The Garden Portico of Pompey the Great

An Ancient Public Park Preserved in the Layers of Rome

By: Kathryn L. Gleason

Originally Published in 1990

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Rome is thought of as a city for walking. In the coolness of a summer evening, Romans and visitors alike promenade in the great parks and gardens that sur­round the city. Others “fare la passa­giata” in the historic center, along bustling streets lined with centuries’ accumulation of churches, palazzi, and shops. In recent years, Rome also calls up images of air thick with pollution, streets without sidewalks where the omnipresent automobiles vie with pedestrians for right-of-way, and young thieves pass dan­gerously close on speeding motor scooters. With relief, the wanderer reaches the open piazzas, to seek refreshment in umbrella-shaded cafes, to contemplate the fountains and monuments of Rome, or to enjoy the verdant refuge of a small garden.

Ten feet beneath the modern streets lie the remains of Republican and Imperial Rome. In antiquity, too, it was a city for walking, and the pedestrian was well accommodated. By the 1st century A.D., great parks or horti surrounded the city, and even in town it was possible to stroll along sidewalks protected from the sun, rain, and traffic by covered porticoes (Fig. 2). These led to large piazzas (plazas), enclosed by covered arcades (quadriporticoes), that were designed as great public gardens and adorned with fountains, statuary, and shade trees. According to the ancient poet Martial (Epi­grams 2.14.10), one could walk through much of the city without ever leaving the comfort of these passageways (Lanciani 1925).

The most extensive network of interconnecting porticoes lay in the area known in antiquity as the Cam­pus Martius (The Field of Mars), the modern Campo Marzio. This area of Rome has been continuously occu­pied since antiquity, making it dif­ficult for archaeologists to excavate the remains of these great ancient public works, but evidence for their design and appearance is surpris­ingly well preserved in two unlikely sources.

The first is a plan of the city of Rome drafted on marble during the reign of Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century A.D. Fragments of this plan, commonly referred to as the Forma Urbis Romae, preserve the designs of at least seven public parks and promenades built between the 1st century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D.

The second source of evidence is the city itself. To the modern pedes­trian the streets and building facades are full of clues: reused columns and architectural decoration (Fig. 5), fragments of statuary, and here and there the remains of ancient walls and roads visible in the basements of hotels, apartments, and restaurants. From the air, the relationship of the modern city to the ancient one is even clearer. Because later buildings often utilized the foundations of earlier structures, the layout of the modern houses and streets preserves the form of the ancient city. This relationship is particularly discern­ible in the ground floor plans of buildings in the Campus Martius area, where the manner in which the medieval city rests upon the remains of Imperial Rome is astonishingly clear. Moreover, recent work by Italian archaeologists has shown that specific architectural features de­picted on the Severan marble plan, which had been drawn to scale quite accurately, can be recognized in the pattern of the modern urban fabric (Quilici 1983).Thus it is possible to ascertain a considerable amount about the topography of the ancient city without recourse to the destruc­tion and expense of archaeological excavation.

The Remains of Pompey’s Public Works

The grand portico, built in the Campus Martius by the successful general and consul Pompey the Great (C. Pompeius Magnus), was one of the most popular promenades and gardens of Rome. Constructed between 62 and 52 B.C., this portico was part of a larger complex that included the first free-standing, per­manent stone theater in Rome, the senate house (curia) in which Julius Caesar was later assassinated, and numerous porticoes with decorative themes celebrating Rome’s victories in the East. The central area of the portico was a public garden, re­nowned for its lavish fountains, cur­ated collections of statuary, and shady avenues of plane trees.

Today, Pompey’s complex under­lies an entire neighborhood ex­tending from the open market and cafes of the Campo dei Fiori (Fig. 7) to the Largo Argentina, with the ruins of four early Republican tem­ples visible below the modern street level (Fig. 1). The location and shape of the theater are still clearly discernible in the curving walls of the palazzi (apartment buildings) along the Via di Grotta Pinta and the Via del Biscione (Fig. 4), and local restaurants afford diners the oppor­tunity to sit in the extant substruc­tures of the great theater. The por­ticoes and gardens are more difficult to detect. Although several modern streets preserve the alignments of the ancient porticoes, the gardens themselves lie buried beneath the buildings of the modern city.

