Most people of the ancient world were deeply religious. Their gods figured
prominently into everything from the mundane aspects of their daily
lives to the most critical decisions of law, foreign policy, and
war. The Romans were no exception: they had a multitude of gods to
whom they offered reverence and sacrifice.
The three mightiest gods of the Romans were Jupiter, Juno, and
Minerva. Together they comprised what is known as the “Capitoline
Triad.” All three were honored in the most sacred building in the
Roman world — the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a large structure
high upon the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Jupiter was the top god
Among these three gods, Jupiter was foremost, being the equivalent
of the Greek god Zeus. While he assigned the seas to his brother
Neptune and the underworld to his brother Pluto, he retained for
himself domain over the earth, the sky and the heavens.
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He was often called Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter the best and
greatest”). The visible instrument of his power was the lightning
bolt, which he often is shown holding, ready to hurl.
Jupiter’s wife, Juno, was the queen of heaven, the equivalent of the
Greek goddess Hera. Not only was she Jupiter’s consort, but as the
daughter of Saturn — who was Jupiter’s father — she was also his sister.
She was worshipped in many ways, ranging from the goddess who
oversaw marriage and childbirth to the one who was responsible for the
coining of money. Rome’s empresses were especially prone to identify
themselves with Juno, for she was their celestial counterpart.
Ranking only below Jupiter and Juno was Minerva. She was the Roman
equivalent of the Greek Athena, after whom she is closely modeled.
She is said to have been born fully armed and armored, and of mature
physique, emerging from the brain of Jupiter.
The fact that Minerva was born of Jupiter’s brain explains her
elevated mental capacities, for she was the goddess of wisdom, reason
and prudence, and she had special oversight over literature and
science, as well as practical skills such as embroidery and weaving.
Each of these divinities had an animal familiar, by which they could
be represented. Jupiter’s was the eagle, Juno’s the peacock, and
Minerva’s the owl. These birds often appear with their respective
divinity in artistic compositions, including on thousands of coin designs.
The association of these deities and their animals was so well
understood that in some cases the presence of the deities was not even
required. A wonderful example is a copper quadrans of the emperor
Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161), which shows on its reverse Jupiter’s
eagle flanked by Minerva’s owl and Juno’s peacock with its feathers in splendor.
The great temple dedicated to the triad on the Capitoline Hill,
which often was referred to simply as the Capitolium, was the center
of political and religious life in Rome. As evidence of this, any
triumph held in Rome ended at the temple, and the senate traditionally
held its first meeting of the year in the temple.
There were four successive versions of the temple, with the first
seemingly being built by Etruscans who held sway over Rome in the
early years of the Republic. Its location was ideal considering the
Capitoline was the most important of Rome’s seven hills, and was the
Even in its earliest incarnation, the temple had three enclosed
chambers (cellae), with each one being dedicated to an individual
member of the triad. Jupiter was situated in center, and he was
flanked by Juno and Minerva.
Apparently the earliest temple was tetrastyle (meaning the width of
its front was adorned four columns), and was of the Tuscan style. It
survived several centuries before it burned in the summer of 83 B.C.
It soon was replaced with a hexastyle temple (being six columns wide),
which was virtually complete within five years and was ready for
dedication in 69 B.C.
That second temple was destroyed by fire in A.D. 69, in the final
stages of a terrifying Roman civil war. Construction of a new temple —
the third — began in the summer of the next year, and its dedication
occurred in A.D. 75. In a sad turn of affairs, however, this new
temple was struck by lightning, which caused it to be consumed by fire
in A.D. 80.
The fourth incarnation was built quickly, being complete enough for
dedication in A.D. 82. It was sturdy enough — and fortunate enough —
to survive nearly 400 years before it fell into disuse and disrepair
after the triumph of Christianity as the state religion. After it was
sacked by the Vandals in A.D. 455 the remaining portions of the temple
were repurposed in many ways, including to create new statues and to
Representations on coins
We are fortunate that all four of these temples are represented on
Roman coins. Images of the first two appear on silver denarii of the
Roman Republic struck in 78 to 75 B.C. and 43 to 41 B.C. In both cases
the depictions are simple, with little decoration and no statues in
The third temple, which stood for just five years, appears on coins
of the rulers Vespasian (A.D. 69 to 79), Titus (A.D. 79 to 81) and
Domitian (A.D. 81 to 96). Especially ornate and detailed images of the
third incarnation appear on brass sestertii of Vespasian and Titus.
Excellent depictions also occur on silver cistophori struck for
circulation in Asia.
The fourth and final incarnation is presented on cistophori of
Domitian, with clear depictions of the three statues within. It also
appears on extremely rare silver denarii struck in the final year of
Domitian’s reign as emperor. Due to the small format of the denarius,
however, little detail was incorporated on those pieces, to the point
of the exclusion of the statues of Juno and Minerva.