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The Pantheon: Eye of the Gods

Maze puzzle of the Pantheon in Rome

Maze puzzle of the Pantheon in Rome, 118 AD

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The Romans' mastery of building techniques reached its summit in the Pantheon. One of the great buildings in western architecture, the Pantheon is remarkable both as a feat of engineering and for its manipulation of interior space, and for a time, it was also home to the largest pearl in the ancient world.

Emperor Hadrian and the Pantheon

Originally built in 27 BC by the statesman Marcus Agrippa, the powerful deputy of Rome's first emperor, the Pantheon was completely redesigned and rebuilt in 118 AD under Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was possessed with insatiable curiosity; one of his contemporaries called him an "explorer of everything interesting." He spent much of his long reign on four grand tours of the Empire, in which he learned about the cultures he ruled, sampled different cuisines, and met with everyone who interested him. While in Athens he was overcome by its architecture and art. He was a painter, a poet, a mathematician, but above all an architect and builder.

The Pantheon that Hadrian created is a circular temple made of concrete faced with brick, with a Greek-style facade and a magnificent dome rising from its walls. The most striking feature of the building is the 27-foot circular hole (the oculus, or eye) atop the dome. By day a great shaft of sunlight streams through it, illuminating the richly colored marble lining the dome's interior. To the Romans, this oculus symbolized the eye of the gods looking down upon their city. The temple was dedicated to all the Roman gods; all seven niches in the dome's interior contained their statues, notably those of Venus and Mars.


It is, as it were, the visible image of the universe."

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, English romantic poet, 1820

Roman use of Concrete

The Pantheon is one of the finest examples of the Romans' use of concrete. The Romans were the first to exploit this building material, and without its use the great imperial buildings of the Roman Empire would not have been possible. In the Pantheon's dome, the mix of concrete varied from heavy aggregate in the thick base to lightweight pumice at the top. Made of over 5,000 tons of concrete, the dome is 142 feet in diameter and 71 feet high, and was unsurpassed in size until the 19th century.

In 609 AD the Pantheon was converted to a church, and Italy's first two kings and many artists, including Raphael, are buried in it. In Roman times the largest pearl in the ancient world, which had belonged to Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt, was also kept in the Pantheon. How this pearl got there—and the fate of its twin, which was just as large—is a tale in itself.

Cleopatra and the Largest Pearl in the Ancient World

The two largest pearls in the whole of history, according to Pliny, had come to Cleopatra from Kings of the East. Cleopatra took them with her in 37 BC when she went to live with Mark Antony, who was vying with Octavian for control of the Empire. Mark Antony was glutting himself daily at ostentatious banquets, yet Cleopatra still reproached him with lofty pride for the meagerness of his feasts. Antony wondered what additional magnificence was possible, and to this Cleopatra replied that she could spend ten million sesterces on a banquet for them both. This was a fabulous sum; the Roman state treasury under Caesar contained thirty million sesterces. Antony declared it impossible, and bets were made.


An angelic, not a human, design."

—Michelangelo, 15th century AD

The next day, Cleopatra served an unexceptional banquet. Antony laughed, thinking that he had won his bet, but servants then brought out a single bowl of vinegar. Antony could not contain his curiosity as Cleopatra, who had the remarkable pearls in her ears, took one off and dropped it in the bowl. The pearl slowly dissolved and Cleopatra drank it down. Before she could similarly dissolve the second pearl, Lucius Plancus—the umpire of the wager—placed his hand on her wrist and declared that "Antony had lost the battle."

When Cleopatra was captured after Antony had lost the naval battle at Actium, and thus the whole Roman Empire, the surviving pearl was cut in half and eventually placed on the ears of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon. And that is the story of how the largest pearl in the world ended up in the Pantheon at Rome.

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum


Ancient legends associated with mazes—such as the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur—speak of danger and confusion, of heroes and transformation, death and rebirth.

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