including Vittorio Emanuele II, who died in 1878.

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (c. 1734) by Giovanni Paolo Panini

View of the Pantheon in Rome (c. 1760) by Master of the Langmatt Foundation Views

Contemporary use of the Pantheon as a Church (CC BY-SA 4.0, Fallaner)

aesthetic/architectural analysis

The severe simplicity and unity of the design commands great respect and reverence, very characteristic of Ancient Roman architecture. Appearing in 509 BC, at the beginning of the Roman Republic, lasting about until the 4th century AD, when the Byzantine period is said to have started, the Roman style based itself on the premises of the style Greek architecture. Borrowing much of its external aesthetic, the interiors of Roman structure presented different purposes, and thus different floor plans, usually constructed for political purposes. The Romans also employed new innovative materials of their own conception, in special the Roman concrete, and innovative engineering techniques, visible in the many arches and domes of Roman architecture. The pinnacle of the Classical Roman style is believed to have been under the rule of the Emperor Hadrian, who commissioned many important architectural projects, some of which are the Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and the Pantheon itself. There are plenty surviving Roman exemples, dating from after 100 BC. However, a great part of these examples date from the Roman Empire, mostly after 100 AD (dating from the later stage of the Empire), most of them deteriorated, others complete and in use to this day.

Roman Theatre of Mérida (16-15 BC), in Mérida, Extremadura, Spain

Temple of Portunus (3rd/4th century BC), in Rome, Italy

The structure of the Pantheon is a great example of the Roman engineering and architectural style of the time. The walls made of brick concrete (a main innovation used in aqueducts) are lightened with arches and vaults, allowing for spaces to be carved out of walls thickness, and creating niches. The concrete of the dome, in a similar way, allowed for maximum structural efficiency and flexibility. The Pantheon is the result of a unique and elaborate structural system, the culmination of various studies and applied examples of different technologies.

View of the Pantheon at night, seen from the fountain

Architecturally the structure is composed of various parts. The floorplan clearly denotes two main areas: the large rectangular portico and the massica internal circular space. It is defined first by its monumental Corinthian octastyle portico, which is large in scale and has three rows of eight corinthian columns. The eight front columns and the other two rows form a triple colonnade, which was greatly used in Etruscan temples. It is also known it originally faced a rectangular colonnaded temple courtyard. The 24 monolithic columns use Egyptian marble and granite and are 14 meters in height, and in total the front dimension is roughly 33 meters. The capitals use a distinctive Corinthian order, which uses acanthus leaves, and are made out of Pentelic marble. They support an entablature and a pediment, which originally possessed a bronze relief as drill holes suggest, estimated to have been an emblem, possibly an eagle or wreath symbolizing Jupiter. In very large letters, across the entablature,  a latin inscription reads: M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three-time consul, made this), a dedication to Marcus Aurelius by Emperor Hadrian. At the time, these monumental inscriptions in temples were customary. The interior of the porch measures 34 x 20 metres, and at the back there are niches that originally possessed statues of Augustus and Agrippa. The pavement used grey and white granite and marble respectively, applied to rectangles and circles, and its large bronze doors were originally plated with gold. In addition, it is believed that the whole outside was covered in marbles and precious stones however these have all been stolen over time.

Floor plan

Exterior of the Pantheon

Detail of the Portico

Detail of the corinthian capitals

Exterior columns viewed from below

The main central large space, The Rotunda, is circular in format. This circular cella (chamber with dedication to a deity or God), was highly unusual for the time, as cellas were usually rectangular in shape. It is believed to have a symbolic meaning of representing the sphere of the world, a cosmic implication of the geometry which was an analogy for the heavens. It has an internal diameter of 43.2 meters, which is exactly the maximum height of the dome, making a perfect hemisphere. This interior space, which implies a perfect sphere, is lined with semi-precious purple porphyry, granite and marble. This richness and exuberance is still in its original condition. Above is a large dome, with a large oculus, the only source of light. The wall of the rotunda is 6 metres thick. Surrounding all the space are niches (at two different levels) that hold sculptures, which originally held various depictions of emperors, heroes and gods. There are eight large recesses equally distributed, one of which forms the entrance, and its original pavement is composed of grey granite, red porphyry, Phrygian purple marble and Numidian yellow, forming a square pattern.

