Visitors to Rome were puzzled for many years by a large and decaying cylindrical stone and brick mound. Surmounted by cypress trees, sunk in a deep hollow below the present street level, and hardly visible from behind a high fence, this forgotten mound had essentially become a substantial dumping ground in the fashionable heart of the capital. Information panels lining the fence since around 2007 proclaimed that the neglected site actually contains the ruins of one of the most important monuments of antiquity: the magnificent tomb of none other than Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), the first Roman emperor, who had it built on the banks of the river Tiber in 28 BC, shortly after his final victory in Egypt over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The panels mentioned that the site was undergoing restoration and restructuring, and that soon the hidden monument would be restored to some of its former glory. While interpretations of ‘soon’ may be relative, the promise seems to have been kept at last, and the newly renovated mausoleum of the founder of the Roman Empire was reopened to the public on 4 March this year, after 14 years of closure and centuries more of haphazard reuse.
Built to celebrate the might and glory of the emperor and his family, the Mausoleum of Augustus was a majestic structure and the biggest circular tomb surviving from the ancient world. Strabo, a contemporary of Augustus, tells us in his Geography (5.3.8) that the mausoleum was the most remarkable of all the tombs of the Campus Martius, a much-revered area of ancient Rome. He describes the vast mound’s base of white stone, cover of evergreen trees, neighbouring sacred grove, and – crowning the whole structure – a bronze statue of Augustus himself.
From what can be surmised from the remains of the monument, it had a diameter of 87m (almost the width of a football pitch) and a height of at least 45m, with a base that supported the large bronze statue of the emperor, which could be seen towering over most of the city’s rooftops. Only small parts of the white travertine marble that clad its high walls remain today. The impressive scale of the mausoleum suggests that the tomb was inspired by what was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the 4th-century BC tomb of King Mausolos of Caria at Halicarnassus (present-day Bodrum in Turkey). This famed mausoleum was equal in height, though it had a rectangular rather than a circular base, and it was topped by a pyramidal roof holding a sculpted quadriga, a four-horse chariot carrying Mausolos and his wife (and sister) Artemisia.
Within antiquity, the Mausoleum of Augustus might have had a stepped profile, made possible by a series of concentric concrete walls, which were joined to each other by buttresses. There was a ring of 12 semi-circular rooms and another inner ring, which was divided into 12 trapezoidal spaces filled with earth to help the stability of the building. Even further inside, at the heart of the mausoleum, there was another series of spaces. These were the chambers that once held urns containing the ashes of members of the imperial family, some of whom had died before Augustus himself. Augustus’ own ashes were probably placed in the inner recesses of the tomb by his widow Livia after his death in AD 14. There are, however, some notable absentees from the dynastic tomb, including Augustus’ daughter Julia who, exiled on account of her adulterous affairs, was explicitly banned from the tomb in his will. Later, the last Julio-Claudian emperor Nero was excluded after his downfall.
The last emperor laid to rest in the mausoleum was Nerva, who died in AD 98. After Nerva, Trajan’s remains were placed in the base of his towering column, and his successor Hadrian built his own huge mausoleum on the other side of the river in AD 120. This later mausoleum is now the formidable substructure of Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress built over it to serve as a refuge for the popes during insurrections in the city, but the impressive monument helps us imagine the original appearance of the Augustan tomb.
The funerary chambers were reached by a dromos, a narrow corridor, whose entrance was flanked by two pink granite obelisks that served as monuments to Augustus’ victories in Egypt. One of these obelisks was brought to light in 1519, during Pope Leo X’s works to develop the district surrounding the mausoleum, by this point abandoned and covered with earth. The architect for this papal project, Baldassare Peruzzi, studied and made plans of the mausoleum as he saw it at the time, and included the two obelisks in a drawing. The obelisks were later removed: one now stands in the Piazza dell’Esquilino near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where it was relocated in 1587; the other, which remained buried at the mausoleum until 1786, is part of the fountain in front of the Palazzo del Quirinale.
Also part of the exterior decorations was a series of bronze plaques. These were near the entrance, perhaps set on pillars, and were engraved with the Res Gestae, the account of Augustus’ political and military achievements written by the emperor himself. The text can now be read transcribed on the lower outer wall of the nearby Museo dell’Ara Pacis that faces the mausoleum. The plaques, along with the bronze statue of the emperor, were later probably melted down to make coins.
Like the Mausoleum of Hadrian, Augustus’ mausoleum was transformed into a fortress – by the princes of the Colonna family. This castle was subsequently dismantled in 1241, following a papal order that expelled the Colonnas, and city gardens grew on the site. In the medieval period the mausoleum also became something of a quarry for marble and other building materials, and as the population of the area grew in the 14th and 15th centuries, the sturdy walls of the mausoleum provided support for new buildings.
