The Pantheon Rome is one of the world’s most iconic buildings and in this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how and when, and why to visit this magnificent monument on your next visit to Rome.
For the average visitor, the Pantheon Rome might look like just another old building in Rome, but its uber-familiar appearance is a testament to its importance: this is the classical building and its design has been imitated by the rich and powerful ever since.
Let’s see inside it!
- Where is the Pantheon?
- Pantheon Tickets and Tours
- What’s so special about the design?
- The Portico
- The Interior of the Pantheon Rome
- The Pantheon’s Dome
- A Mysterious History
This article may contain compensated links. Please read the disclaimer for more info
#1 TOP PICK
Don’t have time to read the whole article? My top pick is the Rome: Small-Group Pantheon Guided Tour with Entry Ticket. This is a 50-minute tour with a headset so you can hear your guide clearly, and includes skip-the-line entrance and a perfect 5 Star rating.
Where is the Pantheon?
The address of the Pantheon is: Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
To get to the Pantheon via public transport, you can take the tram or the metro.
Tram: Line 8
Metro: Line A (get off at ‘Barberini’or ‘Spagna’ which are the closest stops to the Pantheon)
BUT, the simplest and most cost-effective way to get to the Pantheon and all of the other major sites in Rome is with the Rome: Big Bus Hop-on Hop-off Sightseeing Tour which has 24, 48, and 72-hour tickets.
Pantheon Tickets and Tours
The most important thing to know about the Pantheon (apart from the fact that you simply have to visit it at least once in your lifetime) is that the Pantheon is completely free to enter.
This means it’s a scrum to get in and can take a long time and a lot of jostling and being jostled. You line up (well, it’s more of a whole piazza full of people, moving slowly towards the entrance), and eventually, you find yourself under the Portico of the Pantheon.
The sanest way to see the Pantheon, most especially in summer, and to understand what this big completely empty building is all about, is to join a tour.
Here are the best three:
#1 TOP PICK
The only tour to have all 5-star perfect reviews is the Rome: Small-Group Pantheon Guided Tour with Entry Ticket. This is a 50-minute tour with a headset so you can hear your guide clearly. It includes skip-the-line entrance which is such a great thing in the middle of summer with hundreds of people queueing to get in.
#2 TOP PICK
#3 TOP PICK
This Skip-the-line entrance small group tour is a great middle ground between the two options above. The highly reviewed Rome: Pantheon Skip-the-Line Entry and Guided Tour is a 45-minute tour but without a personal headset.
What’s so special about the design?
None less than Michelangelo described the Roman Pantheon as the work of angels, and this incredible monument has often been dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, so what makes it so special?
Despite being in a city blessed with a huge number of monuments dating back to ancient times, the Pantheon is notable for how well it is preserved.
It is nearly 2000 years old, yet looks as sturdy and complete as many neo-classical works built in its image 1900 years later.
Its columns are 40 feet high and five feet in diameter, which gives you a feeling for the immensity of this ancient project, but are only a hint of the ingenuity of the interior.
The domed rotunda, the drum-like structure behind the portico, has a radius of 142 feet, meaning that this building, which almost dates back to the time of Christ, is still the world’s largest unsupported concrete dome.
As though to hammer home the mystical nature of this accomplishment, the Pantheon’s only source of direct light is an oculus, a circular hole at its center through which the light of the heavens streams in.
Here are the not-to-miss sights of the Pantheon.
The 16 columns that make up the portico are made of granite and are almost 40 feet high, and – unbelievably – come from Aswan in Egypt, some 3,000 miles away from Rome.
The floor is no less lavish, made of varying shades of marble, and takes us up to the enormous doors made of solid bronze.
The Interior of the Pantheon Rome
The entrance, while opulent and spectacular, hardly prepares you for the expanse and beauty of the interiors.
The vast, empty space is somewhat redolent of an airy church but somehow even more stark.
The floor is again made of marble, and is the original floor from nearly 2,000 years ago; the walls on either side are adorned with works of art from the Renaissance: paintings, statues, and frescoes.
The Pantheon’s Dome
The dome itself is obviously the centerpiece of the Pantheon, which is truly stunning even before you consider the architectural ingenuity of it all.
Made of unreinforced concrete, it is made up of 140 coffers (square, sunken panels) which were once decorated with bronze rosettes.
The oculus lets in not only light but also rainwater (!) meaning that a drainage system that was part of the original design is still in use.
The light is also made use of a rather beguiling twist on the sundial can be found.
While most sundials around the world mark the time by casting a shadow, the one in the pantheon does it with the beam of light itself.
Indeed, the way the sun passes through the oculus at noon on the equinox – passing through a grille above a closed door – has led to the belief that much of the building’s design had to calculate the movements of the sun.
A Mysterious History
Beyond its architectural attractions, however, the Pantheon is the site of many mysteries, including some of the most basic information about its history.
Who was the Pantheon for?
Usually, an inscription is a key to unlocking an ancient building’s history, but the Pantheon’s inscription has actually helped to confuse academics for centuries.
Bearing the words “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, thrice Consul, built this,” it seems to make for a pretty open-and-shut case.
BUT an 1892 study of some of the brickwork showed that the Pantheon was actually a rebuilding of a structure undertaken during the time of Emperor Hadrian, more than a hundred years after Marcus Agrippa’s reign as the Roman general and Roman consul.
Ever since that study dismantled nearly two millennia of belief about the Pantheon, academics have tried to understand why Agrippa’s name would have been on the inscription, if Hadrian was behind its construction.
The theory until recently
The initial theory that came out of the 1892 discovery – and one which held sway until recently – was that Agrippa built the original structure as a tribute to Rome’s victory in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.
