An article by Nick Leonard.
When Hadrian assumed control of the Roman Empire in AD 117, the vast, wealthy and powerful state that he inherited remained, in effect, the Principate of Augustus. More than a century after the first emperor’s death, many of the hallmark achievements of his reign and the administrative framework that he created were still in place during the Age of the Antonines and beyond. These included the division of provinces between imperial and senatorial control, the creation of sustainable and defensible borders and the permanent stationing of legions on the frontiers to protect the Pax Romana.
Like other emperors before and after him, Hadrian sought to emulate Augustus; unlike most of them, Hadrian succeeded in several ways. Notably, his withdrawal from Mesopotamia preserved the Augustan concept of empire defence, and his building of frontier walls enhanced it. The two emperors shared other passions too, such as the training of the legions – both exacted the “strictest discipline”1 from the army – and the commissioning of building projects, another area in which Augustus set the standard for Hadrian and his other successors to follow.
For in addition to reshaping the foundations of the Roman world, Augustus also transformed the physical city of Rome, a legacy that lasted for centuries. Tacitus, writing around the time of Hadrian’s accession, said “the capital itself had been embellished with remarkable splendour”2 during Augustus’ reign.
These embellishments included the building of the Portico of Octavia and the Colonnade of Livia, named for Augustus’ sister and wife, respectively, and the Temple of Mars in his new forum. Additionally, Augustus rebuilt the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill and Pompey’s Theatre – “each work at enormous cost,”3 he wrote in his own deeds – as well as the theatre his adoptive father Julius Caesar had started on the banks of the Tiber. In all, Augustus claimed to have rebuilt 82 temples in the capital, allowing him to famously boast that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.
Writing during Augustus’ reign, the geographer Strabo said the emperor and the leading men of the previous generation, Caesar included, “have outdone all others in their zeal for buildings and in the expense incurred”4. The Greek author was particularly impressed by Augustus’ newly urbanised Campus Martius north of the Forum, writing that it “affords a spectacle that one can hardly draw away from”5. Yet for all his praise of Augustus’ prolific building program in Rome, Strabo only writes in detail about one individual monument, which he describes as “the most noteworthy”6 of all. It wasn’t a temple or theatre or colonnade that most impressed Strabo, but rather the building that Hadrian himself would later duplicate: the enormous drum that housed Augustus’ tomb.
In 28 BC, just two years after his final victory over Antony and Cleopatra left him in sole control of Rome and ushered in the imperial age, Augustus built his imposing mausoleum in Rome. With a diameter of 300 Roman feet (89m) and an outer wall 40 Roman feet (12m) high, the Mausoleum of Augustus was the largest tomb in the ancient world; little wonder Strabo was impressed.
The most noteworthy (of the tombs in the Campus Martius) is what is called the Mausoleum, a great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit,7 he wrote. According to Strabo, the mausoleum was topped by a bronze statue of Augustus and surrounded by “wonderful promenades”8, one of which led south exactly half a Roman mile to the Pantheon, built by Augustus’ childhood friend Marcus Agrippa and subsequently rebuilt by Hadrian.
Augustus’ haste to build his mausoleum while in his mid-30s was no doubt caused by the life-threatening illnesses he often suffered, but he ended up defying expectations by living to age 75. Although this meant that the mausoleum was completed decades before it could fulfil its primary purpose, it did not lay idle during the long years of Augustus’ rule. Instead, it filled up with the ashes of the emperor’s departed loved ones.
In 23 BC, Augustus’ potential heir Marcellus, whom “he loved both as a son-in-law and nephew”9, died after an illness and became the first person interred in the mausoleum. “Augustus gave him a public burial after the customary eulogies, placing him in the tomb he was building, and as a memorial to him finished the theatre whose foundations had already been laid by the former Caesar and which was now called the theatre of Marcellus,”10 Cassius Dio wrote in his third-century Roman History.
