Augustus's Rome, 2000 Years Later

Modern bronze copy of the Augustus of Prima Porta, Via dei Fori Imperiali, © Alice Barigelli

Modern bronze copy of the Augustus of Prima Porta, Via dei Fori Imperiali, © Alice Barigelli

I love anniversaries and meaningful dates, and this year has been full of them. Back in February we commemorated the 450th anniversary of the death of the great Michelangelo, in April we celebrated the 450th birthday of Shakespeare and remembered the 300th anniversary of the passing of El Greco. This year has also seen important anniversaries of events that have changed history, from the toppling of the Berlin Wall (25 years ago), to the passing of the Civil Rights Act (50 years ago), to D-Day (70 years ago), to the opening of the Panama Canal and onset of World War One (both 100 years ago).

But the most awe-inspiring and moment-of-silence-worthy of all, particularly for those of us who love big, round numbers (and happen to live and breathe ancient Roman history), is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Emperor Augustus.

Detail of the Augustus of Labicana, Museo Nazionale Romano a Palazzo Massimo ( source )

Detail of the Augustus of Labicana, Museo Nazionale Romano a Palazzo Massimo (source)

Exactly 2000 years ago today, on 19 August A.D. 14, Emperor Augustus, born Gaius Octavius and the first emperor of Rome, breathed his last. Throughout his long life, Octavius wore many hats, and carried many titles. He was known as Princeps (the “first” citizen of Rome), Divi Filius (the son of the divine, in reference to his great-uncle and adopted father, the deified Julius Caesar), Augustus (illustrious one), Pater Patriae (father of his country), and, of course, Caesar, a family name that would eventually become synonymous with the term “emperor.” His official roles were just as varied, from Consul (Rome’s highest elected office) to Pontifex Maximus (high priest) and eventually Imperator (military commander).

During his 41-year reign (the longest of any Roman emperor), Augustus built enduring monuments, developed the city’s infrastructure, and established the Pax Romana, the empire’s most enduring period of peace. If you’re in Rome today and have nothing more important to do (and really, in the middle of August, what else could you possibly have to do?), I suggest commemorating the extraordinary man’s death with a tour of his greatest monuments and portraits.

Ara Pacis [ source ]

Ara Pacis [source]

The best way to appreciate Augustus’s footprint on the fabric of his city is to take a tour of the works he built. He was credited with the line, “I inherited Rome a city of brick; I left it a city of marble,” and whether or not he actually said it, the words certainly ring true. Perhaps the most recognizable of the monuments in his legacy is the Ara Pacis (Lungotevere in Augusta). Although the first years of his reign were marred by war, Augustus’s dedication to restoring peace to the empire was what set him apart from the leaders who would follow him. The majestic white marble Altar of Peace was inaugurated in 9 BC to celebrate the peace brought to the empire by Augustus’s military victories in Hispania and Gaul. Although partially reconstructed, the altar nevertheless possesses much of its original bas-relief decoration, depicting Roman myths, scenes of ritual sacrifice, intricate garlands, and a procession of Augustus and other members of the imperial family. 

Ara Pacis illuminated [ source]

Ara Pacis illuminated [source]

Despite the modern misconception that ancient Rome was a city of gleaming white marble, in actual fact, Roman marble buildings were generally painted in bright vibrant colors, and this was certainly the case with the Ara Pacis. In honor of this big anniversary, the exquisite monument will be illuminated with colored laser beams to recreate what it most likely looked like in the emperor's day. This is not the first time this technique has been used (see my post: Real Rome: The Ara Pacis in Technicolor), but it is always spectacular to behold. You can visit tonight from 9pm to midnight without a reservation.

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group

In the heart of the Imperial Fora, found partially excavated alongside right and left of Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Forum of Augustus was the physical representation of Augustus’s power. The forum incorporates the Temple of Mars Ultor (the avenging god of war) and was at the time considered “greater than any in existence.” While not completed until 2 BC, the temple was first planned by Augustus after he successfully avenged Caesar, killing his assassins Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. Just in time for the big anniversary, the forum comes to life in a summer-long project that helps visitors experience the site as it once was. 

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group

Every night, a digital multi-media show recreates the original appearance of the forum before your very eyes. Audience members are provided with earphones with audio in six languages, while the images and animation are projected directly onto the walls of the forum. Visit for more details.

