Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stalking Augustus: a walk to celebrate the bimillenary anniversary of the death of the First Emperor of Rome

"August", the eight month of the year, takes its name from the first Emperor of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus.
When offered to rename a month of the Roman calendar (after Julius Caesar, his stepfather, started the trend with "July") instead of picking the month when he was was born (September) he went with the month when he was elected consul in 43 BC.
Curiously, August was the month when Augustus would meet in death, on 14 AC.

As you may expect, the celebrations for the bimillenary anniversary of Augustus' death, falling on August 19 of this year, met lots of anticipation, more or less met by the touristic organization of the city, so I decided to tribute this important figure in Roman, Italian and -why not, even European and Worldwide culture.
The past month, in fact, I decided to take a walk around the center of Rome, taking a peek to the places and monuments dedicated to the Divi Princeps, to celebrate his memory, his tasks and get to know him better.
Go here for the link to the Google Map, that I compiled for your very practical use.

So, I started my walk from the Roman Forum.
It's always intriguing to check on some ruins, even if they can be quite difficult to read and appreciate, the most of time.

My first stop was the Arch of Augustus, which ruins can be found between Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Divus Julius, by the Temple of Vesta.
This arch is nicknamed "Parthian Arch", as it celebrated the return of the Parthian standards. It was built around 20 BC. Originally it sported three passageways and it replaced a previous arch, the "Actian Arch", that celebrated the victory of Actium on 30 BC.


The capital that can be spot on the top of the ruin comes from one of the columns that decorated it.
We can only imagine its original look, as the only evidences about it can be found on ancient coins, released in that period.

Next are the ruins of the Temple of Augustus, that can be found behind the Basilica Julia, next to the church of Santa Maria Antiqua.
The temple was built after the Emperor's death as a mean for his deification. The contruction was started by his stepson Tiberius, but the work was concluded only on 37 AC by Tiberius' successor, his son Caligula.

Very little is known about the look of this temple, and again, the only evidence of its looks comes from a coin where Emperor Antonius Pius celebrated its last restoration on 158 AD. From this reproduction we got to know that the temple featured also a statue of Livia, Augustus' third wife.
Chronicles of the time reminded us about a famous painting, a portrait of Hyacintus, that Tiberius placed in the temple as a decoration.
Together with the temple, Tiberius built a huge library that has been destroyed by the building of the church, known as "Bibliotheca Templi Augusti".

After this first walk, up I went as I tried to reach the Palatine Hill.
That was one hell of a walk (*cough* because I got distracted by the huge Domus Augustana, the residence of Emperor Dominitian *cough*), but I finally found some reassuring indications, as I caught sight of the roof of the domus--


--Unfortunately when I got there I realized that the spot was closed, as it's open only in the morning and early afternoon. NUOOO D':
That was really disappointing, but I spent my time looking around anyway, as the place is quite important itself.
Augustus was the first to build his home residence over Palatine Hill, as it hosted the original location of the city of Rome, identified with the house of Romulus and the ancient Sanctuary of Victoria and Magna Mater, making it one of the holiest locations in Ancient Rome.
The fact that Augustus picked the Palatine as the place for his residential quarters was a way to make sure that his role as protector of the Roman civilization, culture and religion was absolute.
Over there he built a Temple of Apollus, his tutelar deity, to remark the divine origin of his family, even if through adoption.
Later on, all the emperors of Rome would build their residences on the Palatine; the modern concept of "palace" has its roots from there. Literaly.

As I sighed at the idea of building my very own thermae on top of the attic of my palace with a view on Circus Maximus, I got out of the Roman forum to reach the Imperial Fora, and take a peek at the Forum of Augustus (of course)--
I took my walk on a Sunday, so I could enjoy Via dei Fori Imperiali as a pedestrial street. Aaah, I love it∼

This modern bronze copy of Augustus signs the site of the very center of his political and social influence, the Forum of Augustus.


The focal point of the forum is the Temple of Mars Ultor ("Mars the Avenger"), that Augustus promised to build once the death of Julius Caesar was avenged through a war against his killers, the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

The building was concluded only on 2 BC, showing us the difficulties of building something in Rome aren't just a modern issue.
As the Roman Forum lost its importance for public discussions of political and law issues due to its overcrowding, the most of the celebrations moved to the Forum of Augustus.
It's said that the location was richly decorated with coloured marbles coming from all over the empire, but that the enclosing walls were made of local Roman stone, as to suggest that the identity of Rome was there to protect and balance the diversity of the empire.

Now, we'll skip through Roman age to Middle age for a fun, interesting story concerning Augustus.

