Today we discuss the Mausoleum of Augustus, the huge and once-beautiful funeral monument Augustus built for himself and his family. As the Altar of Peace was an apt symbol of Augustus’s claim to have brought the blessings of peace to Rome, so the Mausoleum is a visual reminder that he became Rome’s first Emperor and passed that power down in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Show Notes

The Mausoleum of Augustus

Remains of the Mausoleum of Augustus before recent renovations (photo ryarwood, Wikimedia Commons)

The first stop on our Augustus itinerary was at the Altar of the Peace of Augustus, the Ara Pacis Augustae, primarily to cement the point that peace was Augustus’s main claim to fame. Rome had been rocked by civil wars for decades, long before and during Caesar’s rise to power and then after his assassination. With his defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian brought these wars to an end. Turning his attention to Rome’s many provinces, he then made the borders of the empire more secure.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti is inscribed on a wall adjacent to the Mausoleum. (Photo Wikimedia Commons, Seth Schoen)

Our own moment in history is sharply critical of empire, and yet even today Augustus is routinely defended for having brought the blessing of the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace—to the Western World. Augustus himself stresses it in his little autobiography, the Res Gestae, “The Things I Did.” Closing the doors of the Temple of Janus was the Romans’ way of declaring they were at peace in their whole domain, and Augustus boasts that the Senate ordered these doors to be closed on three occasions during his rule, whereas they had been closed only twice before in all of Rome’s history, a whopping 700 years. Thinking generally of the horrors of war predisposes us to think well of Augustus for having brought them to an end.

Right next to the current position of the Altar of the Peace of Augustus is his Mausoleum, and it gives us a good reason to emphasize a second aspect of Augustus’s legacy, his elevation of himself into a position of supreme authority. Put differently, the Mausoleum calls attention to what Augustus did to achieve the Pax Romana, for it shows that he was not just an equal member of the Roman Senatorial class, he rose up and over it, as the Mausoleum rose up and over the low flat area of Rome known both then and now as the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars. Put bluntly, he made himself Rome’s first emperor, even if he did not claim the title. There would henceforth be Roman Emperors in the West for 500 years and, in the East, until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks brought the so-called Byzantine Empire to an end and renamed it capital city “Istanbul.”

Whereas Augustus claims loudly to have brought peace, he is less honest about his actions regarding the Republic. Here’s what he says in the Res Gestae,

After I extinguished the flames of civil war, . . . I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the Senate and the Roman people. . . . After that time, I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.

That is, he claims first that he dominated the Republic to bring peace but then that he surrendered his exceptional powers and restored the leadership to the Senate and People of Rome. He declares that, as a good defender of republican government, he then exercised no more power than his colleagues did. These claims might be defended as a necessary sugar coating on his rule: perhaps he had to govern under the forms and appearance of the old republic, to minimize opposition and allow the more credulous of his subjects to believe that the old Roman constitution was alive and well. If the conditions necessary for good republican government were no longer present—if the Senate and People of Rome no longer had the civic spirit and other qualities necessary for self-government—perhaps it would at least help hold the government together if Augustus pretended that he had restored the age-old Roman Republic.

The Romans had sworn almost 500 years earlier that they would never tolerate the rule of a king, and Augustus was careful always to deny that he was one. As he put it, he was the “first citizen,” and as if to show this, his regime preserved the names of the offices of the Republic it replaced. There were still Consuls, Tribunes, a Senate, Pontifex Maximus, Questors, and so forth; but Augustus managed to deprive these positions of their former independence, so rather than question his decisions, they carried them out.

Montesquieu and others maintain that Augustus learned from the assassination of his great benefactor, Julius Caesar, that it was risky in Rome to let one’s monarchical ambitions show too clearly. Caesar had himself declared “Dictator for Life,” and he seemed even to want to be hailed as the King of Rome. This open ambition and disregard for the Senate’s wish to think of itself as sovereign helped persuade Brutus, Cassius, and the other Conspirators that they had to assassinate him, as they did on the Ides of March 2,065 years ago. But by making this familiar point, I don’t mean to suggest that Augustus’s principal mode of protecting himself was by public relations: He also, for example, had many members of the old senatorial class killed, kept personal control of Rome’s military forces, and made it difficult for any general to achieve such power, honor, and independence as to become a threat to his own rule.

The great but difficult question is not whether Augustus restored the Republic as he claims. He did not. It is whether his continuing autocracy was demanded by the circumstances or, alternatively, was a power grab that killed off a Republic that might have been resuscitated.

Those who defend Augustus admit that it was then more important for Rome to have peace than to risk trying to keep its republican form of government; those who attack him stress the loss of liberty that came with the return of peace. Tacitus is a good representative of this position.