The Severan marble plan is our primary evidence for the basic lay­out of the theater, porticoes, and gardens (Fig. 6a). However, while the theater and porticoes are clearly drawn, the gardens are depicted with symbols so enigmatic that scho­lars have been unable to arrive at any conclusive interpretation of their meaning. Furthermore, a number of the fragments first discovered in 1562 were lost (others were reused in the garden walls of the Villa Far­nesina). Although the marble plan was drawn to scale, only Renais Hance sketches of the missing seg­ments remain and these were not drawn to scale. Restoration of the appearance of the entire complex is therefore complicated, particularly in the case of the theater where the greatest number of plan fragments have been lost.

The Theater

Pompey the Great had returned in 62 B.C. from a series of successful military campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean, triumphantly bear­ing the spoils that represented the enormous power and wealth he had procured for himself and for Rome. He was frustrated, however, at his inability to capitalize on his suc­cesses once he had settled back into the affairs of the city. Popularity and political power eluded him, and he found himself mocked in the poli­tical mimes and satires often held on the steps of temples or in temporary theaters built for specific festivals (Frezouls 1983).

Ancient sources state that Pompey was inspired to build Rome’s first stone theater after seeing the great theater on the Greek island of Myti­lene. Plutarch (Pompey, 42) says Pompey had sketches and plans of it drawn up so that his new theater ould be even more magnificent. Such theaters had become regular features in Italian towns during the 1st century B.C., but the conserva­tive factions had forbidden the con­struction of permanent theaters in Rome itself. Even after Pompey’s death, Cicero wrote:

Posterity grants us greater grati­tude for our public improvements. Out of respect for Pompey’s memory, I am rather diffident about expressing any criticism of theaters, colonnades and new tem­ples; and yet the greatest philo­sophers do not approve of them.

De off. 2.60 

Pompey overcame their concerns, claiming that the sloped seats of his theater were in reality a monumental flight of steps leading up to a temple of Venus Victrix, the goddess to whom he credited all his military victories (Tertullian, De spect., 10).

In his theater, Pompey could stage the kinds of spectacles popular with the citizens, and they would be con­stantly reminded by the lavish sur­roundings of his achievements in their name. The theater was such a success that, according to Plutarch (Caesar, 66), the people dedicated a statue of Pompey and placed it in the senate house in the portico be­hind his theater. Unfortunately, Pom­ pey’s popularity, acquired at such a cost, did not endure. As a later historian observed, “Would that Pom­pey had died two years before the outbreak of the Civil Wars, after he had completed his theater and the other public works with which he surrounded it!” (Velleins Paterculus 2.48). The theater, however, re­mained popular throughout the Ro­man period. Although later theaters and amphitheaters were to super­sede it in size, the enormous popu­larity of Pompey’s theater is clear: some ten major restorations of the structure were undertaken, often as part of popular building programs sponsored by individual emperors, giving the theater a life span of over five centuries.

For many years, scholars judged the size of the theater from Renais­sance sketches of the lost fragments of the marble plan and concluded its capacity had been far less than the 40,000 stated by the ancient sources. One recent work has shown, how­ever, that the ground floor plans of existing houses preserve the actual dimensions of the theater and prove that it was in fact much larger than first assumed (Capoferra Cencetti 1979).

The dimensions of the archae­ological remains measure in even units of Roman feet; the diameter of the theater, for example, is 500 Roman feet. When the measure­ments are compared to the Severan plan of the portico behind the thea­ter, we see for the first time that the theater and porticoes were designed as a single architectural unit (Fig. 3).

This also is borne out in the ground floor plans of existing houses, which preserve the alignments of the archi­tecture in the area of the portico and gardens.

The Porticoes

The great quadriportico surround­ing the central court was, in fact, four very different buildings whose columnar facades provided a uni­fying frame to the garden. The stage building separating the theater and gardens on the west side bore three ceremonial portals: the central regia or royal entrance, given a temple-like appearance, flanked by two hospitalia, the entrances for visitors. The regia was aligned with the great central axis of the portico’s garden. At the east end of this axis opposite the regia stood the curia, or senate house, it too flanked by two secon­dary rooms corresponding to the hospitalia. “Had Caesar foreseen that the Senate, chosen for the most part by himself, would put him to death in Pompey’s curia, before Pompey’s very statue, and in the presence of his own centurions?” (Cicero, De div. 2.9.23).

