Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Firstly, an apology there was no blog over December; not only was it the chaotic joy that Christmas time always brings, I was also busy putting in a PHD application – it was amazing how much preparation was needed just for an application!
Anyway, in the spirit of the ‘new year, new you’ phrase that is often thrown about more than a retiarius’ net, I thought it could be applied with a Roman twist – new year, new Rome (I know – it’s terrible). Either way, for this month I want to briefly look at how Rome aesthetically changed when her ruling foundations changed with the emerging Principate, namely Augustus.
Augustus was revolutionary in an amount equal to a series of books; to fully analyse what new Rome was born by him from the flames of civil-war would possibly use up the memory this website allows
us, so I’m not going to – but what I am going to do is introduce you to one of his most outstanding and iconic monumental structures that still exists today. One that highlights all of what Augustus
based his propaganda around; a place that stood for justice (literally), history, power, and prosperity. The Forum of Augustus.
The forum was (and still is) a marble marvel of Rome and indicative of Suetonius’ most popular phrase in his life of Augustus – Augustus found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble. Pre-Augustan Rome was not the city of splendour we normally imagine the eternal city to be. Indeed, the common fictional views of Rome that modern-day media like to share are often of a Rome more often far more grand and ostentatious than (depending on the representation) the city either ever was, or that that period of her chronology was. My favourite is in the film Gladiator, in which Commodus rides into a vast and expansive forum, and walks up a mountain of steps to where the
senate are waiting. Before Augustus, Rome was far from the idealised city we romanticise her to be, with the Forum of Caesar arguably being the first open space structure whose layout had been pre-determined.
The date of the opening of the Augustan forum is unknown. The temple of Mars Ultor (The Avenger) was dedicated in 2BC, but the concept was possibly conceived in the aftermath of the battle of
Philippi; after the defeat of Cassius, and Brutus, August (actually Octavian at the time) supposedly proclaimed he would dedicate this battle to Mars Ultor – Augustus had finally avenged the death of
his legal father, Julius Caesar. However, while the temple may have been dedicated in 2BC, according to Suetonius, the forum itself was opened early due to pressing legal matters.
The forum was outstanding. It was designed to reflect Rome’s greatest historical figures, Augustus’ divine ancestry, and the golden Age that Augustus had brought the world into. At the same time, it
was also a monument to power, conquest, and to put Augustus on a stage far grander than any who came before. Its location today is between the Forum of Caesar, and the Forum of Trajan, looking
towards the Forum Romanum. In Suetonius' view, the Augustan forum complimented, but also outshone the Roman forum – being a place of order and design, compared with the ad hoc layout and constructions that were present in its predecessor. The Roman forum was still considered the centre of Rome, but its importance was certainly diminished; there is reference and visual evidence of
Claudius residing over law suits in the Augustan forum – possibly a new favourite for the first emperor’s successors.
If you walked in through the entrance you would immediately see, in the centre of the forum, a grand golden statue of Augustus in a quadringa (a four horse chariot), with the grand temple of Mars
Ultor as a backdrop. Behind the temple was a vast wall for sealed the forum off from anything behind it. There are different interpretations of what this wall represented or functioned as. Some view the wall as a potential firebreak, and, indeed, the wall may have been a key part in protecting the forum from the great fire of Rome in AD64. Behind the wall was the Suburra: cramped streets full of insula housing and considered the pits of the city. The wall may have been an attempt at
hiding this blemish on what would have been an immaculate face of Rome, or it may simple have been a way to control traffic of people – ensuring all who visited witnessed the grandeur as it was
meant to be shown. A personal view of the wall is it contributes to the statement Augustus was shouting: the wall was made of Italian marble, like the rest of the forum, and offered a feeling of
security, but also obscuring the reality of Rome (cramped overpopulation) in favour of a global paradise; visitors (including diplomats, client-kings, etc) who entered Rome were now beginning to be greeted with architecture inspired from all over the Roman world – testaments to the power and geographical reach of Rome; in a similar way to how London is often portrayed, Augustus wanted to
prove Rome was the global centre in both power and wealth.
The forum was funded through Augustus’ own wealth, and he claims he bought the land fairly from those that owned it. One interesting (and possibly comical) feature of the forum is the rear right side
which doesn’t extend as far back as the left; a theory for this (which I personally like to think as accurate) is the result of one stubborn owner that refused to sell his property. The ruler of the world
and father of the country – having to (literally) work around the stubbornness on one man!
One major feature of the forum were the Summi viri which depicted on the right side Aeneas and the ancestry line of Augustus, and on the left Romulus and a selection of great Romans
that had contributed to the glory of the empire. Aeneas is the 1 st ancestor of Augustus, and whose mother was believed to be Venus, hence Augustus was advertising a divine heritage.
The Roman heroes displayed were those who made up the history of Rome, and although celebrated by being present, seemed to underline the fact that Augustus was the end result and the final project. The statues lined the portico around the edge of the forum and can appear to surround what can be seen as the centre piece of the forum - that large statue of Augustus in triumphal dress driving a quadriga with the words Pater Patriae on its base. To
me it clearly shows Augustus as the main man, surrounded by all those who had been in a similar position, though not quite
Augustus was the first in a new political power that, with hindsight,
would come to rule Rome and the empire for the remainder of the Roman period. Augustus may have been thinking or hoping for the same thing, but there must have been doubt about
how long this may have lasted or about how it would be accepted. Augustus needed to gain acceptance, which from the face of it, would have been no easy task. He was the sole ruler, and was effectively a monarch in all but name. This would not have been universally
appreciated, due to Roman distrust of kingship. This may have been one reason for the Aeneas group being present, to show people he was of divine heritage, and in a way his rule
may have been divine.
I hope you found that a good opening blog for the new year! Visit again at the end of February where I hope to talk about a very fiery topic - formed from my excitement of a new movie coming out in February about some Vikings training some flying things!
Until then - Happy New Year!