Today we visit the Forum of Augustus, the second of the five Imperial Forums of Ancient Rome. Apart from providing a general overview, I hope to see another case in which Augustus used art and architecture to advance his political ends.

Show Notes

We have so far visited two major building projects carried out by Rome’s first Emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. The first, the Ara Pacis Augustae, offered visual support for Augustus’s claim to have brought peace to Rome, which had long been plagued by foreign and civil war; and the second, the Mausoleum of Augustus, a massive tomb for Rome’s first emperor and his family, made clear the prominence and power of his family dynasty. The Mausoleum made it easy to see that Augustus’s claim to be merely Rome’s First Citizen did not accurately identify his actual position in the city and that Rome was no longer a Republic ruled by its Senate and Assemblies. These two sites were near one another in the area known as the Campus Martius; today we will travel across town to the traditional center of Ancient Rome, where Augustus built an imposing Forum to which he gave his name.

View of the Forum Romanum from above (Blake photo)

In Ancient Rome, a Forum was a gathering place for civic, religious, and business purposes. For Rome’s first seven centuries, there was only one Forum, the Forum Romanum. Then, after Rome had acquired its empire and grown into a city of prodigious size, powerful individuals began to undertake vast building projects to advance their names and their political careers; and Julius Caesar became the first to design and build an entire forum: an integrated building project including a temple; a portico around the perimeter, where people could meet casually; a central courtyard with fountains where large assemblies could be held; an indoor meeting hall; and shops adjacent to but outside the main structure. Its overall footprint was a big rectangle, for things can be very big even if they have less than one half the total surface area of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Caesar’s Forum was incomplete at the time of his assassination, but his adopted son Augustus finished it. Then he extended the project by adding a rectangular forum of his own, almost half again as large and with its short end abutting the long flank of Caesar’s forum. The two forums were both impressive works of architecture, included fine sculpture and painting, and employed precious materials. The same would be true of three more forums that other emperors would add in the next century or so, each carefully designed and positioned in relation to the neighboring forums. Rome thus ended up with five well-arranged and contiguous Imperial Forums, plus the original Forum Romanum, which had grown up haphazardly over centuries.

Site Plan showing the five Imperial Forums (but not showing the road that runs across them)

Excavations for today’s Via dei Fori Imperiali, a road which Mussolini built to show off what he called Romanità, exposed suggestive parts of the ruins of the Imperial Forums that had been buried under an old neighborhood, so now their visual impact is powerfully felt. But what the road did not expose, it buried. It also made an artificial separation between the ruins on one side of the street and the ruins on the other. There has long been talk of removing Mussolini’s road to see better what is underneath it and create a larger archeological zone, but it’s easy to imagine the counterarguments in a city already congested with traffic and strapped for cash. Much of the stone from the Imperial Forums has been carted off over time, and part of what remains lies buried under Mussolini’s road.

The Forum of Caesar and the Forum of Augustus abutted one another, but their scanty ruins are today on different sides of Mussolini’s broad boulevard, and partly under it, so it is useful to consult a plan to see how the Forums used to be. All five of the Imperial Forums were organized around a temple, all were surrounded by colonnades, all had a large central courtyard, and all were beautified by sculptures and other art. It’s an odd suggestion, but it seems to me that the best place to get a general sense of what the Imperial Forums were like

The Colonnade around the Piazza San Pietro (Photo:

is to visit the Piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a Christian site, so it honors saints and not men of war or political leaders, and its shape is more complex than that of an Imperial Forum, but it illustrates well how attractive a colonnaded space can be, how it can be adorned by statues, fountains, and a dramatic central element, and how it can serve as a forecourt to a grand church or temple.

With regard to the Forum of Augustus in particular, its dominating temple was dedicated in 2 BC to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger.  Octavian—as Augustus was known before he took the title “Augustus”—had vowed to build a temple to this god if he should be victorious over Brutus and Cassius in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. As the poet Ovid put it, quoting his Augustus,

If my father Caesar, a priest of Vesta, is my warrant for waging war, and I do now prepare to avenge both his divinity and hers, come, Mars, and glut the sword with knavish blood, and grant thy favor to the better cause. Thou shalt receive a temple, and shalt be called Avenger, when victory is mine.

Victorious he was, so the temple was a votive offering to Mars for a victory that had occurred four decades earlier.

Mars was also the father of Romulus and the consort of Venus. He thus called to mind Rome’s founding and Caesar, who claimed to descend from Venus. Caesar also had vowed to build a her a temple if he defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. He did, so his forum was also a delayed votive for his victory. Augustus may thus have chosen to honor Mars in his forum, which he placed next to Caesar’s, partly because Venus and Mars are the parents of Aeneas and Romulus, to whom the Romans trace their origins.

