Pantheon Sundial *Redux*

This one just started to make the rounds last night while I was drifting off … here’s the salient bit from the Telegraph (tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for being first off the mark with this one … my spiders must still be sleeping):


Giulio Magli, a historian of ancient architecture from Milan Polytechnic, Italy, and Robert Hannah, a classics scholar from the University of Otago in New Zealand, have discovered that at precisely midday during the March equinox, a circular shaft of light shines through the oculus and illuminates the Pantheon’s imposing entrance.

They have been working on the theory since 2009 but recently brought together all their latest research in a paper published in a scholarly journal, Numen.

The precise calculations made in the positioning and construction of the Pantheon mean that the size and shape of the beam perfectly matches, down to the last inch, a semicircular stone arch above the doorway.

A similar effect is seen on April 21, which the Romans celebrated as the founding date of their city, when at midday the sun beam strikes a metal grille above the doorway, flooding the colonnaded courtyard outside with light.

The dramatic displays would have been seen by the Romans as elevating an emperor into the realm of the gods – a cosmological affirmation of his divine power as he entered the building, which was used as an audience hall as well as a place of worship.

He was in effect being “invited” by the sun to enter the Pantheon, which as its name suggests was dedicated to the most important deities of the Roman world.

“The emperor would have been illuminated as if by film studio lights,” said Professor Magli. “The Romans believed the relationship between the emperor and the heavens was at its closest during the equinoxes.

It would have been a glorification of the power of the emperor, and of Rome itself.” The sun had a special significance for the Romans, as it did for the ancient Egyptians. The god Apollo was associated with the sun, and the emperor Nero was depicted as the Greek sun god Helios in a giant statue called the Colossus, which gave its name to the Colosseum.

One of antiquity’s most remarkable examples of engineering, the Pantheon’s fine state of preservation is thanks to the fact that it was converted into a church in the seventh century, when it was presented to the Pope by the Byzantine Emperor Phocas.

It retains its original bronze doors and marble columns, some of which were quarried in the Egyptian desert and transported by the ship down the Nile and across the Mediterranean to Rome at huge expense.

The building now contains the tombs of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy, and the Renaissance artist Raphael.

As some of us were mentioning last night on Twitter, this really isn’t anything new. A similar report came out a couple of years ago, which we pondered for a bit: Pantheon Sundial?.  On the theory itself, one should definitely read a post by Alun Salt: Light In The Pantheon And Ancient Astronomy. Judith Weingarten also weighed in on the theory: Time Gazing at the Pantheon in Rome. I’m not sure if there’s a new study out (other than the one in New Scientist mentioned in our previous post), but this is one of those things where surely computer modelling could prove useful? Whatever the case, it’s becoming pretty clear that Hadrian may have had a predeliction for aligning his structures according to the sun (cf., e.g., Hadrianic Alignment)

One thought on “Pantheon Sundial *Redux*

  1. I think the earlier story was work from Robert Hannah published in Time in Antiquity (2009). He’s been working with Giulio Magli on an updated version with more detail and I guess this has just been published in Numen. There’s a pre-print on arXiv at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s