Episode 13 - Rome under Augustus, the greatest city of the ancient world

Tuesday, 01 June 2021 10:33 Written by
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Like Caesar, Octavian not only administered but aimed at carrying out a gigantic reform that would renew the whole Roman society on the model designed by his uncle. To do this, he formed around himself a sort of ministerial cabinet: there was a great organizer, Marcus Agrippa, a great financìer, Maècenas, and several generals, among them his stepson, Tiberius. Maècenas was so active in financing and promoting arts and artists that his name has crossed the centuries and become a byword in many languages for a well-connected and wealthy patron who encourages artistic production.

As aristocrats complained of being excluded from this cabinet, he chose about twenty of them, all senators, to form a sort of crown council. The assemblies continued to meet and discuss, but less and less frequently and without ever attempting to reject any proposal from Octavian.

He continued to accumulate enormous powers: he was consul, he held command over many provinces, had immense wealth, and thousands of veterans were bound to him with a bond of personal loyalty.

Over the years, his institutional position was further and gradually elaborated; it was a slow but geometric process, very skilled. Apparently, nothing had changed: the old Republic was always there, the magistrates themselves were in the eyes of everyone, but, in essence, Rome was ruled now by a monarch. This truly sublime ambiguity was Augustus' masterpiece, making him one of the greatest politicians of all times, if not the greatest, and allowing him to hold power firmly throughout his life.

Augustus also created a series of new administrative commands, with officials appointed directly by him who could be dismissed at any time, the "Praefecti". The Prafectus Urbis was in charge of the administration of the city of Rome; the Praefectus Annonae took care of the supplies of the town; the Praefectus Vigilis was the head of a department of "vigiles", police officers and firefighters. Finally, the Praefectus Praetorii led the “Praetorium”, that is, the emperor’s personal guard, composed of special soldiers called Praetorians. We’ll see how they will play a decisive role in the history of the empire.

The provinces were divided into two categories. The ones that did not require a military presence, which were firmly subject to Roman control and pacified, were administered by the Senate; thus, they were called “senatorial”. Sicily, for example, was one of them. The border provinces, or generally those not fully pacified yet, which required the stable presence of one or more legions, were placed under the direct control of the emperor, hence the denomination of “imperial”. Syria and the three provinces of Germany, for instance, were imperial provinces.

The army was the basis of the emperor's power. Augustus settled the veterans, distributing lands and later cash prizes at the end of their careers. After the end of the Civil Wars, he reduced the legions from 50 to 25; however, for the protection of the emperor himself, a special guard of 9,000 men, the Pretorians, was created, recruited from good Italian families. Military service became professional. After 20 years of service in the infantry and 10 in the cavalry, a soldier could be discharged and received a plot of land in a colony or a sum of money as a career-ending prize. The poorest citizens enlisted, attracted by the possibility of becoming landowners; but also the non-Roman inhabitants of the provinces, who thus obtained Roman citizenship, could enrol. This way, military service was separated from citizenship, a clear sign of the end of the Roman Republic. Thanks to it, ever larger masses of individuals were put in contact with the Latin language and the Roman-Greek culture, and the army became a powerful vehicle for romanization in the regions where the legions were based: the hope of achieving a superior social status through military service in the Roman army meant that for many non-Romans the legions of Rome were not a hostile presence but the guarantee of a better future.

Peace and stability boosted trade: the end of the civil wars brought an economic boom to Italy. Augustus restored and extended the road system and organized an efficient postal system. With the end of confiscations, many owners were encouraged to invest in their lands to increase agricultural productivity: agriculture was born again due to peace.

Thanks to the availability of great riches, Augustus and his family and collaborators financed the construction of a significant number of public works of various kinds. Thanks to Augustus and local benefactors in search of fame, monuments and public buildings rose everywhere in Italy and the provinces: arches, monumental access gates, aqueducts, arcaded streets, city walls, baths, theatres, amphitheatres.