The Ruins of the Forum of Augustus. The podium where once there was the Temple to Mars.  Note the tall tufa wall in the back. (Blake Photo)

Augustus dedicated the Temple to Mars in 2 BC, at which point the Senate granted him still another honorific title, presumably at his request, and amidst great fanfare. He was then named the Father of His Country and given a grand statue of himself driving a chariot with four horses. His new title was inscribed on the statue, which he placed in the center of his forum. His title meant more than it might today, for it implied he could exercise over Rome as a whole the authority of a Roman father, the paterfamilias, which was considerable. To keep in mind the lofty position he had created for himself in Rome, it helps to remember that he had also been calling himself the son of a god since his adoptive father was deified way back in 42 BC.

There is not much remaining of the temple for a tourist to see today. Three impressive marble columns still stand, over fifty feet tall, but there had been twenty-two of the same sort from the Temple alone, plus many more of various sizes from the forum’s portico and elsewhere. Broken pieces of them lie scattered on the ground, along with other unidentified fragments. I have not been able to find out how many of these fine columns ended up in Roman churches and how many were simply burnt in kilns to make lime, but it is easy to say that much has vanished.

It’s nevertheless possible to get a sense of the size of the temple from what remains, and to see the steps that led up to podium on which it sat, but the rest has mostly vanished. It had been made of the of high-quality white marble from Cararra, used also for the Altar of Peace of Augustus and, later, by renaissance sculptors. Parts of the flooring remain and show that it was a mixture of yellow, purple, red, and black marble. Greek and Roman temples had an interior chamber or cella, where the sculpted image of the god would sit, and this one was surrounded by statues in niches and more columns. The interior ceiling was composed of coffers, such as those you can now see in the Pantheon: both these and those were embellished with gilded rosettes in their better days.

The dedication of the temple implies at least a little religious innovation, for cults honoring Mars had previously been located outside of Rome’s sacred boundary, and this beautiful new temple helped to reinvigorate them. It even became honored and imitated around the Empire. But if I was correct in suggesting that the approximate architectural feel of an imperial forum can be experienced by a visit to the Piazza of St. Peter’s, it’s important for me to stress that the God worshipped in the Basilica represented a sharp break from pagan gods of sexual love, war, and revenge.

In designating Mars Ultor, Augustus honors not only war but vengeful war in particular. According to Suetonius’s report of the Battle of Philippi and its aftermath, Octavian had shown vengeance by sending Brutus’s head back to Rome to be thrown at the feet of Caesar’s statue. Perhaps by elevating vengeance in the public eye even forty years after the battle, he implies that the hopes of the anti-Caesarians, the supporters of the Republic, were not yet dead.

Augustus Prima Porta. The Roman standards he recovered from Parthia are represented on his breastplate (Photo David Tieri)

This Temple of Mars was also used to add further honor to war-related activities. For example, when leaders set out from Rome to conduct military operations elsewhere, they would meet for ceremonies in the Temple before they departed. When deliberating on questions of war and peace, the Senate would also meet in the temple. It also became a museum of art and memorabilia or relics—not of a chair from which St. Peter allegedly ruled but of the sword Julius Caesar alleged used. The most prized holdings of this museum were the official Roman standards that had been seized by the Parthians in 53 BC, when the Roman army under the command of Crassus suffered a humiliating defeat. Caesar had planned a campaign to recapture these standards, but his assassination left the matter for his adopted son to carry out, which Augustus succeeded in doing a quarter century later. He was understandably eager to show these standards off as evidence of an extraordinary success against a bitter enemy, so he deposited them in this temple. They were also represented on his breastplate, as you can see in the famous statue of the Augustus Prima Porta. I’ve of course added a picture of it to the website, along with other material supporting this podcast.

The most visible part of the Forum today is its most unadorned and utilitarian part, a tall wall—just under a hundred feet—made out of tufa, the far-from-elegant stone we met when touring the interior foundations of the Colosseum. Some of its more attractive travertine facing is still visible covering its very top. Holes cut into the tufa show how it had been used to support the attractive structures that are no longer present, but its main purpose was simply to serve as a firewall and visual screen so the then unattractive and crowded tenement houses just behind it would not mar the view from the Forum.

The general shape of the Forum is a rectangle, but added to it are exedra. These are like semi-circular apses that protrude from the longer sides of the rectangle, so they create extra space, and their shape makes them spaces of special distinction. As St. Peter’s and most other Roman churches have apses at the end of their nave to give special honor to their holiest part, so the Temple to Mars Ultor had an apse to accommodate the cult statue of the god. But in addition, the Forum also had apse-like exedra along its sides, rather like the way St. Peter’s and many other Roman churches have chapels that line their aisles. Two of these exedra have been identified, but scholars are warming up to the idea that there were four.

