The Power of the Physical (Karissa Annis, 2018)



The power of the physical in the Roman world was important. Within Livy Books 1, 2, and 5 there is evidence that physical places and buildings can change history. The Senate House and the Forum are two places where major shifts in the Roman world happen. Temples also exhibit this power but they also exhibit the power of the gods. While these are places that are almost always important, other places become imbued with the power to change history such as a low lying wall or an inn. Whether or not these places held a power of their own, the Romans believed in them and their belief made all the difference.


Karissa Annis

Dr. Shannon

CL 386 History of Rome

The Power of the Physical












Can buildings change history? Throughout Livy, he consistently refers to the places where things take place. Many times, this is a city or region being referenced, but other times he specifically refers to a building or other physical element of Rome or of other cities. When he does this, the building becomes special could be more important than the people themselves. In some cases, it appears that the building is important because of what happens or who is in the building, but in others it seems the building itself has a power all its own. Books 1, 2, and 5 will be explored for these references to buildings to determine whether or not buildings and physical sites can be powerful enough to change history.

  1. The Senate House and Forum

The Senate House and Forum are the two physical elements of the city of Rome that Livy discusses most often. Some of the most important and pivotal events in Rome occurred in the Senate House or Forum. But is this because the people within them are important, or because these two physical elements have their own power? Livy does not often talk about the Senate House and the Forum as if they have their own power. The shifts and history that take place in these places are often spoken of in terms of the people. For instance, during the Struggle of the Orders, Livy describes one of the popular revolts (2.23). The revolt began in the Forum when an old man appears and begins to speak of his troubles. After his speech, the crowds began to surge into the Forum and form a mob. The Senate were terrified and the mob tried to enter the Senate House themselves to observe their proceedings. The Senate House and Forum are crucial in Livy’s account but they are not described as particularly powerful themselves. In this instance, the old man and the mob are the most powerful forces. The Senate House is powerful in as much as the people inside are. The Forum is powerful because there is a mob within it. For the most part, this is how Livy talks about these two elements. However, it is not always the case. The Senate House itself becomes more powerful in other circumstances. For instance, when Livy describes Tarquin the Proud’s takeover of the kingship from Servius Tullius, the Senate House and Forum feature prominently (1.47-1.48). The Senate House is especially important here because it was here first that Tarquin imposed his power on the Roman people and made his move to depose Servius. In this instance, the language is a little different. It is important that Tarquin took power in the Senate House. Servius is offended that he took his physical seat in the House. His physical removal from the House signifies his loss of power more than that it was Tarquin who did it. The seat represented Servius’ power almost more than he himself did. So, in this instance, it really is the building and the seat that have the power.

  1. Temples

Temples are another physical element that Livy frequently refers too. Unlike the Senate House and the Forum, however, temples exert even more power over their surroundings even with no one in them. Temples are important and highly revered by the Romans because of the value of pietas. Livy emphasizes this from the beginning when he discusses Numa constructing the first temple to Janus (1.18). Dedication to the gods continues to be a theme throughout Livy, and it could be argued that it is not the buildings themselves that have the power but the gods. However, Livy’s descriptions of the temples lend themselves to the argument that it is the buildings themselves, or at least the god’s blessing in the building. The temples themselves are sacred. When the Romans razed Alba to the ground they completely destroyed the entire town, moving the rest of the population to Rome itself (Livy 1.29). This, for one, shows the power of buildings in that without buildings the people have no home. However, even as they destroyed the town to rid the people of their homes, they left the temples. The Romans refused to destroy the temples even when they were set on relocating an entire town. They believed that these buildings had power because they did not want to offend the deities. According to Livy, temples were of vital importance. In the case of Horatius, the dedication of the Temple of Jupiter was more important than his own son’s death (2.9).

This is not the only instance of temples becoming turning points in Roman history. In another instance, Livy describes Camillus’ speech against a mass migration to the now abandoned Veii (5.30). Afterwards Livy says that the Senate went to the Forum and began begging the rest of the Romans not to abandon Rome. During this speech Livy says they were, “Pointing to the Capitol and the Temple of Vesta and the other holy places” (5.30). Of all the buildings the Senate pointed out, the Temple of Vesta was important enough that Livy emphasizes it by naming it. Not only did this work in persuading the people to give up the motion to move to Veii, but the Senate actually ended up bequeathing some of their land to the plebeians. In this instance, it does not matter whether the Temple of Vesta was pivotal in swaying the people, but that it was more important to Livy to name above any other building besides the Capitol. Livy also makes mentions of temple building and consecrations and dedications throughout his history. Some of them are only given as facts, but occasionally these mentions of temples become much more important. For instance, the dedication of the Temple of Mercury became pivotal when the Senate and the people were at odds (Livy 2.26-2.27). The people here are angry at the Senate and chose a centurion named Marcus Laetorius for the dedication of the temple instead of either of the consuls in order to humiliate the consuls and by extension the Senate. The temple in this instance ended up being a means to an end rather than a power in and of itself, but it was still crucial to the story. Even the Romans’ struggle with the Latins was said by Livy to have a final end in the building of the Temple of Diana (1.45). This was during the reign of Servius, and the first instance Livy describes of Rome having influence over other parts of the world. To Livy, the Temple of Diana is not only the showcase of the glory of Rome, nor the fulfillment of the prophecy, but the marker that he points to as the end of the Latin and Sabine hopes to be greater than Rome itself. In Livy’s mind, this temple changed history.

