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Rome: Mausoleum of Augustus


Bust of Augustus as high priest. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida (Spain). Photo Marco Prins. Mausoleum of Augustus: the giant tomb of Rome's first emperor.

According to his contemporary, Strabo of Amasia, the tomb of the emperor Augustus was among the most remarkable monuments of Rome. The Greek geographer describes the building as an artificial hill covered with evergreen trees, and we can infer that it was not unlike the tombs in Etruria, or the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, a ruler greatly admired by Augustus. Other sources of inspiration may have been the tombs of the heroes of the Trojan War, of whom Augustus claimed to descend (e.g., the tomb of Achilles and similar monuments), and the world famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the tomb of the famous satrap of Caria, Maussolus

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The Mausoleum of Augustus. Photo Jona Lendering.
Entrance

Strabo adds that in the neighborhood of the Mausoleum of Augustus, one could visit a park with lovely porticoes and an ustrinum (i.e., the place of the pyre) that was surrounded by black poplars. This photo to the left shows the substructure of the giant tomb itself. The outer ring has a diameter of about 89 meters and is 12 meters meters high. No Roman had ever created a tomb like this.

The upper half of this reconstruction - the photo shows the famous model of ancient Rome in the Museo nazionale della civiltŕ romana - is based on the description by Strabo. He says that there was a statue of the emperor on the top. The idea that the center looked like this, is a guess based on parallels with similar monuments. It is contradicted by Strabo, who says that the monument resembled a hill.

The Mausoleum of Augustus. Photo Jona Lendering.
The northeastern wall

The interior of the mausoleum consists of a square inner tomb, where Augustus and his wife Livia must have been buried, surrounded by an outer ring, where the urns of other members of the imperial family stood. The epitaph of Marcellus, who died in 23 BCE, proves that the monument was more or less finished by that time. 

The picture to the left shows the northeastern exterior wall of the mausoleum of Augustus. It was made of brick, and covered with slabs of white travertine, exactly as described by Strabo. Next to the monument were two columns with the text of Augustus' Res Gestae (his autobiography). We do not know where these pillars stood, and how we must imagine them to have been - very large, obviously, to contain the full text.

Model of the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Model of the Mausoleum

This photo shows the mausoleum on the model in the Museo Nazionale della Civiltŕ Romana again: it is the big round structure at the photo's lower edge. If you draw a line from the center of the mausoleum to the obelisk of the Horologium Augusti (upper edge), and a second line from the obelisk to Augustus' Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis; the small square building in the upper left corner), you get a right-angled triangle. If there was any deeper significance to this lay-out, is not known.

In the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
In the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
In the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Inner ring, west Pediment of an urn Inner ring, east
In the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of Agrippina the Elder. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
In the Mausoleum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of Marcellus Tombstone of Agrippina the Elder
(Musei Capitolini, Rome)
Inner tomb
The obelisk near the Maria Maggiore. Photo Jona Lendering.
The obelisk near the Maria Maggiore
In 31 BCE, Augustus (at that moment still called Octavian) had defeated his rival Marc Antony and his wife, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII Philopator, in the naval battle of Actium. One year after, Octavian had conquered Egypt, the last independent Hellenistic kingdom that wasn't part of the Roman Empire. Egypt's cereals were used for the food supply of Rome, which was from now on more stable.

To remind the Romans of this success, there were two obelisks in front of the entrance of the Mausoleum. Today, one of these monoliths decorates a square near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Although this obelisk looks as if it is an ancient Egyptian monument, it was in fact made for Augustus. Its height is 14.75 meters.

The other obelisk, also made by order of Augustus, is standing in front of the palace of the president of Italy, the Quirinal. It is 14.64 meters high. The two statues of Castor and Pollux date back to Antiquity too, but did not belong to the Mausoleum.

The obelisk on the Quirinal. Photo Jona Lendering.
The obelisk on the Quirinal

The Mausoleum faced -although it was separated by some distance- the Pantheon, a round temple for the cult of the emperor's family, constructed by Augustus' friend Agrippa. A wide alley connected the two monuments.

A century and a half later, the Mausoleum of Augustus inspired the emperor Hadrian when he wanted to build his tomb. However, he felt free to make considerable changes to the original design. Today, the Mausoleum of Hadrian is known as the Castel Sant' Angelo.

The last photo shows the epitaph of Tiberius, the stepson and successor of Augustus. Other people whose ashes were buried in the mausoleum were Marcellus, Marcellus' mother (and Augustus' sister) Octavia, Augustus' friend Agrippa, Drusus, Lucius Caesar and Gaius Caesar, and Publius Quinctilius Varus. In 14, Augustus was laid to rest. Later, the ashes of Drusus the Younger, Germanicus, Drusus Caesar, Livia, Tiberius, Caligula's mother Agrippina, Nero Caesar, Caligula, Claudius, Britannicus were placed over here, together with the mummy of Nero's wife Poppaea (Tacitus, Annals, 16.6). Much later, the emperor Nerva and the empress Julia Domna received their tomb in the Mausoleum of Augustus.


Tombstone of Tiberius. Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of Tiberius

The poet Martial wrote about this building (Epigram 5.64; translation by  A.S. Kline).

Pour me a double measure, of Falernian, Callistus,
and you Alcimus, melt over it summer snows,
let my sleek hair be soaked with excess of perfume,
my brow be wearied beneath the sewn-on rose.
The Mausoleum tells us to live, that one nearby,
it teaches us that the gods themselves can die.

A satellite photo of this monument can be found here, and another article on the building is here.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 8 Aug. 2012
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