Obviously, the sign of a new regime was more evident in Rome: new buildings and monuments were erected in every public space of specific importance, the tangible testimony of the power and the generosity of Octavian Augustus and his range of relatives and acquaintances. In the Roman Forum, the symbolic centre of the ancient Republic, various buildings were erected to mark the centrality of the Gens Iulia, the emperor’s family, in the State: the temple dedicated to Divus Iulius, that is to Caesar deified, the new Curia, then called Iulia, already begun by Caesar, the columns for the victories against Sextus Pompey and at Actium, an arch for the victory over the Parthians.

Next to the ancient Roman Forum and the Forum built by Caesar, Augustus erected his own Forum. The squares, buildings, structures of the traditional Forum (today conventionally called Roman, on the right of the road leading from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum) were now inadequate for a city of almost one million inhabitants, the most populated in the world at the time. Augustus expanded Caesar's design, flattening the slopes of the Quirinale hill beside the area: a colossal work, at the end of which he would erect a formidable wall, 33 meters high, which served both as containment and a separation between the public area of the Fora and the plebeian district of Suburra with its prostitutes.

Augustus had cast a vow before the Battle of Philippi: if he won the battle against Brutus and Cassius’ army, he would dedicate a temple to Mars. Thus, the temple, the Augustan forum's ideal centre, was dedicated to Mars Ultor, the Avenger. Today we can still admire the white shade of the Carrara marble that was used for the temple, and the coloured marbles from Africa, Greece and Asia Minor decorating the floor of the Forum: the use of marbles from every corner of the empire aimed at stunning the visitor aesthetically, but more than that it was the tangible evidence of the universal power of Augustus and, through Augustus, of Rome. The temple was not only a devotional place but also a shrine of Roman glory. Caesar's sword was kept there, together with the Roman insignia that consul Crassus had lost against the Parthians in 53 BC. and that had been recovered by Octavian. In a square room next to the temple, a colossal statue of Augustus was placed: only the footprints of the feet remain, seven times the standard size. Trials and meetings were held in the Forum and inside the Basilica Iulia, and their arcades provided shelter for commercial activities.

On the Palatine Hill, for the victory of Aktios, Octavian had a temple dedicated to Apollo, built next to his palace, thus emphasizing his connection with Apollo, the God of victory and harmonious pacification. Next to the temple of Apollo, two libraries, one Greek and one Latin, were erected. The buildings will be the first nucleus of the imperial palaces, and in fact, "palace" comes from "Palatium", the name of the Palatine Hill.

The faithful Agrippa commissioned a new bridge on the Tiber, two new aqueducts and the first great public baths in Rome; he also had the Pantheon built, the temple to all the gods, which we can still admire today, although not in the original shape (the temple was almost entirely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD). Carrara marble was widely used, and Augustus boasted: “I have received a Rome of bricks, I will leave a Rome of marble”.

Everything aimed at highlighting Augustus’ respect for the most genuine Roman tradition and the religion of the “Patres”, the ancestors. Augustus wanted the buildings he built or the works of art he commissioned to be the tangible representation of the return to the authentic Roman spirit, sober and moderate.

The works of art of the Augustan age are opposed to Hellenistic art's overabundant passions and emotions. Their style must express the return to order after the moral disorder of civil wars: for this reason, they are inspired by the Greek art of the classical age, that is, of the 5th century BC, the highest and most noble times of the Greek culture. However, just because the return to tradition is directed from above, today Augustan art can appear elegant but also cold and detached.

The most remarkable manifestations of Roman art are the portraits, which realistically transmitted the features of the ancestors to future generations, and the great public works. As the State's interests prevailed over the ones of individual citizens, it is difficult to remember the name of an artist or an architect. In fact, Roman art is anonymous for the most part. Most of the works, infact, are remembered with the name of the consul under whose consulate they were executed, or the emperor or the client who promoted its realization or to whom they were dedicated. So, for example, we talk about Claudius’ Aqueduct, Titus’ Arch, the Flavius Amphitheater (the Colosseum, built under the emperor Flavius Vespasian), Maxentius’ Basilica, Caracalla’s Baths.

