'This hill with its leafy crown,' wrote Vergil of the Capitol two thousand years ago. '. . . is a god's home: my Arcadians believe they have looked on Jove himself, while his right hand shook the darkening aegis and summoned the storm clouds.' It is a little hill, this, to have been a great god's home and to have ruled the world. Its highest peak is about 168 feet above the plain at its western foot; its greatest length, about 500 yards; yet it has given its name to seats of government throughout the western world.
In Vergil's day the word Capitol was applied both to the hill and to Jupiter's temple gleaming on its southern summit. The men of ancient Rome explained the name by a legend shaped to fit the city's history. When their ancestors dug the foundations for the first temple there in the sixth century B.C. they unearthed a human head (caput), an event which the augurs interpreted as an omen that Rome would become head of all Italy. The name Capitolium was further explained as derived from caput Tollii, 'head' of a mythical hero, 'Tollius'. Softened now to the Italian Campidoglio, the name was used at first to refer only to the southern summit, earlier called the Tarpeian Mount, where the temple stood. This old term presently passed out of common use but it remained a literary convention in such classic phrases as 'Tarpeian Jove', chief deity of the temple. Capitolium soon was used to designate the entire hill, including the northern summit, known as the Arx, or fortified citadel. On this peak there stood also the temple of Jupiter's queen, Juno Moneta. Juno's temple housed the offices of Rome's early mint and from her surname came the English word money, and its counterparts in other languages.
The lower saddle of land between the summits was known in ancient times as the Asylum from the tradition that Romulus offered refuge there to fugitives who joined his band. Today, beneath the Capitol piazza which occupies part of the Asylum, lie the shattered ruins of a temple of Vejovis, the anti-Jove of the lower world, buried for centuries, but visible, since excavations in the 1930's, in subterranean tunnellings suggesting the dark realm sacred to the god.
Like other Mediterranean powers, Rome began as a city state. When she acquired an empire, the city and her Capitol remained the official military and religious centre of the Roman world. Religion being closely related to the state, the Senate sat by preference in consecrated places, though not in temples erected in honour of deified emperors. Its first meeting of the year was in Jupiter's temple, the centre of national worship, sacred to the king of gods and men and lord of storms. On the Capitol emperors and magistrates held solemn sacrifices in the open space before the temple's great portico, beneath the enthroned statues of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva in the pediment. From this temple the images of the gods were carried down into the city, much as the Virgin's figure, robed in white and blue, is now carried through the streets of Rome from church to church or as the saints are paraded on their holy days. And to this temple victorious emperors and generals brought home the spoils of war, riding in triumphal procession through the Forum and up the winding road to the Capitol in precisely the opposite direction from today's approach.
The term 'golden Capitol' came both from the temple's wealth of dedicated treasure and from its gleaming ornament. The roof was covered with tiles of gilded bronze, the doors with golden plate, and gilded statues added to the shining splendour.
Long after the Empire had begun to wane and Constantine had moved the seat of imperial government to Constantinople, the Capitol's fame lived on. In A.D. 356, when Constantinople had been the centre of empire for a quarter of a century, the soldier-historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, though he knew the eastern cities well, marvelled at 'the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove, so far surpassing [all else] as things divine excel those of earth'. At the end of the fourth century the gold plates were stripped from the temple's doors by Stilicho, Vandal general of Emperor Honorius; yet the Capitol remained a symbol of eternity, as it had been four hundred years before, when Vergil had measured his own fame by the ages through which men of Roman race 'shall dwell upon the Capitol's unshaken rock'.
The temple survived Alaric's sack in 410 only to suffer severely in 455 when the Vandals, as the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote, 'plundered also the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and tore off half the roof. Now this roof was of bronze of the finest quality, and since gold was laid over it exceeding thick, it shone as a resplendent and wonderful spectacle'. Yet in the sixth century Cassiodorus, Theodoric's great councillor, could still write: 'To stand on the lofty Capitol is to see all other works of the human intellect surpassed.'
When the great temple disappeared, whether catastrophe caused its destruction or it was torn down by human hands, no record tells. With all the other monuments of the Capitol except the massive Tabularium it was engulfed in silence. Centuries of night closed so deeply about the 'head of the world' that the very locations of its buildings became confused and lost. Some of the temple's fragments were found long afterward, when the Caffarelli family built their palace on its desolate site in the 1540's. Many were destroyed; some were used by sculptors for the beauty of their marble. Flaminio Vacca, sculptor and amateur archaeologist of the late sixteenth century, spoke of several fragments found on the Capitol being re-used in this fashion.
Before long the temple's site was so completely forgotten that many believed it had stood upon the hill's other summit. Even Gibbon, eighteenth-century historian of the Roman Empire, accepted the view that its ruins lay beneath the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli; not until the late nineteenth century did excavation disclose its true site. Most of the remains to be seen today were found during the last quarter of that century or shortly after the First World War, when the Caffarelli Palace was being transformed into the present New Museum, an extension of the Conservatori.
The greater part of the huge platform which supported the temple, built late in the sixth century B.C., lies beneath the various buildings of the southern summit. In several places, however, its stones have been restored to light--ritornate in luce, as the Italian phrase melodiously expresses it. One section of this platform may be seen below the level of the floor in a gallery of the New Museum; an angle is visible in the nearby Piazzetta della Rupe Tarpeia and the opposite corner in the Via del Tempio di Giove, formerly the Via di Monte Tarpeo. A great stretch of masonry belonging to the podium of the temple forms part of a wall in the gallery called the Passagio del Muro Romano at the southern end of the Conservatori Museum; a parallel wall of this podium stands open to the light of day in the New Museum's garden, once garden of the Caffarelli Palace. Here dark and fragrant cedars of Lebanon throw luminous patterns of light and shade against the gray volcanic stone, their, heavy branches swinging slowly when a breeze steals into this green and sheltered place deep among foundations built almost twenty-five hundred years ago.
Little else remains of the temple which once rose high above this great platform to glitter under the brilliant sun of Rome--a fragment of fluted column in the Caffarelli garden; a few bits of carving built into the pedestal of the statue of Cola di Rienzi in the triangle between the two flights of steps which lead, respectively, to Santa Maria in Aracoeli and to the Capitol square; and the great pieces of richly carved cornice discovered under the foundations of houses and now lying on the grass along the Salita delle Tre Pile, the drive which winds up the hill below the Conservatori. These, like the other marble fragments, are probably remnants of the temple as re-built by Domitian after A.D. 80.