The Maison Carrée

IMG_7361fIn Nimes, a lovely town in southern France, there stands a beautiful, white structure, gleaming in the sunlight: this is the Maison Carree, the Square House, an ancient Roman temple that remains remarkably well-preserved. Its nearly pristine condition is a testament to the incredible level of care and attention which the French give to important cultural works, whether they are paintings in the Louvre, medieval palaces such as Versailles, or remnants of the power of Rome.

This temple was built sometime in the last decades of the 1st century BC by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law (as well as trusted friend and advisor) of the emperor Augustus. Agrippa’s sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, had been adopted by Augustus, who clearly intended to be succeeded by one of them. Unfortunately, Gaius died in 4 AD after receiving a wound in battle and Lucius died from illness in 2 AD. After their deaths, the Maison Carree was dedicated to Gaius and Lucius.

The inscription no longer exists, but scholars have been able to guess at what it may have said, based on the markings that still remain on the temple.


At first, I tried to use the Latin skills I had developed over the past year to figure out what this means, but a month without any review made this somewhat difficult; in addition, the Romans tended to abbreviate many of the words on their inscriptions, and as a result, it takes a certain amount of practice to figure out what these abbreviations are referring to.

Anyway, here is the Latin, with explanations of what the abbreviations must have stood for, based on context and the grammatical function of the words:

“C(Gaio) – Caesari – Augusti – F(Filio) – Cos(Consuli) – L(Lucio) – Caesari – Augusti – F(Filio) – Cos(Consuli) – Designato – Principibus – Iuventutis”

And in English:

“To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth.”

An interesting point: you’ll notice that the Romans, strangely, will use a “C” as an abbreviation of “Gaius,” probably because Gs and Cs were once considered interchangeable and might have been pronounced in the same way.

What was the reason behind this dedication? Remember that Augustus was the first emperor, ruling during a period of extraordinary change as Rome transitioned from a republic to a new authoritarian system. The focal point–political, moral, and to an extent, even religious–of this new structure was of course Augustus himself, as well as the other members of the imperial family.

So, one reason for this dedication would have been to remind the local residents of the power and importance of the imperial family (Agrippa, a member of this family, commissioned the temple) and to emphasize that the security of the empire would now depend on Augustus’ family and future line of succession.

One might look at the word “princes” in the inscription above and think it to be an obvious sign that Augustus was creating a monarchy, but the Latin word “princeps” does not originally connote any sort of “royal” idea. It just means “first citizen,” emphasizing that these young men are the best of Rome, the greatest hope of the future, but that they are also regular Roman citizens like anyone else. This word was also used to refer to Augustus himself.

This is part of the Roman dislike of absolute rule, particularly the idea of kings, even though it was apparent that a strong figure was needed to maintain the weakening Roman state. They would not have wanted a king to overtly rule over them, so Augustus instead adopted a form of soft power: though he controlled essentially all of Rome through political and military domination, he adopted an image of merely being a citizen like any other ordinary Roman. Except he and his adopted heirs Gaius and Lucius were no ordinary citizens: they were principes, the first citizens of Rome, who were “chosen” to preserve the Roman state.

There is also a question as to whether this inscription represents the establishment of the imperial cult; that is, was this temple meant for the worship of Gaius and Lucius as members of the imperial family after their deaths? This is not a simple question because the whole idea of “emperor worship” was quite complicated to begin with. Eastern parts of the empire–used to the idea of god-kings–typically considered living emperors to be gods, but in the west–in places like Italy and France–Roman citizens normally found the idea of worshiping a living ruler repugnant.

At the same time, however, certain emperors–Augustus and Claudius, among others–were popular and influential enough to be deified after death. To further complicate matters, the emperor was such an important figure to the Romans that sacrifices were performed for his genius, or divine guardian spirit (though not to the man himself), in order that he might continue to defend the empire. Sacrifices to the gods were made, in the hopes of preserving the his health.

Anyway, without direct evidence and given the complexities of how Romans viewed the emperor and his family, I would say it is difficult to say for sure how ordinary Romans would have responded to this dedication. Some might have responded by remembering these young men as important symbols of imperial power, possibly. They probably would not have gone as far as worshiping them directly, but then again, as with the emperor, some of the actions taken to honor them might have taken on a religious dimension.

But, beyond all these political and religious considerations, I’d like to think that part of the reason for this dedication comes down to the love Agrippa had for his children and Augustus for his grandchildren. Every reference to the imperial family must be at some level political, but an imperial family is still a family. Parents love their children, and despite no clear evidence regarding how Agrippa and Augustus felt about the deaths of Gaius and Lucius, I’d be inclined to think that even they would have responded with grief, as humans inevitably do.

The architecture of the temple itself is wonderful, but I’m afraid I don’t have enough knowledge of Roman architecture to fully comment on the Maison Carree’s design. I found the Corinthian-style columns–characterized by the intricate carvings at the top–to be beautifully well-crafted. The building as a whole seems aesthetically well-balanced, but I would need to do more research on Roman architecture before being able to say anything further. All I can say is that it most definitely is worth a visit for anyone interested in the ancient world.

There are informative signs located all around the temple, so that you’ll be sure to learn quite a bit about the temple and the ancient Romans during your visit. Inside the structure itself, which unfortunately was not accessible for me, it appears that visitors can actually watch a quick 3D movie about the history of Nimes. I couldn’t get onto the portico of the temple either. The area around the temple was accessible for me via a ramp, but the ground was bumpy and difficult to maneuver on.

The temple is located in a very nice part of Nimes, filled with shops and restaurants of all sorts. It can be quite enjoyable just to stroll through the town and take in the many wonderful historical sites, whether churches or ancient Roman temples. You will also find in Nimes a Roman amphitheatre and a defensive tower, but I was not able to visit those locations. Unfortunately, I happened to be in Nimes on a rather hot day, which made the strolling somewhat exhausting: the sun felt unusually blinding and harsh. If the heat proves tiring or if you need a quick break, you just stop by a local eatery and order several scoops of ice cream.

So, there I was, eating some of the best, most refreshing ice cream I’ve ever had, and behind me, there loomed a great, lasting symbol of the ancient Romans, still remaining 2000 years later: the Maison Caree.


3 thoughts on “The Maison Carrée

  1. Those Romans though!

    //This is part of the Roman dislike of absolute rule, particularly the idea of kings, even though it was apparent that a strong figure was needed to maintain the weakening Roman state. They would not have wanted a king to overtly rule over them, so Augustus instead adopted a form of soft power: though he controlled essentially all of Rome through political and military domination, he adopted an image of merely being a citizen like any other ordinary Roman.//

    Honestly, I suspect that to the ordinary Roman, there was no difference. Just like politicians today: Democrat or Republican, they are all politicians, and both fairly easily corrupted. Like you I wonder how the average Roman would have responded to this monument — with pride or derision?

    1. I’m not sure I completely agree that the Romans would have been so ambivalent about what kind of leaders they had. I mean, Augustus ended decades of civil war and created a stable system of imperial rule that lasted for centuries; surely ordinary people would have noticed some difference in their lives.

      While I agree that we will never know for sure what ordinary Romans thought, I’d like to think that Augustus’ approach really did make a difference, in that people at least felt that they were hanging onto their autonomy, even while Augustus was gathering power for himself. But then again, this might have only been true among members of the elite, like senators, who actually were losing their political authority.

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