To inaugurate the theatre that still bears Marcellus’ name and stands to this day, with a Renaissance palace now built into it, Augustus honoured Marcellus with a festival so grand that “six hundred wild beasts from Africa were slain”11.
Marcellus was the first of Augustus’ potential heirs to predecease him and be laid to rest in the mausoleum, but he would not be the last. In the coming decades, Augustus would see his “partner in victory”12 Agrippa (12 BC), stepson Drusus (9 BC) and grandsons Lucius (4 BC) and Gaius (2 BC) – “whom fortune stole from me as youths”13, the emperor wrote – all have their ashes deposited in the mausoleum, in addition to his sister Octavia (11 BC). In particular, Augustus “felt for a long time”14 the loss of Agrippa, who had joined the family when he married Augustus’ daughter Julia after the death of her previous husband Marcellus, and whom Augustus “loved because of his excellence and not because of any kinship”15.
After his death, Agrippa’s body lay in state in the Forum, and Augustus afforded him a funeral procession “conducted in the manner in which his own was afterward conducted, and he buried him in his own sepulchre, though Agrippa had taken one for himself in the Campus Martius”16. Three years later, Drusus, the son of Augustus’ wife Livia from a previous marriage who was next in line for the emperorship following the death of Agrippa, died after falling from a horse in an accident. “The body was borne to the Campus Martius by the knights,”17 Cassius Dio recounted. “Then it was given to the flames and the ashes were deposited in the sepulchre of Augustus.”
The loss of Lucius and Gaius, whom Augustus honoured with a portico in the Forum, robbed the ageing emperor of further potential heirs. Eventually he was forced to settle on the one remaining candidate, his unfavoured other stepson Tiberius, to succeed him. Finally, after a rule of over four decades that laid the foundations for half a millennium of imperial history to come, Augustus died in AD 14 at Nola, in Campania.
After his body was returned to Rome, Tiberius cautioned the Roman citizenry not to “repeat the enthusiastic excesses”18 of Julius Caesar’s funeral by creating a pyre in the Forum, and to instead let Augustus be cremated at “his appointed resting-place”19: the mausoleum. The people heeded this warning and Augustus’ funeral procession took place as planned, described in detail by Cassius Dio:
There was a couch made of ivory and gold and adorned with coverings of purple and gold. In it his body was hidden, in a coffin down below; but a wax image of him in triumphal garb was visible.
This image was borne from the palace by the officials elected for the following year, and another of gold from the senate-house, and still another upon a triumphal chariot. Behind these came the images of his ancestors and of his deceased relatives.”20
After his burial in the mausoleum, Augustus was deified by the Senate and senator Numerius Atticus “swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven”21, a story recounted by both Dio and the earlier historian Suetonius.
Although recognised as a deity, Augustus’ long life and reign had come to an end. The poet Martial, born a generation later, perceived the emperor’s mortality through his very tomb:
The Mausoleum tells us to live, that one nearby,
it teaches us that the gods themselves can die.22
Almost 2000 years after the death of Augustus, on September 10, 2001, I arrived in Rome for the first time as a 21-year-old backpacker from the other side of the globe. Within 24 hours, the world was in upheaval and the Eternal City was already starting to take hold of me. I had planned to stay in Rome for a few days before moving on. Instead, I ditched my travel plans and stayed for a few months, then a few years.
I remember those first days in Rome vividly: exploring the Colosseum on 9/11, listening to Pope John Paul II speak in St. Peter’s Square the next day, meeting my future wife two days after that in front of the church of Saints Luca and Martina overlooking the Roman Forum. Above all, it was the ancient city that gripped me from the outset: the soaring temples and weathered stones of the Forum, the majestic arches of the Colosseum and the absolute perfection of the Pantheon.
I made friends early on with a traveller who had studied Roman history and we sat enthralled in the Forum virtually every day – there was no admission fee back then – in addition to exploring some of Rome’s less visited ancient sites.