Speaking of Roman construction techniques, Roman architecture is characterised by the use of the arch and the vault. They allowed the Romans to cover immense spaces, also using powerful construction machines (nothing more than war machines converted to civilian use). To build buildings with vast vaults and domes, Romans mostly used concrete, a compound made of lime, sand, gravel or small irregular scales of stone or brick, and water, to which they often added bricks. After the slow evaporation of water, and following chemical reactions, this material turned into blocks with the same consistency and resistance as the stone. It was not very different from the concrete used today in construction, and thanks to it, the Romans could build buildings with vaults and domes that still defy time.

For the Romans, the community was always more important than the individual, and the State was above all. In Roman society, therefore, the great public works, civil and military, were significant. These included roads, ports, bridges, aqueducts, sewers, and various collective interest buildings such as archives, warehouses, markets, thermal baths, basilicas used for the administration of justice, business and public meetings.

Roads linked Rome to the other cities of the Italian peninsula and, subsequently, to those of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Roman road was on average 3 meters wide and consisted of at least three layers for a depth of about 150 cm. The lower layer consisted of a set of pebbles, the middle layer of a mixture of sand and gravel, and the flooring of rounded pebbles or slabs of stone. You can still see a long section of a Roman Road in the Appia Antica Park, just outside Rome; the Appia Antica originally ran from Rome to Brundisium in Puglia.

Another typical Roman artefact is the aqueduct. Water supply was vital for Rome and all the cities of the provinces. As many as 11 were built in Lazio between 312 BC and 206 AD to bring water from distant springs to the heart of the capital. The most spectacular is the Aquaeductus Claudius, built between 38 and 52 AD by the emperors Caligula and Claudius; it was about 70 km long, and for almost 20 km, water ran on arches supported by tall, robust pylons that still rise in the calm Roman countryside, relevant signs of the landscape.

In general, the relationship between Romans and art was quite problematic. They were more interested in concrete issues than in abstract ones. Their disposition, hard and sober, had been defined over centuries of almost uninterrupted wars. Artistic and philosophical discussions, so beloved by the Greeks, were considered a waste of time and useless otiosity. They could only lead to the relaxation and softness of customs and to abandoning the traditions which had made the city the ruler of the world. Even the objects the Romans surrounded themselves with, especially in the Republican age, were made of poor materials and roughly finished.

It was the exceptional flow of immense riches from the cities and the temples Romans predated that forced and got them used to a new relationship with art. (we will talk about it in the next episode). After the conquest of Southern Italy, precious metals and money flowed into Rome from several cities. Many Hellenistic works of art were brought from Syracuse after its defeat in the 1st Punic war. Finally, the definitive conquest of Greece in 146 BC put Rome into direct contact with its classical art.

The concentration of art treasures in Rome and the increasingly frequent contact with very different peoples encouraged collecting. Everything with a value, because it was rare or unique, made with precious materials, or executed by a well-known Greek master, was considered worthy of being amassed in the temples of Rome or displayed in the mansions of the Patricians and Equites. But, despite this, the Romans, linked to the cult of ancestors and the rules transmitted by tradition, always felt uncomfortable as art experts.

In the 1st century BC, Rome was invaded by individual statues and statuary groups, original or in copy, the result of spoils of war but also bought from flourishing Greek and Asian artisan shops. Many sculptors from the East moved to Rome, to that city that was beginning to shine with its own light in the centre of the Mediterranean. And here they opened flourishing workshops, producing new works or copying the great Greek originals, which in this way have come to us, thus allowing art lovers of all times to appreciate the Greek sculpture in all its grandeur. After almost 2 centuries, Greece had won the battle of culture!

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Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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