Augustus’ inheritance

Augustus reformed every sector of the state: the Senate, political careers, the army, coinage, religion and customs, management of the colonies and the taxation system, with the creation of the Fiscus to collect taxes from the imperial colonies, which was added to the Aerarium, which was enriched by the senatorial colonies.

Huge wealth, raw materials and slaves arrived in Rome from the colonies, and the wheat, wine and oil produced in Southern Italy left for those same places. The Mediterranean Basin was at peace and trade could flourish in tranquillity. Those who most took advantage of this economic boom were the senatorial class of the capital, but the Emperor was also keen to support the poorest sectors of the population through continuous donations of wheat.

Plant volutes, relief on the eastern façade of the Ara Pacis, Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Rome.

Greek culture

The reforms ordered by augustus were all part of a more extensive project of cultural renewal of the state.

The thuggish romans who only two centuries earlier, on entering syracuse, had contemptuously slaughtered archimedes, perhaps one of the most brilliant minds of greek culture, were now studying and copying art, poetry, theatre and philosophy from the greeks, only leaving out mathematics, the theoretical structure of which could not be reconciled with the roman notation of numbers. Greek culture was absorbed by roman culture, thus enriching the two pillars of latin society: law and civil engineering.

The sense of state

Augustus proved to be a man solely interested in the good of the republic. In a world without mass-media, communication was also achieved through architectural choices. Augustus rebuilt rome, but he did not work on his personal dwelling, which remained a noble house on the palatine hill throughout his life; it was certainly spacious and comfortable, but not the palace of a great emperor. His only concern was that this house was close to what was considered the house of romulus, the mythical founder of the city, and in the immediate vicinity he built a temple dedicated to apollo, his tutelary deity.
This choice also contributed to creating imperial culture: the state is more important than the men who govern it, and the house where augustus lived was not sumptuous, but it became the symbolic site of the birth of the new empire.

Imperial Rome

He did not want a palace for himself, but dealt with constructing public and symbolic buildings, in addition to creating a major network of infrastructures.

“i found rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”. We do not know if augustus actually pronounced this sentence, which has been handed down to us by suetonius, but what is certain is that in this period rome was enriched with numerous new buildings and its appearance changed profoundly: it took on the dimensions and splendour of an imperial city and became the “capital of the world”, as it is still called today.

Civil engineering

Marcus vipsianus agrippa, augustus’ long-standing friend, oversaw the construction of major public works, among which we must recall no less than three new aqueducts: aqua julia, aqua virgo and aqua alsientina.

The aqueduct of aqua virgo, built also to supply water to agrippa’s new thermal baths, is the only roman aqueduct still in operation and supplies the city’s most important fountains: the barcaccia in piazza di spagna, the fountain of the four rivers in piazza navona and the famous trevi fountain.

The images of new power

The roman forum was always the centre of public life in the city. Augustus concluded the transformation of the square that had already been begun by caesar, with the cancellation of the comitium, the place where the people’s assemblies had previously been held, and the inauguration of the new curia to host the meetings of the senate.

In the central area of the roman forum, augustus built the temple of divus julius, dedicated to his father, the first roman to be proclaimed a god after his death. The prows (rostra) of the ships of cleopatra, defeated in actium, were placed on display on the podium of the temple. Two new triumphal arches recalled recent military victories. A new forum was built, dedicated to augustus. It was adjacent to the forum of caesar and contained the temple of mars, progenitor of the emperor’s stock.

The campus martius, which was not built on before, now hosted the monuments of augustus that are the most famous and well preserved today: the mausoleum, the pantheon, the ara pacis and the solar clock, the “hand” of which is the obelisk that can still be admired in piazza montecitorio.

Male herma identified as Portrait of Virgil, Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini, Rome.

Cultural renewal

In addition to monuments, the new empire was also to have its bards, so augustus’ other great friend, gaius cilnius maecenas, was responsible for gathering together a circle of poets and intellectuals around the imperial court. Maecenas received the best levels of education for the time and his culture made him wise; he always remained close to augustus as a political advisor. He used his great wealth to host and finance poets and artists, both out of a love of culture and because he considered that the arts were necessary to promote the new order of the state. Among the most important poets of maecenas’ circle were virgil, horace and propertius, but also many minor poets.

In the aeneid, virgil tells how aeneas, fleeing from troy, arrived on the coasts of latium and founded the new city of rome. Through this poem virgil explains that the julio-claudian dynasty -that of augustus – descends directly from mars and from venus through aeneas and romulus. This myth of the foundation justified and enhanced the new, immense, power of emperor augustus.

Portrait Head of Maecenas, Maecenas National Archaeological Museum, Arezzo.



Maecenas understood the importance of culture and was prepared to freely give part of his goods to support those who create culture: the intellectuals, artists and poets. Maecenas understood that the greatness of a people is not only measured on the basis of the extent of its conquests or the soundness of its public works, but also its cultural depth and the beauty it leaves to posterity.

Maecenas’ behaviour was so important in history that even later latin poets, such as martial and juvenal, thanked him again for supporting the culture of his time. Today his name is still associated with those who support and finance culture. Maecenas considered that artists must not spend their time concerning themselves with their material maintenance, but only with creating, and for this reason he took steps to finance their needs.

It seems that on his deathbed, on leaving his wealth to augustus, he begged him to continue supporting his poet friends, who “have more important things to think about than looking after themselves”.

“these advantages accrued to the city from the nature of the country; but the foresight of the romans added others besides. The grecian cities are thought to have flourished mainly on account of the felicitous choice made by their founders, in regard to the beauty and strength of their sites, their proximity to some port, and the fineness of the country. But the roman prudence was more particularly employed on matters which had received but little attention from the greeks, such as paving their roads, constructing aqueducts, and sewers. So plentiful is the supply of water from the aqueducts, that rivers may be said to flow through the city and the sewers, and almost every house is furnished with water-pipes and copious fountains. To effect which marcus agrippa directed his special attention; he likewise bestowed upon the city numerous ornaments. Pompey, divus cæsar, and augustus, with his children, friends, wife, and sister, have surpassed all others in their zeal and munificence in these decorations. The greater number of these may be seen in the campus martius, which to the beauties of nature adds those of art. The size of the plain is marvellous, permitting chariot-races and other feats of horsemanship without impediment, and multitudes to exercise themselves at ball, in the circus and the palœstra.

Near to this plain is another surrounded with columns, sacred groves, three theatres, an amphitheatre, and superb temples in close contiguity to each other; and so magnificent, that it would seem idle to describe the rest of the city after it. For this cause the romans, esteeming it as the most sacred place, have there erected funeral monuments to the most illustrious persons of either sex.
The most remarkable of these is that designated as the mausoleum, which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of augustus cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends. Behind is a large grove containing charming promenades.

In the centre of the plain, is the spot where this prince was reduced to ashes; it is surrounded with a double enclosure, one of marble, the other of iron, and planted within with poplars.

If from hence you proceed to visit the ancient forum, which is equally filled with basilicas, porticos, and temples, you will there behold the capitol, the palatium, with the noble works which adorn them, and the piazza of livia, each successive place causing you speedily to forget what you have before seen. Such is rome”.

Strabo, geography, v,3,8
60 bc – 23 ad