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The goddess Fortuna in Rome and Pompeii

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Ruins of the Temple of Fortuna Augusta in Pompeii (left) Photo: Sophie Hay

The goddess Fortuna had many guises in the Roman world, representing above all the terrifying power of chance over human lives. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History: "We are so subject to chance that Chance herself takes the place of God; she proves that God is uncertain."

The Temple of Fortuna is the final book in the Wolf Den trilogy, and two of the temples to the goddess which feature in the novel are real places, whose ruins can be visited in Italy.

William Gell's reimagining of The Temple of Fortuna Augusta in 'Pompeiana' 1817

The temple of Fortuna in Pompeii, whose ruins we can still see today, was built by a relative of the orator Cicero and dedicated to the goddess in her form as Fortuna Augusta. In this way the cult temple was also a means of worshipping the Imperial family.

The engraving above by the nineteenth century archeologist William Gell shows his imaginative reconstruction of a religious ceremony, with the (rather dramatic) worshippers kept back by railings, traces of which survive at the site and which you can make out in the photo below.

Photo: Sophie Hay

The remains of the altar also survive (drawn smoking with offerings in Gell's engraving) as well as the white marble steps (above). The central shrine where the statue to the goddess once stood is also still within the temple (below).

Photo: Sophie Hay

The goddess Fortuna also appears in my book in her form as Fortuna Huiusce Diei - the goddess of luck on the day. This Fortuna had her temple next to Pompey's Theatre in Rome, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Caesar was especially proud of the role Fortune played in his career, yet the goddess did nothing to protect him when it most mattered, allowing him to die on her doorstep. A warning perhaps for any who might imagine her favour to be secure.

The monumental statue of this Fortuna now rests at the Centrale Montemartini museum in Rome, the city where she was once worshipped two thousand of years ago. Only fragments of her survive: her head, one arm and part of a foot. But their size shows how impressive she must once have been.

There is nothing comforting about this vision of the goddess, and coming face to face with her at the museum, I could only imagine how much more imposing she must have looked when she was whole, standing - or possibly seated - in the dim light of her temple.

Most likely she was holding a cornucopia - a horn of plenty, representing the good luck she could bestow, if she chose. Other symbols of the goddess in antiquity included a rudder, or her infamous wheel, on which mortals might rise to the top or fall to the bottom.

The photo below of me standing beside her head in the museum, gives a sense of her scale.

The circular Temple where this now decapitated statue once stood, is today found in Rome's Largo di Torre Argentina. The site is much loved by stray cats and recently reopened to the public.

This particular Temple to Fortuna is described by Cicero as being like a fashionable art gallery, in which visitors could see precious statues by Greek artists. In the fictional world of The Temple of Fortuna, it's a place Amara also visits.

In the photo below, you can still make out the white marble steps and pavement where Roman visitors/worshippers like Amara would have climbed to enter the temple.

The last word on Fortuna should go to Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the goddess in his Natural History: "Now we come to examples of changing Fortune, which are innumerable. For what great joys does she bring except after disasters, or what immense disasters except after enormous joys?"

His words ring true for the characters of The Temple of Fortuna, and also for the fate of Pompeii itself.

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