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HOW DID ARCHITECTURE AND TOPOGRAPHY OF ROME PLAY A ROLE IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE AUGUSTAN MYTH.
In this essay, I will be focusing on architectural forms and how they contribute towards the construction of an Augustan myth. Importantly how a collection of images can invoke a collective memory and form a narrative so pivotal to Augusts’ custody of power. The construction of a myth is no small task, but Augustus was a man that found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Architecture can as simple as a structure dedicated to commemorating a person or an event, but when invoked properly research shows architecture is uses to reconstruct the past. An advance in memory studies in the late 20th century showed how commemorations can influence memory and shape history. In the Augustan period, there was little distinction between myth and history, hence why it became such a pivotal tool for Augustus to manipulate. The construction of a myth was central to Augustus claim to legitimacy. The Augustan myth I wish to focus on is the myth of his heritage and lineage. Additional I will be touching on the effects that the links to his heritage would bring to the roman people.
Augusts, formerly Octavian, was the adopted son of leader Julius Caesar. A young man of only 19 who was named Caesars successor; he had already marched on Rome two times; he had been victorious over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Augustus had accumulated power, but in order for it to be long lasting and accepted by the people of Rome, he had to write himself in to Rome’s history to be the narrator of their future. Augustus chose the lineage of the Julian family, imposing his supposed decent from Venus and Aeneas. There were few characters involved in this Augustan myth but the essential parts were the combination of two mythical cycles. Firstly, the legend of Troy and the story of Romulus. The myth of Rome’s foundation, from Vergil’s version goes as follows, Mars seduced Rhea Silvia, daughter of King of Alba Longa, therefor becoming father of two boys Romulus and Remus. Additionally, Rhea Silvia descendent from the Trojan family of Aeneas. Uniting the two sides of the Augustan family tree. Mars gave the Romans virtues, and Venus gave them fertility and prosperity. This myth of the Julian family became the centrepiece of a new national myth. It provided Augustus with legitimacy to power and also gave people of Rome hope after the civil war. This myth needed to be infiltrated into roman society, architecture provided daily visual references. Architecture also appear as unchangeable structures, suggesting that there meaning is complete, they project a meaning of eternal unchanging past. Architecture brings different meaning to different viewers, but also bring a collective understanding and a sense of common identity, which was pivotal in a time after the troubles of war.
Firstly, I will look at the Ara Pacis as evidence of an architectural structure that provides viewers with visual imagery to bring the narrate the Augustan myth. Architecture and monuments hold a great ability to displace memories, they depict selective scenes and erase unwanted information allowing us to forget, simplifying our understanding of the past to a myth of what occurred. The Ara Pacis is an alter created in 13-9bc, it was intended to celebrate the peace in the Mediterranean. Located on the Campus Martius, an area significant to its symbolism as it was where the army would conjugate prior to them leaving for battle. The alter is dedicated to the Goddess Pax, the Goddess of Peace. Two oxen and a ram would be sacrificed here per year to her, this made the alter play an active role in society and in the construction of the myth as the sacrifices would gather an audience. Architecture does not work alone, they ‘work in relation to an audience’, and are ‘reinterpreted in different setting’ and situations. Dedication to Pax subtly created a link to Mars, Romans were given good virtues by Mars, peace would be a result of good virtues, this can be seen as a very small role but it shows that every link was thought about when constructing these architectural monuments.
Figure 1: the Ara Pacis. Front view (western facade) showing nature reliefs in the lower register. on the left the Aeneas. on the right, the discovery of Romulus and Remus.
The exterior is divided into two registers, the lower showing reliefs associated with nature and the upper register depicting humans and divinities. The western façade was the site of entrance, and depicts events from Rome’s history. This includes Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome performing a sacrifice on the right and on the left depicting the discovery of Romulus and Remus. The power of a monument is down to its idea of community and common identity, these figures have been placed here to illustrate the association of these figures in the beginning of Rome and how they play a role in the current day. The continuous references to the past only make the association to current day and the Augustan myth stronger in the minds of the Roman people.
Figure 2: the Ara Pacis. Eastern Facade. Picturing goddess Tellus, a scene of fertility and abundance
The relief from the eastern façade is debated over who is depicted, for the purpose of this essay I am in agreement with Zanker’s interpretation of the depiction being Tellus. “The imagery of lasting happiness transcended any reality and eventually came to shape the common perception of reality. The earliest and most elaborate composition of this type is the so-called Tellus relief on the Ara pacis”, this passage shows that effect that imagery had on the public and the perception that was created so early on in the age of Augustus. As can be seen in figure 2, She bestows two children on her lap. One interpretation is that they are the grandsons and heirs to Augustus, Guius and Lucius. Additionally, if Augustus heirs are depicted it visually portrays and incorporates the lineage of his family into the myth and immortalising them for the future. This relief depicts Tellus in a chiton, emphasising her breasts and abdomen, showing her to be nursing, this imagery suggests to the viewer that she is strong and nourishing the future of Rome. It is obvious that she is portrayed a divinity whose role is growth and fertility. She is veiled by a headband of flowers and fruit, along with her lap containing fruit, this all emphasises and elaborates the fertility associated with the Goddess of Earth and associates with Venus for providing for Rome. The visual effect of nourishment and fruitfulness is yet another reminder to the viewer of this architecture that because of Augustus’ heritage all of this is possible and is set as another reminder to them of the beginning of Rome’s to the golden age that they are living in today.
