Temple of Portunus, Rome

This small temple is a rare surviving example from the Roman Republic. It is both innovative and traditional.

Temple of Portunus (or Fortuna Virilis), c. 75 B.C.E. (Roman Republic), tufa, travertine, concrete (Forum Boarium, Rome)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] Almost all the surviving ancient monuments in Rome are from the empire. One of the very few monuments that dates back to the republic is the Temple to Portunus.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] This temple dates about 75 B.C.E. The republic will end in 27 B.C.E. when Octavian is named Augustus by the Roman senate and becomes the first emperor of Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] This is a small temple, and it survived because it was turned into a church when Rome became Christian. This building is very close to the River Tiber. Its name, Portunus, refers to the god of the harbor or the god of the port.

[0:43] It’s important to remember the modern embankments of the Tiber are just that. In the ancient world, it was a much more gradual slope down to the river.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] We might look at this and immediately think this looks like an ancient Greek temple like the Parthenon, for example, in Athens, and certainly the Romans were looking at ancient Greek architecture, but they didn’t have to go to Greece to see it. They could see it in the south of Italy where there were Greek colonies, for example, at Paestum.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] While the Romans were clearly interested in Greek architecture, they were also interested in the architectural tradition of the ancient Etruscans. Let’s take a look at this building and see if we can identify what the republican Romans were borrowing from the Greeks, and what they’re borrowing from the Etruscans.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] And by borrowing from both of those sources, turning this into a truly Roman building.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] When we approach the building from its front, we see at the top a pediment, and that’s a stylistic element that is shared by both the Greeks and the Etruscans.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] This building clearly has a front, whereas ancient Greek temples don’t. There was generally a staircase that went all the way around and columns — that is, freestanding columns — that went all the way around.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Here, instead what we have is a very high podium, that is the building is raised up quite high, and the only staircase is at its front, so that the Etruscans, and here the Romans, are dictating the way that we’re approaching this building. Rising high above that central staircase are Ionic columns, and this is a style that originated in the Greek region of Ionia.

[2:08] We can identify the Ionic not only by the very deep flutes, those tall indentations that run the entire course of the shaft of the column, but also in the fact that they have feet and that they have volutes, that is, scrolls at the top.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] Another Ionic feature is the continuous frieze that runs around the building. Whereas in a Doric temple that frieze would be interrupted by triglyphs and metopes, here we have a continuous band that once had relief sculpture in it. You can just see a little bit of it that’s left that shows candelabra and garlands.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] The porch itself is very deep, and this is an Etruscan feature. The Etruscans would have extended the walls of the temple forward, and that does not happen here.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] Here we have six completely freestanding columns. Interestingly, when you stand in the very front or just to the side of the building and you look across it, it looks as though there are freestanding columns down both sides, but when you go to the side of the building you can see that the columns are in fact attached.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] This is very much a characteristic of Roman architecture. The Greeks were very concerned that the beauty of the building come in large part from the exposure of its structural system, but here the roof, at least in the back half of the building, is being held up by the wall. You could remove the decorative columns and the roof would stand up.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] So that the attached columns here are not part of a post-and-lintel system of architecture, but they’re purely decorative. We have an emphasis on an interior space instead of the Greek idea of a temple, where it stands much more like a work of sculpture, in a way, in the landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] When this building was originally in use, when it was new, the building was gleaming white and would have looked, at first glance, as if it was marble, the material that the Greeks favored. But in fact, it’s made out of two local materials. Roman tufa, that’s that kind of brownish stone that makes up the walls and the interiors of some of the engaged columns.

[4:01] The white stone is called travertine, that comes from nearby quarries in the town of Tivoli.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] There’s a third important material that the Romans are using here, and that’s concrete, which they’re using for the base, or the podium, of the building, because concrete could support an enormous amount of weight. Concrete is a really important material for the Romans.

[4:18] They perfected its use to develop enormous spaces like the Pantheon or like the Basilica of Maxentius. We should also note that the walls, although of tufa, were covered in plaster so that they too would have been gleaming white and might’ve been mistaken for marble, like a Greek temple.

Dr. Zucker: [4:35] This building really is the synthesis of Greek and Etruscan architecture. This is a very instructive building to show us where the Romans were looking as they were developing their own architectural vocabulary.

[4:45] [music]

The Temple of Portunus is a well preserved late second or early first century B.C.E. rectangular temple in Rome, Italy. Its dedication to the God Portunus—a divinity associated with livestock, keys, and harbors—is fitting given the building’s topographical position near the ancient river harbor of the city of Rome.

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

The city of Rome during its Republican phase was characterized, in part, by monumental architectural dedications made by leading, elite citizens, often in connection with key political or military accomplishments. Temples were a particularly popular choice in this category given their visibility and their utility for public events both sacred and secular.

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

The Temple of Portunus is located adjacent to a circular temple of the Corinthian order, now attributed to Herakles Victor. The assignation of the Temple of Portunus has been debated by scholars, with some referring to the temple as belonging to Fortuna Virilis (an aspect of the God Fortuna). This is now a minority view. The festival in honor of Portunus (the Portunalia) was celebrated on 17 August.

Temple attributed Herakles Victor, Forum Boarium, Rome, late 2nd century B.C.E.

Temple attributed to Herakles Victor, Forum Boarium, Rome, late 2nd century B.C.E.

