Home Lifestyle 82 temples and 50,000 statues – a travel through Augustus’s Rome

82 temples and 50,000 statues – a travel through Augustus’s Rome

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The Mausoleum of Augustus reopens today - Getty

The Mausoleum of Augustus reopens today – Getty

The Mausoleum of Augustus has today reopened, after decades of neglect.

The vast funerary monument, once the resting place of Rome’s emperors, is to reopen to visitors from today after a €12 million restoration.

It has taken five years to restore the Mausoleum of Augustus, a fortress-like tomb for one of the greatest of all Roman emperors, as well as his successors.

Over the past century the mausoleum – the biggest circular funerary monument in the world – has fallen into disrepair, covered in overgrown bushes and trees.

Now, with the help of a €8 million donation from TIM, an Italian telecommunications company, it has finally reopened to the public in all its glory.

“Finally the Mausoleum of Augustus is reopening and we are restoring to the world a jewel of humanity’s heritage after many years of closure,” said Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome. “Rome needs to make the most of its past in order to look to the future.”

An aerial view of the Mausoleum of Augustus in the heart of Rome - City of RomeAn aerial view of the Mausoleum of Augustus in the heart of Rome - City of Rome

An aerial view of the Mausoleum of Augustus in the heart of Rome – City of Rome

The restoration of the monument should be “an important symbol for the recovery of not just the city but the whole country,” following the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.

Today, Harry Mount guides us through five other sights around Rome associated with the Roman emperor. You can find out more about the renovation of the Mausoleum, here.

Who was Augustus?

Of all the Roman emperors, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Augustus was the first emperor, ruling from 27 BC until 14 AD. And this summer marked the 2,000th anniversary of his death on August 19. Appropriately enough, he chose to die in the month that had been named in his honour during his lifetime.

He was also the emperor who put an end to the squabbling in-fights of ancient Rome and brought peace to the warring empire. The adopted son of Julius Caesar, he defeated both Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. He presided, too, over a golden age of sculpture, architecture and literature – among his fans were the peerless poets, Horace and Virgil.

One of (many) statues dedicated to Augustus Caesar - GettyOne of (many) statues dedicated to Augustus Caesar - Getty

One of (many) statues dedicated to Augustus Caesar – Getty

In his own words, Augustus found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. He restored 82 temples in the city, finished the forum of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, built his own forum and imported a thicket of obelisks from Egypt into Rome’s piazzas. He also filled every corner of the empire with versions of his own image – up to 50,000 statues of Augustus are said to have been erected

Ara Pacis

Latin for “the Altar of Peace”, the Ara Pacis was dedicated to Augustus by the Senate in 9 BC. It was built in honour of the peace established across the empire after Augustus’s campaigns in Spain and Gaul.

The height of Augustan art, it survives today – in good condition – in a vast glass box, designed by Richard Meier, on the banks of the Tiber. The carving, in pristine Luni marble, is crisp and delicate, with scenes showing the origins of Rome. On either side of the building, there are panels depicting the actual consecration of the altar. Government officials, priests and members of the emperor’s family march in a procession led by Augustus himself. Look out for pudgy, imperial infants clutching their parents’ hands as they struggle to keep up with the stiff walking pace.

Latin inscriptions outside the Ara Paci - GettyLatin inscriptions outside the Ara Paci - Getty

Latin inscriptions outside the Ara Paci – Getty

Outside the altar, you can see Mussolini’s 1938 tribute to Augustus: the bronze letters of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or “the Achievements of the Divine Augustus”. The Res Gestae, written by Augustus, were an early form of celebrity autobiography, with copies erected across the empire. The text tells the story of Augustus’s political career, his benefactions to Rome and his military triumphs. As you will see, the Latin word, “triumphus”, crops up pretty regularly. Emperors didn’t go in for modesty much.

Piazza di Montecitorio

A 10-minute walk south-east leads you to Bernini’s Palazzo di Montecitorio, now home to the Italian parliament. In the middle of the piazza is the obelisk whisked from Egypt to Rome by Augustus after he’d defeated Cleopatra. First placed in the Campus Martius, it acted as the gnomon – or pointer – of a gigantic sundial. Augustus plucked it from its original site, Heliopolis in Egypt, where it had been erected in 590 BC by Psammetichus II. The hieroglyphics look like they were carved only yesterday by an Egyptian scribe.

Palazzo Montecitorio – Italy's Parliament building - GettyPalazzo Montecitorio – Italy's Parliament building - Getty

Palazzo Montecitorio – Italy’s Parliament building – Getty

Forum of Augustus

Walk another 15 minutes south-east to the sprawling complex of the imperial fora. Augustus’s Forum was built to commemorate another triumph, the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, when Augustus – then called Octavian – defeated Caesar’s killers, Brutus and Cassius. As a result, Augustus’s huge temple was dedicated to Mars Ultor: “Mars, the Avenger”. It was originally crammed with military paraphernalia, including Caesar’s sword and the Roman standards Augustus retrieved from the Parthians. Three towering Corinthian columns stand on a broad platform, raised on a steep flight of steps. The forum floor still has generous patches of vividly coloured marble. In one corner, you can make out the imprint of the foot of a mammoth, 40-foot statute of Augustus. Fragments of the statue survive in the neighbouring market of the Emperor Trajan.

The Forum of Augustus - GettyThe Forum of Augustus - Getty

The Forum of Augustus – Getty

The House of Augustus

Five minutes’ walk away lies the main Roman Forum. Augustus restored or built much of the Forum, including the Basilica Julia, the Senate, the Arch of Augustus and the Temple of Julius Caesar. This was where the Emperor Tiberius gave the funeral speech over Augustus’s body before it was taken to his mausoleum. Up on the Palatine Hill beyond lies the House of Augustus, who was born just the other side of the hill in 63 BC. Here were his two libraries, his private chambers and ceremonial rooms. Some charming Augustan interiors retain frescoes, in bright yellow, red and black pigments, with pretty botanical, architectural and theatrical references.

Hippodrome of Domitian, part of the House of Augustus - GettyHippodrome of Domitian, part of the House of Augustus - Getty

Hippodrome of Domitian, part of the House of Augustus – Getty

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: the National Museum of Rome

Some 20 minutes’ walk north-east, just by Termini train station, is the best collection of Augustan sculpture in Rome. The museum’s collection includes moving sculptures of Augustus’s sister, Octavia, his wife, Livia, and his successor, Tiberius. One of the best statues shows Augustus veiled in a toga, in his religious role as high priest, or pontifex maximus – a title later appropriated by Renaissance popes.

There are pristine frescoes from an Augustan villa in Trastevere, too, and a complete painted triclinium, or dining room, from a villa belonging to Livia. The walls look freshly painted with scenes of doves and blackbirds flitting from oak saplings to orange trees. You don’t need much imagination to zoom back through two millennia to the imperial feasts of Rome’s greatest emperor.

Harry Mount’s piece on Augustus’s Rome originally published in 2014.

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