One day, on my friend’s urging because he had read the ancient writers, we set out from our hostel full of anticipation at the prospect of entering the Mausoleum of Augustus. Disappointment struck as soon as we arrived, however, as the site was indefinitely closed. Even more disconcerting was the fact that the burial place of Rome’s first emperor was in a state of disrepair: overgrown, fenced off and in no shape to welcome visitors. Not for the first time, the great mausoleum was abandoned.
The perpetual cycles of abandonment and renewal that have characterised the post-imperial history of the Mausoleum of Augustus began when the western empire fell in the fifth century, or perhaps even earlier. Considered full after the internment of the emperor Nerva in AD 98, the mausoleum was supplanted by Hadrian’s virtual replica on the other side of the river, which continued to receive the ashes of deceased emperors until at least the early third century.
As the empire declined and eventually collapsed, Hadrian’s mausoleum enjoyed a more strategic location due to its incorporation into the Aurelian Walls and its proximity to the increasingly important Vatican. As a result, the Mausoleum of Hadrian was fortified and transformed into the effective citadel of Rome during the Middle Ages while the Mausoleum of Augustus fell into ruin and oblivion, lost from the historical record for centuries.
In the 12th century, Augustus’ mausoleum briefly followed the path of Hadrian’s when it became a fortified residence for the powerful Colonna family, but eventually they were expelled and the fortifications destroyed by the Pope.
Suffering the same fate as so many other ancient buildings in Rome, the mausoleum then became nothing more than a quarry before being revitalised after the Renaissance. In the 16th century, it was transformed into a hanging garden by the Soderini family; in the 18th, a bullfighting ring and fireworks arena known as the Anfiteatro Corea; in the 19th, a theatre; and finally in the early 20th century, a concert hall called the Augusteo.
With enviable acoustics and a capacity of 3500 people, the Augusteo became one of the most celebrated music venues in Europe, but like all previous incarnations of the mausoleum, this one would not last. In 1936, it was destroyed by Benito Mussolini. Seeing himself as a “direct descendent and inheritor of Augustus’ legacy”, Mussolini sought to glorify his own regime by associating it with Romanitá (ancient “Romanness”) and Augustus in particular, a process that has been described as “weaponising antiquity”24. To this end, Mussolini demolished non-ancient buildings surrounding Roman monuments such as the mausoleum and the Theatre of Marcellus, and created open spaces to showcase them, most famously the Via dei Fori Imperiali that connected his palace in Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum.
To celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth in 1937, Mussolini opened the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá (the “Augustan Display of Romanness”), a carefully curated exhibition that emphasised parts of Roman history that Mussolini wanted to appropriate. Mussolini’s most symbolic project in this vein concerned the Mausoleum of Augustus. Beyond dismantling the theatre, his demolitions around the structure – in which “centuries of history were lost”25 – made way for a grand open space, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore.
Completed in 1940 and ringed by new Fascist buildings, including one housing the Ara Pacis – the relocated Augustan Altar of Peace – the piazza was designed to celebrate the mausoleum but, more importantly, to unite Rome’s Augustan and Fascist eras.
To restore the mausoleum, the lost cylindrical inner sanctum that once housed the ashes of Augustus was rebuilt using a mixture of original fragments and new material, while cypress trees were planted between the first and third walls to recreate the ambience described by Strabo. For the first time since antiquity, the Mausoleum of Augustus was to become a tomb once more – this time, for Mussolini himself. But it was not to be. War interrupted Mussolini’s plans for the mausoleum, and the dictator was eventually overthrown, disgraced and killed.
Far from the Augustan-style triumphal funeral procession in Rome that he may have once envisaged, Mussolini’s body was dumped in a square in northern Italy and disfigured by posthumous beatings. These seismic events left the Mausoleum of Augustus in a familiar state: abandoned, again, not to be opened for another 85 years.
