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Samuel Taylor

In what ways, if any, did the Augustan building programme help to


consolidate imperial power?


In a sense, we are faced with an embarrassment of evidence surrounding Augustus building
programmes, but even when confronted by such a relatively large and varied mound of evidence, we
can still detect certain patterns in the way in which Augustus imperial power was consolidated by
his building programmes. The building programmes conferred legitimacy upon his rule by associating
him with traditional Roman values and customs and also invested him with a divine mandate to rule.
Augustus intense reform of Romes infrastructure and administration provided him with a concrete
basis for his power, which was always expressed in imperial terms as opposed to merely dictatorial.

One of the primary ways in which the Augustan building programme sought to consolidate imperial
power was by conferring the legitimacy which was associated with tradition. By emphasising the
ways in which Augustan power, as expressed in building works, was actually a direct continuation
and fulfilment of Romes heritage, Augustus imperial power seemed less usurped and more
authentic to Romes previous experience. As one might expect from a building programme on such a
scale throughout his regime, there are many examples of this emphasis on tradition, and it will only
be possible to discuss a few. The Theatre of Marcellus represents one such example, where the
Republican style of building was allowed to continue despite the regime change. Yet it was actually
not the realities of any such continuity which consolidated imperial power so much as Augustus
manipulation of the appearance of tradition. In his public aims of leading Rome to rediscover the
values and customs of the past which might have been lost, Augustus building works represented a
monumentalisation of the past which actually was a monument to the Caesars themselves. In
particular, the Roman Forum shows this, with the erection of the line of works from the Temple of
the Deified Julius Caesar, through the triumphal arches and the Basilica Julia to the completion of
the Temple of the Concordia Augusta in 10 BC. The largely random and unsystematic tradition of
translating military success into status through buildings was totally transformed under Augustus,
and his imperial power was proclaimed through monolithic projects aimed at glorifying himself only.

Even the less glamorous projects contributed towards this accretion of legitimacy. For example,
Frontinus did not understand why Augustus would create aqueducts to import Alsietinian water,
since it was known as unwholesome (Frontinus I.11). Perhaps this was part of a symbolic extension
of Augustus power across all regions. While not as practical as most of his works seem to have been,
perhaps in it we can see glimpses of a total vision for Rome which encompasses all areas and
peoples in Italy. Returning to the theme of legitimacy being established through the manipulation of
traditions, the Campus Martius had always been the setting for electoral and military rivalry within
the aristocracy, but Augustus transformed the area into a centrepiece of his imperial capital. The
Saepta of Marcus Agrippa was one of the first Roman buildings on a large scale to be planned in
marble, while ultimately Augustus Mausoleum came to dominate one end of the Campus. It could
be argued that this represents an expression rather than a consolidation of Augustus imperial
power, but it is still significant that Augustus took a space which had long been a site of plurality of
faction and turned it into one which was dominated by the Caesars alone. This usurpation and direct
manipulation of tradition can also be seen in Augustus fabrication of traditions and history. The Res
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Gestae record how apparently the Janus Quirinus gate was shut after major victories, and this had
happened only twice throughout Roman history until it happened a further three times in the time
of Augustus (Res Gestae 13). Yet actually, this tradition had been made up by Augustus to lend a
portentous sense of grandeur to his reign
1
. When his building projects were not fabricating history
outright, they were distorting it in order to lend the legitimacy of tradition to Augustuss imperium.
There is also a sense in which religious activity, in particular that of temple-building, helped to
consolidate imperial power. Augustus involvement in the construction of projects related to religion
was not just his own personal proclamation of his legitimacy to rule on account of some divine
mandate, it was also (to a certain extent) popular and aristocratic recognition of that mandate
through the medium of religious activity. Horace, in his third Ode, is ostensibly talking about Zeus,
but actually his words seem to be fitted to a more earthly divinity: Victor in giant battle-field, he
moves all nature with his brow. This man his planted walks extends beyond his peers; an older name
one to the people's choice commends; One boasts a more unsullied fame; One plumes him on a
larger crowd of clients. Propertius joins in this acclamation of Augustus as divine (4.6), constantly
emphasising Augustus divine ordination, the favour of Jupiter towards him and the loyalty of Apollo
to him in bringing him victories. Augustus own emphasis on the number of temples he repaired is
significant, as is his choice of deity Jupiter Tonens, Mars and Apollo feature very heavily. The
constant reminder that Augustus owed his position to military success would almost have been as
overbearing as garrisons of troops within Rome itself. By associating himself so closely with these
gods in doing things such as opening the Temple of Apollo himself (Propertius 2.31), Augustus
reinforced the impression that he was the destined and divinely-favoured ruler of Rome and that
therefore his family was rightfully the imperial family as well. This is again shown in the literature,
this time in the sixth of Ovids Fasti. From line 349, Ovid writes an account of Mars and Jupiter
discussing the foundation of the altar of Jupiter Tonens. The emphasis on the glory of Julius Caesar
(and, by extension, Augustus) combined with a brief reference to Augustus oath to build an altar
having exacted his revenge, which came to pass, continues this projection of Augustus as having
legitimate power.

