Celebrating Augustus, Rome’s First Emperor

Augustus of Prima Porta, Vatican Museum
Prima Porta Augustus at the Vatican Museums

August 19, 2014 marks two millennia since the death of the great Roman Emperor Augustus, who took his last breath at age 75 in his villa in the town of Nola in 14 AD. Augustus was Rome’s first Emperor, having founded what remains the world’s most famous empire, in 27 BC. As we join the city of Rome in its numerous cultural events to mark this special anniversary, we sat down with one of our docents, Dr. Giulia Facchin, a freelance archaeologist who has taken part in key excavations at the Colosseum and Forum of Peace over the past year, to learn more about Augustus’ life, legacy, and how he transformed the face of history.

Context Travel: Following the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus came to power as the first Roman Emperor. How was his ruling of the empire different to Caesar’s before him?

Giulia Facchin: We cannot compare the two politicians: Julius Caesar was a dictator, but never an Emperor. The first Emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus was born Gaius Octavius, but it was some time after he grabbed control over the Roman territories that he took the honorific title of “Augustus”. He knew perfectly well what would have happened if he tried to take the title before the Romans were ready (civil war for sure!).

Augustus replaced the Roman republic with an effective empire, and during his long rule brought peace and stability. Julius Caesar and Augustus were, however, quite similar in the sense that they were smart and acutely aware of the Roman political situation, both making the most of it for their own political goals.

Ara Pacis — Side Opposite Augustus
Ara Pacis

CT: Augustus is associated, among other achievements, with the so called “Pax Romana:” a long period of peace that contrasts with the civil wars that came before him. How did he maintain this relative harmony?

GF: The Pax Romana (also known as Pax Augusta) lasted approximately 200 years (27 BC to 180 AD). It is remembered as a sort of “miracle”, because prior to it there had never been peace for that many consecutive years. Don’t be misled: war continued in Hispania and north of the Alps to secure additional territories — but civil war was eliminated.

Augustus kept the peace through skillful political networking which granted him, in 23 BC, the authority of tribune (tribunicia potestas) for life. This enabled him to have ultimate veto power and also to deal directly with the people. Parallel to politics, he brought about crucial administrative reforms, compromising between inherited traditions and a changed economic, political and social reality. He never abolished pre-existing institutions, he merely took on many of them himself. He was consul, tribune, chief priest of the civic religion, and the public censor. He ruled by personal prestige: he was princeps (first citizen among equals) and pater patriae (father of the country). His authority (auctoritas) was absolute. He was also a master when it came to propaganda: he completely renovated the city through a monumental building project.

CT: How did Rome change from an architectural point of view during this period?

GF: Historian Suetonius wrote that Augustus “could justly boast” that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Rome went through majestic public works during Augustus’ rule; indeed the very word “august” remains a synonym for “majestic” in the English language. He and his companions (his sister Octavia, his best man Agrippa, the Spanish general Balbo, et al) conveyed power through town planning and public works, and they completely renovated several district in town with a clear social and cultural perspective: the theatre of Octavia, Agrippa’s Pantheon and first public baths, Balbo’s theatre, to name a few.

Teatro di Marcello
Teatro Marcello

CT: What are your favorite of Augustus’ sites in Rome?

GF: To breath and see what Augustus left us with, take a wander around Campus Martius. Start from the south with the Theatre of Marcellus and the Porch of Octavia, close your eyes and imagine those two monuments (perhaps with the help of reconstructions) and how they would have stood out. Make use of the exceptional museum of Crypta Balbi to understand the transformations and history of this district of Rome, enjoy the reconstruction of life from the Republican Roman times through Augustus’ times, and move further north to the Pantheon, passing by via dell’arco della Ciambella, where you can still spot the ruins of Agrippa’s baths. Finally, walk further north up to the Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum of Augustus to complete your day in honour of this extraordinary historical figure.

You should also take some time to hover around the ancient remains of the Forum of Augustus, the public and official monument that marked the new role and status achieved by the Emperor. The Forum was, again, built to celebrate the new peace. The temple is dedicated to Mars Ultor, the God of War, seen as an avenger, to signify that Augustus, by defeating Brutus during the battle of Philippi, vindicated his adoptive father, Caesar.

And let me suggest only one more stop: next to the Arch of Constantine, current excavations have just revealed the birth house of Augustus, the place where everything started. These are academic digs, carried out every year by a fantastic team from La Sapienza University, who have revealed an astonishing sequence of life from 800 BC to the present day.

CT: How should we remember Augustus? What was his lasting legacy?

GF: I think we should remember Augustus for two main reasons: one is political. He was a true and professional politician and he completely transformed the political organization of ancient Rome. The second reason is architectural, in a broad sense. He really changed the makeup of the city, making way for the future transformations that would come to define the modern-day capital.


Rome - House of Augustus
House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill


To gain more insights into Augustus’ life and legacy, take part in the many anniversary celebrations across Rome. For a start, the virtual reconstruction of the Forum of Augustus, or, from today, of the Ara Pacis. Then, from September onwards, you can also visit the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill with different eyes: The houses of Augustus and Livia on the Palatine Hill will be finally open to the public (you’ll need to reserve an entry time), together with the newly restored Palatine Museum. In the Roman Forum you’ll be able to walk though the Basilica Julia, one of the two courts of the Roman Forum, tol truly feel the long and uninterrupted sequence of life which continued through the end of the Roman Empire, after 476 AD.

And if you feel like heading out of the city – it’s worth it, promise! – catch the slow train towards Roma-Viterbo from Flaminia station, alight at Prima Porta and visit the suburban Villa di Livia, from where the marvelous frescos with depictions of a Roman garden, now stored at Palazzo Massimo (next to Termini Station), originate.

For further inspiration about cultural events in Rome, we recommend checking out the 060608 website or just search the site for “Augustus” under “events and shows”.