Augustus the Builder

Augustus the Builder

The Ara Pacis – the altar of peace – as reconstructed under its modern cover building.

Augustus was a great builder.  According to Suetonius,   he found Rome brick and left it marble.  Much of his work however was reorganising and rebuilding – he rebuilt three major aqueducts.  His biggest single new building was the forum of Augustus which he erected next door to the forum of his predecessor Julius Caesar, although today both are rather overshadowed by the forum of Trajan built a century later.

He also built three major temples, including the large temple of Mars, but many of the new buildings in Rome were either done in the names of his family or done by wealthy citizens, encouraged by Augustus. (Interestingly, he rather boasts about this in the Res Gestae, his autobiography, i.e. he boasts about his own modesty. This to me rather typifies Augustus who was inside a mass of contradictions which he managed to sort out on the surface.  Yes, he was modest, but yes he boasted about his modesty). However there is one particular building which was very much his own, the Ara Pacis, or the Altar of Peace.

The central figure is surely meant to be Peace surrounded by her benefits, the children and the fruits of the earth. However the idea of deifying peace was a new one, so the central figure has been interpreted as Tellus – Mother Earth, or possible Venus Genetrix- the founding goddess of the Julian dynasty, or possibly even Italia. Elements of all three are surely swept together to make this new image of “Peace”.

This is a comparatively small building erected in the Campus Martius – the field of Mars – at what was then the edge of the city.  The dedication is significant – the altar of peace.  Of course as Syme pointed out, peace can seldom be divorced from notions of conquest – peace was something to be imposed – and Augustus’ reign was occupied almost continuously by war in one province or another.  But I think this view lacks a comparative viewpoint – did any of the pharaohs in Egypt ever erect a temple to peace?  Indeed is there any earlier temple to peace anywhere in the world?  This was Augustus’ message.  This was what he wanted to believe and the reason why he was so popular, and why henceforward the Romans themselves talked about the pax romana – the Roman peace.

Aeneas founding Rome. Bottom left is the white sow, who according to prophesy who would show him where Rome was to be founded. In the background top left is a miniature model of a temple, which Aeneas had brought with him from Troy and which contained the Penates, the household gods of Rome. Aeneas accompanied by children is about to make sacrifice. The whole scene is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid which had only been published ten years before.

The Ara Pacis was built on a low lying part of the Campus Martius down by the river, and it soon suffered from flooding, so eventually it was overthrown and smashed into pieces which were buried under deep layers of silt and were thus well preserved.  In the 16th century a few fragments were recovered while building the foundations for a later palace and more fragments were recovered in the 19th century.  Eventually in the 1930s Mussolini ordered that all the fragments were to be recovered.  The foundations of the 16th century palace above were to be shored up and the ground was frozen in an amazing display of the wonders of fascist technology.  The fragments were well-preserved – the finest examples of Augustan sculpture – so it was decided to re-build the temple on a new site, a couple of hundred yards away.

Augustus built a grand mausoleum where he and his family were buried. In the Middle Ages it became a castle, but Mussolini decided to make it the centre of a grand square – the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. Grand buildings were erected round three sides and at the bottom the Ara Pacis was restored and re-erected in a grand new cover building. In this aerial photo the River Tiber is at the bottom.

The site chosen was another major Augustan site, the Mausoleum of Augustus, a huge circular structure where he and the members of his family were finally buried. Much of the mausoleum was destroyed but the mound survived and it became the centre for the new Piazza Augusto Imperatore , a magnificent achievement of fascist town planning. On three sides it was to be lined with the finest fascist architecture, and on the fourth side,  the new AraPacis was to be reconstructed under a glass covering.

The original Mussolini cover building of the Ara Pacis as designed by the architect Victorio Morpurgo.  Morpurgo was one of the leading Fascist architects until 1940 when Mussolini linked up with Hitler, when it was discovered that Morpurgo’s father was a Jew, so he had to shrink back and take a very low profile. After the War he bounced back and became the Professor of Architecture at Rome University.

Vittorio Morpurgo, one of the finest Italian architects was chosen for the design. Unfortunately however with the prospect of war ahead, the actual cover building was shoddy in construction, and by the 1980s it was leaking badly and needed major renovations.  Rome by this time had a communist mayor, so he decided that it was all to be pulled down and be replaced by a grand modern building designed by the modernist architect Richard Meier.  This was controversial, and when the communist mayor was succeed by a right wing mayor, he proclaimed that it should all be pulled down and rebuilt again.  However, economic reality intervened – the building does not leak, and it provides a light and airy ambiance for the Roman remains and is much admired by modernists.   It seems likely to survive.


The side of the new cover building on which the Res Gestae of Augustus are inscribed.

On the side of the modern cover building a copy of the Res Gestae  – his autobiography, has been inscribed. The original, the most complete copy, is in Ankara in Turkey. But seeing it inscribed on the wall gives some idea of the length of the inscription.  Augustus wanted to record his own version of history and here he did so in considerable style.

The whole complex provides not only a fascinating case study of the way Augustus wanted to present himself, but it also forms one of the best surviving examples of fascist town planning, together with an interesting example of modernist architecture.

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