The First Emperor


The vast size of the Roman Empire required that generals be given great resources and independent authority so they could succeed in fighting wars far away from the capital. This also made it possible for them to fight each other for increased sway over Rome itself. This and other challenges weakened the republican institutions of government, so Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, who took the honorific title “Augustus,” were able to overthrow the republic and establish the Principate, the rule of one man. The principal rulers came to call themselves Emperors, so the period is commonly called the Empire, but keep in mind that the domination of other lands had begun centuries earlier under the Republic. The imperial period showed Rome’s architectural and artistic achievements at their best, and it was also marked by splendor and safety at home; but there were radical ups and downs, as better and worse emperors came and went, and I hope it is not too judgmental to say bluntly that the Roman people became ever more corrupt.

Augustus prudently called himself the “first citizen,” the Princeps, not the first Emperor, but he acquired and exercised such power that historians have found it reasonable to date the beginning of the Imperial period to his reign. He boasted that “he turned Rome from brick to marble,” but his claim is not unfounded. We will devote several podcasts to him and to his controversial effect on Rome.

Among the visible changes he made in Rome, we will discuss:

  • The obelisks he brought to Rome from Egypt
  • The Theater of Marcellus
  • The Portico of Octavia
  • The Temple of Apollo
  • His house on the Palatine
  • His Forum
  • The Altar of Peace
  • His burial monument, the Mausoleum of Augustus
Statue of Augustus Prima Porta

We will visit this statue of Augustus, the Augustus Prima Porta, when we visit the Vatican Museums. Note for starters the little cupid by his right knee, a sign of Augustus’s professed connection to Venus, the mother of Aeneas. (Photo David Tieri)

Another structure for which Augustus bears responsibility is the Temple he caused to be built to his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. That’s right, a temple, for he had it proclaimed that Caesar had become a god. It was once a beautiful temple, rather like the one that we can still see if we happen to be in the south of France, in Nimes. There is not much left of it, but it occupies an important position in the Forum.

Maison Carrée, a Roman Temple in Nimes, France

Known now as the Maison Carrée, this Roman Temple in Nimes, France, was built about the same time as the Temple to the Divine Julius in Rome. It also has about the same design. But of the Temple of the Divine Julius in Rome, nothing remains but part of the foundation. All the more attractive stone has long since been carted off. In fact I find the most interesting thing about the ruins of the temple to be the flowers that are deposited there every year around the time of the Ides of March.(My photo)

Remains of the Temple of the Divine Julius, with flowers left in his honor

Little remains of the Temple of the Divine Julius, but some still honor his memory. (My photo)

The The Flavians and thier Colassal Playpen