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Book Review: "The Pantheon" by William L. MacDonald
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 4/29/2019

 

I read the 1976 first edition of The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny by William L. MacDonald as I was working on some articles about one of the most amazing surviving structures of ancient Rome, around the time the “Rome Reborn®: The Pantheon” app was released. Even though this is an older book, I think many of you who use these apps and who teach Roman history will find it useful.

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Front Cover of "The Pantheon" by William L. MacDonald

Book Review: “The Pantheon” by William L. MacDonald

By TammyJo Eckhart, PhD

 

I read the 1976 first edition of The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny by William L. MacDonald as I was working on some articles about one of the most amazing surviving structures of ancient Rome, around the time the “Rome Reborn®: The Pantheon” app was released. Even though this is an older book, I think many of you who use these apps and who teach Roman history will find it useful.

This study of the Pantheon has five chapters that cover almost everything I could think to ask about in relation to the temple. The writing is clear, not full of jargon, and thus accessible to non-specialists. However, the text is also specific where it needs to be, and citations are numerous, making it useful to historians and architectural scholars who want to dive deeper.

The first chapter, “In the Temple of the Whole World,” serves as both introduction and basic fact checking. It is important to start with literary, architectural, and scientific evidence, because the structure is confusing once you go beyond a basic sentence or two defining it. Discovering the earlier Hadrianic design means that a historian would have to work backwards through multiple changes, attempts and failures to maintain it, and, regrettably , theft of materials. MacDonald lays out these changes over the centuries in chronological order from ancient to modern times.

Chapter Two, “The Building Proper,” identifies the three parts of the complex and looks at how they may have been made. Many people might think that the Pantheon is just the temple with the dome, but that was only the internal space; there were also the forecourt and the porch. While MacDonald does a good job of being clear with terms and descriptions, don't be surprised if you need to reread sections if you are not familiar with architecture. There are 18 black and white photographs and three illustrations in this chapter. I wish these were more closely aligned with the text instead of grouped, so that it would be easier to see in images what is explained with words.

“Background and Principles of Design,” the third chapter, may sound imposing to a non-architectural reader, but MacDonald’s clarity and examples make it accessible. Again, I wish the 34 photographs and 10 illustrations were more aligned with the text at certain points to make it clearer still. The chapter looks at the innovation of the Pantheon but also how it continued Roman and to a lesser extent Greek architectural styles and construction techniques. Round buildings on a small scale were common throughout the ancient world, but one of this size represented a big step forward. This chapter looks at other round structures as precedents of this project. Similarly, it lays out the development and use of materials like concrete. It also briefly discusses what little ancient and modern evidence we have for the Agrippan Pantheon to show the innovations. I would recommend that the reader interested in this topic read La Rocca’s more recent account (see the Bibliography). According to the inscriptions, Hadrian did not claim responsibility for the building, but the rebuild was quite different. The chapter also makes comparisons to other religious structures in Greece, but it did not convince me that there is a direct line of influence. Similarly, it simply offers some sort of summer solstice meaning for the opening in the roof without proving this claim. The reader interested in such solar alignments should read the 2011 article by Magli and Hannah (see Bibliography).

Ending the previous chapter in that way leads into “The Problem of Meaning,” covered in Chapter Four. MacDonald lays out the various theories that were prevalent in the 1970s, and these continue to be the primarily suggestions for the Pantheon’s purpose, usage, and value for Romans from the 2nd into the 7th centuries. This question of what the Pantheon was used for and was meant to communicate is an active debate today among scholars. There seem to be three theories. The first is that the temple was to honor all the gods, which is rather common for minor temples in Greek and Roman cultures. The second is that it was an attempt to tie the imperial families to the gods; even though that was a bit unusual for Romans to do, they certainly did do it from time to time and accepted such adoration from others. The third is that the temple is a microcosm of the world or universe with Rome at the center. MacDonald favors a combination of the theories, suggesting a general promotion of Roman rule in harmony with gods and universe, man and nature, and without more specific evidence, that seems reasonable. The photos and illustrations in this chapter, however, really don’t offer much support for any of the theories, because what we need is textural and physical evidence of how it was used during Hadrian’s rule and afterwards, and that simply has not been discovered, or at least not yet.

The final chapter, “The Most Celebrated Edifice,” begins with an inscription on the Pantheon from Pope Urban VIII, calling it by the name referenced in the chapter’s title. That the leader of the Catholic Church in the 1630s would label this “pagan” complex in this way indicates the value that Rome and those in it gave to Hadrian’s creation. However, this chapter is focused on what later centuries of architects learned from this building and how it influenced tombs and religious buildings from right after Hadrian through today. The 30 photos and 25 illustrations are wonderful documentation of that influence.

The bibliography is somewhat short, containing 29 secondary sources, but it also lists seven ancient sources, which are very helpful to students and even teachers. Of course, the edition I read and the later reissue cannot have the latest papers, books, or archaeological findings, but this is a great start for anyone interested in the Pantheon.

Beyond the evidence and theories, what most people will find most useful and entertaining about this book are its 154 illustrations. Given that the book in this 1976 edition is only 132 pages long for those five chapters, this means that much of the book are these black and white photos, line drawings, and building layouts.

 

The Pantheon by William L. MacDonald was reissued in 2002 by Harvard University Press with a new forward by John Pinto. Used copies of the monograph are available for sale on Amazon, but they can be pricey. Check your local, college, and university collections if you want to read this book.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

La Rocca, E. “Agrippa’s Pantheon and Its Origin,” in The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present, edited by T.A. Marder and M. Wilson Jones (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015) 49-78.

Magli, G. and R. Hannah. “The Role of the Sun in the Pantheon’s Design and Meaning,” Numen 58, no. 4 (2011) 486-513.

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