Augustus boasted that he turned Rome from brick to marble, and I think he  did. But did he also turn it from a republic to an empire and, if so, did his architectural projects help? We consider his majestic Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill.

Show Notes

In his biography of Augustus, the Roman Historian Suetonius said the following:

Augustus so beautified Rome that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble. (28.3)

It appears that Augustus did boast of his architectural transformation of the capital of the Empire he had won for himself, for three chapters of his autobiography, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, were fully devoted to his building projects in Rome. Previous episodes have already introduced three of these, his Ara Pacis, his Forum, and his Mausoleum, but these are just the beginning. His Res Gestae names over 20 new buildings he erected in Rome and over 80 structures he repaired, and he does not mention still other initiatives that he supported, such as those of Marcus Agrippa, who built the first Pantheon. But as impressive as was Augustus’s transformation of the look of Rome, his political impact was far greater, and it is quite likely that his art and architectural undertakings were in this service of his political goals. If one question is whether he found Rome brick and left it marble, the more important question is whether he found Rome a Republic and left it a monarchy. My answer to both questions is “Yes,” though I hasten to add that the Republic he found was not in good health. I suspect that making Rome marble made it a little easier for him to make it monarchical. Mussolini may have hoped for similar political benefits from his architectural makeover of Rome two millennia later.

Titles are often chosen to distort the truth, not to capture it, and Augustus’s titles convey different messages. He called himself “First Citizen” as a way of claiming to be just one of many citizens of the still intact Roman Republic in which power was shared by many, but he also referred to himself as “Caesar Augustus Son of a Divinity, Father of His Country.” We have already seen that Augustus emphasized his father’s divinity by including a statue of him in the Temple of Mars, where there was also a statue of Venus, from whom Caesar claimed to descend by way of Aeneas. He also built a temple to the Deified Caesar in the Forum: by revering his adoptive father he honored himself and, I suspect, strengthened his political position. Augustus may have been merely the First Citizen in some respects, but in others he was on the fast track to kingly powers and even divinity.

Augustus’s autobiography announces that he rebuilt the Capitol and the Theater of Pompey at great personal expense, without putting his name on either project. I suppose most of us are guilty of similar contradictions, but I still can’t help smiling at the openness with which Augustus praises himself for not praising himself.  He wants to be known as a beneficent ruler of Rome, ready to spend generously from his own funds to improve and adorn the city; and if this reputation does not arise spontaneously, he is prepared to assist it.

Augustus was not always even this shy about affirming his real place in Rome, or over it: he put his name on the very front of the Temple of Mars in his Forum, and he also had his new title as Father of his Fatherland inscribed on the base of the bronze sculpture of himself driving a chariot, like a general in a triumph, which he placed in the Forum’s center. Around the portico enclosing the Forum were statues of great Romans of past ages, including Aeneas and Romulus, both born of gods, and all look forward, toward Augustus, as did the Temple itself, which loomed behind the statue. Papa Borghese, Paul V, put his name on the front of St. Peter’s, but he stopped well short of putting a statue of himself in the center of the Piazza and having the saints on the Colonnade gaze at him. Augustus, on the other hand, puts himself in the company of Aeneas and Romulus, as founder of a new Rome.

Still, and notwithstanding his claims of vast authority, he sometimes clothed himself not as a monarch but as a citizen subordinate to the state. The first paragraph of his Autobiography claims that he “restored liberty to the republic,” and he later says, “I refused to accept any power offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors.” He supports this claim by listing positions and honors that he declined, even though the Senate wished to thrust them upon him. Whereas Caesar made himself Dictator for Life, Octavian declined such anti-republican offices. At least he declined anti-republican titles for the vast powers he held. He was careful to set a time limit on powers granted to him by the Senate, for example, which would seem to show that, unlike a king, and unlike Caesar, he did not want his power to extend indefinitely.

As further evidence that he was just an ordinary citizen, who lived according to the laws, he claimed to have paid for the ground on which his Forum sits, as Caesar had claimed of his Forum. And it appears to be true that Caesar and Augustus did not simply seize the land occupied by their forums: they purchased it on the open market and at great expense, which Mussolini did not bother to do when he eviscerated a neighborhood in this same area 2,000 years later. Scholars explain that a landowner’s refusal to sell his property to Augustus is the reason there is a slight irregularity in the shape of his Forum, so it seems true that Augustus hesitated to give unnecessary offense and sought to be praised for his generosity to the Roman People. Still, if Augustus paid for the land with his own money, where did he acquire his almost boundless riches in the first place?

