“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1; NIV)
The life and rule of Caesar Augustus (r. 27 BC to AD 14) are well-known. On a trip to Rome in May 2022, we were able to visit a site that I had never entered. I had only seen it from the outside, from the building where the Ara Pacis is currently located (not the original location). The site is the Mausoleum of Augustus where the urns containing the ashes of the bodies of Augustus, family members, and other emperors such as Tiberius, Claudius, and Nerva were interred.
This is a model of the Campus Martius in the first century A.D. The view is looking south-southwest. In the foreground, on the north side of the CM is the circular Mausoleum of Augustus. A long white street leads to the (well-known) Pantheon on the south side of the CM. The Mausoleum is located 0.45 miles north of the Pantheon. The white street, perpendicular to the above, leads east to where the Ara Pacis originally was constructed.
The tree-lined square at the junction marks the spot where it is thought that the body of Augustus was cremated (ustrinum augusti). At the midpoint between the Ara Pacis and the cremation spot, was a Horologium, the gnomon of which was an obelisk that had been brought from Egypt.
On the right (west) side of the image, the brown area indicates where the Tiber River was at that time. On the left (east) side of the image the long white road was the Via Flaminia, today the Via del Corso—some slabs of the ancient road have been found beneath the modern road.
Although today the area of the Campus Martius is built up, in ancient times it was a large open space used for various activities: military exercises, sporting activities, etc.
Augustus began the construction of his mausoleum in ca 28 B.C., soon after he defeated Anthony and Cleopatra. It is a circular structure about 300 feet in diameter and about 140 feet tall. It was composed of a number of concentric circular walls, the outer of which were filled in to provide support for the structure. Only the lower third of the monument is preserved.
The focus of the mausoleum was a large, hollow, cylindrical column, on top of which a large statue of Caesar Augustus was placed—it is thought that the Prima Porta statue of Augustus is a small marble representation of this original bronze statue. The Prima Porta statue was discovered on the Via Flaminia in the villa of the empress Livia.
This is the “Prima Porta Augustus” that is on display in the Vatican Museum in Rome. Augustus is shown as the commander of the army addressing his troops. He is in military dress and the breastplate commemorates the recapture of the “army standards” from the Parthians in 20 BC. At his feet is a cupid, riding a dolphin, that alludes to the imperial family’s descent from Venus through her son Aeneas and grandson Ascanius.
It is believed that this is a smaller copy of a larger bronze statue of Augustus that was placed on the top of his mausoleum!
This statue, in marble, is about 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighs about 2,200 pounds. It was discovered in 1863 in the villa of the empress Livia near Prima Porta on the Via Flaminia.
Next installment — The Mausoleum.