Augustus’ City of Stone


Aware that the city was architecturally unworthy of her position as capital of the Roman Empire, besides being vulnerable to fire and river floods, Augustus so improved her appearance that he could justifiably boast: ‘I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.’


When the former warlord Octavian received the title Augustus (‘Revered One’) in 27 BC, becoming the first of the autocratic rulers we term emperors, Rome was already the capital of an empire stretching from the English Channel to Aswan in Egypt. The city had been in existence, according to legend, for over 700 years, and even in Augustus’ day there were sites associated with its founder, Romulus, preserved on the Palatine Hill. Rome’s wealth and power drew people from all over the empire – immigrants, traders, tourists and slaves – creating a total population of nearly 1 million, one of the largest urban populations in the pre-industrial world. Yet the physical appearance of the city belied the military and political might of its ruling class.

The famous Prima Porta statue of Augustus shows the idealized, youthful manner in which his portraits invariably depicted him. He ruled for 45 years, into his 70s, one of the main factors that enabled him to transform the city of Rome into an imperial capital.

Erich Lessing/akg-images.

Rome was an urban sprawl that had grown without central or long-term planning, the product of a Republican political system in which individuals held power for a year at a time. The city spread over the hills (traditionally seven, though there were more, and even in antiquity there was argument over which the seven were) that formed its site, outstripping the great ‘Servian’ city walls that had stopped Hannibal’s army 200 years earlier.

While there were public buildings in Rome with pretensions to grandeur – most of them temples and many of them built from profits of military success – they were largely constructed of dull local tufa stone coated with plaster, and were nothing compared to the marble temples and sanctuaries of the Greek world. Permanent theatres, long a feature of Greek cities, were a recent innovation among the Romans, who claimed to fear the erosion of traditional morality that they represented. The first such building in Rome, the Theatre of Pompey, had been completed just two decades earlier. Even gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts, public spectacles that are to us so quintessentially Roman, took place in the Forum and other public spaces, surrounded by temporary wooden stands. The Colosseum would not be constructed for another century. When Augustus came to power, the city of Pompeii had possessed an amphitheatre for 50 years, but not Rome. Of Rome’s major sporting venues, only the Circus Maximus, for chariot races, already existed in developed form – its track and seating arrangement echoing the contours of a natural valley.

The Roman Forum, the civic centre of the greatest city in the world, was likewise an accretion of centuries of building rather than the product of unified planning. It lay in a low valley in the shadow of the Capitoline Hill, with its temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest, the central temple of the Roman world. A roughly rectangular piazza, the Forum was flanked by basilicas (great halls for judicial business), political buildings and more temples.

Before the construction of the first proper amphitheatre in Rome during Augustus’ reign, gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts typically were held in the Circus or in open public spaces like the Roman Forum. Such a space – with its arch and commemorative column, and spectators viewing from what looks like the upper storey of a basilica – is depicted here.

DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence.

The wealthy political elite of the city were well housed in grand and elaborately decorated houses on the Palatine Hill, but the dense urban population was crowded into dirty and dangerous tenement buildings, built of shoddy materials. The Augustan architectural writer Vitruvius bemoans the use of wattle-and-daub (wood and timber) construction, with its vulnerability to fire and collapse. Fire, the bane of life in pre-industrial cities, regularly destroyed large parts of Rome. There was no proper civic fire service, and wealthy citizens with private fire brigades might buy your burning apartment block on the cheap before putting the fire out. Aqueducts had long brought clean water into the city – the Aqua Marcia, over a century old, was a marvel of engineering that carried water from 24 km (38 miles) away, piping it to the top of the Capitoline Hill. At the same time, however, the Tiber still flooded regularly, inundating low-lying parts of the city like the Campus Martius (Field of Mars).

The Circus Maximus, for chariot-racing, was one of the few entertainment structures in Rome before Augustus’ reign. Augustus improved it, and the location of his house on the Palatine Hill (to the right; here the remains of the later imperial palace) began a lasting relationship between the Circus and imperial power.

Photo Scala, Florence.

In the Republican period, the Roman Forum was a focus of religious, political and judicial business, functions reflected by the temples of Saturn (left foreground) and Castor (the three columns to the right), and basilica law courts such as the Basilica Julia (in front of the Temple of Castor). The Forum was beautified in Augustus’ reign, but the emergence of imperial power diminished its political role.

© Gari Wyn Williams/

Rome had long outstripped the agricultural capacity of its hinterland, and its population depended on grain imported from Sicily and North Africa. Piracy, civil war and bad weather all conspired to interrupt supplies, and rioting often ensued. Violence was a regular feature of Roman life. The civil wars that had filled the previous century had seen regular street fighting between rival political factions, but violence was also a means of settling private scores and a way of life for criminals, while slaves were tortured publicly, with judicial sanction. Beyond the pomerium (the sacred boundary of the city), the tombs of aristocratic families jostled for prominence along the major roads, smoke rose from the funeral pyres of ordinary citizens and the bodies of executed slaves hung from crosses before their corpses, like those of the destitute free-born, were dumped into mass graves.

