— Octavius Augustus, † August 19, 14 AD
Columns with Corinthian capitals in the Forum of August on Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome.
“I found Rome built of sun-dried bricks, I leave her clothed in marble.”
Such were the last words, according to his biographer Suetonius, of the first and the greatest of all Roman Emperors, Octavius Augustus, whose death occurred exactly 2,000 years ago, on August 19 (a month significantly named after him).
It was year 14 AD.
Adopted by Julius Caesar at the time when Rome was still a republic, Octavius entered the political arena at a very young age. Right after the death of Caesar, assassinated during a session of the Senate, Octavius formed a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus. In this power-sharing agreement the three men controlled diverse legions of the Roman army and different territories of the republic. Lepidus was given the African territories, Mark Antony the East and Octavius the West. The first years of the triumvirate were spent avenging the death of those who had taken part in the conjure against Julius Caesar.
However, problems arose soon between the three. Lepidus challenged Octavius’ power in Sicily, but he was relatively a minor problem. August just bought his legions off by offering more money to the soldiers. As for Mark Antony this was a completely different matter, as the man had married Augustus’ sister, Octavia, and at the same time had a long term affair with Cleopatra of Egypt, a lover but also a military and political ally. Octavius convinced the senate that such alliance was a threat for the republic and waged war against Mark Antony. After many years of war he finally defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 31 BC. The two unlucky lovers committed suicide to avoid falling in Augustus’ hands.
Real Scale Reconstruction of the Forum of Augustus. Here all things of public interest happened from administration of justice to religious service, from markets to political activities.
At this point, August had established a stable monarchy all over the territories of the Roman republic and had gained full control of the army and the senate. However, he still formally acknowledged the republican institutions, and either out of respect for the senate and the people of Rome, or to avoid being accused of illegally seizing the state, he renounced all his powers just to receive them all back from the senate that also bestowed upon him the title of Augustus—literally, “The Sublime.“
Octavian August The Sublime reigned for 42 years, expanding the empire and securing its borders and political institutions. He started a period of long and stable peace that favored a tremendous economic growth. Literature, art, architecture and urban planning proliferated and thrived under his rule. Augustus wanted the city of Rome to reflect his enormous power and to become the worthy capital of his Empire. He carried out a vast amount of building work as part of his comprehensive program for the political reform of the state. Redevelopment of the residential neighborhoods and sanitary improvements (aqueducts, roads, firewalls and barracks for the fire service) went together with the building of marble temples and large leisure complexes that provided visible signs of the new political system.
Amongst the most impressive works of August we can mention the Forum of Augustus with its magnificent temple, now in ruins, that contained a giant statue of the Emperor as tall as a four story house. Part of the Forum is still visible to visitors during their tours of Rome on Via dei Fori Imperiali. Another building from this time is the Pantheon, started in 27 BC (but it was Emperor Hadrian he who give this temple the present form 200 hundreds or so later). This is still one of the most visited, most beautiful and most beautifully preserved ancient buildings in Rome. It is now a Catholic church dedicated to all martyrs as it had been, before, a pagan temple dedicated to all gods (including August, who was deified after his death by the Roman senate).
The importance of Augustus for the Roman history was already patent to his contemporaries. The senate declared him Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Country,’ and in 9 BC built the Ara Pacis, ‘Altar of Peace,’ to celebrate the golden age started by Augustus and the time of peace and reconciliation he was able to establish. It is still possible to visit the Ara Pacis today. It is located right in the heart of Rome, not far from the Pantheon and right next to Augustus’ giant Mausoleum. The magnificent tomb of the greatest of all Roman emperors incredibly still lies in ruins, abandoned in the very center of Rome, awaiting funds to secure refurbishment!
Augustus was certainly a visionary man, and one of those rare men in history who were/are able to transform their visions into reality. Yes, his hands were soaked in blood, no doubt. But he did what he did, rightfully or not, for a higher sense of justice and predestination. According to other biographers his words of the deathbed were actually:
“If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage.”
Augustus certainly started what was about to become one of the greatest empires in history. Under his reign Rome’s population grew to more than 1 million people and become the largest city ever in antiquity. By comparison, suffice here to say that during the Renaissance-Baroque era (a moment of great splendor for Rome thanks to the feverish urban, architectural and artistic initiatives encouraged by the popes that involved names such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini and so forth and so on) Rome’s population amounted to just 50,000 people!
Today, August 19th 2014, we celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of a great man.