Section Sphere

Cross Section

View of the Interior (CC BY-SA 4.0, Macrons)

View of the Interior

View of the Interior and the oculus

Detail of a mural on the interior

The hemispherical dome, was the largest dome ever created for many centuries, and was only surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome at St. Peter’s Basilica, constructed 13 centuries later. The inner structure is coffered which acts to reduce the weight of the structure and as an ornamental design. It is organized in five different ranges, where each mounding was adjusted (foreshortened) according to its view from the observers standpoint, diminishing in size as they move to the oculus. The dome was built out of brick and thick mortar. On the outside of the dome, stepped rings of solid concrete become thinner as they up towards the oculus. Perhaps what enables this structure to be so successful, is the way the concrete was applied in the dome. Varying its composition in accordance to the place it was layed, in the thickest point of the dome (the lower part) a mixture with travertine was used, in the middle part they used an aggregate with terracotta tiles, and, at the top of the structure, a mixture with pumice and tufa (very light and porous stones) was applied. This allowed for the weight to be well distributed, preventing the top from being the weakest point of construction. Another unique feature of the dome is the fact it contains hidden chambers. They show a mastery of engineering, by the way they were incorporated within the dome, as part of its own structure, reducing its weight even more. The introduction of an oculus in substitution of the apex, was also an engineering trick to reduce weight. The opening, the central oculus, is also the only source of lighting – a one circular opening, about 8 meters in diameter. It was a method of lighting that produced a great effect. The oculus can also be seen to possess a symbolic meaning as a one single eye: the idea that life opens up to the heavens, that worship on earth is always subdued and beneath the great sky, or divine presence. The oculus allows for the rays of the sun and the reflections of the moon to pierce through the internal space, and, open to all the elements, it also allows for weather circumstances such as rain to flood the space. The Pantheon shows a very high level of engineering skills masked by the marble on its interior and some kind of stucco on the exterior. For example, from the outside of the dome, the exposed bricks reveal brick relieving arches constructed within the structure (as they were also applied on the inside).

View of the oculus from below

Detail from inside view of the dome

Exterior of the Dome

General view of the interior of dome from below (CC BY-SA 4.0, Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji)


In Classical Roman style, the Pantheon borrowed many features from Greek and Etruscan architecture styles, such as its columns, arches, vaults and dome. Examples of the those styles are the Etruscan Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (509-69 BC), on the Capitoline Hill, in Rome (destroyed by fire in 83 BC, and rebuilt in 69 BC in Greek style) and the Greek Temple of Olympian Zeus (174 BC – 132 AD) in Athens, Greece, designed by Cossutius. The Pantheon, although it borrowed much from these styles, its construction surpassed its predecessors by adding to it, taking architecture and engineering to its full potential. From this, the Pantheon created a new standard in Roman Classical architecture.

Model of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (509-69 BC), on the Capitoline Hill, Rome (CC BY-SA 3.0, Sailko)