Interior of the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill [ source]

Interior of the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill [source]

Unlike the emperors who would succeed him, Augustus lived not in an opulent palace but a comfortable, tasteful home. He chose to live on the Palatine Hill (as would his successors) to underline his connection to Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who were raised, according to legend, on the very same hill seven centuries earlier, and where Augustus himself was born. Despite its relatively small size, the House of Augustus is celebrated for its superb second-style Pompeian frescoes in vibrant red, black, yellow, purple, and green. See the glorious and well-preserved works in several rooms, including the mysterious Room of the Masks and Augustus’s own study, an intimate haven he called “Siracusa.” When visiting the Palatine Hill, keep in mind that this particular site is only open Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat, and Sun, from 8:30am to 1:30pm. (It’s always a good idea to call and double check if it’s open: 060608.)

Mausoleum of Augustus [ source]

Mausoleum of Augustus [source]

Built in 28 BC, the Mausoleum of Augustus (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) is perhaps the most neglected of Rome’s ancient sights. Over the centuries, it has been the victim of cannon fire, earthquake, abandonment, and vandalism, and during its long life has been used as a fortress, a bullring, and a concert hall. But thanks to sturdy defensive walls, some 15 feet thick and 50 feet tall, the site has survived against all odds. Although the mausoleum has been closed for decades, this year’s milestone has been the impetus for the city to pledge €12 million to its restoration and eventual reopening. Although this site is *never* open, it is today! To commemorate this once-in-a-millennium anniversary, the city of Rome is opening the mausoleum for three guided tours this morning. I’ll be there at 9:30, and documenting my visit on Twitter (if I’m allowed to take photographs, that is). If you see this in time, call 060608 and you might just be in time to join one of the groups.

Theater of Marcellus [ source]

Theater of Marcellus [source]

A few other sites that shouldn’t be missed and are all within walking distance of one another: the Theater of Marcellus (Via del Teatro Marcello), an imposing performing arts center and the second-largest theater in ancient Rome, was built by Augustus in 13 BC and is crowned by a still-inhabited palace built in the Renaissance. (All month long, the theater’s purpose is revived with classical musical performances staged just outside the towering structure. Check out for a full list of performances.) The Portico of Octavia (Via di Portico d’Ottavia) is another Augustean site, once a vast cultural and religious center, although sadly little survives today beyond its entrance gate, which is currently hidden under a dreary layer of scaffolding. The Obelisk of Montecitorio (Piazza Montecitorio) (originally from Heliopolis and dating to the 6th century BC) was brought from Egypt to Rome by the emperor in 10 BC to be used as the pointer of his massive sundial that spread across the Campus Martius neighborhood. The 70-foot monolith cast a shadow across the Ara Pacis on Augustus’s birthday (23 September), a not-so-subtle hint that he was born to bring peace to the empire.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Musei Vaticani, Source: Wiki Commons

Augustus of Prima Porta, Musei Vaticani, Source: Wiki Commons

Get to know the man up close by studying one (or more) of his many portraits, located in museums across the city. By far the most famous is the Augustus of Prima Porta. This larger-than-life-sized marble sculpture depicting Augustus in the role of imperator, or military commander, was discovered in 1863 in the ruins of the Villa of Livia, in an area that was once countryside and is now on the northern outskirts of the city. The commanding work now has its residence in the Braccio Nuovo section of the Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano).  

Bust of the Divine Augustus, Musei Vaticani, © Nick Thompson

Bust of the Divine Augustus, Musei Vaticani, © Nick Thompson

Also displayed at the Vatican, in the welcoming Pinecone Courtyard, is an enormous posthumous portrait of the Divine Augustus, discovered in the 16th century on the Aventine Hill. Another celebrated portrait is the Augustus of Via Labicana. Located today at the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1), this moving work represents a togaed Augustus in his role as Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s spiritual leader. The Hall of the Emperors at the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, 1) displays the Ottaviano Capitolino, an important early bust of Augustus, showing him as a determined, ambitious, yet vulnerable young man. But you don’t have to visit a museum to find a portrait of Rome’s favorite leader. A modern bronze copy of the Prima Porta statue stands in front of Augustus’s forum along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Ottaviano Capitolino , Capitoline Museums, Source: Wiki Commons

Ottaviano Capitolino, Capitoline Museums, Source: Wiki Commons

“If I have played my part well, clap your hands and dismiss me with applause from the stage.”

—Augustus’s last words