Rome’s amazing Pantheon: Facts and history to enliven your visit

pantheon rome history

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Alongside the Colosseum, Rome’s Pantheon is perhaps the most iconic remnant of the ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Pantheon is truly an architectural wonder. Its impressive design, scientific and harmonious proportions, and striking elegance remind the visitor of the glory of the great Roman Empire.

Why visit the Pantheon?

The Pantheon has stood for nearly 2000 years, yet much about this iconic Roman temple is still unknown. The Pantheon is a majestic and mysterious monument that is free to visit and an important stop on any trip to Rome. Read on and discover a few curious Pantheon facts that the typical visitor may not be aware of.

We’ve provided visitor information at the bottom of this article.

What is the Pantheon?

pantheon architecture

Originally built as a temple dedicated to the pagan gods of Rome, the Pantheon has been a place of worship for almost two millennia. Pantheon is a Greek word meaning “honor all Gods” so the building had special significance during the Roman Empire.

Consecrated in the 7th century C.E., it is now one of Rome’s most ancient churches known as Sancta Maria ad Martyres or Santa Maria Rotunda.

A working church where you can attend mass or see a wedding take place, it is also the final resting place of Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I as well as the Renaissance master Raphael.

Revered for its simple, yet striking design, the Pantheon has been copied countless times over the centuries. The main cylindrical building is topped by a large dome. This marvel of ancient engineering was studied by Michelangelo when he designed the dome at St Peter’s. The entrance is a magnificent portico supported by sixteen Corinthian columns.

Inside, the magnificent round room is dominated by the dome, said to represent the heavens above. There are no windows inside the Pantheon and light enters the building from the oculus, open to the elements.

Uncovering the history and architecture of the Pantheon

pantheon inscription

Who Built the Pantheon?

Archaeologists place much importance on the inscriptions of ancient monuments. These markings can reveal a lot of information about the dates, patronage, and purpose of the building.

The inscriptions on the Pantheon, however, are deceptive. For many centuries, the raised bronze letters on the building identified (in abbreviated Latin) Marcus Agrippa as the one who initiated the construction.

This was taken as a fact, until 1892, when stamped bricks in and around the Pantheon showed that the Pantheon we see today was a reconstruction of an earlier Pantheon, that was initiated by Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian ruled from 117-138 C.E., yet Marcus Agrippa lived during the first century B.C.E. That is more than a 100-year difference. Marcus Agrippa could not have possibly been the patron of the present-day Pantheon, as he lived at least 100 years prior to Emperor Hadrian.

When was the Pantheon built?

Further study of the stamped bricks showed that the majority of them dated from the 110s C.E., during the reign of Emperor Trajan. In fact, it appears that the present-day Pantheon was mostly designed and built around 114 C.E., with construction completed under Hadrian’s rule around 125 to 128 C.E.

pantheon architecture
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

What Was the Pantheon Built From?

The Pantheon is not only a spectacular, ancient building, it’s also an example of innovative Roman engineering techniques. The walls are constructed of brick-faced concrete, which was widely used in buildings and infrastructure projects of that era, such as the famous aqueducts.

Roman concrete was a unique mixture of limestone and volcanic ash; this mixture formed crystals that helped to prevent microscopic cracks. This ultra-durable and lightweight Roman concrete is one reason why the Pantheon has withstood the tests of time.

This concrete construction technique easily created carved out spaces within the wall’s thickness, such as the alcoves around the rotunda.

Likewise, the concrete used in the dome is laid in six graduated layers, and mixed with scoria, a lightweight and low-density volcanic rock. From every angle, the construction of the Pantheon was designed to be efficient and cost-effective.

pantheon dome
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

The World’s Largest Unreinforced Concrete Dome

The Pantheon’s dome measures an impressive 142 feet in diameter and height and diameter. The concrete thickness also lessens as it goes up, from 21 feet thick at the base to only 4 feet at the top. This construction technique lightened the load, and thus the weight stress.

For 1300 years the Pantheon remained the largest dome of any kind in the world, and it remains the largest unsupported dome anywhere on Earth.

The Oculus

pantheon oculus

Meaning “eye” in Latin, the Pantheon Oculus is an opening at the center of the dome. This 25-foot wide opening is the only natural light source in the Pantheon interior. Curiously, some believe the oculus was not only designed to illuminate the Pantheon interior, but to also serve as a sundial.

The sunlight shining in through the oculus tracked a predictable path across the walls and floor inside the rotunda. Likewise, beams of light shine through the doorway and into the Pantheon’s rotunda only on the Spring and Fall equinoxes.

How Has the Pantheon Survived the Centuries?

pantheon interior

Besides the outstanding Roman construction techniques, social factors have also contributed to the preservation of the Pantheon.

In the year 609 C.E., Emperor Flavius Phocas Augustus gave the Pantheon to the Holy Roman Church. Pope Boniface IV consecrated it as the Church of Saint Mary of the Martyrs.

Its use as a Catholic church is a big reason why the Pantheon remains in excellent condition nearly 2000 years after it was first constructed. In fact, the Pantheon continues to serve as an important Catholic Church to this day.

The Pantheon was not looted as much for building materials, unlike other ancient Roman buildings. However, bronze and other metal elements, and of course, any pagan statues were removed.

Likewise, necessary repairs over the centuries have also altered the original structure. But despite all this change, the Pantheon remains a living artifact of the greatness of ancient Rome.

Plan your visit

pantheon hours

Spending some time at the Pantheon is a must do on any trip to Rome. Located in atmospheric Piazza della Rotunda in the heart of the city, the best viewpoint of the building is in front of the 16th century Fontana del Pantheon that gushes outside. The Renaissance fountain is dominated by a towering obelisk and is one of our favorites in Rome

Click here for our guide to Rome

Pantheon opening hours and tickets

Monday to Saturday: 09:00am – 19:15pm
Sunday: 09:00am – 17:45pm
Public holidays: 09:00am – 12:45pm

The Pantheon closes on some national holidays and when a mass is taking place. Please check the official site for closures during you visit.

Entry is free of charge however you can buy an audioguide at the entrance. Most visitors spend around 20 minutes inside the church.

Learn about the Pantheon when in Rome

One of the enduring buildings and a highlight of any trip to Rome, there is mystery and history to uncover when you visit the Pantheon in person.

If you want to learn more about this incredible building and its history, you could join a guided tour or,  if you prefer, prebook an audio tour.

Stay near the Pantheon

pantheon rome facts

The area around the Pantheon is one of the best areas to stay in Rome, especially for first time visitors. You cannot beat the atmosphere and aura of this ancient structure but it is also within walking distance of Rome’s major attractions. The Colosseum, Vatican, Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona are all within 20 minutes’ walk of the Pantheon.

A short stroll down the cobbled streets takes you to vibrant Campo de’Fiori. This bustling market square is also home to great restaurants and bars.

Click here to discover the best hotels near the Pantheon

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