The symbolic link made between the curia—the meeting place of the government—and the theater—the meeting place of the people—was an important element of the garden design. So strong were these associa­tions that, twelve years after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Augustus closed the curia. “The room in which [Julius Caesar] had been murdered was closed for the time being and later transformed into a public toilet” (Cassius Dio 47.19.1). The two rooms flanking the curia were con­verted into niches with latrines be­hind them. These latrines were found during excavations in the Largo Argentina and are visible today, along with a portion of the curia (Fig. 1).

Along the north side of the garden ran the Hecatostylon, a portico named for its one hundred columns. Little is known of this building, ex­cept that it was next to a grove of plane trees adorned with statues of wild beasts (Martial 11.47). The buildings on the south side of the garden are even less well under­stood. They appear to be markets or shops, but the marble plan is too fragmentary to identify their precise architectural type. “[After Caesar’s assassination,] gladiators who had been armed early in the morning for that day’s spectacles ran out of the theater to the screens before the curia. The theater was emptied in haste, panic and terror, and the markets were plundered” (Appian, The Civil Wars 27.118; italics added).

The four colonnaded buildings of the quadriportico provided only limited access to the garden and the adjacent internal areas of the theater. Such security was needed to protect the lavish ornamentation of the por­ticoes: gold brocaded curtains were draped between the columns of the interior colonnade, paintings brought from Greece were hung on the walls of the porticoes, and both Greek and specially commissioned sculpture graced the gardens, as well as the niches, of the porticoes. “There is a picture by [Polygnotus of Thasos, a famous 5th century B.C. Greek painter] in the Porticus of Pompey which formerly hung in front of the curia which he built” (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories 35.59). The popularity of these por­ticoes is evident in numerous poems written in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.

[Women,] you may, and with profit, walk through the Pompeian shade, when the head is scorched with the Maiden’s celestial steeds

[that is, on hot August afternoons.]

Ovid, The Art of Love 1.67


A crowd more idle not Pompey’s Portico contains…

Martial 11.1.11


Why does Lattera avoid all baths attended by crowds of women? That he may not be tempted.

Why does he not idly stroll in the shade of Pompey’s Portico…? That he may not be tempted…

Martial 11.47.3

The Gardens of Pompey

The Severan marble plan gives only tantalizing suggestions of the design of the garden, and certainly the details changed in the two hun­dred and fifty years between the time Pompey first laid it out and when it was depicted on the plan. Yet the admittedly scant archaeolog­ical evidence and the rare literary descriptions suggest that the basic design remained relatively constant throughout the garden’s history.

Within the court of the quadri­portico, Pompey built a public gar­den, where theatergoers could stroll between performances. The gar­den’s rich verdure the ancient archi­tect Vitruvjus commended for its value in clarifying the vision: even in antiquity, Rome was considered unhealthy.

The space in the middle [of the porticoes behind theaters] should be embellished with green things; for walking in the open air is very healthy, particularly for the eyes, since the refined and rarefied air that comes from green things… leaves the sight keen and the image distinct.

Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture 5.9.1

Other sources make it clear that the garden was a popular destination in its own right, whether or not there was a spectacle at the theater. As he had done with the theater, Pompey the Great had designed the garden to bear a political message, one somewhat toned down by Agustus’s later alterations. Its central axis is a long path that emphasizes the relationship between the curia, the regia, and the Temple of Venus Victrixatop the theater. Movement along this 30-foot-wide path was processional in character, perhaps intended to recall Pompey’s own triumphal procession upon his return from the victorious campaigns. On the Severan plan, an arch-like sym­bol terminates this processional walk near the theater. Although the trium­phal arches are generally thought to date to the time of Augustus, there is fragmentary evidence to suggest that Pompey himself may have erected such a monument, in keep­ing with the original theme of the garden. “[Augustus] also moved the statue of Pompey from the hall in which Julius Caesar had been slain and placed it on a marble arch opposite the grand door of Pom­pey’s theater” (Suetonius, Augustus, 31).