Similarly, he would be running no great risk in making his own continuance as Rome’s supreme political authority contingent upon the Senate’s future renewal of his position, if he controlled the Senate, as I think he did. Like a good conservative, he maintained all the titles of the old Republic, but like a clever revolutionary, he changed their content.

The three structures we have looked at so far all bear Augustus’s name, all show his vast power, and all therefore boost his reputation of power, which is itself an aid to further power.  I’m not sure about the Mausoleum, but his Altar of Peace and his Forum temper or at least accompany their radical exaltation of one man by a conservative looking back to Aeneas, Romulus, the traditional gods and religious rites, and the Forum is flanked by long lines of statues of old Roman heroes. These signs of deference to ancestral ways mute Augustus’s radicalism and give old timers a reason to support his regime. More than this, he seems to have hoped to turn more men into old-timers; that is, he hoped to recover and strengthen some of the old qualities that had in the past helped to stabilize Roman society, such as deference to the gods and dedication to child-rearing and family life. Hence he restored religious ceremonies that had lapsed and, according to his autobiography, 82 temples that had been neglected.

Location of Temple of Apollo on the Palatine and the House of Augustus (though some scholars think House of Livia was actually the House of Augustus). Note also the library and the Portico, mentioned below.  Design by (CC BY 2.0)

But I have been speaking of the power and policies of Octavian after he became Augustus, but Octavian could not claim this self-aggrandizing title until after he had defeated Marc Antony, almost 15 years after his adoptive father was assassinated. During this long period, Octavian was in a dangerous, uncertain, and decidedly uphill battle for supremacy in Rome. We need to review it to make sense of our next stop, at the Temple to Apollo that Augustus built on the Palatine Hill. It was the most magnificent of his buildings, and even if there is little left of it today, its few ruins and the nearby House of Augustus still justify a visit to the Palatine Hill, as do other attractions there, including the Stadium of Domitian and views over the Forum, the Circus Maximus, and other parts of Rome.

If, by the time he built his forum, Augustus could place a grand statue of himself at the center of a divine assembly and treat public funds as if they were his own, he did not begin his career in such a powerful position. He was handed his first great success without even having sought it, for when Caesar’s will was opened and read, it revealed that he had adopted Octavian as his son and heir. Even so, Octavian faced a Rome that was in civil war, and powerful rivals offered him no easy path forward. Remarkably, he managed to make himself a member of the Second Triumvirate just 18 months after Caesar’s assassination, so he had quickly become one of the most powerful men in Rome, but this three-man junta faced the combined forces of Brutus, Cassius, and all those who stood against Caesar’s dictatorial policies. Once the anti-Cesarian army was defeated, Octavian was responsible for ruling most of the western part of the empire, while Marc Antony ruled in the East, but Octavian still had to defeat the naval threat posed by Sextus Pompey and find a way to satisfy the demands of both the army and the Roman people. All this at a time when the treasury was empty. True, he was one of the two most powerful human beings in the Roman world, but even the greatest human powers are often insufficient to control balky events.

While trying to stabilize the Roman west and his position in it, Octavian had to keep an eye on Marc Antony, who ruled the east. Only in 31 BC, 13 years after Caesar’s assassination, would Octavian defeat Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium and remove this threat. Then he would become the single most powerful man in both halves of the empire, and he would wait only a few more years before claiming the flattering title, “Augustus.”

It would be naïve to imply that Augustus’s remaking of Rome’s architecture was the major way by which he defeated Antony and consolidated his position as Rome’s preeminent ruler. His policies regarding salaries for the soldiers and grain and games for the People of Rome were much more important. But building was likely to have been a part of his battle plan, so I wonder what he had in mind when building the highly praised Temple of Apollo on the Palatine.

Augustus vowed to Apollo to build this temple twice. He did so first in 36 BC on the occasion of a decisive battle against Sextus Pompey, whose powerful navy controlled the Mediterranean and hence shipping into and out of Rome. Pompey also held Sicily. Then Augustus vowed a temple to Apollo a second time, on the eve of the Battle of Actium, in which he would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. But why Apollo?

