11 Monumental Facts About the Pantheon

The Pantheon, one of Rome’s most iconic structures, has stood tall over what is now known as the city's centro storico for nearly 2000 years. Below, a few things you might not know about the building, which draws tens of thousands of visitors each year.

1. THE ORIGINAL PANTHEON BURNED DOWN. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marcus Vispanius Agrippa, a Roman statesman and architect, constructed the Pantheon starting around 27 BCE on his property in the Campus Martius. It was destroyed in a fire, however, around 80 CE, and a second temple built on the site was also ravaged by fire. 

2. IT WAS REBUILT BETWEEN 118-125 CE. 

Nearly 40 years after its initial destruction, the Emperor Hadrian had the structure rebuilt as (presumably) a temple dedicated to the gods. Agrippa’s mark remains, however: an abbreviated inscription on the front of the building reads Marcus Agrippa Lucii filius consul tertium fecit, which translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.”

3. IT'S STILL STANDING THANKS TO ROMAN CONCRETE.  

Along with other Roman structures that have withstood the onslaught of nature and time, the Pantheon has remained upright because of the use of a special kind of concrete. A combination of limestone and volcanic ash inside the concrete mix helped form crystals that prevented the spread of microscopic cracks.

4. IT LIKELY SERVED AS A TEMPLE.

The origins of the word Pantheon are Greek and refer to a temple dedicated to all the gods (Pan=all and Theon=gods). The ancient writer Cassius Dio references statues of various gods throughout the interior of the temple, but he himself was unconvinced about this etymology, preferring to think that it was because the vaulted roof “resembles the heavens.” Some modern scholars agree with Dio that the structure may not have been a religious building at all, citing its dissimilarities to other confirmed ancient temples. 

5. IT FEATURES THE LARGEST UNREINFORCED CONCRETE DOME IN THE WORLD.  

Measuring 142 feet in both height and diameter, the large interior dome is one of the highlights of the Pantheon. The thickness of the dome lessens as it climbs, going from 21 feet at the base to 4 feet at the top, thus lightening the stress of the weight of the roof. (In addition, different kinds of concrete were used, ranging from a density of 1600 kilograms per cubic meter to 1350 kilograms per cubic meter.) The dome was the largest constructed in the ancient world. 

6. THERE'S A BIG HOLE IN THE CEILING.

Another remarkable feature of the Pantheon is the oculus, a 27-foot wide opening in the ceiling of the dome. The oculus, which is Latin for “eye,” is the only source of natural light in the interior of the Pantheon.

7. THERE MAY BE A MISTAKE ON THE EXTERIOR. 

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The exterior of the Pantheon includes a portico supported by Corinthian columns, a large pediment with the Marcus Agrippa inscription, and a second pediment attached to the rotunda. But the pediments don’t line up; the first, the Greek prosnaos, is about 13.5 feet shorter than the second, which is in line with the rotunda.

The mistake may be intentional, as the higher pediment lines up perfectly with the obelisk in front of the Pantheon, while the lower pediment matches the height of the obelisk at St. Peter’s Basilica. The most popular theory surrounding the height difference, however, is that the two pediments were going to be the same height until something happened to the planned columns, forcing the builders to compromise with the shorter columns that they had on hand.

8. SOME SCHOLARS BELIEVE THE OCULUS SERVED AS A SUNDIAL.

While most scholars and historians have focused on the structural merits of the dome and oculus, Robert Hannah and Giulio Magli argue that the oculus may have been designed to represent a sundial. Visitors would be able to tell time by the passing of the sun overhead. What's more, the beams that shine through the opening also illuminate the doorway into the rotunda on the March and September equinoxes. 

9. IN THE 7TH CENTURY, IT BECAME A CHURCH. 

In 609 CE, the emperor Phocas gifted the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, who then consecrated the building as the Church of Santa Maria ad Martyres. The continued use of the Pantheon is a major reason for its pristine condition 2000 years after it was constructed. To this day, the Catholic Church holds masses and weddings there. 

10. IT HOUSES A LOT OF (FAMOUS) DEAD BODIES. 

Starting during the Renaissance, the Pantheon was used as a tomb for artists like Raphael, Annibale Carracci, and composer Arcangelo Corelli. Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, along with Umberto’s wife Queen Margherita, are also entombed in the Pantheon.

11. THOMAS JEFFERSON COPIED ITS DESIGN. 

The architectural majesty of the Pantheon has inspired numerous builders through the centuries. Filippo Brunelleschi modeled the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore Church in Florence, Italy, after the Pantheon, and Louis XV commissioned Jacques-Germain Soufflot to build the Panthéon in Paris. Construction began in 1822 on the Rotunda on the grounds of the University of Virginia, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson and originally housed a library. It was still under construction upon Jefferson’s death in 1826. 

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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