Magnificent Mausoleum of Augustus Reopened in Rome
The Mausoleum of Augustus, Unearthed Recently in Rome
By John Henderson
One of the fun parlor games among history buffs here in Rome is who was Ancient Rome’s greatest emperor. You have Hadrian who aided the poor.
You have Marcus Aurelius who maintained peace. But the emperor who has arguably earned the most street cred around here for the last 2,000 years is the first one.
Caesar Augustus died in 14 A.D. and one of the biggest legacies he left, besides his expansion of mankind’s most powerful civilization, is a gargantuan mausoleum in the middle of Rome in 28 B.C.
It covers an entire city block and for the previous 14 years has been surrounded by a tall construction fence, leaving tourists wondering what’s behind it and Romans wondering when they’ll once again see it.
March 2021 Opening
Finally, on March 1, the Mausoleum of Augustus reopened to the general public. TIM, the Italian telecommunications company, spearheaded a 10-million euro restoration that started in 2006.
What it produced is a very good idea of what the grandest building in all of Ancient Rome looked like.
The travertine stone making up the bulk of the mausoleum remains.
The inside still has the center chamber where Augustus’ ashes were stored.
The cavernous inside is eerily lit from the light shining through the window openings above.
Climb the stairs and see what became a concert hall, closed forever by a man named Benito Mussolini who saw himself as a “reborn Augustus.”
2000 Years of Roman History
What the Mausoleum of Augustus represents is 2,000 years of Roman history.
It stretches from the early glory days of the Roman Empire to the Sack of Rome to housing wealthy noblemen to becoming an entertainment center to its current state as a historical monument.
That’s how I saw it on a recent windy, sunny spring day.
I joined a second media tour not knowing what impressed me more: Roman architecture from 2,000 years ago or the man whom it represents.
Augustus is to Ancient Rome what Winston Churchill was to Great Britain.
After the Roman Republic began to crumble, the people named Augustus, at 26, their first emperor to piece it back together.
The son of politicians and great-nephew of Julius Caesar, Augustus had joined the Roman Senate at the tender age of 19.
When Senators murdered Caesar at what is now Torre Argentina, less than a mile from the mausoleum, Augustus learned Caesar wrote in his will that he had adopted him and would inherit his fortune.
Augustus ingratiated himself to his people by spreading around the booty.
As emperor, he advanced Rome into another level of world dominance while fixing a broken city.
He expanded to Egypt and what is now Eastern Europe and Switzerland.
He settled differences with the violent Partian Empire in Persia. He built an army and police force. He started a fire department to stop a major arson problem.
He was also benevolent. When he conquered a people, instead of installing Roman leaders and possibly inspiring a rebellion, he put in place locals to govern.
“Augustus was a very good emperor,” Massimiliano Francia (firstname.lastname@example.org), a renowned Rome tour guide, wrote me in an email.
“He wisely forgave most of his enemies, promoted the reconstruction of Rome and offered plenty of games including gladiators. His main concern was protecting Roman society from immorality and corruption.”
The project team termed the restoration as “conservative.” It consisted of two phases.
The first phase was a consolidation. They returned 153 archaeological remains to the mausoleum.
They erected scaffolding to remove the vegetation that had taken root in the walls. Then they cleaned, filled and rain protected them.
Accessible to the Disabled
The second phase was enhancement where they are making it accessible to the disabled and building safe walkways in the upper levels.
It was a very comfortable, hour-long tour that begins atop the entry ramp outside the outer wall.
At first glance, the mausoleum resembles a giant white stone cylinder.
The marble that originally encased the mausoleum is long gone but nearly half of the 140,000 square feet of walls are original stone dating back to 28 B.C.
What the peeled marble uncovers is white travertine stone, the kind you see all throughout Ancient Roman monuments, including the Forum just a mile and a half away.
Surrounding the mausoleum is a small creek that looks like a shallow moat with a backdrop of tall trees.
