#11.2: Altar of Saturn

Ok now, still standing behind the Arch of Septimius Severus look to the left, see that very low metal roof. It's covering the ALTAR OF SATURN. This was an outdoor altar dedicated to Saturn and now stands in front of the Temple of Saturn (the one with six columns). The altar was cut into the exposed bedrock and also constructed with some Cappellaccio (local poor quality Grey Tufa, possibility mined from the Palatine, Capitoline or Quirinal Hill - Rome's first building blocks). It's dated to at least to the sixth Century BC but very likely it's earlier. So it pre-dates the Temple of Saturn which was first built in 497 BC.

I believe it is earlier from what I have read. In my opinion I don't see why it can't even be dated it to Romulus' time. It's just a very simple altar cut out of a large rock that happens to exist there, nothing fancy or requiring great engineering skills?

Who knows perhaps even before the altar was cut into this rock it was used for animal sacrifices?

Let's just say when the Romans and the Sabines first made their alliance and chose this area as a meeting place ( Comitium ) they like all good Pagans needed to make an animal sacrifice and then have the Priests read the entrails to see what the Gods had to say about it (favorable or unfavorable).

So that morning they grab some unlucky Ram out in the fields and bring him to this area.

So they look around for an easy place to do it rather than fumbling around on the ground with an angry Ram :-) . After all they've got to hold it down, slit its throat and then gut it to get the entrails and/or liver out.

A big flat rock would be a nice makeshift cutting-table/altar plus being at a slightly higher elevation everyone could see and then the Priest could easily make his announcement to the crowd. Or perhaps using this rock for sacrifices even predates the 'Founding of Rome'? And then one day they decide to upscale this natural altar and take a hammer and chisel to the rock and make what we see today? Of course I don't know, no one does :-) , it's just an odd and unique site and you have to wonder, Why?

Does it have a history? Or did they just have a big ugly rock that they couldn't move in their new Comitium and decide to make something out of it :-) ?

The original altar was larger but later buildings and the road encroached upon it and it was probably partially destroyed and finally just covered over. Because after the Temple of Saturn was built a new altar was very likely built on the stairs, as was traditionally done. Altars were outside usually on the steps of temples, this kept the inside of the temple free of the sacrificed animal's blood (unhygienic, flies, maggots, stinky). Plus the people could easily view the ceremony on the steps.

Today's remains are about 4 m x about 3 m and this section was covered by a thin layer of painted cement.

And if look closely you can still surprisingly see some faded red paint and cement on the rock!

The altar surface was cut by (draining) channels and in front is a Tufa slab drain, so this section was very likely the actual sacrificial altar part (animals only, no cool stories about unlucky virgins :-) ). It also shows signs of having been damaged and repaired. It's just a slab of rock, so I'd assume the damage was man-made (why and by whom I wonder...invaders, civil unrest?)

On the surface of this rock are small round and square cuttings which some say are meant to resemble the early cremation tombs in the Forum?

It is the oldest site in the Roman Forum that you can actually see, others are long buried or have been rebuilt over. At the time of the founding of Rome (753 BC) this rock and area was about 5 m higher than the Forum Square before it. It's said that the Kings and Magistrates used to address the crowds from this area, if so it was the Forum's first speaking platform. And there are some historical/mythical hints that this location might have been used in Romulus' time. If true, imagine while you are standing there looking into the Forum of ancient Kings addressing the crowds below. Perhaps even Romulus himself firing up his people to go to war and conquer a neighboring tribe, expanding a fledgling Empire by just a few more hills and valleys. Perhaps even making an animal sacrifice to the Gods on that rock beside you?

For more information and photos, please see Altar of Saturn in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #11.3: Umbilicus Urbis Romae and Mundus
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