Octavia's Porch -- Porticus Octaviae

You have probably already figured out that the Latin word "porticus", the Italian word "portico", and the English word "porch" are really the same word. A Roman porticus was just a long pillared roofed area, often backing up against a building, which was designed to provide shade and protection against inclement weather. A porticus could run around the outside of a building or around the inside of a building courtyard. Sometimes a porticus was a stand-alone structure, and such porticoes could be long and straight or they could also encompass courtyards. What, if anything, might be inside the courtyard was essentially irrelevant. The most famous portico here today is the grand elliptical colonnade that encompasses the front of Piazza S. Pietro, St. Peter's Square. In ancient Roman times, Porticus Octaviae, Octavia's porch, was similarly famous.

Octavia, the sister of Augustus, rebuilt a pre-existing porticus that Quintus Metellus had built in 149 BC facing the Circus Flaminius on the river bank just north of the Tiber Island. Octavia and Augustus lavishly decorated the aggrandized structure, adorned it with bronze and marble statuary, renewed the interior temples of Juno Regina and Jupitor Stator, furnished it with a great library, and added a meeting hall (curia) opposite the front entrance and other facilities. They named it for their family of birth -- Augustus was "Octavius" before being posthumously adopted in Julius Caesar's will. At that point he became "Octavian", and only later was called Augustus. Octavia was the mother of Marcellus, who Augustus had chosen to succeed him. The succession plan that didn't come to fruition: Marcellus died before Augustus, and the Portico was thereafter seen as a memorial to him, along with the Theater of Marcellus, which immediately adjoined the Portico. Among the famous works of art that adorned the Porticus were 34 bronze equestrian statues of Alexander and his officers (by Alexander's own sculptor, Lysippus and "liberated" from Greece), the larger than life bronze of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi (the first statue of a woman exhibited in public in Rome and moved at this time from the Forum), and a statue today known as the "Medici Venus", which is now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.

A prominent architectural feature of the porticus was the propylaeum, a rectangular entrance building facing south into the CircusIt had two four-pillared façades facing in and out of the 119 by 132-meter rectangle outlined by the porticus.

The expansion and enrichment of the portico took ten years, from 32 to 22 BC and was followed immediately by the beginning of construction, to the east of the Circus Flaminius, of the huge theater named after Marcellus. Because of its proximity to the Tiber River, the theater had no space backstage for an attached porticus for relaxation of theatergoers, but the Octavia Porticus, right next door, served the purpose. It's not known whether Octavia and Augustus originally had planned the theater and porticus as an ensemble.

Most of the propylaeum is still well preserved (and some pillars of the south front of the porticus are visible, built into the walls of later buildings). The preservation of the propylaeum was assured by its re-use as the main entrance to the Medieval church of S. Angelo in Pescheria ("in the fish market", the use to which the propylaeum and part of the old Circus Flaminius was put after the Empire declined.)

Excavations and rebuilding work around the front of the propylaeum has been in progress for the past few years as part of a municipal project to make an archeological park in the area centered on the Theater of Marcellus. The Park design calls for excavation of the propylaeum down to its original ground level, about a meter and a half below current street level, and eventual access to the site by a series of ramps. Current works include re-routing of electrical, water, and sewage lines and further investigation of the Quintus Metellus sub-structure that was partially excavated in the 1930's. The Comune di Roma has a very nice Internet site describing the propylaeum excavation, now available in both Italian and English.

The Sant'Angelo Church is one of Rome's oldest and it is interesting both for its art and architecture and for its history. The first church on the site was built in 755 AD and it was rebuilt and redecorated in the 15th and 17th centuries. The propylaeum was at first used as the main entry to the Church, but after the fish market was relocated inside, a side entrance was used. The church houses an early 12th century Madonna and Child as well as 15th century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, a Florentine who had served his apprenticeship with Fra Angelico, or members of his school. This was also the church from which Cola di Rienzo and his followers set out to seize Rome from the aristocracy on the evening of Pentecost in 1347. But it was also the church in which, from 1584 through 1848, the Jews of Rome's neighboring Ghetto were forced to listen to Christian sermons every Saturday.

Internet links:

The Kiskimies pictures of the area:


From Caen University, a site description at

http://www.unicaen.fr/rome/anglais/geographique/s_octavie.html and a detail of the world-famous scale model of Rome at


The Rome city government Internet sites describing the Porticus Octaviae excavations:

http://www.comune.roma.it/monumentiantichi/monumenti/ottavia.htm and

http://www.comune.roma.it/cultura/italiano/monumenti/monumenti/antichi/portico%5Fottavia/index.htm and http://www.comune.roma.it/porticottavia/

Sant'Angelo Church