One explanation is suggested by a peculiar story told by the historian Dio Cassius. He reports that according to Octavian’s mother, it was actually Apollo that had fathered her son. She was once sleeping in Apollo’s temple, which was apparently not uncommon for those hoping for a cure, when she thought that she had had intercourse with Apollo, who had appeared to her in the form of a snake. Then, when she was about to deliver a baby about nine months later, she dreamt that her insides were lifted to the heavens and spread out over all the earth; and the same night her husband thought he saw the sun rose from her womb. Dio reports this story as a way of explaining why Caesar chose Octavian as his heir and adopted son, and I am in no position to say that Attia did not say what Dio says she said. I would just invite you to consider the possibility that the evidence for it is slim, and there were reasons for wanting either to flatter Octavian or strengthen his claim to rule. And would Caesar really have chosen his heir on the basis of a mother’s claim that her son was fathered by a god? If you give credence to this strange story, you can also cite Suetonius, for he too tells a version of it.

Another reason for making a vow to Apollo regarding the Battle of Actium is that there was a temple of Apollo overlooking the bay where the battle was fought. This makes sense to me, but Octavian had begun associating himself with Apollo before it was clear where the battle would occur.

I’ll suggest another line of thought partly because I think it helps bring out the general political situation. It goes like this: Octavian must have known that, if he and Antony proved victorious at Philippi, relations between them would begin to deteriorate soon thereafter, just as Churchill knew that his alliance with Stalin would suffer more strains once Nazi Germany was defeated. If the twins Romulus and Remus were unable share power, how would he and Antony ever do so? So it was in Octavian’s interest to begin present himself in an attractive light as compared to Antony, who was now an ally of whom to be suspicious.

Both men had a claim to be Caesar’s chief follower: Antony had aided him in both political and military battles for more than a decade, and he was sharing the consulship with Caesar when he was killed in 44 BC. It was he whose famous funeral oration prompted the riots that drove Caesar’s assassins out of Rome. Octavian had a document showing that he was Caesar’s heir and adopted son, but he was too young to have had the close association with Caesar that Antony had developed.

Close to Caesar though he was, Antony made himself an easy target for attack on other grounds. He was now in the east, openly cavorting with Cleopatra, and, to compress a period of a dozen years into a few sentences, he seemed to have forgotten his duty to Rome in favor of a life of the intense and extravagant pleasures then associated with the east. As described by Plutarch, Antony and Cleopatra held elaborate costume parties with women dressed, or undressed, like uninhibited worshipers of Dionysius, and with men and boys decked out like oversexed Satyrs and Pans. Antony had previously claimed lineage from Hercules, but he openly likened his way of life to that of Dionysius, which he took to mean that of drunkenness, parties, and loose living.

It could seem or even be the case that Octavian wanted to be on good terms with Antony and tried to cooperate with him. After all, he had his sister Octavia marry Antony, which would seem a good faith effort to knit the two halves of the empire together and give Antony a chance to reform his bad behavior. On the other hand, Octavian might have anticipated that the match would fail and thought its failure would increase stolid Roman disfavor against Antony: at least Plutarch reports that this was indeed the result of Antony’s shabby treatment of his Roman wife as he sought the favors of an Egyptian queen.

Antony’s conduct made it easy for Romans to criticize him, and he seemed not even to worry about his reputation in Rome. If he cared about Roman opinion, how could he have declared Cleopatra to be the queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Syria? She was not even a Roman citizen: Didn’t these provinces belong to Rome, not Antony or his foreign lover? And how could he hand over Armenia, Media, Parthia, Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia not to the Roman Senate but to his children with Cleopatra?

In view of Antony’s taste for excess and open identification with Dionysius, it makes sense for Octavian to associate himself with Apollo, for Apollo could be taken to represent a more sober spirit than that of Dionysius. A god of music, medicine, archery, and prophesy, Apollo was a model of upright conduct at least as compared with Dionysius. It is true, as we have seen, that Ovid has him misbehave with Daphne, and he was guilty of other lapses as well, but as far as the pagan gods are concerned, his conduct was better than the norm. Sextus Pompey’s power was in his navy, and he associated himself with Neptune, god of the sea, as Antony associated himself with Dionysius, so it at least makes sense to wonder whether Augustus was attributing Apollo’s qualities to himself.