The Temple’s plan and construction

The temple has a rectangular footprint, measuring roughly 10.5 x 19 meters (36 x 62 Roman feet). Its plan may be referred to as pseudoperipteral, instead of a having a free-standing colonnade, or row of columns, on all four sides, the temple instead only has free-standing columns on its facade with engaged columns on its flanks and rear.

Plan, Temple of Portunus (Rome, c. 120-80 B.C.E.)

Plan, Temple of Portunus (Rome, c. 120-80 B.C.E.)

The pronoas  (porch) of the temple supports an Ionic colonnade measuring four columns across by two columns deep, with the columns carved from travertine. The Ionic order can be most easily seen in the scroll-shaped capitals.There are five engaged columns on each side, and four across the back.

Overall the building has a composite structure, with both travertine and tufa being used for the superstructure (tufa is a type of stone consisting of consolidated volcanic ash, and travertine is a form of limestone). A stucco coating would have been applied to the tufa, giving it an appearance closer to that of the travertine.

Engaged columns, Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

Engaged columns, Temple of Portunus (formerly known as Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

The temple’s design incorporates elements from several architectural traditions. From the Italic tradition it takes its high podium (one ascends stairs to enter the pronaos), and strong frontality. From Hellenistic architecture comes the Ionic order columns, the engaged pilasters and columns. The use of permanent building materials, stone (as opposed to the Italic custom of superstructures in wood, terracotta, and mudbrick), also reflects changing practices. The temple itself represents the changing realities and shifting cultural landscape of the Mediterranean world at the close of the first millennium B.C.E.

The temple of Portunus resides on the Forum Boarium, a public space that was the site of the primary harbor of Rome. While the temple of Portunus is a bit smaller than other temples in the Forum Boarium and the adjacent Forum Holitorium, it fits into a general typology of Late Republican temple building.

Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli, c. 150-125 B.C.E., photo: LPLT

Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli, c. 150-125 B.C.E. (photo: LPLT)

The temple of Portunus finds perhaps its closest contemporary parallel in the Temple of the Sibyl at Tibur (modern Tivoli) which dates c. 150-125 B.C.E. The temple type embodied by the Temple of Portunus may also be found in Iulio-Claudian temple buildings such as the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France.

Preservation and current state

Andrea Palladio, Temple of Fortuna Virilis, engraving from The Four Books of Architecture, London, Isaac Ware, 1738

Andrea Palladio, Temple of Fortuna Virilis, engraving from The Four Books of Architecture, London, Isaac Ware, 1738

The Temple of Portunus is obviously in an excellent state of preservation. In 872 C.E. the ancient temple was re-dedicated as a Christian shrine sacred to Santa Maria Egyziaca (Saint Mary of Egypt), leading to the preservation of the structure. The architecture has inspired many artists and architects over the centuries, including Andrea Palladio who studied the structure in the sixteenth century.

Neo-Classical architects were inspired by the form of the Temple of Portunus and it led to the construction of the Temple of Harmony, a folly in Somerset, England, dating to 1767 (below).

The Temple of Portunus is important not only for its well preserved architecture and the inspiration that architecture has fostered, but also as a reminder of what the built landscape of Rome was once like – dotted with temples large and small that became foci of a great deal of activity in the life of the city. Those temples that survive are reminders of that vibrancy as well as of the architectural traditions of the Romans themselves.

The Temple of Harmony, 1767, Halswell House, Somserset, England

The Temple of Harmony, 1767, Halswell House, Somserset, England


The Temple of Portunus was put on the World Monuments Watch list in 2006. Overseen by the World Monuments Fund, this list highlights “cultural heritage sites around the world that are at risk from the forces of nature or the impact of social, political, and economic change,” providing them with “an opportunity to attract visibility, raise public awareness, foster local engagement in their protection, leverage new resources for conservation, advance innovation, and demonstrate effective solutions.”

Together with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and grants from private funders, the World Monuments Fund sponsored a restoration of the Temple of Portunus beginning in 2000. The temple had been partially restored and conservation measures put in place in the 1920s, but the activities undertaken in the last two decades utilized the latest technologies to complete a full restoration of the interior and exterior of the building. This included the cleaning and conservation of the frescoes, replacement of the roof (incorporating ancient roof tiles), anti-seismic measures, and the cleaning and restoration of the pediment, columns, and exterior walls. The newly-restored temple opened to the public in 2014.

The Temple of Portunus is one of the best-preserved examples of Roman Republican architecture, and efforts like those of the World Monuments Fund are ensuring that it continues to survive intact.

Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee

World Monuments Fund: Temple of Portunus

F. Coarelli, Il Foro Boario dalle origini alla fine della repubblica (Rome: Ed. Quasar, 1988).

R. Delbrueck, Hellenistische bauten in Latium (Strassburg, K.J. Trübner, 1907-12).

E. Fiechter, “Der Ionische Tempel am Ponte Rotto in Rom,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung 21 (1906), pp. 220-79.

J. W. Stamper, The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

A. Ziółkowski, The temples of Mid-Republican Rome and their historical and topographical context (Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1992).

Temple of Portunus, Soprintendenza Speciale per il Colosseo, il Museo Nazionale Romano e l’Area Archeologica di Roma

Video with photos of the restoration from the World Monuments Fund

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker, "Temple of Portunus, Rome," in Smarthistory, January 21, 2021, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/temple-of-portunus/.