First of all, we have to reach the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, that we can find tucked between the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II and the Capitol Hill.
This lovely Gothic church was built by predating the marbles of the Palatine and Fora around. For example, the huge stairs at its entrance were made with the marble of the Imperial Forum.
By entering inside you can see that the columns decorating the church are of blatant ancient Roman origin, but among the others, you can see that the third one from the entrance sports a different look and a curious inscription:

The incription says, "A cubiculo Augustorum" which means "From the Bedroom of Augustus".
But why a Catholic church would decide to host a column coming from the bedroom of a Roman Emperor and boast about it?

It's all because the Middle Ages legend of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sybil.
There are various versions of the story, that goes like this: the Romans wanted to make a deity out of Augustus, but the Emperor was a bit worried about it, so he asked the sybil if it was the case.
The sybil replied that a "Real God" was about to be born in the Empire. While doing so, she pointed to the sky, where Augustus spotted the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms.
Shocked and moved by the vision, Augustus ordered the building of an altar to the "Unknown God", an altar that later would become known as "Altar of the Sky", Ara Coeli, in fact.

The Ara Coeli is still treasured in the church, even if a bit hidden.
You can find it under the little temple dedicated to Saint Helena. On the top decoration you can spot Augustus kneeling down and the Virgin Mary and Jesus of the vision:



That was a fun deviation from my walk, that proceeded along Via del Corso.
It's time to check two obelisks that Augustus brought to Rome from Heliopolis in 10 BC.
The first one is now located in Piazza Monte Citorio and is nicknamed as Campense, as it was part of a sundial originally located in Campus Martius.


The inscription on the base of the obelisk tells us its origin and whereabouts.
We got to know that Augustus brought this obelisk from Egypt as a gift to the Roman people, that it originally belonged to King Sesostridis (in reality it was built by Psamtik II), was used as part of a sundial and that Benedict XIV first found it but it was Pius VI who cleaned it up and put it back to its original splendour, placing it on its actual location in 1792.
The obelisk was fixed and erected by the architect Giovanni Antinori.

The second obelisk is now placed in Piazza del Popolo.
It's known as Flaminio, as it's located in front of Porta Flaminia:

Again, you can get all the required informations from the basement of the column, where Pope Sistus V made sure to tell us that he found this obelisk destroyed by the Goths, and that he restored and put it in its original place on 1589.
This obelisk was originally placed as the spina of the Circus Maximus. Probably it was originally built by Ramses II.

Now we walk back to close our tour by paying our homages to the memory of the Emperor by visiting his resting place.
We reach Piazza Augusto Imperatore where we can try to spot the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus, the monumental tomb that he erected on 28 BC for himself and his relatives.
The monument is now closed to the public, but one can still try to take a peek from the outside.
The square is an example of the attempt during Fascism to give visibility to the historical locations, unfortunately even by using some very rough methods.
One of them was the restyling of the square, and the moving of the Ara Pacis from its original location to the current one, closer to the mausoleum.

The actual Museum of Ara Pacis is the work of the American architect Richard Meier and his sign. It was completed on April 2006.
The Ara Pacis was built on 13 BC and dedicated by the Roman Senate to Augustus, who was coming back victorious from his missions in Spain and France.
As the name suggests, it celebrated the peace restored by Augustus thanks to his military task that gave stability to the empire as never before.


Inside the museum you can find some interesting researches about the monument, and a scale model of the original look of the place, together with the original allocation of the Ara and the look of the sundial of Campus Martius:

As the map is quite detailed, I tried to identify the locations on my own map of the city and decided to go back to the area of Monte Citorio to see if I could find some hints.

According to my researches, the sundial was placed on what is now occupied by the parliament, so I went to investigate over Piazza del Parlamento.
On the square is a building where you can find this inscription:
It says that Pope Benedict XIV found the destroyed obelisk in this place and decided to restore it for the "benefit of knowledge", but as it was destined to be destroyed again by time, he left this inscription as a memento.
It's said that part of the "stone pavement set with brazen rules for observing the sun's shadows" is still preserved under the actual building, and it could be visited by making a reservation... It's interesting, next time I'll try to do that!

The search for the location of the sundial was very exciting, but the location of the Ara Pacis left me a bit bitter-- In the original place by Via in Lucina, in fact, I couldn't find anything pinpointing the original location of the Ara... How disheartening!
But sure it was an interesting walk, filled with some interesting discoveries, and I hope that you enjoyed it too.

Look forward to the next posts concerning our Emperor, 'cause I'm definitely going to write more about him before this important year is over∼!

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