• Reuters


Rome, a city that thinks in millenniums, is going through a bout of “Augustus fever” to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the death of its first emperor, who left his mark on Rome and Western civilization like few others.

The Eternal City is staging shows, exhibitions, debates and seminars on Augustus, who died on Aug. 19, A.D. 14, at the age of 75 after a 41-year reign that was the longest in Roman history.

The celebrations will also explore the dark side of a legacy that inspired modern-day dictators, including Italy’s Benito Mussolini, who followed Augustus in using monumental architecture as propaganda to buttress their rule and studied his techniques of gaining, consolidating and masking power.

Augustus vastly expanded the Roman Empire, established a period of relative peace known as the Pax Romana and sponsored an explosion of creativity and innovation in architecture, law and literature whose effects were felt far beyond the capital.

He also made Rome a world-class city with infrastructure projects that vastly improved its livability after the discord and violence that marred the preceding period of the Republic.

“The peace he brought meant that a lot of the long-standing problems could be resolved, and one of the first ones he tried to resolve was the city of Rome itself,” said Valerie Higgins, program director of archaeology and classics at the American University of Rome.

On his deathbed, according to the historian Suetonius, Augustus said: “Marmoream relinquo, quam latericiam accepi.” (“I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.”)

Monuments that endure to this day — including the Forum of Augustus, the Pantheon, the Theater of Marcellus, aqueducts and his own massive family tomb — were either built on his direct orders or were financed or encouraged by him.

“Most people imagine that Rome was a great city and then Rome created an empire, but in many respects it came the other way around,” Higgins said. “Rome created the empire and then they created the city to fit the empire. They made it into a beautiful city, a city that had a lot of amenities for its population. They were able to do that because of the peace that ensued following Augustus’ reforms.”

Among the events is a spectacular nighttime show that uses lights and projections to reconstruct the Forum of Augustus, one of the centers of public life in ancient Rome, allowing the visitor to see it as it was when it was first built. Partial columns become whole, collapsed ones rise and capitols, friezes and statues that have been missing for centuries return before the viewer’s eyes.

An exhibition at the “Ara Pacis Augustae,” the Altar of Augustan Peace, commonly known as the Ara Pacis, will explore how future monarchs and dictators used leadership techniques developed by Augustus, a master of self-propaganda.

“Some of the people who tried to emulate him were dictators, most notably Mussolini,” said Higgins, adding that some scholars were ambivalent about the decision to celebrate Augustus.

“It’s hard to celebrate him in the same way that the Greeks can celebrate democracy, for example, because his style of government is not very in keeping with our political sensibilities today,” Higgins said. “His image has not always been used in the most positive way.”

Mussolini, who took the title Il Duce (the leader), saw himself as a “reborn Augustus.” He had the area around Augustus’ tomb renovated as a shrine to fascist values and urban order.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.