Rome was not transformed overnight when Augustus came to power, but it began a gradual development into a city worthy of a world empire. The new emperor both beautified the city and attended to its public services. He was helped in this process by the enduring nature of his power (he was emperor for 45 years, 31 BC–AD 14), by the fact that he was, despite his claims, an autocrat, and by his control of vast private and public wealth. All of this meant that, unlike his Republican predecessors who served for only a year or so, he could plan for the long term; and unlike his assassinated adoptive father, Julius Caesar, he lived long enough to bring those long-term plans to fruition. Augustus’ impact on the urban fabric of Rome was so important that he advertised it prominently, alongside his military conquests, in his autobiographical funerary inscription, the Res Gestae, displayed on an Augustan building, his great concrete mausoleum at the north end of the Campus Martius.

Augustus’ house lay on the south slope of the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus. Characterized as modest by contemporary writers, it was an aristocratic house rather than a palace like those of later emperors. The house was closely integrated into the adjacent Temple of Apollo, emphasizing the emperor’s relationship with his patron deity.

Bildarchiv Steffens/akg-images.

Religious revival was a central theme of Augustus’ domestic policy, echoed in his restoration of temples (82 in 28 BC alone) and construction of new ones. While the policy of religious revival was, superficially, conservative, the architecture was anything but. Even an old temple such as that of Castor (dedicated back in the 5th century BC to the Greek twins Castor and Pollux) was rebuilt in gleaming white marble from the recently exploited quarries at Carrara (Luni) in Tuscany. The temple would have appeared like a forest of tall columns (three survive today) set on a high podium, each capped with a capital of the lavish Corinthian order, imitating in carved decoration the leaves of the acanthus plant.

This innovative, soaring architectural grandeur was true of new temples too, including that to Augustus’ patron deity, Apollo, on the Palatine Hill, and that of Mars Ultor (‘The Avenger’), vowed by the emperor for the god’s aid in avenging the assassination of Julius Caesar. The latter temple formed part of a planned architectural complex, the Forum of Augustus, contrasting with the piecemeal development of the old Roman Forum. In addition to providing extra space for economic and judicial activities, Augustus’ forum provided visitors with an elaborate sculptural display reminding them of Rome’s past glories and the role of Augustus’ Julian ancestors (all the way back to the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas, and so to his mother, Venus) in that past.

The Forum of Augustus was a purpose-built complex that served a practical function – providing additional space to the Roman Forum for judicial activity – but also conveyed ideological messages. The Temple of Mars Ultor (‘The Avenger’) at its centre reminded visitors of Augustus’ relationship to Julius Caesar, whose death was avenged at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, while the sculptural programme in the forum presented Augustus as the culmination of Roman history.

© Fabrizio Rugg/Zoonar/

The old Roman Forum now reflected Augustus’ political and dynastic ambitions, as well as a new, more orderly sense of space. A new speaker’s platform was established at its north end, on-axis with a new temple, that of the deified Julius Caesar, built on the site of his funeral pyre, to the south. Augustus also erected a new Senate House, but the diminishing importance of the old Republican political buildings reflected the contemporary reality of the imperial autocracy. Instead, new monuments (basilicas and victory arches) presented the message of Augustus’ power and political values. In the Campus Martius were more new monuments dedicated to Augustus’ incipient dynasty – not just the Mausoleum, but also a complex comprising the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae) and a giant sundial, its pointer an obelisk looted from Egypt, symbolic of Augustus’ conquest of Cleopatra and her kingdom.

Nor did Augustus neglect his citizens’ more basic needs. After centuries without permanent structures for entertainment, Rome received two new theatres, one dedicated to Augustus’ son-in-law Marcellus and the other by his general Balbus. These theatres served Rome for the rest of its history – no others were ever built. Romans could view gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts in the city’s first stone amphitheatre, dedicated by Augustus’ general Statilius Taurus, until it burnt down in the fire of AD 64 (and, ultimately, was replaced by the Colosseum). Even the long-established Circus Maximus received adornment and elaboration. And Augustus paid for festivals and spectacles too. His biographer Suetonius notes that the number, diversity and extravagance of his public shows were unprecedented, recording theatrical performances, gladiatorial contests, wild beast hunts, athletic competitions and even a mock naval battle held in an artificial lake. Augustus himself mentions the participation of 10,000 men in eight gladiatorial spectacles, and the slaughter of 3,500 wild animals in 26 shows.

On a less spectacular level, Augustus also improved public services. He divided Rome into 14 administrative districts, with their own local magistrates. He set up a lasting structure for imperial supervision of crucial services such as the food supply, roads and maintenance of the banks of the Tiber. He also established a permanent fire service, its commander appointed by the emperor himself. The relatively new material of concrete, advocated by Vitruvius as a safer alternative to wattle and daub, became more widely used for a variety of buildings, including great multistorey apartment blocks. Augustus’ trusted subordinate Agrippa overhauled the city’s drains, famously sailing through the sewers in a boat to inspect them. Agrippa also built a grand bath building, fed by a new aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo; he bequeathed this facility to the public in his will, providing a model for the great imperial baths of Augustus’ successors.

Some things did not change immediately. Riots, floods and fires still occurred regularly, and for many Romans life remained dirty, dangerous and violent. Nevertheless, the city was gradually transformed into one more fitting as a world capital. Augustus set a precedent that emperors were responsible for the city and its inhabitants, and many of his successors followed his example. Augustus’ impact on Rome endured, even as it was transformed in turn into a Christian capital, the capital of a reunified Italy and a Fascist capital, and his legacy is still visible today.

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