However this may be, Augustus featured Apollo on coins, by sponsoring extravagant games dedicated to Apollo in 40 BC, and, especially, by building a magnificent temple to him, right next to his house on the Palatine Hill.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. Only a few other pieces are preserved in the Palatine Museum. (Photo (CC BY 2.0))

My difficulty is that there is precious little left of the temple, save for written tributes of its beauty and magnificence. The site is available to be explored: the views from it are attractive, and it is strikingly close to Augustus’s house. The poet Propertius has a longish description of it in Book II of his Elegies, but his main subject is love, not architecture, and I’m not a fan of extended descriptions of architecture that we can’t see and whose details are disputed. I’ll limit myself to a few main points.

First in my mind is that the sanctuary contained a library of Greek and Roman texts, one which became famous. I stress this just to introduce the subject of libraries in Rome: there were many such, but none survives. It’s important to remember that not only many buildings of Rome were destroyed, but many books as well. This library was apparently big enough that meetings of the Senate were held in it, which may have helped the Senators keep Augustus’s power, in mind as they deliberated.

The site also contained a portico or colonnade. Propertius describes it as a beautiful golden colonnade, adorned with columns from Carthage, and including statues of the fifty Danaids. Then in the center of the portico was the temple, made of fine Luna marble, and on top of it were chariots of the Sun, with which Apollo was associated. The doors represented a mix of mythological scenes, beautifully carved of Libyan ivory. The altar was surrounded by four oxen sculpted by a Myron, a famous Greek sculptor, and the cella or inner chamber naturally had much admired cult statues of both Apollo and Diana, to whom the temple was secondarily vowed.

The so-called Sibylline books were thought to contain true prophecies for the future of Rome and had resided for ages in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, but Augustus brought them over to his new Temple of Apollo. This helped to emphasize Apollo’s prophetic gifts and to enhance the importance of the temple. Perhaps, indirectly, this move also associated Augustus more closely with Rome’s future.

Given the lavishness of the materials and richness of the art attributed to the temple, I have to think it was of great importance to Augustus. He turned Rome from brick to marble, but did he do so on purely aesthetic grounds? He began building the temple soon he defeated Sextus Pompey in 36 BC, and the building continued during the years his relations with Marc Antony were becoming increasingly tense, before the other building projects we have discussed. Perhaps another way it was important is by suggesting Augustus’s relative and apparent simplicity. He did not build a huge palace for himself, as Nero would later do: his house was just next door to the temple, and the contrast between the luxury of the one and the simplicity of the other would have shined a flattering light on Rome’s first Emperor.

But when it comes to simplicity, no one beats the early Christians, and it is to them, and their catacombs, that we turn in the next episode.

TIMELINE:     A few dates to keep things in order:

44 BC: Caesar is assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and other “Liberators” who thought they could restore the Roman Rebublic by eliminating Caesar. Caesar’s will makes Octavian, then only 18 years old, his heir and adopted son.

43 BC: Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus form the Second Triumvirate, to whom the Senate grants extraordinary powers for five years. It was then renewed for five more. The stated purpose was for them to “organize the republic” (in the light of decades of civil war).

42 BC: Forces led by Antony and Octavian defeat the Liberators at Philippi, in Greece.

36 BC: Octavian (with much help from Agrippa) defeats Sextus Pompey in the Battle of Naulochus. He vows a Temple of Apollo on the Palatine and begins to build it.

31 BC: Octavian (with much help from Agrippa) defeats Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, in Greece. He vows a temple to Apollo and continues to build it.

28 BC: The Temple of Apollo is opened; so is the Mausoleum of Augustus.

27 BC: Octavian takes the title, “Augustus,” “The Revered One.”

13 BC: The Ara Pacis Augustae is commissioned. It is consecrated four years later, in 13 BC.

2 BC: The Forum of Augustus opens, and Augustus receives, or takes, the title, “Father of the Fatherland.”

14 AD: Augustus dies at age 66, after 45 years of being the most powerful man in Rome.

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