Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum - Isabel Lovell

The Story of the Temple of Saturn

The story of the Temple of Saturn is a golden story, beginning in a Golden Age, and telling of a golden treasure. It begins in times so far away that man cannot discern things clearly, but, as through a soft summer haze, he may see somewhat of fertile lands, of great forests, of calm rivers; he may hear faint echoes of the lowing of cattle, of the call of the hunter, of the laughter of children; and thus he may know that the place on which he dreamily gazes is one of both peace and plenty.

That happy land was called Saturnia, because, so the old stories say, among its green hills and valleys a good king, named Saturn, ruled lovingly over his contented people. He taught them how to plant their fields, to build their homes, and to live aright: and in his days all men stood equal and wanted nothing. The people were so joyous and the earth seemed so fair, that it was believed that the god Saturn himself had come to dwell therein; and those bright days of the years when the world was young are still spoken of as a Golden Age.

And so the legend grew, and it was said that Saturn's home was on the hill called by the Romans the Capitoline, and that at its foot an altar was raised to him, after he had disappeared from among mankind. This altar was placed there by Hercules, great Jupiter's mighty son, who taught those early people, not only to cease the sacrifice of human beings and to make less cruel offerings to the god, but to pray to him with their heads bare and free. For Hercules, like Saturn himself, had come from the far-off land of Greece, where the customs were unlike those of Italy; and thus he honoured the gods after the manner of his country. So it came to pass that in the Temple of Saturn, which in aftertimes stood in this altar's place, men worshipped with their heads unveiled, even as did the Greeks; the Roman custom, however, was to draw down the veil, that the sights of the world might not turn the mind from the prayer muttered by the priest during the solemn stillness of the holy rites.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple of the Forum, was begun in the days of Tarquin the Proud, and was built on a natural platform of earth on the side of the hill, and, when temples were made in the Forum to other gods, their foundations were made in imitation of this platform. Thus each of the temples was raised from the ground and was reached by a flight of steps. The number of steps in these flights was always unequal, so that, as an omen of good, the worshipper might put his right foot on the first and on the last step.

But before reaching the steps of the Temple of Saturn, the reverent Roman, coming to offer his sacrifice to the gracious god, first passed through an open space enclosed by a railing. This space was called the Area of Saturn, and, as he went along, the worshipper might stop to read some of the laws that were graven on the stelae, or upright slabs of stone, that stood around the Area. Once, they say, a violent wind arose, and, when its fury was over, many of these stelae had fallen and were in fragments. Then the soothsayers cried out that the end of the Republic was at hand, and among those that heard them many lived to see these words come true.

But if it happened that the worshipper had not time to read the laws, he who truly honoured the gods would still linger a moment before the statue of Silvanus, which stood in the Area beneath the shade of a fig tree. For Silvanus was akin to Saturn, aiding him in his care over the fields and the forests, and having as his own special charge the boundaries of the farm, such as those of the pastures and of the cornfields. The fig tree, near the statue of Silvanus, grew so large that its roots spread under the image, so that it was in danger of falling. To prevent this disaster, the tree was taken up, after prayers and sacrifices by the priestesses of Vesta, whose duty it was to attend all such solemn rites.

And now, at last, the worshipper, having paid his devotions before the altars that also stood in the Area, mounted the steps and entered the Temple of Saturn itself. Over its entrance were carved the figures of two Tritons, creatures half men, half fish, holding aloft large shells, as if to blow a warning note. Now the Tritons obeyed the commands of Neptune, god of the boundless sea, and, as over his blue domain they rode the white sea-horses, they wound their big shell-trumpets to still the rough, restless waves. Across the waters from Greece they had safely escorted Saturn, and their figures on his temple seemed still to guard him, and as if ready to quiet all disturbance that might come near the sacred place.

Within the temple stood the statue of Saturn, immortal protector of the earth's precious increase. His image was made hollow, but was filled with the oil from the olive, for did he not have the green world under his care? and in his hand was a sickle, for did he not reward work with rich harvests? and about his feet were bound ribbons of wool, for did he not also guard the animals of the farm?

So it was Saturn that watched over the wealth of the early Roman people, for in those days their riches lay in their fields and in their flocks. Then when the Romans had grown greater, and their wealth was counted, not in golden stores of grain, but in shining bars of gold itself, what more natural than that Saturn should still guard it, and that, even as other gods had in their care other treasures, he should have in his temple the public riches of the whole Roman nation?