  • Other Physical Elements Discussed by Livy

Beyond the religious and political elements of the city, Livy discusses other physical elements that do not seem as important at first glance. However, when looked at closer these physical elements ended up changing Roman life in some form or another. The first example of this is simply the beginning of the walls with Romulus and Remus (Livy 1.7). Livy recounts the story of Remus jumping of the half-built walls of the new Rome whereupon Romulus swiftly kills him. The walls here are the physical element. They were important enough to Romulus that he would kill his brother for jumping over them. They in themselves did not do anything, but their existence changed history at the very beginning of Rome. Turnus’ inn also becomes an important staging ground. Turnus has become a threat to Tarquin the Proud and Tarquin decides he must be taken out (Livy 1.50). Tarquin uses his own house against him by filling it with weapons and accusing him of conspiracy. The inn here is important because of its connection to Turnus, and so much like with the Senate House it mattered more who was in it and not the building itself. Livy also discusses Valerius’ house (2.7). This building becomes important because of how the people perceive its purpose. They think Valerius is attempting to become a king. The issue of his house is so strong that Valerius completely moves it from the where he had been building it to the bottom of the hill. Here it is the peoples’ belief that the house has meaning that makes it important. Lastly, during the invasion of Rome by the Gauls several physical elements become important. Firstly, the Citadel becomes the sole hope of the people for saving Rome (Livy 5.39). The Capitol and Forum become important as the old aristocrats remained behind there to meet death and hopefully intimidate the Gauls while they were at it (Livy 5.41). The Temple of Juno saved the Citadel when the geese kept in her honor set off the alarm (Livy 5.46). Once the Gauls had been driven back Camillus set out a decree to purify the Temples that had been inhabited by the enemy and that a new shrine should be built as a reminder of the disaster (Livy 5.49). These buildings and structures helped save the Romans from total destruction as well as united them after the Gauls were gone. All together, these things are good examples of how Livy represents the miscellaneous buildings in Rome and how important they became.


The physical elements of Rome carried weight and meaning. To Livy, these physical elements were important and had power to change history. The Romans believed in their power. That is the most important point, that the Romans believed it. The Romans put stock and power in these buildings, and in the end that created their power. The people of Alba were devastated when their buildings were destroyed because they represented their lives (Livy 1.29). The Romans held memory and prayer in their buildings, as when the Romans were reminded and encouraged by the temples and buildings when the Fabii were leaving (Livy 2.48). The memory of Tullia’s brutality was preserved in the memory of the physical street where she ran over Servius (Livy 1.48). Romulus prayed that the gods would remember the foundations of Rome that he built (Livy 1.12-1.13). Lastly, Camillus’ speech at the end of book 5 shows just how important the physical elements of Rome were. “When the victorious Gauls had the city in their power, the gods of Rome and the men of Rome still clung to the Capitol and the Citadel… Not a stone of her streets but is permeated by our sense of the divine… I cannot believe that you would commit so shameful a crime simply because you shrink from the labor of restoring these ruins” (Livy 5.51-5.54). For Camillus, and for Livy, Rome was alive in all its physical aspects. It was not just the people, but the place.

Whether or not the buildings themselves have power, according to Livy, the Romans believed that they did. The power of memory was enough to influence events in Roman history. The power of religion was enough to make the temples vital to history and was known to save Rome from destruction. The power of the forces that resided within buildings were enough to make things happen. In the end while buildings themselves may not actually have power to shape history, the power that people believe they have does. In ancient times this could be a temple burning down and foretelling doom. In modern times this could be the power that Americans saw in buildings like the Twin Towers that emboldened and unified the country when they were attacked. The faith of the people is what really matters in the end, and in that way physical elements, buildings, and temples can change history.












References Cited

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome from Its Foundations. Trans. by Aubrey De Sélincourt. London: Penguin Press, 1960. Print.