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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: March 2015

13 - The Temple of Saturn

from Part II. - The Monuments


Saturn in Early Rome

For modern scholars, Saturn (Fig. 13.2) was a Sabine agricultural deity originally from Sicily. His name and shrine had once dominated the Capitoline Hill. Rome’s late Etruscan kings purportedly banished him from its summit, but his cult survived, and from Rome’s Etruscan overlords, the god took on the darker, bloodier, more ominous character associated with human sacrifices and their later survival in traditional gladiatorial games held annually in December. By the end of the first century BCE, learned writers identified Saturn with the remote ages prior to the foundation of Rome. Before the war with Troy, a “Greek expedition” with “a small Trojan element” had followed Hercules into Italy and “built a town on a suitable hill…now called the Capitoline Hill, but by the men of that time, the Saturnian Hill or, in Greek, the hill of Cronus.”

Locating a “Saturnian Gate” behind the Temple of Saturn on the Clivus Capitolinus that led to the top of the hill, Varro called this venerable Capitoline settlement “Saturnia.” Its inhabitants (or perhaps other Greeks) “erected the altar to Saturn which remains to this day [the first century BCE] at the foot of the hill near the ascent that leads from the Forum to the Capitol, and it was they who instituted the sacrifi ce which the Romans still performed even in my time observing the Greek ritual.” Later imperial writers perpetuated and revised the memories of these antiquities.

The cult statue in the cella must have represented Saturn as he appears on late republican denarii: a mature bearded man with flowing hair bound with a fillet ( Fig. 13.2 ). The statue would have been colossal with an internal framework. An internal oil reservoir (or reservoirs) lubricated the ivory face and bare body parts. The vestments may have been of gilded wood. The statue’s crimson veil may have been of real fabric, and its scythe of wood and metal. A second image kept in the temple was carried in processions, and this image and/or the cult statue was “bound during the year with a woolen bond, and is released on his [Saturn’s] festal day,” December 17, the fi rst day of the nearly week-long Saturnalia, a festival that symbolized Saturn’s role as the divine patron of liberation.