One of the things that has amazed me most about Rome over the years is that virtually every time I return on my annual visits, the city has unveiled a “new” attraction that further illuminates its past. The imperial ramp between the Forum and the Palatine, the early medieval church of Santa Maria Antiqua, the ruins of Domitian’s stadium underneath Piazza Navona – these and many other sites have opened or reopened in the years since I first lived in Rome. Some of these newly visitable sites are connected to Augustus himself, including the houses of Augustus and Livia with their frescoes on the Palatine Hill and the new museum housing the Ara Pacis, which opened in 2006 after the Fascist-era building was demolished.
But of all the potential reopening sites in Rome, one had always loomed larger than the others. Finally, in late 2020, the news that I had been looking forward to for nearly two decades was announced: the Mausoleum of Augustus was to reopen in 2021. Several months after visitors were allowed in for the first time since 1936, and just over 20 years since my initial attempt to visit it, I finally had the opportunity to enter the famous tomb.
The great failure of Mussolini’s attempt to showcase the mausoleum is that the monument is dwarfed by the five-storey Fascist buildings that surround it and the trees that rise out of it, and diminished by its own sunken position about six metres below Rome’s modern street level.
All of this serves to obscure what is as true today as it was during Augustus’ day: the mausoleum is enormous. Only after descending via a ramp to reach the ancient street level and the entrance to the tomb do you finally appreciate the size of the structure as it towers over you.
Walking through the first of five sets of concentric walls, you pass the two outer layers of the structure that were completely filled in to support the massive weight of the mausoleum in antiquity, then used in later centuries as cattle stables, theatre changing rooms and toilets. Continuing under a sky-high arch past an inscription to Augustus’ ultimate heir Tiberius, who was also buried in the mausoleum, you reach the amphitheatre-like open space and, finally, the inner sanctum.
Inside, the floor is littered with Roman fragments, but it’s a piece of marble on the wall that conjures up the ancient mausoleum: an original inscription dedicated to two of the first people interred there, Marcellus and Octavia. The inscription binds mother and son together for eternity, but as a reminder of why their journeys ended in the imperial mausoleum in the first place, the epigraph records their relationship not to each other, but to Augustus: GENER (son-in-law) for Marcellus; SOROR (sister) for Octavia.
The visit continues in other parts of the monument, where despite Mussolini’s attempts to eradicate all non-ancient traces, some post-imperial historical features remain. From the extraordinary bullfighting era, there are still metal rings hammered into the Roman opus reticulatum walls that were used to tether the animals, while the cordonata (ramped staircase) built for the bulls to traverse on their way to the arena is also still in place.
More recently, Mussolini’s intervention itself became part of the mausoleum’s complex story: a large and orderly piece of graffiti from the 1930s still adorns an interior wall, consisting of simply the letters MF (Movimento Fascista). Those features aside, the restoration of the mausoleum is still far from finished. Visitors walk on scaffolding during some parts of the tour, while other sections are cordoned off, including access to a panoramic rooftop walkway that has yet to be realised.
The mausoleum will soon close once more for further consolidation and enhancement before reopening as a “museum of itself”26, including displays about the monument’s history and the archeological discoveries made during the renovation. Improvements to the site’s surroundings are also ongoing. Fifteen years after a competition was held to redesign the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, it’s a vast construction site, while one of the Fascist buildings on the square has cranes rising out of it while it’s being converted into a hotel.
The mausoleum itself is still fenced off, though information boards now cover the barriers as part of the restoration project, emblazoned with the slogan: The many lives of an eternal monument. A monument that, if not yet completely renewed, is finally abandoned no more.
Nick Leonard spent four years as a tour guide in the city of Rome and has travelled widely throughout the former Roman Empire, from Hadrian’s Wall to El Jem to Palmyra. His previous article for Following Hadrian is titled “Always in all things changeable”: the emperor and his tomb and he writes about the Camino de Santiago on his website Spirit of the Camino.
9 Cassius Dio
10 Cassius Dio.
11 Cassius Dio.
13 Augustus, Deeds.
14 Cassius Dio.
15 Cassius Dio.
16 Cassius Dio.
17 Cassius Dio.
20 Cassius Dio.
21 Cassius Dio.