Now in the first days of the Republic there was a consul named Valerius, who, because of the help he rendered the people, became known as "Poplicola," or the "People's Friend." He it was who ordered that the money belonging to the State should be placed for safe keeping in a strong-room made under the floor of the Temple of Saturn; for Rome was not only growing larger, but was constantly at war, and much money was needed both for the city and for the army. So each citizen gave to the nation according to his means, and for this reason Poplicola allowed the people themselves to elect as treasurers two young men called quaestors. These officers were under the direction of the Senate, and thus the Aerarium, or Treasury of Rome, was watched over by both the god and the government.

At first, the money placed in the Treasury was only bars of copper, on each of which was stamped some figure, as of an ox, a sheep, or a fowl, for in the early times all debts had been paid and all exchanges had been made with such animals. Later, rough copper coins were made, and some of them bore on one side the head of Janus, on the other the ship that had brought Saturn to Italy. Still later silver and gold were used. For many years all payments were made by weight—as at the time when the Romans weighed out the ransom demanded by Brennus, the Gaul—and scales were kept in the temple for this purpose.

Besides the money, both in bars and in coin, the quaestors had charge also of certain records of importance to the nation. Under their care were the accounts of public expenses, reports from all generals and governors of provinces; also sentences of death, names of ambassadors from strange lands, and the general record of births and deaths. But the quaestors had in their care another charge, one more precious than gold, more important than records, for in the Aerarium of the Temple of Saturn were also kept the Roman standards—emblems of the nation's courage, honour, and power. The earliest standard under which the Romans went forth to conquer Was a simple bundle of hay, placed on the top of a long pole, for they were farmer-soldiers and fought for their lands as well as for the glory of their country. But when Rome's name was mightiest, a golden eagle, holding in its claws a thunderbolt, was carried aloft before her victorious hosts.

To follow the standards wherever the nation's glory or honour called was the chief duty of a Roman, and no pleasure, no trouble, was great enough to keep him from obeying. Once, when a deadly pestilence had stricken Rome for two long years, and the people were overcome with sickness and sadness, certain of their enemies dared to carry their attacks close to the distressed city. Angered at this advantage taken of their weakness, yet alarmed at their peril, the Romans appointed a dictator. By his orders the Roman standards were brought from the Temple of Saturn, and, in the grey of the morning, were borne beyond the gates. And there every Roman who had strength enough left to carry arms rallied in answer to his country's need, and offered his life to save the city and to protect the helpless sick and dying. Such men can never be conquered, and the standards were soon brought back to Rome in triumph.

After a time, the quaestors had yet one more charge given to them, for they were made also the guardians of the "sacred gold" of Rome. When the victorious Gauls had humbled Roman pride, the wisest among the magistrates took counsel together and decided that a fund should be put aside against times of extreme need, such as another war with those dreaded enemies from the north, or in case of any other pressing necessity of the State. This fund was called the Aerarium Sanctius, or the Sacred Treasury, and was also in the Temple of Saturn, where it was most jealously guarded. It was, however, entirely separate from the general treasure, and the money, which was in bars of gold, amounted to enormous sums as the years went on.

As their wealth grew greater, the Romans did not forget to honour the god in whose temple their treasure was so safely kept, but worshipped Saturn faithfully and once a year celebrated a great feast in his name. This was the Saturnalia, which took place in December, after the grain was garnered and when man was ready for rest and for enjoyment; and the people were commanded by the Senate to observe this festival forever. It began with a sacrifice to Saturn in his temple, and was followed by a public feast, at the end of which the people gave themselves over to every kind of pleasure. It was as though men strove to recall once more the Golden Age, for during the Saturnalia they all stood equal and joyous freedom ruled the hour. Slaves were waited upon by their masters, prisoners were set at liberty, even criminals were pardoned, and no battles were fought during that happy time, which lasted for seven days.

Next to their faith in the power of the god to guard the nation's riches, was the confidence of the Roman people in the surety of the government to pay all the nation's debts; and such was their pride that, even to themselves, they would not acknowledge that the Treasury of Rome could fail. When the magistrates proclaimed that, on account of the expenses of the army during the war with the Carthaginians, there was no money left with which to make needed repairs in the city, the citizens, and especially the Plebeians, would not have the work stopped. The workmen themselves were the first to come forward to say that they would not ask for pay until the war was over, and soon after the money of widows, and of those that were under age, was placed in trust in the Treasury, to show the confidence of even the most unprotected. So great was the enthusiasm that the soldiers also refused their pay, and every Roman of every class vied with his neighbour to prove his pride and his trust in the Treasury of the Republic.

