September 23: Empire Builder

2016/09/23 § Leave a comment

On this day in 63 BC Gaius Octavius Thurinus was born.

Better known by a different name, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus is just the guy who planted the seed that would, in less than a century’s time, blossom into the full flower of Roman Imperial Architecture.  Upon his ascent to fill the shoes of the assassinated Caesar, Augustus reconfigured and renamed the position.  Whereas Caesar had been Dictator of the Republic, his great-nephew Augustus became Imperator, sole leader of the new Empire of Rome.  And then he started building.

But just the naming rights do not constitute a new breed of architecture; Augustus introduced a new scale, sweep, and approach to building that inaugurated a recognizably new idiom both technically and aesthetically.  Under Augustus, Roman architecture synthesized much-admired qualities of Greek buildings and adapted them with traditions perfected during the Republic into a new, distinct form: more sculpturally rich, more dramatic in every way.  Where the Greeks were refined and elegant, the Romans would be bold and glorious.  Augustus directed and oversaw a number of structures that set a new standard and in many ways changed the face of the city: the Ara Pacis, the Temple of Caesar, the  Mausoleum of Augustus.  At the center of the capital he completed the forum begun by Caesar, and built a finer one named for himself and featuring the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) within it.  Sturdy roads and aqueducts snaked through Rome and beyond.  Well outside the city limits of the capital, he impressed the imperial stamp of power upon the colonies through architectural design, as with the Arch of Augustus at Rimini and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes.  Augustus also had the good fortune to rule during the time of Vitruvius (and vice-versa), so that the architect’s great book, De architectura, bears its dedication to Rome’s first emperor.

Augustus is reported to have remarked that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.  That’s not too much hyperbole.  Nor is it too much to say that he paved the way for those later great imperial builders like Hadrian and Trajan, who learned from Augustus’ example how to really build–as have we.

Image: The Augustus of Prima Porta (from this source)

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