To either side of the symbol of the arch on the marble plan appear two small rectangles whose precise mean­ing is impossible to decipher in the absence of any archaeological re­mains. The combination is far larger than any known triumphal arches. Yet altars positioned similarly near theaters are attested elsewhere, and the symbol of the arch with two rectangles shown on the marble plan is perhaps a single architectural monument. A Hellenistic victory monument at Kbor Klib in Tunisia, dating to the mid 1st century B.C., may provide the best explanation for this symbol (Charles-Picard 1957). The plan of the monument is roughly equivalent in size and dis­position to that projected for the symbols on the marble plan: 30 feet deep and 120 feet wide. Its 20-foot­high walls bear sculptural reliefs of trophies and arms, a thematic pro­gram that, as we have seen, would have been appropriate to Pompey’s building complex.

Along the main axis of the Portico lie large rectangular areas that cor­respond with Martial’s description of a nemus duplex, or double grove. On the marble plan these rectangles are bordered with small squares with a dot in the middle. Elsewhere on the Severan plan such a symbol indi­cates a column on a square base and so it is possible that colonnaded arcades created architectural frames for groves of trees. On the other hand, dots on the marble plan may also indicate trees, so allées of plane trees bordering the gardens are pos­sible as well (Fig. 8).

The only scientifically executed archaeological excavations in the Porticus of Pompey were carried out below the modern Teatro Argentina, adjacent to the Largo Argentina, in an area that lies over the edge of one of the rectangular beds shown on the marble plan (Gianfrotta et al. 1968- 69). The excavators found rich brown dirt within this area and con­cluded that it was planting soil. Two phases were preserved, each one distinguished by soil color and dat­able pottery contents. The first was contemporary with Pompey the Great, the second with Augustus’s alterations. The excavations indi­cated that Augustus maintained Pompey’s original design and changed only the materials. For example, the outer line of the rectangles depicted on the Several plan appear to be a low wall that ran between the column bases. These were made of ashlar block in Pompey’s time and of concrete after Agustus’s alterations (Gianfrotta et al. 1968-1969). The excavators found no trace of column base or features that would explain the symbols on the plan, as the archaeological of later human periods were completely destroyed during the Middle Ages. It is no longer possible to determine if the squares with dots depict on the marble plan, which was drawn up some two hundred years after Augustus’s alterations, were a later addition.

Although it is impossible to accurately reconstruct the appearance of the garden in the portico at any point during its long history, literary descriptions provide us with an image of a popular meeting place, a public garden with avenues of shade trees, where one might encounter friends, pick up members of the same or opposite sex, purchase items from vendors, contemplate fine art brought from Greece, enjoy unique fountains and elaborate aquatic displays, and find some shelter from the sun or rain in beautifully decorated porticoes. Important events of history were set here, and many powerful politicians and emperors sought to gain popular support through their additions, alterations, and restorations to this much loved place.

[Begging his beloved Cynthia to return to Rome]. Oh that you would walk here in all your hours of leisure!…Yet you do not care for Pompey’s colonnade with its shady columns brightly hung with embroidered curtains, nor the avenue thickly planted with plane tree rising in trim rows; nor the waters that flow from the [statue of] Maro’s slumbering form and run babbling through their circuit until last, with a sudden plunge, they vanish in the Triton’s mouth. Propertius 2.32.20

In time the theatre burned once too often and the moralists, this time Christians, disapproved too forcefully of the pagan spectacles still presented there. By the 6th century the theatre was no longe functional. The porticoes and gardens may have gone out of use in a less dramatic fashion; the portico area was divided in two after the fire in A. D. 290, and eventually the land may have become too valuable for these expensive gardens. As Rome’s population shrank, the city reached into this area of the Campus Martius. Houses filled in the open areas of the gardens, and the porticoes became shops, their marble decorations plundered and burned in the kilns for mortar. With the successive floodings of the Tiber River, the ground level rose slowly and continusly. The columns of the street porticoes were reused at higher levels until the passageways were sealed as a protection against crime. Fragments of the columns may still be seen at points today, reused in walls along the streets of the neighborhood (Fig. 9). This gradual , consistent incorporation of the ancient design into successive urban form has preserved the buildings of Pompey the Great, allowing us to recover their elements though we may never be able to excavate the ruins.

Cite This Article

Gleason, Kathryn L.. "The Garden Portico of Pompey the Great." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 2 (July, 1990): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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