Dining in Octavia’s Portico

Rome’s old Jewish Quarter holds many secrets and navigating through the narrow twists and turns behind the Via del Portico d’Ottavia can be a challenge to any tourist seeking to peel back the layers of history. All that remains of what was an extraordinary enclosed colonnade in the late first century B.C.E. is a majestic entry archway built by Augustus’ sister Octavia and then rebuilt almost two centuries later by Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 C.E.).


Entry to Porticus Octaviae

An enclosed portico had been on the site (but without the grand entrance) since the mid-second century B.C.E. when the general Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus built one to honor his victory in northern Greece that made Macedonia a province of the expanding Roman empire. To emphasize his battlefield success, he filled the colonnade with bronze statues of the most famous Macedonian, Alexander the Great, surrounded by his cavalry. The square created by the four sided portico was almost four acres in size and contained two beautiful temples – one dedicated to Jupiter the Stayor and the other to his consort, Juno the Queen. The first century C.E. Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells a wonderful story that when the temples were being refurbished, porters mistakenly carried the cult statue of Jupiter into the temple built for Juno and vice versa so religious rules required that the building dedications be switched.[1]

Jupiter Stator pediment

Central figure from pediment of Temple of Jupitor (Museo Centrale Montemartini)

Later, at the time she caused the great entry arch to be built, Octavia refurbished the temples and added Greek and Latin libraries, an assembly space where the Senate occasionally met and lecture rooms. Other great art was added, and in keeping with the earlier Alexander theme, paintings of Alexander the Great and his father Philip of Macedon were placed in one of the lecture halls.[2] The portico sat on the northern side of a large plaza known as the Circus Flaminius where great triumphal parades would form up before entering the city.

Plan 3 Inset B

Plan of the Porticus Octaviae at the time of Augustus

Today, you can walk in the area where the temples to Jupiter and Juno once stood by taking the narrow walkway just to the right of the Restaurant Da Giggetto.[3] Octavia’s entranceway fronts on the church S. Angelo in Pescheria (in the Fish Market). Built in the eighth century, the church used the archway as its atrium and took its name from the Medieval fish market that then occupied the space where great Roman generals once gathered for their parades.

Google portico (1)

Outline of Portico of Octavia (red) on modern streets and path to Vecchia Roma (blue) ((c) Google Earth 2016)

As you walk up the pathway (in blue on the map) the temple of Juno would have been in front of you and the temple to Jupiter just to the right. One of the huge columns to Juno’s temple was built into the wall at Via Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, No. 10 but is not visible from the street. Following the blue path right up the Via della Tribuna di Campitelli and then left at the bend will place you at the back of the porticos where the beautiful meeting rooms and libraries built by Octavia were located. Now in that space you will find the Piazza di Campitelli and the restaurant Vecchia Roma.

For 145 plus years, Vecchia Roma has provided a wonderful dining experience in its intimate dining space, but my favorite way to enjoy its food is for a leisurely lunch outside on a nice Spring or Fall day. (Closed on Wednesdays) Tiny fried squids (calamaretti), seafood pastas and whole grilled fish, all washed down with a dry white wine on a sunny afternoon is beyond sublime. It is not the extraordinary haute cuisine of Il Convivio (see earlier post), but dining where Roman citizens strolled among Greek bronzes and marbled columns adds a touch of the romantic that is tough to beat.

Vecchia Roma front (1)Vecchia Roma (1)

Vecchia Roma ((c) Google Earth 2016)


When you finish your meal, stroll up the Via dei Funari (street of the rope makers) toward the Piazza Lovatelli. You will see other columns from the portico imbedded in the wall. More treasures await down the street, but I’ll save those for a later post. [4]


Portico columns embedded in wall on Piazza Lovatelli

[1] Pliny, NH 36.4.

[2] See Jacobs and Conlin, Campus Martius – The Field of Mars in the Life of Ancient Rome, at 103-4 (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

[3] While popular for years with tourists for its fried artichokes and other Roman Jewish delicacies, the food has gotten a little tired of late and there are other places in the area for a better experience. Subject of a later post.

[4] For greater description of the portico and the surrounding ancient structures, see A Walk Through The Field of Mars – Rome’s Ancient Campus Martius A Piedi, Walk One, Nos. 4 -6, 11-12.

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