The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14.[1] Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.

The Mausoleum of Augustus as reconstructed in the Model Plastico di Roma, a 1:250 scale model of Imperial Rome now in the Museum of Roman Civilization, which is . . . closed now, for several years (pic shamelessly appropriated online because Ancient Dan cannot access the actual model)

Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name) prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title Augustus by which he is remembered.[2] It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet (c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer, making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls, opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2 entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, currently still closed, as seen from an open portico in the building to the south (the only way to see the entrance); the entrance passes through the 3 outer wall rings, which are linked by buttresses as seen at left; the ruins of this outer ring support the ring of current trees (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome in its present state; the best view of the full width of the sides, obtained by shooting from an opposite street corner (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early 20th century.[3] Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the Fascist government in the late 1930s.

A better view of the outer ring wall of The Mausoleum of Augustus, now stripped of decorative white marble/limestone; the staircases were added by the Fascist government of Mussolini in the late 1930s (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

The original white limestone facing was robbed along with other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos give some hope of progress.

My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.


[1] The month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”

[2] Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated), as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus? Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.

[3] Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.

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