Tacitus stops short of claiming it was possible to return to the Republic, but he is nonetheless critical of Augustus for what he does to Rome. Consider this passage:

By seducing the military with gifts of cash, the masses with bread, and everyone with the pleasure of peace, he gradually increased his powers, drawing to himself the functions of Senate, magistrates, and laws.

Since Augustus was now the law and could make and break people at will, those willing to flatter him rose, and his critics fell or shut up. As he puts it,

The remaining nobles rose to wealth and office in proportion to their appetite for servitude. . . . Thus the nature of the state had changed, and no trace of the old integrity of character was anywhere to be found.

Montesquieu shares this criticism of Augustus. After indicating that the very title “Augustus” is evidence of flattery, he describes the peace and order that Augustus established as QUOTE “a durable servitude.”

I naturally would like to find a way for the Romans to have achieved both peace and liberty, but I am still looking. While both Tacitus and Montesquieu indicate the toll that Augustus’s regime took on Roman liberty, they are also both honest in admitting the many obstacles that made it difficult or even impossible to restore the Republic by which the Romans had governed themselves for almost a half-millennium. It is not as though Augustus subverted a healthy political order.

So, I take the Ara Pacis as reminder that Augustus claimed to have brought peace to Rome, and the Mausoleum as a physical symbol of the imperial powers he accumulated for himself. It also suggests that his position was mostly secure by the time he started building it in 28 BC. This was 3 years after he defeated Marc Antony at Actium, and less than one year before he took the flattering title, Augustus, “the revered one.” An earlier way he elevated himself was that he had his adopting father deified way back in 42 BC and built a temple to him in the Forum. By making Caesar a god, he made himself the son of a god, so by the time the Mausoleum went up, Augustus had for 14 years been calling himself “Gaius Julius Caesar, son of a god.” In short, the Mausoleum was a huge architectural reminder of the special status—both political and religious—that Octavian had begun to claim for himself in various ways, even as he professed to be merely the first among equals.

The interior of the Mausoleum when in use as a concert hall

The huge size and circular shape of the monument are the main features easily visible today. It had served as the foundation of a concert hall when Mussolini decided to strip away all later accretions to return to the original structure. I’d say the joke was on him, for so much of the old building had disappeared over the centuries that after he removed the concert hall, he did not find a structure that, like the Colosseum, was evocative of ancient Roman greatness. Archeologists must have been happy to get their hands on the ruins, but I doubt they served the political purpose Mussolini had hoped. As far as I can determine, for example, Mussolini did not put the Mausoleum on the itinerary for Hitler’s visit to Rome in May of 1938. As for visiting it today, about $20,000,000 worth of renovations have just been completed and now, in March 2021, the Mausoleum is open to visitors for the first time in ages. Perhaps its original beauty will now be more evident. I hope so.

Tourism is big business in Rome, at least when Covid is not stalking the land, and ancient monuments are being excavated and restored as never before. Every time I return to Rome, I find several new places to visit, all with a 5- to 10-Euro price tag for entry. Whereas the tourist business now makes it in the city’s interest to recover, preserve, and display the stones and bricks of the past, this was not always the case. As compared with the costs involved, there was for centuries no good reason to go hunting for buried statues and not even a good reason to preserve old monuments when they were in full view. Old arches, theaters, or mausoleums could be modified so as to become family fortresses, old columns could be used to build churches, marble could be turned into lime, and bronze statues into weapons. And since the population of Rome was for 15 centuries far, far smaller than it had been at the time of Augustus, a lot of Roman structures were left unmaintained and unprotected and so deteriorated or disappeared. If we are shocked or indignant that previous generations could have so neglected and abused their beautiful antiquities, I suspect we need to try harder to imagine the circumstances in which they lived.

Castel Sant’Angelo (the former Mausoleum of Hadrian) as viewed from Bernini’s Angel Bridge (Blake photo)

It can be difficult when meeting two old men to be sure which of the two was the more handsome and athletic when young, for age does not treat us all equally. And so the sufferings of the Mausoleum over the last two millennia make it difficult to appreciate its former magnificence. The Mausoleum of Hadrian, now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo, is an old man who fared better. It’s just downstream and across the Tiber, and though vastly transformed from its former self—for it was once an elegant tomb and became a fort, prison, and papal palace—it is deservedly one of Rome’s most photographed sites. Apart from being preserved for the use of the papacy, its surrounding grounds were enlarged and turned into a park. It also had the advantage from the very beginning of having a bridge across the Tiber aim directly at it, and the photogenic dome of St. Peter’s looms just behind it.

