The grid system which the Roman republic exported all over Europe was never employed in the capital itself. The city has always lacked a coherent plan – save for the monumental temple that once towered over it
According to Tacitus, perhaps the greatest of all Roman historians, it was the great temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill that held the key to the future of ancient Rome.
Writing about a fire at the temple in AD69, Tacitus assumed the conflagration would embolden the enemy Gauls into thinking they might finally conquer the city, such was the symbolism of the temple. “This fatal conflagration has given proof from heaven of the divine wrath,” he wrote, “and presages the passage of sovereignty of the world to the peoples beyond the Alps.”
But Tacitus’s fears were not realised. The Gallic revolt was crushed and the temple rebuilt – as it was again and again right up until its closure by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in AD392. Indeed, even after Roman power had shifted to the east, and the Vandal invasion of 455AD had stripped all gold from the doors of the temple, the prefect of Italy, Cassiodorus, was moved to write: “To stand on the lofty Capitol is to see all other works of human intellect surpassed.”
This focal point above the city was begun nearly 1,000 years earlier by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king – but only completed and dedicated, according to legend, in the year of his overthrowing and the creation of the Roman republic in 509BC.
It was a massive structure for its time – the largest temple in the Italo-Etruscan world – standing on a stone plinth measuring 53 by 63 metres, and with a broad red roof supported on 24 columns. Also known as the temple of the Capitoline Triad, inside were statues of the three gods most venerated by the Latin people: Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. On the apex of the roof was a quadriga, a blatant symbol of martial triumph depicting four horses being driven by Jupiter himself. […]