Later owners made further changes, including the Soderini family, who acquired the site in 1546 and transformed the interior of the tomb into a beautiful hanging garden and displayed their Roman sculptures there. There was the Portuguese Marquis Benedetto Correa de Sylva, too, who in the 18th century staged spectacles in an amphitheatre built on the site. These Giostre della Bufala were tests of strength and skill that involved bulls but were different from Spanish bullfights. The mausoleum’s use as an amphitheatre continued after it was acquired by the Apostolic Chamber in 1802, with popular fireworks and pyrotechnic shows added to the programme. Plays were performed from 1810. Eventually, with the Giostre della Bufala and pyrotechnics banned, the mausoleum was covered by a glass dome for indoor performances, and by the 20th century it was being used as a concert hall, the Auditorium Augusteo.
For the Auditorium Augusteo, an elegant iron-and-glass cupola was built on top of the mausoleum’s large cement-and-brick drum in 1907. This structure was a sad loss during the demolition process that made way for the modern square the mausoleum stands in today, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. On the orders of Benito Mussolini, then dictator of Italy, all the medieval and Renaissance buildings – except churches – surrounding the tomb were pulled down to free the monument from later accretions and ready it for the celebration, in 1938, of the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth (23 September 63 BC) by returning it as much as possible to its original form. These celebrations were to be the climax of Italian fascism’s identification with its Roman past (the romanità) and underlined Mussolini’s growing tendency to identify himself and his regime with ‘imperial’ imagery.
Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, a leading figure in the impressive and elegant Italian Rationalist architecture of the 1930s, was entrusted with the new piazza. It is lined on two sides by handsome buildings decorated with sculptures in relief and glazed ceramic mosaic murals that evoke the history of ancient Rome. One of these buildings will soon open as a deluxe hotel after a thorough overhaul. The main mosaic mural, by the Italian artist Ferruccio Ferrazzi, shows the ‘Birth of Rome’, with a personification of the River Tiber standing in the centre, represented here as a virile young man holding the twins Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) and Remus – and not as the mature man with flowing beard that Roman tradition demanded. In the same vein, the she-wolf – who, according to legend, suckled the twins – looks up from below, no longer nursing.
The sculpted and mosaic decorations are good examples of the official art at the time when the piazza – together with many other buildings elsewhere in the city – was constructed according to Mussolini’s overall plan to create a contemporary ‘Third’ Rome worthy of its former glory. The surviving great monuments of the Roman past, like the Colosseum and the Mausoleum of Augustus, were henceforth to be enhanced by isolating them and framing them within new and impressive structures inspired by ancient and Renaissance masterpieces. This sentiment is reflected in a Latin inscription below the mosaics that tells passers-by how the mausoleum was extracted from darkness and the fragments of the Altar of Peace were reconstructed, and how Mussolini cleared old structures to create more fitting buildings.
On the side of the square nearest the Tiber stands a fine, classically proportioned, glass-fronted building. This contains the other monument mentioned in the modern Latin inscription, the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), a magnificent marble ceremonial altar that offers some of the finest examples of imperial Roman sculpture. The altar was first consecrated in 9 BC, in its original location further south in the Campus Martius, the huge area dedicated to Mars, the god of war who presided over the destiny of the Roman people. Blocks first emerged at the site of a Renaissance palazzo in 1568, with further work carried out in the 19th century, at the start of the early 20th century (when the main body of the altar was discovered in the first systematic excavation), and in the 1930s, when two sides of the altar were unearthed, concluding the excavation of the monument.
Today, the altar is fully visible from street level – both in daylight and at night, when it is beautifully lit. Its panels, carved in relief, illustrate the ‘Golden Age’ enjoyed by Rome under the rule of Augustus, represented here at the head of a solemn procession surrounded by state officials, high priests, his family, and attendants. Other depictions include the Trojan hero Aeneas, from whom Augustus’ adoptive family, the Julians, claimed descent; a largely lost scene of the Lupercal, where the she-wolf nursed the legendary twins Romulus and Remus; and the goddess Tellus, the Earth. Acanthus plants and occasional animals fill the lower reliefs.
The clean geometric lines of the modern building are a dramatic counterpoint for the stately, detailed, and ornate grandiosity of the Roman masterpiece. The building is the somewhat controversial brainchild of American architect Richard Meier, who designed it in 2006 to replace a smaller edifice on the same spot that opened in 1938. That first showcase for the imperial altar was another work by Morpurgo and it had provided a dignified setting for the Roman monument, complementing the piazza outside and the ‘liberation’ of the Mausoleum of Augustus. Morpurgo’s pavilion, however, had been constructed rather hurriedly to house the newly excavated and reassembled Ara Pacis, and afforded limited protection from urban pollution and insufficient ventilation. Over time, the glorious reliefs of the altar began to deteriorate, and a new building was needed to fully safeguard this unique imperial work of art. The only remaining portion of the 1938 pavilion incorporated in the new museum is the wall facing the mausoleum with the text of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti carved and inset with bronze letters on travertine marble.
