We have already examined five of Augustus’s major building project in Rome, but we have not yet considered how he changed the beating heart of Ancient Rome, the Forum. Today we do.

Show Notes

I have so far emphasized the importance of Augustus, Ancient Rome’s first Emperor, by dedicating five episodes to five different building projects which he undertook to beautify Rome and, of course, to strengthen the ruling position of his family dynasty. Today, after a return to some general themes, I’ll look especially at his several projects in and around the Roman Forum, the center of Ancient Rome.

I’ve joined every other commentator in quoting Augustus as having said that he found Rome in brick and left it in marble. One might quibble by saying that he found Rome in brick but covered it with marble, for the Romans generally used marble as a sheathing for their buildings, not as their core material. Beneath Rome’s marble, the brick and concrete remained and did the heavy lifting. Even if brick and concrete are less precious than marble, they are versatile. They allowed the Romans to build fluid structures with soaring arches and vaults, as the Pantheon demonstrates.

Back of Pantheon, showing the brick core after the looting of the marble and travertine revetment (Wknight94 talk, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is true at least of brick that has been fired and hardened in kilns, as became the Romans’ practice only in the time of Augustus. Previously, bricks were merely mud dried in the summer sunlight, so they were much less strong, durable, and attractive. So Augustus found Rome in mud brick, and left it in kiln-dried brick sheathed in marble revetment.

I would certainly support the claim that during his long rule of almost fifty years and of almost absolute power, Augustus really did beautify Rome. In fact, I would even add to his boast: he not only sheathed Rome in marble but also attended to its infrastructure by repairing, enhancing, or building sewers, roads, and aqueducts. And all such activities he encouraged not only in Rome but around the vast empire. With Augustus, the question is not whether he beautified Rome and improved the city in the material sense: he did. The question is a political one: Did he enslave it? Or, to put it more moderately, did the Romans’ loss of civic virtue leave him no good alternative other than to make his own family into Rome’s despotic rulers? Must a population possess certain moral and intellectual qualities to govern themselves, and had the Romans lost these?

Here, to help fix this question in our minds, is a portion of Tacitus’s summary of Augustus’s rise to power:

After proclaiming himself to be merely Consul content with the authority of a Tribune to safeguard the common people, he then seduced the army by gifts, the common people by cheaper grain, and the world by the comforts of peace. Then, step by step, he began to make his ascent and to unite in his own person the functions of the senate, the magistracy, and the legislature. There was no opposition: the boldest spirits had succumbed on the field of battle or been proscribed; while the rest of the nobility found that the smoothest route to wealth and office was to accept slavery cheerfully.

The “proscribing” Tacitus refers to was the practice during the civil wars in Rome of a posting a list of Roman citizens declared to be outlaws. Their goods were confiscated, and rewards were offered to those who killed or reported any of them. When Octavian collaborated with Marc Antony in the Second Triumvirate, they proscribed about 300 Senators and Knights, Cicero included, which killed off or intimidated much of the opposition and brought in money and land for them to distribute to supporters. In Tacitus’s view, proscription helps to explain the Senate’s supine acceptance of Augustus’s accumulation of all authority into his own hands. I would add that making Rome more beautiful and functional helped to distract from, or compensate for, the violence and cunning Augustus used to amass supreme power.

It would be tedious to list everything Augustus built during his long reign. His autobiography seems at least roughly accurate on these points: he built 12 or 13 temples, the Senate House, two large colonnades, two forums, a major basilica, and more. He also claims to have repaired 82 temples that were in decline. Let’s take it as established that Augustus’s sometimes violent policies restored peace to Rome and brought the city to the peak of its physical beauty. It is also widely agreed that Rome reached its maximum population under Augustus, about 1 million or more, a level it did not reach again until the time of Mussolini, almost 2,000 years later. This too is a sign of the prosperity of Augustus’s reign.

We cannot see it by visiting any of Rome’s ancient ruins, but literature also thrived under Augustus. Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy all wrote during some part of his rule and with varying degrees of direct or indirect encouragement from him, though it is true that Augustus banished Ovid from Rome for unspecified misdeeds, which Ovid described vaguely as “a poem and a mistake.” Since Augustus is not shy about singing his own praises, I’m a little surprised he claims no credit for the literary flourishing that occurred during and after his rise to prominence in Rome. He could have added this too to his autobiography, but perhaps this would have only strengthened the suspicion that Horace and Virgil presented a flattering view of Augustus as payback for his direct or indirect support of them.

It is revealing that Augustus does claim credit for his frequent and lavish entertainment of the Roman people with gladiatorial games and other sorts of shows, including a large naval battle fought on a lake constructed for the purpose. Perhaps what he chooses to emphasize in his autobiography is an indication of what the Roman people were most likely care most about, including blood sports and free lunches. But can a serious man want gratitude or honor for making it easy for people to spend long days watching crude forms of entertainment? Or would he think that if people like it and shout out their appreciation, no entertainment can be crude and degrading? I can understand that under harsh circumstances, all thought of moral and intellectual character may need to go out the window, and the political tasks might then be only those of staying on top and keeping people quiet and contented in whatever way possible. I wonder if this is how Augustus saw it.