The statues that once populated the Forum are known almost only from literary evidence and surviving inscriptions, though there is a presumed copy of the cult statue of Mars Ultor now on display in the Capitoline Museums. Although it is not known who many of the statues represented, two statues of Augustus are attested. He put himself in the center of the Piazza driving a chariot like a triumphal general, and he also placed a statue of himself in a hall to the left side of the Temple. It was reportedly 36 feet tall.

But who are the men Augustus chose to place in the portico that surrounds the Forum? These would be those he wanted the many who frequented the Forum, from Rome and abroad, to admire as the Ancient Roman equivalent of the saints that surround St. Peter’s. As reported by Ovid and others, two groups stand out. In the western exedra were the ancestors of the Julian line, stretching back to Aeneas and including kings of Alba Longa, which preceded the founding of Rome. Aeneas was represented as carrying his father and leading his son out of burning Troy, before they set out on the voyage that would bring them to the Italian coast, not far from the Rome their descendants would establish. As we will see in next week’s episode, when we return to the Borghese Gallery, Gian Lorenzo Bernini has a statue there of the very same subject.

In the eastern exedra were Romulus and the first kings of Rome, though possibly an edited list that did not include the last and worst of them, Tarquinius Superb’us. Romulus was represented as carrying the weapons of a defeated enemy commander, the spolia opima. Then, along both sides of the long portico stood the summi viri, the greatest men, the highest examples of Roman virtue as Augustus wished it to be understood.

One side of the forum exalts the nobility of Augustus’s family and thereby buttresses its claim to rule, while the other side emphasizes Rome’s monarchical and warlike origins. Each statue was accompanied by an inscription that recorded the deeds of the man represented and did not fail to identify the peoples and places that were defeated and the kings who were paraded through Rome in triumph, then to be executed. Taken as a whole, the statues and inscriptions offered a summary of Rome’s history from before its founding up until the time of Augustus. And since the new forum was associated with the emperor and used for various governmental activities, it could certainly seem like an official history.

Since Augustus’s autobiography omitted many of his harsher deeds, such as his involvement in the many murders jointly called for by the Second Triumvirate, I would expect the history presented in his Forum to be similarly edited. If he could influence how the Romans saw their past, he would thereby influence their way of thinking about the future. Presenting the greatness of the Roman past would help to strengthen Roman traditions, for example, but different ways of identifying the men and deeds that contributed to Rome’s mighty past could have different effects on Augustus’s own plans for Rome. For all of his references to tradition, he was also leading a revolution to establish his family as the source of dynastic rulers for Rome in the future. So did he, for example, have a statue of the first famous Brutus, Lucius Junius Brutus, who founded the Republic and had the Romans swear an oath never to admit another king? I don’t think we have a reliable answer to this question.

In contrast to the situation in the United States today, where it is easy to identify attacks and defenses in the current debate over the sins of the American past, it is frustratingly difficult to see exactly what Augustus was up to in his Forum because so little is known about many of the statues and their accompanying inscriptions. My only confident contribution at the moment is an obvious one: Augustus’s enemies would not have been represented, so this would exclude Brutus, Cassius, and Antony, just as they would later go unnamed in his autobiography.

Brutus and Cassius had led a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar and restore the Republic. They succeeded in their immediate objective on the Ides of March, but their defeat in the Battle of Philippi confirmed the failure of their grander hopes. Augustus went on to lead the cause that Brutus and Cassius had opposed, that of transforming Rome from a Republic into the government of a single man, and he quite naturally tried to make sure that Caesar and his revolution would not be turned back. Thus after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, their images were torn down, and others were erected that told a different story.

The survivors among the former followers of Brutus and Cassius did not forget their leaders overnight, but Tacitus gives telling evidence of the extent to which Augustus had cancelled them. He describes the funeral of a very old woman, sixty-four years after the Battle of Philippi. She was the widow of Cassius and the half-sister of Brutus, and among the twenty-some busts of ancestors that were carried into the Forum for her funeral, one was of Cassius and another of Brutus. Tacitus mentions this because it was an act of unprecedented boldness, for it had long since been taboo to show such images.

There is nothing earth-shattering about saying that the history told by Augustus in his forum would not honor his enemies, but the alternative represented by Brutus and Cassius was an important one. And did Augustus also cancel the memory of Cicero and Cato the Younger? I’d like to know, but I don’t think the known evidence from the Forum can answer the question. This still seems to me a crucial question concerning Augustus’s reshaping of the Roman memory, lest it be a burden to the future he was crafting, and I’ll be surprised and disappointed if our future visits to other of Augustus’ building projects do not help us go further with it.

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