Temple of Olympian Zeus (174 BC – 132 AD), by Cossutius, Athens, Greece

The classical architecture of Greece and Rome had a profound influence on many architectural movements, designs and styles, having a key place in the development of architecture across time The Romanesque style, the predominant style of architecture in Europe throughout the 11th century, merged Roman, Carolingian, Byzantine and Germanic traditions. During the Renaissance, a time of a great Classical revival, especially in sculpture and architecture, Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) specially recovered the architectural traditions of the past, having the classical forms of Ancient Greece and Rome as their main source of inspiration. This influence can be clearly seen in the Tempietto (1502-1509) and in the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (1436) of Brunelleschi, and Palladio’s Tempietto Barbaro (begun 1580). Later during the 18th century, Neoclassicism, in reaction to the Baroque and Rococo exuberance, recovered the austerity of the architecture of the classical era. Some notorious examples of this style include the Brandenburg Gate (1788-1791) in Berlin and the California State Capitol building houses (1860-1874). A century later, the Romanesque revival, transposed to architecture as well with examples like the Bell tower of Angoulême Cathedral (restoration of 1866-1885), in Charente, France, and the Natural History Museum (1879) by Alfred Waterhouse, in London. Throughout the 18th Century, there was also a recurrence of the Palladian style of architecture, which recovered the ideas of Andrea Palladio and applied his principles. Occurring first in Britain then spreading throughout Europe, a good example is the Queen’s House (1616-1635), in Greenwich, England. In the United States, numerous buildings applied the Palladian style of architecture or Neoclassical revivals, specially in the beginning of the 19th century, including examples such as the White House in Washington D.C. – which began its construction in 1792 -, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. (1939-1943), and the Federal Hall in New York, with its Greek revival addition dating from1842.

Brunelleschi’s dome (1436), by Brunelleschi, at Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (1296-1436), Florence

Tempietto Barbaro (begun 1580) by Palladio, in Maser, Veneto, Italy (CC BY-SA 3.0, Hans A. Rosbach)

Brandenburg Gate (1788-1791), in Berlin

Queen’s House (1616-1635), in Greenwich, England

More specifically, the Pantheon has inspired countless architectural works throughout the world. It was Brunelleschi’s inspiration for his 42 metre dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, completed in 1436. Later, it directly inspired the Pantheon in Paris (1758-1790), located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a good example of Neoclassical architecture, originally built as a church, and now holds the notorious Foucault Pendulum. Designed by architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-1780), beginning its construction in 1758 and completed in 1790, it was modeled after the original. The Pantheon was the inspiration used by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) for the Monticello (his home in Virginia, built in 1772) and for the Rotunda building at the University of Virginia (1822-1826). Also inspired by the Pantheon, is the United States Capitol Rotunda (1818-1866), and the Auditorium of Southeast University, in China.

Pantheon (1758-1790) by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Paris, France

Rotunda (1822-1826) by Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia, USA

U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington D.C., USA

Principles of Roman Architecture
By Mark Wilson Jones (2000)

A history of architecture on the comparative method
By Banister Fletcher (1961)

August 21, 2018
By History.com Editors

reference images

related works

Architect: Alfred Waterhouse
Natural History Museum

Date: 1879

Location: London, England

Architect: Palladio
Tempietto Barbaro
Date: begun 1580

Location: Maser, Veneto, Italy
Image Credit:
CC BY-SA 3.0, Hans A. Rosbach

Architect: Jacques-Germain Soufflot
Pantheon of Paris
Date: 1758-1790

Location: Paris, France

Title: Brandenburg Gate
Date: 1788-1791

Location: Berlin, Germany

Architect: Thomas Jefferson
Date: 1822-1826

Location: University of Virginia, USA

Title: Temple of Venus and Roma
Date: 121-141

Location: Rome, Italy
Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0, daryl_mitchell

Title: Angoulême Cathedral
Date: 1866-1885 (last renovation)

Location: Charente, France

Title: Temple of Portunus
Date: 3rd/4th century BC

Location: Rome, Italy

Title: Queen’s House
Date: 1616-1635

Location: Greenwich, England

Title: Roman Theatre of Mérida
Date: 16-15 BC

Location: Mérida, Extremadura, Spain

Title: Hadrian’s arch
Date: 131-132

Location: Attica, Greece
Image Credit: CC BY 3.0, Askii

Title: Verona Arena
Date: 30 AD

Location: Verona, Italy

Title: California State Capitol
Date: 1860-1874

Location: Capitol Mall Sacramento, California

Title: U.S. Capitol Rotunda
Date: 1818-1866

Location: Washington D.C., USA

Title: Hadrian’s Villa
Date: 120 AD

Location: Tivoli, Italy
Image Credit: CC BY-SA 1.0, Guilhem06