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The Temple of Ancient Virtue

Stowe: The Elysian Fields

Designed by William Kent in 1734, this monument is a peristyle rotunda, patterned after the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli but using the Ionic order rather than the Corinthian. The Guide to the Gardens suggests that Kent may have also had in mind an English model -- Nicholas Hawksmoor's Mausoleum at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. Ancient Virtue served two structural purposes for the garden as it was then taking shape: first, it punctuated the eastern end of the Great Cross Walk, an avenue that was part of the earlier garden design and that slanted across the south front, much as the very similar Doric Temple at Duncomb Park stands at the corner of two terraces; second, Ancient Virtue served as a focal point for the new Elysian Fields.

Ancient Virtue seen from across the River Styx
A view of the Temple of Ancient Virtue
from across the River Styx
The Mausoleum at Castle Howard
The Mausoleum at Castle Howard
The Doric Temple at Duncomb Park
The Doric Temple at Duncomb Park

When it was built, Ancient Virtue was meant to provide a visual and symbolic contrast to two other garden buildings, the Temple of Modern Virtue, a sham ruin close by (removed in the 1770s), and the Temple of British Worthies across the river below. Inside Ancient Virtue are four niches for full-length statues of Homer, Socrates, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas, chosen (respectively) as the greatest poet, philosopher, law-giver, and general of ancient Greece. Homer and Lycurgus face each other, while Socrates faces the Temple of Friendship through the arch of the southern door and Epaminondas faces the Grenville Column through the arch of the northeastern door. Above each statue and each doorway are appropriate inscriptions.

It is no mere chance that Ancient Virtue receives the morning sun (as seen in the photograph to the left, above) while the British Worthies receive the evening sun. Lord Cobham and Kent wished to make a point about classical ideals and the limits of their own society and government to live up to those ideals. Alexander Pope suggested a similar caution at the end of his Dunciad, a poem that satirizes his contemporary writers who refused to follow the precepts set down by classical authors: Pope described a coming darkness that would envelope everything.

The Statue of Homer
The Statue of Socrates
The Statue of Lycurgus
The Statue of Epaminondas

Please click on any of the statues or names above and follow a link to a biography of the virtuous Ancient you are interested in learning more about.

Below is a panorama of the interior of the Temple. You may control the spin of the panorama by using your mouse. Place the cursor on the panorama and depress your left mouse button: as you move left and right or up and down, the panorama will move in the same direction.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,