Rome’s Lost Treasures: The Temple of Peace

Temple of Peace in the Roman Forum

Could it be? One of the most beautiful creations the world had ever seen? Both Pliny and Herodian pondered this; the latter called The Temple of Peace “the largest and most beautiful of all the buildings in the city”.

In Rome — a city already renowned for its architectural splendor — the Temple of Peace stood out. The Temple of Peace was built in AD 71, to commemorate Vespasian’s defeat of the Jewish revolt. The Temple was one of Rome’s most important monuments, for a short, glimmering century. Josephus, Roman historian, described it thus:

When the triumphal ceremonies were over, as the Roman empire was now firmly established, Vespasian made up his mind to build a temple of Peace. This was completed with remarkable speed and surpassed all human imagination. Not only did he have unlimited wealth at his disposal; he also adorned it with paintings and statues by the greatest of the old masters. In fact, in that temple were collected and deposited all those works that men had hitherto traveled over the whole world to see, longing to set eyes on them even when scattered in different lands. There too he laid up the golden vessels from the Temple of the Jews, for he prided himself on them; but their Law and the crimson curtains of the Inner Sanctuary he ordered to be deposited in the Palace for safe keeping.”

Most of this amazing structure is completely lost. You’ll struggle to find a trace of the temple on a visit to Trajan’s Market. Most of what we know about the Temple of Peace comes from written accounts and the Forma Urbis, a detailed marble map. The surviving documents help us to picture the size and splendor of the temple.

The Temple of Peace was, by all accounts, an enormous complex of richly decorated rooms. Internal courtyards were full to the brim with artistic masterpieces, including a sculpture by Praxiteles, the famous Greek sculptor. Treasures taken from Jerusalem and artworks taken from Nero’s pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea were other highlights of The Temple of Peace’s Collection. The Temple of Peace was a triumphal monument, a place of worship, and a public art gallery — all in one.

Ancient writers were clearly in awe of the Temple of Peace and its astonishing art collection. Today, its easy for a modern reader to find their reactions frustrating — what happened? How is it possible that such a culturally important, sacred place, disappeared completely and left behind nothing, but a fragment of marble floor?

According to Herodian, the Temple of Peace was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 191 AD. The destruction of the Temple was a calamity not only for culture but brought ruin to many wealthy Romans, who used the temple as a kind of safety deposit box. “It was also the richest temple in the city,” Herodian tells us, “since it is decorated with numerous gold and silver items that people deposited there to keep them safe — a caution which the fire rendered futile, sending many wealthy people into poverty.”

What had once been the Temple of Peace was, by the 6th century, known as the Forum of Peace. This once great art collection was now just an open space, not a building, and cattle grazed among its ruins. Fire, time and, perhaps most destructive of all, indifference, meant the temple, essentially, no longer existed.

The Temple of Peace is one of many amazing Ancient Roman monuments that have disappeared. The Colossus of Nero – a gigantic bronze statue of the emperor that gave its name to the Colosseum – is another, as is a multi-story monument on the Palatine, known as the Septizodium. Don’t only imagine the ruins that present themselves before your eyes, restored to glory, on your next walk through Rome. Strain your imagination and try to picture the countless temples and monuments that have vanished without a trace.

There is not one Rome, but a multi-layered Eternal City, which can only be understood and properly explored with the help of an expert. To learn more about Rome – both past and present – join our Rome tours and explore the city in the company of an expert local guide.

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