Augustus’s building projects also helped him to secure himself and his family in power, but they did so by beautifying Rome and making it a more healthy city. And if traditional paganism in some way strengthened the Romans’ character as citizens and individuals, he might have seen his restoration and building of temples as serving this moral objective as well.

Abbreviated inscription on the Pantheon Architrave: “M. Agrippa, the son of Lucius, Consul thrice, built this” (photo David Tieri)

We have seen in past episodes that Augustus built in different parts of the city: he built a beautiful temple on the Palatine Hill, the oldest part of Rome; he built his own Forum adjacent to the traditional Forum Romanum; and he developed the Campus Martius by locating in this new neighborhood his family Mausoleum, his Altar of Peace, and the great obelisk that served as the gnomon of a meridian. His friend Agrippa also sponsored projects in the area as is easily remembered when we see his name still on the architrave of the Pantheon.

But he also did a lot of rebuilding in the old Forum Romanum, and this gives me a good opportunity to introduce this beating heart of Ancient Rome while also shedding a little more light on how Augustus used architecture to serve his political ends.

Lying beneath and between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, the Forum was the political and religious center of Ancient Rome. When we refer to the Roman Forum today, we often mean the area that extends from the Capitoline as far as the Arch of Titus, but in ancient times the Forum was the size of a compact piazza, with all structures in view of one another. It did not extend much beyond the Temple of Vesta. The Senate House, or Curia, was located here, as were the Rostra, or speaking platform, and the law courts, which were housed in the city’s two most impressive basilicas, the Basilica Julia and the Basilica Aemilia. At least four main temples and several shrines supported pagan rituals in the Forum. And some of Rome’s most dramatic actions took place in the Forum, including the cremation of Caesar and the display of Cicero’s severed head and hand.

The Forum had been the center of the Roman Republic, a center in which the most authoritative institutions were located. As he replaced the Republic with his own rule, Augustus worked to add to or adjust the structures of the Forum so that the buildings and their functions would come to be associated with him and his family. By themselves, these building efforts could never suffice to establish a family dynasty. But by the end of his life, Augustus had reconfigured much of the Forum, and when combined with other measures, some stern, others cagey, the new Forum helped to confirm and enhance his authority and that of his family, the  Julio-Claudians.

Augustus contended against two main rivals. He first had to prevail over Antony, but he also sought to ward off any moves to strengthen the Senate and return to some version of the Republic, as Caesar’s murderers had wished to do.

Caesar had become dear to the Roman people, and both Antony and Octavian sought to boost their influence by claiming to be his successor. It was thus in the interest of each rival to demonstrate that he was closer to Caesar than the other was. Antony was 20 years older than Octavian and could say that he had long served as Caesar’s right-hand man, and it was he who gave the famous funeral oration over Caesar’s bloody corpse. Octavian was only 17 when Caesar died, but Caesar’s will designated him as Caesar’s heir and adopted son. Octavian strengthened his claim through his building projects in and around the Roman Forum.

His first move was to erect an altar at the site of Caesar’s cremation in the Forum, which showed his filial piety in honoring his adoptive father. Since this altar took the place of a marble column that Caesar’s supporters had erected right after his death, but which a Consul opposing Caesar’s followers had taken down, Octavian reaped the further benefit of, in effect, hoisting the fallen banner of the Caesarian faction.

He later made it a point to finish projects that Caesar had begun and named them after his Julian family. These included the Basilica Julia, the Curia Julia, and the Forum Julium. We will add a little detail later, but the point is that these are major building projects that gave the Forum a new look and identified it more closely with the man who carried them to completion. Imagine if one of the most powerful men in the United States were the son of a President, one who had made himself dictator for life but been assassinated. Add that the son then reconfigured the DC downtown by building there a new Senate House, new law courts, new official meeting rooms, and a new temple that implied his father had descended from the gods. Such building projects have political implications.

I grant that calling the Senate the Julian Senate does not by itself mean that the Julian family controls the institution that meets inside the building, but a new building in a new location with a new name brought an aura and degree of influence that contributed to the establishment of a family dynasty. In our time, the San Francisco School Board decided in January to rename schools that were named after Lincoln, Washington, or others deemed racist or morally lacking—a decision since reversed. The name of a building cannot by itself control what is taught or decided inside that building, but surely it influences public sentiment, for better or worse.

Augustus’s most dramatic intervention in the Forum to boost his Julian family was his construction of the Temple of the Divine Julius. It was the Senate that took the first step, for it declared that Caesar had become a god, the first such deification of a non-legendary ruler in the history of Rome. The occasion of a comet visible in the Roman sky for a week was a stimulus or excuse for the Senate’s action, but I also take it to be evidence of the Romans’ growing superstition and readiness to accept and justify the absolute rule of a single human being.

