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Temple of Mars Ultor

"On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war."

Augustus, Res Gestae (XXI)

Consciously related in design to the Temple of Venus in the Forum of Julius but larger again by half, the Temple of Mars Ultor was raised on a high podium, with eight columns on three sides, backed against the precinct wall (octastyle peripteral sine postico) and flanked by two porticoes, which are presented in the drawing above in cross section.

Constructed largely of Luna marble from the quarries at Carrara, which Augustus was the first to exploit, both the temple and the forum realize his boast, related by Suetonius (XXVIII), that he had "found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble." Indeed, the white marble of the temple exterior and colored marbles of the interior and the porticoes, which had not been used so extravagantly before, must have been one reason Pliny considered the forum to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The use of exotic marble from distant lands also displays the spoils of war and the conquest of empire.

Now, only ruins are left.

Augustus may have added the figure of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father, to the statuary group of Venus and Mars as an expression of filial piety. If so, it would be a fitting balance to the Temple of Venus Genetrix ("Venus the Mother" of the Julian clan) in the Forum Julium. This altar relief from Carthage shows Mars flanked by Venus and a heroic figure that probably is the divine Julius. The figures all are on pedestals and may represent the statuary group displayed in the temple, itself. (Another relief from the same altar reproduces a figure on Augustus' Altar of Peace, variously identified as the earth goddess Tellus, Ceres, Pax, or Italia, the personification of Italy.)

Venus and Mars were the founding deities of the Roman people but by different partners. Given the marriage legislation of Augustus, it is an irony that Ovid cannot resist. In Tristia (II.295-296), he speaks of Venus and Mars being coupled together in the Temple of Mars, while her cuckolded husband (Vulcan, Odyssey, VIII.266ff) is left outside the door. In the relief, too, the figure of the goddess is accompanied by that of Cupid, who holds up Mars' sword to his mother. It is a gesture that can be understood to mean the disarming of Mars and peace after a just war. But the scabbard, which translates as vagina in Latin, also hints at this illicit relationship. In Augustan mythology, Venus and Mars were interpreted as prefiguring the destiny of the Julian clan, but the erotic association from Greek mythology is inevitably recalled, as well.

The temple pediment shows the same iconography.

Pleading to return from his relegation by Augustus to barbaric Tomis on the coast of the Black Sea, Ovid, having been accused of promoting adultery in his poems, should have been less imprudent in reminding the emperor that Venus, his divine ancestor and founder of the family line, was herself an adulteress. Or to question why a portico should be kept open if a girl could stroll there to meet a lover. Indeed, the poet asks, what location is more "august" than a temple?

The restauration (1843) above by François-Joseph Uchard (1809–1890) was submitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts and hints at how the Forum of Augustus might have looked.

References: Les Dessins d'Architecture de L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1988) by Annie Jacques and Riichi Miyaké; Classical Art: From Greece to Rome (2001) by Mary Beard and John Henderson; Augustus: Res Gestae (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988) by Paul Zanker.

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