Inside the Arch
We walked down the long ramp and under the 30-foot-high arched entrance that was originally flanked by two pink granite obelisks.
Inside the arch, we were in the gaping maw of the mausoleum’s circular chamber. Augustus was a bit of an architecture nut.
He wanted a dynastic monument for him and his family designed in a Greek-Oriental style that was popular in Ancient Rome.
Originally Two Rings
The original design had two rings: An outer ring of 12 semicircular rooms outside another ring of 12 smaller semicircular rooms.
It reminded me of the Matryoshka doll, the famous Russian souvenir consisting of a large, hand-painted wooden doll with increasingly smaller dolls inside it.
Outer Walls Oddities
The rooms weren’t rebuilt but the inside of the outer walls are lined with oddities. Many huge chunks of the wall had fallen.
One 10-foot-high piece of the wall held a small shelf, giving it the look of an ancient toilet.
However, it served as a stand that once held one of the family urns.
The urns of Augustus and his family are gone as are the urns of the emperors who followed him: Tiberius (14-37 A.D.), Caligula (37-41 A.D.) and Claudius (41-54 A.D.)
While the ringed rooms aren’t around, the inner circle remains. It’s a huge cylinder block with an opening to walk inside.
It looks like the bottom of a broken-down silo. Inside is where they held the urns.
Not far away stands a Doric column that decorated the inside.
Poisoned by his Wife
The building took on many roles long after Augustus’ controversial death in 14 A.D.
Many historians claim his wife, Livia, killed him with poison figs after arguing about his successor.
His famous last words were, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud when I exit.”
The foundation Augustus built helped Ancient Rome hold sway on the world for nearly 500 years.
However, the mausoleum soon fell into disrepair.
A popular theory is that during the Sack of Rome in 410, Visigoths robbed the vaults, stole the urns and threw the ashes everywhere although no historian ever confirmed it.
What they can confirm is after the fall of the empire in 476 A.D., the building became a white elephant. By the 10th century, dirt and trees almost covered it completely.
In the 12th century, the papal state refurbished it and used it as a castle.
Later in the 12th century, the noble Colonna family used it as a residence but left after the Count of Tusculum, noblemen from outside Rome, defeated the Commune of Rome in 1167.
Mausoleum Used as a Circus Ground
The city turned the building into a circus ground in the 19th century when people came to watch animals perform. They rebuilt the top floor into a concert hall in the early 20th century.
We could see all of this when we took a modern wooden staircase up two flights of stairs. We went along a new walkway following a brick wall that wrapped around the site.
On the wall hung iron hooks that once held the animals used in the circuses. Walking farther we entered a large open area with a round platform atop a brick base.
This once held 3,500 spectators for concerts, particularly classical music. Our guide showed us a black-and-white photo from 1874 of elegantly dressed people packing the hall that could’ve passed for an opera house in Paris.
Closed Down by Il Duce
However, Mussolini closed it all. One of his main motivations for power was to return Rome to its ancient glory. He wanted to preserve as much of Ancient Rome as he could. Thus, he closed the concert hall and restored the mausoleum into the monument it remains today.
Of course, he blew that plan when he befriended a guy named Adolf Hitler but what Mussolini preserved is much of what I saw.
Informational plaques in Italian and English are scattered throughout the site. It’s well lit with natural light and I imagine would be a cool refuge during Rome’s steaming summer months. The city is planning green spaces to depict what the surrounding grounds looked like during Augustus’ reign.
Also planned are long stairways connecting the site to the nearby street along the Tiber plus visual and augmented reality content for the guided tour.
The site is currently closed, along with all of Italy’s museums, during high Covid restrictions in April but may reopen in May 2021.
Visit the Mausoleum of Augustus
Where is it:
Piazza Augusto Imperatore.
9 a.m.-7 p.m., last admission 5:30 p.m. Duration 50 minutes. (Currently closed due to lockdown.)
Free. April 22-Dec. 31, free for Roman citizens, fee for others.
39-060608, tickets website