While that may not ring any bells, it was hugely significant, leading to Augustus becoming the first Roman Emperor.
According to this theory, Agrippa’s building was a small temple dedicated to the gods. A much more conventional building, it was quite different from what we see today: a rectangular, Greek-style temple.
The building suffered damages in a fire in 80 A.D. and underwent some restoration work under Emperor Domitian.
A second fire would damage the building some thirty years later, and this time it was Emperor Trajan who tried to rebuild it, but he died when the project was still in its initial stages.
His successor was Emperor Hadrian.
While he is perhaps identified most with Hadrian’s Wall which divided England and Scotland, Hadrian was a notable patron of more aesthetically pleasing forms of Roman architecture too, and he was credited with conceiving of the new building and possibly even having a hand in its design.
So why the inscription to Agrippa? The theory was that this was false humility on the part of Hadrian, with the aim of getting in the good books of the capricious Roman gods.
The current theory
However, recent evidence has suggested that Agrippa deserves a little more credit.
The belief now is that Agrippa’s original building bore many of the characteristics of the present building: the portico complete with tall columns, and the rotunda behind it.
Even the dimensions of the original building are thought to have been similar.
There is also some belief that Emperor Trajan oversaw more of the rebuilding project than was previously believed.
The key to uncovering this complex story has been the examination of bricks which were stamped with their date of creation. Many of them date back to the 110s, putting them in Trajan’s reign.
So who should we thank for this architectural beauty? The most civilized thing to do is likely to tip our hats to all three men: Agrippa for beginning the project, Trajan for his design and rebuilding work, and Hadrian for finishing the piece.
What was the Pantheon for?
While its name pan (all) and theon (gods) means that traditionally the building has been thought to be a temple devoted to the pagan gods, this is by no means certain.
Cassius Dio, a Roman historian in the 2nd/3rd century wrote that he believed the amazing vaulted roof was what gave the Pantheon its divine name, and that it was instead intended by Agrippa to be a temple devoted to Augustus.
Historians today have a similar idea, that it might have been a temple dedicated to the whole dynastic line of emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar.
The fact that the Pantheon is aligned on an axis with Augustus’ mausoleum lends weight to the argument that Agrippa was paying tribute to his two predecessors.
Did it make Gods of the Emperors?
Agrippa’s intentions might be impossible to ascertain, and we do know that statues of gods adorned the niches in the Pantheon’s rotunda during his reign.
By the fourth century, however, there are historical accounts of these same niches being occupied by statues of the emperors.
This followed Hadrian’s decision to hold court in the Pantheon, and so it seems clear that the line between god and Emperor was being deliberately blurred.
Their quest to align themselves with the divine is even evident in some of the symbolism found around the dome.
The dome’s coffers – those inset panels that dimple the dome’s surface – are divided into twenty-eight sections.
Twenty-eight is also the number of columns below and was one of only four “perfect numbers” known to antiquity.
As in many cultures, this kind of interest in numerology was popular in Ancient Rome and Greece.
The fact that the oculus seems to have at least some relationship with the equinox lends credence to this idea of the Pantheon as a place of significance – even if the object of devotion may have shifted from gods to men.
Who designed the Pantheon?
While the dates can tell us which emperors were behind the project, it is much harder to say who was the technical brains behind the Pantheon.
Apollodorus of Damascus, Trajan’s chosen builder, has a strong claim and was known to be behind the Emperor’s Roman Forum and several other major Roman projects.
There are also some tantalizing similarities between the Pantheon’s design and that of Apollodrous’ other works.
According to Dio, Apollodorus was actually banished and later executed by Hadrian, something which long led historians to doubt his claims.
More recently, however, Dio’s account has been called into question, and several pieces of circumstantial evidence have been found backing Apollodorus as the man with the plan.
How did they build the Pantheon?
As mentioned above, the Pantheon is built with various materials, some coming from as far away as Egypt.
The sheer scale of the feat is incredible, but there are signs that building work had to be modified and repairs had to be improvised.
There is evidence that the portico was originally intended to be bigger than it actually is, suggesting that the columns that arrived from Egypt were smaller than first thought – or substitutes for larger ones that were lost or damaged.
The Pantheon’s structure shows all the hallmarks of advanced Roman engineering know-how.
The walls are made of brick-faced concrete, also found in Rome’s legendary aqueducts, while relieving arches and vaults inside the wall mass lighten their load.
The concrete found in the dome is even more ingenious. It comes in six different layers, graded by thickness, making the structure both efficient as well as allowing for modifications to design.
How has it lasted?
One of the enduring mysteries about Rome is what happened in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire.
When the city was being sacked, we have to presume many of the buildings surrounding the Pantheon would have been wrecked or destroyed, so it is even more remarkable that the Pantheon remains in such fine condition.
One thing we do know is that the Christian Church consecrated the building, probably in 613, and so it became a protected holy site.
Popes here would hold regular masses, and that meant that the Pantheon was in constant use and was held in high esteem by the powers that be.
That is not to say it has enjoyed total impunity to the vicissitudes of time. For centuries it proved to be a rich source of valuable materials that were ransacked for all kinds of causes, from construction to warfare.
A number of original elements are therefore lost to us: many of the original finishings, sculptures, bronze work, and other elements.
Elsewhere, we know that some major structural changes have taken place. In the seventeenth century, three columns on the east side of the building were finally replaced after having spent centuries being supported by a brick wall!
The current streets around the Pantheon and the piazza it gives on to are actually higher than they were in Roman times, so doors and steps down into the portico were created.
Finally, columns made from imperial red porphyry – another expensive import from Egypt – were taken from the rotunda and substituted with granite replacements.