Augustus and the Mausoleum
Only a few years had passed since the Battle of Actium. In the seas of Greece, the fleet loyal to Octavian, led by its admiral, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, had swept away the ships commanded by Anthony and Cleopatra. The civil war between the appointed heir of Julius Caesar and his former lieutenant was finally over.
Octavian, who, a few years later, would receive the title of “Augustus”, could finally concentrate on just the art of governing. Even today, it is difficult not to recognise him as one of its greatest exponents in all human history. Augustus consolidated the Roman Empire, built major infrastructure, gave the Romans a stable monetary system, secured peace and rights for the people of the Empire, and made Rome a monumental city.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Mausoleum is an idea that Augustus had been cultivating since 28 BC, and its construction accompanies his successes as a reformer and politician. Augustus was writing history, and at the same time he was thinking of writing the memory that would survive him.
The very word “mausoleum” has a history that has close ties with that of power. It derives from Mausolus, an ancient Eastern king, Satrap of Caria. The mausoleum of Mausolus at Halicarnassus – the modern Bodrum – was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The circular shape of the Augustus’s Mausoleum, however, is more akin to ancient Etruscan tombs than to Greek sepulchres.
Augustus’s Mausoleum is the largest circular tomb in the world. It measures 87 metres in diameter and used to consist of a cylindrical body, at the centre of which there was a door on the southern side, preceded by a short series of steps. Within, there was the burial chamber with urns containing ashes of Augustus’s relatives. The Emperor’s own urn was most likely in the central cylinder, directly beneath the statue at the top of the monument.
Near the entrance, perhaps on pillars, there were the bronze plaques engraved with the Res Gestae, the account of Augustus’s political achievements written by Augustus himself (the text is transcribed on the walls of the nearby Museo dell’Ara Pacis).
The central cylinder used to be 40 metres high; it stood out over the nearby hills, thanks also to the bronze statue of Augustus located on top of it, thrusting up into the sky, which could be seen far from a great distance.
The relatives and descendants of Augustus were all buried in the mausoleum, and it was used as a tomb for more than a century, but when the later emperors built sepulchres of their own, the Mausoleum was gradually abandoned.
With the Roman Empire long gone, in the Middle Ages the Colonna family fortified the Mausoleum, transforming it into a castle. But it soon went through a period of decline: it was sacked and its marbles plundered to be reused in other buildings and monuments
As possession changed hands, the Mausoleum housed a hanging garden, an amphitheatre used for bullfighting and firework displays, a theatre and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it became one of the most famous music halls of Europe, bearing the name of Auditorium Augusteo.
During the Fascist era, restoration of the monument was attempted: this entailed demolishing the auditorium and other buildings that had been erected on top of the Mausoleum over the centuries. But the war interrupted this work and Augustus’s tomb was once again left to its own devices.
In 2007, new archaeological excavations were undertaken in the sepulchre and surrounding square, and since 2016 the mausoleum has been undergoing a conservative restoration that will once again give it a prominent and well-deserved place in the archeological heritage of the city and of the world.
Tam vicina iubent nos vivere mausolea, cum doceant, ipsos posse perire deos / The Mausoleum so close at hand tells us to live, teaching that the very gods can perish.
Marziale, Epigramma 5.64