This, indeed, was not the only time that the Treasury was refilled by the united action of the people, for, during the war with Philip of Macedon, again the Romans supplied the wants of the State. The army had been made ready, but men were needed to row the fleet; for the Roman ships were not like our ships, which are driven by powerful machinery, but were moved by huge sails, aided by strong men at long oars. Now there was no money in the Treasury with which to hire these rowers, and without the fleet, how could the coast be protected? The Senate proclaimed that a tax be placed upon private citizens, and that each man, according to his wealth, bring money to the Treasury. But the people were weary of paying for an army whose victories, although bringing glory to Rome, ended by leaving themselves poorer; so they came into the Forum in immense multitudes, and complained bitterly of the injustice of the tax. Upon this, another meeting of the Senate was held. The magistrates looked helplessly at one another. No money in the Treasury, no money from the people. What then was to be done? As they were still considering this matter, there rose from among them the wise Consul Laevinus, who thus addressed the assembly:—

"Those of high station and of noble name should set a right example to those of low condition and of humble birth. We should first do willingly ourselves what we would ask others to perform. So let us, senators and nobles of Rome, put into the public Treasury all of our gold, silver, and, coined brass, only reserving those things which, being signs of our station, are due to our families. And let us do this before passing a decree upon the people, so that our zeal for the welfare of the Republic may inspire them by its pure ardour."

In reply to these noble words, the Senate moved a warm vote of thanks to Laevinus, and then each member hastened to carry his gold, silver, and brass to the Temple of Saturn. With so much goodwill did every man bring his portion, and with so much eagerness did he endeavour to have his name first upon the public register, that the clerks were hard pressed to enter all the contributions. Then, seeing the generosity of the nobles, the people were ashamed and quickly brought to the Treasury all that they were able to give. Thus, without any decree, or any use of force by the Senate, the fleet was provided with rowers, and more than this, a fund was added for their future support.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


There was only one man that had no respect for either the god or the government protecting the Treasury of Rome, and yet he was the greatest Roman of them all. Forcing all things and all men to aid him in carrying out his mighty plans, Julius Caesar, needing large sums of money for his army, seized upon this gold of the Aerarium Sanctius itself. This was not done, however, without much opposition from both the Quaestors and the Tribunes, the magistrates of the Plebeians. But turning them all aside, Caesar went into the Temple of Saturn and approached the Aerarium. Then one of the tribunes, named Metellus, placed himself against the locked doors, and cried out that Caesar was breaking the laws of Rome, and that only through his own dead body should the sacred gold of the people be reached. At this, the great Conqueror grew angry and scornfully replied:—

"There is, O Metellus, a time for law, and there is also a time for war. When the last is over, I will speak with thee about the first. Rome and her people are now mine, and I shall do with all even as I will."

Having said this, Caesar asked for the keys, but these no man was able to find; so he sent for smiths, who forced open the strong doors. Before he passed the threshold, however, Metellus spoke once more in warning and in entreaty, and some in the crowd around encouraged him. But Caesar, raising his voice so that all should hear, made only a short reply.

"If thou disturb me further, I will kill thee," he said calmly; and this, O rash man, is harder for me to say than to do!"

Whereupon Metellus shrank back in fear, and Caesar possessed himself of the most precious riches of the Roman people. And men said that, for the first time, Rome was poorer than Caesar—for he had many debts. Yet in making the city poorer for the moment, Caesar enriched the nation for all time; for with his army he went forth conquering and to conquer, and the boundaries of Rome were widened until they reached from sea to sea.

Augustus, the next great Master of Rome, had the Temple of Saturn enlarged and beautified; but after his day there came a long pause in its story. The emperors had their own treasury, and, as their power grew, that of the State faded. The time of the people had gone by. In the reign of Carinus, a most wicked emperor, a great fire injured Saturn's temple, and after this it was restored, but hastily, and without care. Over the entrance were placed the letters S. P. Q. R., to show that the work had been done under the direction of the Senate and the People of Rome; for the next emperor, Diocletian, being a Christian, would not put his name on the temple of a god whom he denied. Soon the worship of all the gods was forbidden, and the temple was no longer used even as a Treasury; and little by little it fell into ruins.

Eight columns of the portico now stand upon a part of the foundation, and these, with some steps that perhaps led to the Aerarium, are all that can be seen to-day of Saturn's ancient shrine.

The god of the Golden Age has deserted his temple, the Golden Treasure has been taken away, and the Golden story is ended.