When we visit the Mausoleum of Hadrian in a later episode, we will see that it suffered greatly from war, neglect, and vandalism; but its large core structure generally remained useful, especially to the Vatican, which was conveniently located just next door, and this meant it was regularly updated in accord with the needs of the time. In the case of Rome’s other great mausoleum, that of Augustus, on the other hand, it was severely damaged and then left to sit without serious repairs for ages. The main damage was done in 1167, at which point the Mausoleum was being used as a fortress of the powerful Colonna family. The Colonna then led a revolt against the oppressive Counts of Tusculum, who were supported by the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire. The revolt failed miserably, and the Colonna were accused of treason and made scapegoats for the defeat. In punishment, their fortress in the Campus Martius was destroyed, as the sources say, which must mean destroyed as a fortress, not as a mass. By contrast, the Mausoleum of Hadrian was many times improved and transformed, as its newer name, Castel Sant’Angelo, implies. One striking sign of its development is the extended pentagonal shape of the whole complex, which was added to better protect the fortress after the development of artillery. The piazza around the Mausoleum of Augustus was recently beautified by the addition of the new Museum of the Ara Pacis, but—in spite of Mussolini’s efforts—it does not match the surroundings of the Mausoleum of Hadrian.

As all this suggests, it’s always the case with ancient Rome that we need not only to look at what is left but also to consider coins and literary sources as essential evidence of what has gone missing. The Greek geographer Strabo saw the Mausoleum in its heyday, and he was impressed. He begins his description with a comment on its neighborhood, the Campus Martius, the lower and flat part of Rome that extends from the Capitoline Hill to today’s Piazza del Popolo, on both sides of the Via del Corso, and from the river to the Quirinal and Pincian Hills. He reports that the Campus was big and open, and allowed for such activities as chariot and horse races, all sorts of military and gymnastic exercises, and some beautiful buildings as well. These included numerous temples and three theaters. Strabo thus sees the Mausoleum as a central element of Rome’s most up and coming neighborhood.

The Mausoleum was taller than any other building near it and had the diameter of a football field. It had an exterior of travertine, the whitish stone you know well from the Colosseum and many other Roman buildings, both ancient and modern; and the top was partly planted with cypress trees, which are still a feature of Italian cemeteries; it probably also had a conical roof, and Strabo says there was a grand statue of Augustus in bronze on top. The interior, like the Colosseum, was kept open by powerful vaults that supported the roof, and there were niches for the urns that held the ashes of the deceased members of Augustus’s family.

Obelisk from the Mausoleum now on the Quirinal Hill with the Dioscuri (Wikimedia Commons)

Outside, there were twin granite obelisks that flanked the entrance to the tomb and inscriptions on bronze tablets. One inscription recorded a copy of the decrees of the Senate that honored the people buried within and another posted a copy of the Res Gestae, the highly selective autobiography of Augustus. The obelisks later sank into the mud and broke into pieces, but Pope Sixtus V made it a point to re-erect ancient obelisks to adorn Counterreformation Rome. In 1587, a year after he had Domenico Fontana move an obelisk to mark the center of St. Peter’s Piazza, he had one of the obelisks from the Mausoleum rebuilt and moved to Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, facing Via Cavour. More than two centuries passed before the pieces of the second obelisk were discovered, at which point it was reassembled in the Quirinal Piazza, joining a preexisting sculptural group of Castor and Pollux. I mention this not to pile fact upon fact but because noting how impressive the obelisks are in their new locations can help us reimagine the monumentality of the Mausoleum when the obelisks marked its entrance. I also suspect that the Egyptian associations of these obelisks were meant to call attention to Augustus’s recent victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra, which along with other advantages, brought much needed grain to Rome and support for Rome’s First Citizen, or, rather, First Emperor.

I find the tomb to be of interest also because its first occupants can help us get to know the two powerful families that Augustus brought together, the Julii and the Claudii. He was an adopted member of the former, and his wife Livia was tied to the latter, so his dynasty is known as Julio-Claudian. It’s an exceedingly complicated family tree, with several different people having the same familiar names, such as Nero, Drusus, Julia, and Agrippina. And it’s also a family set apart by the terrible deeds some of its members committed and suffered. Old Oedipus tormented himself for, without knowing it, having married his mother and killed his father, but some of the Julio-Claudians committed comparable actions in full awareness of just what they were doing.

Beyond the general goal of introducing this dynastic family, our return visit to the Mausoleum will shed light on the challenge of arranging an orderly succession from one monarchical ruler to the next. Five of the first six occupants of the mausoleum were men Augustus wanted to have a role in ruling Rome after his death, and yet all died before he did. Whatever its other advantages, monarchical government is not easily transferred from one set of hands to another. Shakespeare’s King Lear shows this, and so do the first occupants of the Mausoleum of Augustus. We’ll get to know them when we return to Ancient Rome.

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