However, Augustus different levels of explicit proclamation of his power at different times are also
interesting. Sometimes, he is extremely closely associated with the monuments, and the viewers are
left in no doubt as to the extent of his power, but at others, he perhaps surprisingly deliberately
softens this tyrannical appearance. The most obvious examples of this are found in his Res Gestae,
where he often balances considerable achievements with noting that he did not exploit them for his
own glory. To this end, he says in the Res Gestae that he didnt put his name on the Capitol or the
Theatre of Pompey (20), emphasises that private ground and wealth was used to create the Temple
of Mars and the Forum Augustum and says that he refused to take at least 35,000 pounds of gold for
crowns which Italy awarded him (21). Now, of course, much like his remission of certain titles to the
Senate, the ability to behave in such a way is an indirect indicator of significant power, but actually
there are certain elements of his building programme which are interesting and worth dwelling on.
The House of Augustus on the Palatine shows a certain level of imperial restraint in its dcor and
arrangement
2
and yet Augustus forums unashamedly self-promote the glory of the Julii family and
even go so far as to identify them with Romes past glories. Actually, these apparently self-

1
Wallace-Hadrill (1989) p. 52
2
Coulston and Dodge p. 62
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contradictory elements of the building projects could well have played a role in establishing
Augustus power as an emperor rather than a dictator. The former carries connotations of
permanence and legitimacy, through the semi-constitutionalisation of absolute power, while the
dictator is vulnerable and insecure. Not only was Augustus, throughout his building programme,
promoting the sense of his rule being secure and stable, but the dynastic elements of his
programmes were also key. Augustus tellingly claimed in his Res Gestae that all his works had been
done 'on the authority of the Senate' but at the same time he gave orders for works unfinished at his
death to 'be completed by my heirs' (20). This clearly shows an imperial power which is obscured by
a faade of senatorial legitimacy. Augustus building programmes promoted these mixed messages
and so consolidated his power.

Despite all this, the most significant way in which Augustan building programmes helped to
consolidate his power was through the control he obtained through administrative and structural
change. Although there doesnt seem to have been a major overall theme to Augustus works,
perhaps the closest we have is a sense in which the projects were distinctively utilitarian. Aqueducts,
sewage works are self-apparent examples of such utility, yet basilicae, temples and fora all
performed important social functions as well. Virtually all our sources agree that Rome underwent a
considerable period of infrastructural improvement during Augustus reign, with Marcus Agrippa
being noted by Strabo and Frontinus as a major proponent of this change. Vitruvius writes that
Augustus was paying attention to the welfare of society in general and to the establishment of
public order, but also to the providing of public buildings intended for utilitarian purposes
(Preface.2). This emphasis on utility seems to be in stark contrast to the grandeur of other imperial
projects, and yet these types of projects were probably the most important in terms of consolidating
Augustus imperial power. In addressing causes of social instability and poor living conditions, while
also maintaining a benevolent public face (Suetonius 56 providing a particularly good account of how
Augustus would be considerate and refuse to merely bulldoze inhabitants out of the way of his
projects), Augustus developed his reputation as the champion of the people with the tribunicia
potestas. This symbolically important power directly linked Augustus legitimacy to popular support,
and over time we see a trend towards him moving from having a fairly relaxed approach to domestic
affairs to becoming much more interventionist. The paramilitary freedmen were only designated to
fight fires in 6 AD, while the division of Rome into 14 regiones occurred in 7 BC. Yet these kinds of
reforms show Augustus consolidating his power so that he extended personal control right down to
the neighbourhood level. New structures of government and state, with Augustus at the pinnacle,
were promoted and reinforced by Augustus building projects and infrastructural improvements. The
extraordinary detail of the ordinances controlling the distribution of water, which Frontinus relates
from 103 onwards, show the extent of his power and the means by which he established it. While
Augustus was never confident enough to remove the corn subsidies from the people, his direct
intervention in and control over their day-to-day lives was manifested in the multiplying of building
projects over his reign.

In conclusion, Augustus was able to use building programmes to consolidate his power by
manipulating tradition and history through them, investing his reign with a sense of legitimacy and
divine mandate, while also through them exerting a direct and particular control over all aspects of
Roman life. From the opulence of the Campus Martius and the Forums to the practicality of
aqueducts and sewage systems, Augustus building works were shrewdly calculated to develop and
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strengthen his power as much as possible. However, there is also a sense in the consolidation of
power was not wholly imposed from above. The building projects involved a degree of consensus
from the people and the aristocracy which provided security and legitimacy for Augustus rule, and
then the rule of his family.



Bibliography
Res Gestae Divi Augusti
Suetonius, Augustus
Strabo, Geography
Ovid, Fasti
Frontinus, The Aqueducts of Rome
Vitruvius, De Architectura
Horace, Odes
Propertius
Filippo Coarelli, Rome and Environs: an Archaeological Guide (Berkeley 2007)
A Claridge, Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides 1998)
JB Ward-Perkins and A Boethius, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (Penguin 1970)
Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (University of Michigan Press 1988)
Jon Coulston and Hazel Dodge (ed.s), Ancient Rome (Oxford University School of Archaeology 2000)
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, 'Rome's Cultural Revolution' The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 79 (1989)
John R. Patterson, 'The City of Rome: From Republic to Empire' The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 82
(1992)
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome (Bristol Classical Press 1993)