This year is a big Augustus anniversary; 2000 years since the death of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Born Gaius Octavius, he was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. After Caesar’s death in 44BC, when Octavian was nineteen, his rise to power saw him eventually acclaimed Emperor by the Senate with the title “Augustus” in 27BC. Behind the creation of the first Emperor was a manipulation of legend, religion, and geography to put any spin doctor to shame.
For example, Virgil’s “Aeneid”, an epic poem describing the tribulations of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and claimed by Octavian as his ancestor, was written for Augustus; it was for him that Titus Livy wrote his “History of Rome”, providing the back-story to the “Golden Age” of Augustus.
Which brings us to geography. Throughout the Roman Republic, the Palatine had been Rome’s Upper East Side, and aristocratic Octavian had been born on its slopes. As Republic became Empire, the hill ceased to be a residential district and became a seat of power. The lines between public and private; between religion and state began to blur.
Cassius Dio, writing two centuries later, tells us that following Pompey’s defeat in 36BC:
“…The people … resolved that a house should be presented to Caesar at public expense; for he had made public property of the place on the Palatine which he had bought for the purpose of erecting a residence upon it, and had consecrated it to Apollo, after a thunderbolt had descended upon it.”
This dedication to Apollo was once again part of the propaganda machine; just as the god had defended Troy, Octavian’s forebears, so Apollo had defended the forces of the would-be Augustus against his enemies.
The divine nature of the Augustus’ house is referred to by Ovid in his mournful Tristia, (III, 1). Ovid tells us the house was:
“… fit for a god.
‘…is this Jove’s house?’ I said, a wreath of oak
prompting that thought in my mind.
When I learnt its owner, ‘No error there,’ I said,
this is truly the house of mighty Jove.’ …”
In the 1960s excavations on this side of the hill revealed what is believed to be part of the House of Augustus. Rich as the paintings are, it is nevertheless a far cry from the opulence of the palaces of the later emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
This contrast is presumably what Suetonius had in mind when he wrote, a century after Augustus’ death, that the house had:
“rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”
Although whether or not we are to believe that:
“The simplicity of his furniture and household goods … are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen”,
or whether this too is spin is a question of opinion.
~Contributor Agnes Crawford received a Master of Art in Architecture History from Edinburgh University and is also a licensed tour guide. Her blog Understanding Rome is replete with wonderful writing on Ancient Rome. Want a piece of the ancient action? Look for her Heart of Ancient Rome itinerary, a lovely Ancient Rome visit which includes the House of Augustus.