Both the Mausoleum and the Ara Pacis Augustae were part of the same symbolic sequence of monuments designed by Augustus, which started at the Pantheon and continued north along a grand avenue that cut across the flat lands of the Campus Martius, with a clear view of the lofty mausoleum at its end. The Pantheon, the great temple to all the gods, was built under Augustus at the place where it was believed that the deified Romulus had ascended to the heavens. It was inaugurated in 27 BC, but was rebuilt on an even grander scale under Emperor Hadrian in AD 118-125; the Hadrianic temple still stands today, truly a landmark of Roman architecture and engineering. Along the north–south axis, both the Solarium Augusti (also known as the Horologium Augusti) and the Ara Pacis had their own specific functions to celebrate the emperor’s sacred rule, whereby he would be the keeper of a worldly and celestial order, ushering in a new era of Augustan peace and prosperity.
The Solarium Augusti was a giant solar marker, whose gnomon was a 30m-high red granite Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome from Heliopolis. The obelisk – erected in 10 BC, 20 years after Augustus’ conquest of Egypt, and dedicated to the sun-god Sol – cast its shadow on a marble pavement inlaid with a gilded bronze network of lines. Some sections of this pavement were excavated in the 1970s in the basements of a Renaissance palace and a church (where it is still partly visible today) by German archaeologists, who analysed its workings – though the interpretation of the monument’s function is still debated. It is likely that the shadow of the tall obelisk would stretch towards the nearby Ara Pacis on the birthday of Augustus (23 September), further illustrating how these structures commemorated the emperor, his peace, and his dominion over Egypt.
The current reorganisation of the whole site of the Mausoleum of Augustus is nowhere near finished, and more thought might be given to the arrangement of the enclosed spaces inside the structure. However impressive and architecturally fascinating the bare walls of its interior are, future visitors might nevertheless welcome a museum space where a choice collection of marble portraits and other artefacts would illustrate the life and times of Augustus, his family and descendants, and the members of his court. One such artefact is an inscribed stone archaeologists recently unearthed during the ongoing work in the area surrounding the mausoleum; it is currently on display in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, but is intended to go on view in the mausoleum’s future museum space. This find is a rare pomerium cippus, a marker stone dating to AD 49 when Emperor Claudius expanded the boundaries of the all-important pomerium, a sacred tract of land that lay at the core of the city’s foundation rituals and demarcated the city from the wider territory. The pomerium was defined by these stones called cippi, which delineated the city’s sacred, military, and political borders, and so had both a civic and symbolic meaning.
The new cippus was found in good condition, about 3.5m below street level, during works to upgrade the area’s sewers. It indicates the exact location of the new boundaries of the pomerium, which, given its sacred significance, was rarely altered. The inscription lists Claudius’ titles and honours, and announces his decision to expand the pomerium’s borders to underline the fact that his victories in Britannia had enlarged the dominions of Rome and made of him a ‘new founder’ of the city. According to Claudio Parisi Presicce, the director of the archaeological museums of Rome, only ten other of these stones from the time of Claudius have been found so far, with the last one discovered in 1909.
Although more work is still needed to complete the overall renovation of Augustus’ tomb and its surrounding piazza, the opening of the site to visitors is still a significant event. Rather than being a final product, the mausoleum is a worthy work in progress, adopting the innovative approach of including the public in the process of restoring the archaeological area before it fully opens. The same policy has now been implemented in another area of ancient Rome also affected by Mussolini’s 1930s demolitions: the Largo Argentina archaeological site. This vast sunken square contains the ruins of four 3rd- and 2nd-century BC archaic Roman temples, which can today only be gazed upon from street level, but now work is under way to allow entry into the site. It was here in the Curia Pompeia, a Senate building whose limestone foundation is still visible, that Julius Caesar is believed to have been stabbed on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Just as is the case with the work surrounding the Mausoleum of Augustus, this new project aims to bridge the gap between an archaeological site – separate and remote – and the throbbing heart of a busy capital city. Both sites will provide a way of linking the city’s layers of history with the present day, and at the same time open the possibility of new and exciting archaeological discoveries crucial for the understanding of its, sometimes, still quite enigmatic past.
The Mausoleum of Augustus can now be visited on pre-booked tours. See www.mausoleodiaugusto.it for more information.
For details about the nearby Museo dell’Ara Pacis, visit the website www.arapacis.it.