As for the building of it, Octavian took the credit for it, even though it had been the Triumvirate of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus that had first vowed it. Antony’s prolonged absence in Egypt made it a bit easier for Octavian to put himself forward in Rome.

The ruins of the temple are still visible in the Forum, and every time I’ve been there I’ve found flowers on the site of Caesar’s cremation, which is marked by a semicircular niche in front of the podium or platform on which the temple sat. I suspect Octavian thought that a physical reminder of Caesar’s cremation would help to keep his memory more vividly in mind. Perhaps in this very limited respect it can be compared to the tomb of Saint Peter in the Vatican Necropolis, which has for centuries attached pilgrims to the saint and to the Church for which he stands.

I said in my podcast that I would show the location of the Temple on a site plan on this website, but I find that I can’t do this without violating copyright rules, so here is a link to another site: I choose this one because it includes only one structure from after the time of Augustus (the Temple of Vespasian). Most site plans of the Forum show the enlarged and more crowded Forum that was yet to come.

The Temple makes it a new border for the Forum on its southeastern end. Since it sat on an unusually high platform or podium, almost 18 feet, it also became a point from which to survey the entire Forum. Its design even included a speaker’s platform across the front of the temple, so when Augustus addressed a Roman crowd from this location, he would be speaking as the son of the god-man whose temple was just behind him. One such recorded occasion was at the funeral of his sister, Octavia, who had been the scorned wife of Antony; and it was also from this rostra that Tiberius delivered the oration at the funeral of Augustus.

Almost everyone has heard that “rostrum” is the Roman term for the beak of a warship, used to ram enemy vessels, and that since the main speakers’ platform in the Forum was adorned by such beaks, it came to be called the Rostra. Almost every speaker’s podium today is decorated with a symbol, seal, or logo that seeks to call attention to some authority or organization, but the Roman Rostra did this in a major way. Augustus saw to it that the Rostra in front of Caesar’s new temple featured the beaks of the ships of Antony and Cleopatra, whom he had defeated in the battle of Actium. Thus this side of the Forum announced that Augustus was the son of a god and the great warrior who repulsed the threat from Egypt.

Even before this, Augustus had already completed the rebuilding of the main Speaker’s Platform in the Forum, which Caesar had begun, and which marked the opposite border of the Forum, just beneath the Capitoline Hill. Saying “Speakers’ Platform” does not capture the imposing character of the two Rostra Augustus built in the Forum. The one beneath the Capitoline was over 70 feet long and 30 feet wide, much bigger even than what Caesar had been building. It thus served as platform not only for occasional speakers but for a permanent collection of sculpture, and guess who had a statue positioned there? According to the historian Vellius, Octavian was represented on this Rostra Julia by a gilded bronze equestrian statue.

Columns with protruding Rostra in Piazza del Popolo (photo Roberto Piperno

Rostra of defeated enemies were also mounted on columns. You can see re-creations of these in the Piazza del Popolo, just beneath the Pincian Hill, where columns with carved rostra flank the goddess Roma. Octavian used one of these to adorn the Forum and honor himself for his victory over Sextus Pompey, which was also the occasion that first sparked his building of the Temple of Apollo, which we discussed in Episode 33.

Octavian dedicated the Curia Julia and the Temple of the Divine Julius in 29 BC, two years after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and two years before received “Augustus” as an honorary title and began to use it as his name. The ceremonies dedicating the new temple and new Senate were lavish, and they included a triple triumph for Augustus’s victories in Actium, Egypt, and Illyria. At about the same time, a triumphal arch was planned to celebrate Augustus’ victory over Antony, and two more arches to Augustus were proclaimed and built in the following decade. Two of these arches flanked the Temple of Caesar, so the southeastern passages to and from the Forum were dominated by tributes to Augustus.

Once Augustus saw that he would have to accept Tiberius as his heir, he found ways to promote him by further interventions in the Forum. But for the time being, I’ll pass over Augustus’s use of the Forum for managing his succession and leave it for today by returning to emphasize two points:

The Maison Carrée, a Roman Temple in Nimes from the time of Augustus (my photo)

The first is that Augustus really did beautify Rome and the Forum, and it is a pity that only ruins of his work remain in Rome. But if you have the good fortune to visit Nimes in southern France, you will surely take a good look at the MAISON CARRÉE, and it will give you a good idea of the general features of the Temple of the Divine Julius. When Thomas Jefferson visited the Temple in Nimes in 1787, he wrote to a friend that he was smitten by it and spent long hours gazing at it, QUOTE “like a lover at his mistress.” My own encounter with this temple, possibly the best preserved Roman Temple in Europe, has made it easier for me to believe that Ancient Rome really was once a city of beautiful buildings.

My second point in review is just to suggest again that beauty was not Augustus’s only goal: his interventions in Rome also served first to advance his cause against that of Marc Antony, and, secondly, to strengthen the political position of his emerging family dynasty.

Share this podcase episode