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Mausoleum of Augustus

"For this reason, in the belief that this place was holiest of all, the Romans have erected in it the tombs of their most illustrious men and women. The most noteworthy 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. Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades; and in the centre of the Campus is the wall (this too of white marble) round his crematorium; the wall is surrounded by a circular iron fence and the space within the wall is planted with black poplars."

Strabo, Geography (V.3.8)

After his victory over Antony and the conquest of Egypt, Octavian (Augustus) returned to Rome, where in 28 BC he began construction of his mausoleum on the northern edge of the Campus Martius, in the midst of a precinct that extended from the Via Flaminia to the banks of the Tiber. More than forty years later, Augustus was buried there in AD 14. He had been preceded by his nephew Marcellus, who died in 23 BC, the first member of the family to be interred. The eldest son of Octavia, Augustus' sister, he had married Julia, the emperor's only daughter (Dio LIII.30.5). He was followed by his mother Octavia sometime in 11/10 BC (Dio, LIV.35.4) and then Marcus Agrippa in 12 BC, who had presided over the wedding ceremony and later married the widowed Julia himself (Dio, LIV.28.5). Julia, whose scandalous life had been such a mortification to her father, was excluded from burial in the Mausoleum, as was her daughter, Julia the Younger (Suetonius, CI.3). Later, Drusus (Tiberius' only child), Lucius and Gaius (the sons of Agrippa and Julia), Livia (Augustus' wife), Tiberius (Livia's son by her first husband), Agrippina (the daughter of Agrippa and Julia, and the mother of Caligula) and her husband Germanicus, Nero and Drusus (the brothers of Caligula), and Poppaea (the wife of Nero) were buried there, as was Nerva in AD 96.

At the entrance to the Mausoleum were pillars or pilasters on which was engraved the Res Gestae. Sometime before the fourth century AD, when they are mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus (XVII.4.16), the entrance was flanked by two plain obelisks of red granite from Aswan (they now are in the Piazza del Quirinale and in front of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore). In the Middle Ages, the Mausoleum was converted into a fortress and later a site for formal gardens. In the Eighteenth Century, the area inside the upper terrace was used for bullfights, then circus and theatrical performances, and in the Twentieth Century, before restoration began, as a venue for concerts.

"Below is a copy of the acts of the Deified Augustus by which he placed the whole world under the sovereignty of the Roman people, and of the amounts which he expended upon the state and the Roman people, as engraved upon two bronze columns which have been set up in Rome."

Augustus, Res Gestae (I)

In the photograph (top), one can see the entrance to the Mausoleum, which was excavated to its original ground level in 1937. In the background, a stepped path leads up to the Ara Pacis. The original diameter of the tomb measured three hundred Roman feet (approximately 292 feet) with a dome (cf. Martial, II.59.2, tholus) rising to what is assumed to have been half the diameter. The sepulcher was the largest in the Roman world, matched almost exactly (but deliberately not surpassed) by that of Hadrian downstream on the other side of the Tiber. The white travertine that faced the tomb and the bronze statue described by Strabo in 7 BC were robbed long ago, leaving only a ruined core of tufa rubble and concrete. Even though the original elevation and appearance are uncertain, the strength of the outer walls suggests that another earthen bank emerged from the first to create a second terrace, as presented in the reconstruction by H. von Hesberg above. It is possible, too, that the drum was a round temple or tholos with columns, which is how it has been pictured by G. Gatti, the mound "thickly covered with ever-green trees" described by Strabo. There is no historical basis for assertions on the Internet that the Mausoleum was plundered by Alaric in AD 410.

"Caesar laid most stress on the clause in the will relating to Antony's burial. For it directed that Antony's body, even if he should die in Rome, should be borne in state through the forum and then sent away to Cleopatra in Egypt."

Plutarch, Life of Antony (LVIII.4)

The tomb itself was in the center of the tumulus, approached through a series of concentric walls circling a central pier. A narrow passageway pierces the outer two, which were filled with earth to buttress the structure, to reach an annular corridor around a fourth wall that served as the foundation for the drum that rose above the terrace. Two doors at the end of the passageway led to yet another corridor surrounding the burial chamber, which was enclosed by a fifth wall. Inside this chamber was the tomb itself, with three niches for the funerary urns of the imperial family and, inside the large central pier, a small square room for the ashes of Augustus himself. The name mausoleum had been used to describe the tomb from the beginning and may have been intended to recall that of King Mausolus of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the world (Vitruvius, II.8.11). Or it may have evoked the burial mounds of Trojan princes, the ancestors of the Julian clan, or the tomb of Alexander the Great, which Augustus had visited in 30 BC.

Representation of the laurels that graced the doorpost of Augustus' house on the Palatine suggest that the entrance to the tomb was decorated in the same way. The achievements of other family members were recorded, as well, some before the Res Gestae of Augustus were displayed and some after. On the premature death of Germanicus and the earlier deaths of Lucius and Gaius, for example, Senatorial decrees passed in their honor were inscribed on the exterior of the Mausoleum (cf. Tacitus, Annals, II.83).

"In fact, Pompey, the Deified Caesar, Augustus, his sons and friends, and wife and sister, have outdone all others in their zeal for buildings and in the expense incurred. The Campus Martius contains most of these, and thus, in addition to its natural beauty, it has received still further adornment as the result of foresight. Indeed, the size of the Campus is remarkable, since it affords space at the same time and without interference, not only for the chariot-races and every other equestrian exercise, but also for all that multitude of people who exercise themselves by ball-playing, hoop-trundling, and wrestling; and the works of art situated around the Campus Martius, and the ground, which is covered with grass throughout the year, and the crowns of those hills that are above the river and extend as far as its bed, which present to the eye the appearance of a stage-painting—all this, I say, affords a spectacle that one can hardly draw away from."

Strabo, Geography (V.3.8)

In this detail from the Model of Rome, one sees the Mausoleum in its park-like setting, which Augustus "at the same time opened to the public the groves and walks by which it was surrounded" (Suetonius, C.4). The monument just above the Mausoleum is the Ustrinum, a podium surrounded by a double enclosure that was built to resemble the rogus or funeral pyre on which the body of Augustus had been cremated. Curiously, even though Strabo speaks of the Campus Martius with such fondness, he does not describe either the Ara Pacis or the Horologium, even though they had been completed only a few years earlier. And Ammianus mentions only the obelisk that served as the gnomen of the Horologium (XVII.4.12).

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