Figure 3: the Ara Pacis. Relief on the south side. Procession
Figure 4: the Ara Pacis. Relief on the north side. Procession
The southern procession is shown on both sides of the north and south enclosure, as seen if figure 3 and 4 they depict priests, cult attender, magistrates, historical men, women and children. This either could have been a reception ceremony on Augustus’ return of triumphant battle or could have been the procession envisioned for the first sacrifice at the Ara Pacis itself. The figures are visually commemorated in stone, showing the importance of these leaders and their place in society. The depiction of this procession shows that it has stopped, supposedly around Augustus highlighting his importance. The collection of men and women depicted show the important member of Rome’s elite. The style of these sculptures is inspired by classical reliefs, this not only makes them appear as a timeless depiction but elevates the beyond having a singular historical occasion. Not all the figures depicted were actually in Rome on the day of dedication, significantly the only the most important men have portrait features. This interpretation of the procession, plays in to the narrative of the construction of the myth, that as long as there are the important members in the narrative included, the viewer can construct their own understanding and connections between the figures. Children also occupy the foreground, showing the promise of the future, belonging to the imperial family we can see their proximity to the throne. Augustan artist created a new narrative technique, they developed the ability to join together past and future in a single image. The procession also provides the viewer with an image representation of the lineage that Augustus has, by placing him on a monument that depicts him with the Aeneas and Romulus, the viewer can make the connection between the central figures. He created an unrelenting didactic narrative, focused on constant repetition of the reduction of two mythical cycles to minimal images. Although this alter was not located centrally in Rome it served an important role drawing the focus of attention on to the central characters and involving them in a monument that symbolised the new beginning of Rome.
The imagery depicted on the Ara Pacis plays a central roll in the construction of an Augustan myth. The skilled composition and high quality of the sculptural depictions could engage the viewer and convey the repetitive message. Repetition was central to the spread and acceptance of the new imagery and the composition of the new national myth. Additionally, scenes of the golden age intertwined the mythical decanted of Venus, creating prosperity for the people and glazes over the civil stifle of war. The role of the prosperity creates legitimacy and ultimately support for Augustus because it provides the Augustan people with a visual representing of what their new leader is going to supply to them, and the luscious life that they could have. The Ara Pacis was dedicated by the senate to honour the state, what we can take away from this architecture is the leading aristocracy of Rome had they desired to be represented and to be closely identified with the new order, in support of Augustus legitimate rule. We can also take from this the connection to the divinity’s and the enormous roll they now played in the Augustan myth. Augustus also revived religion in the new republic and they had come to realise that unity and that the worship of gods and the well-being of the imperial house were more pressing and would result in a more successful empire.
The second example of architecture I wish to look at is the Forum of Augustus. The Forum of Augustus is among the most studied sights from Rome, it portrays Augustan ideology and a collection of cultural memory, showing a unique way to reflect the past and control the future. Importantly this architectural construction provides us with an exemplary understanding of the Roman art of remembering, was actually an art of forgetting. This is pivotal in the invoking of the Augustan myth, vividly showing his lineage and figures he wished to make associations with. The Forum of Augustus was built on his own private land and financed by his spoils of war. It was constructed adjacent to the forum of Augustus, immersed within the busyness of Rome. This is significant because it provided the forum with a large audience and there for a greater reception of the visual portrayal of the Augustan myth. The forum stretched out in front of the temple of Mars Ultor. The forum itself held an impressive collection of more that 100 statues, the Summi Viri, also known as the Great Men of Rome, with depictions ranging from Aeneas, to Romulus, to the Julian family. The collection also held clear labels and a brief cursus honorum. Additionally, there would be a long inscription with a notable list of achievements. It is believed that the Julian house stood in the western portico and the rest of the Summi Viri stood opposite in the east. The Summi Viri were located around the self-promoting equestrian statue of Augustus standing in the centre of the forum. There was a massive effort to restore the past to create a myth of succession and the collection of the Summi Viri were all part of this.
The Summi Viri can be seen to create “seductively straightforward story of the growth of the empire and the legitimacy of Augustus”, Shaya’s interpretation can explain the intention behind the collection of statues within the forum. The interpretation drawn from studying the Summi Viri as a collective gives the impression that the Roman hero’s, Kings, founders and relations to Augustus create a story of a growing empire that reaches its pinnacle with Augustus. All of the figures depicted in the Summi Viri built Rome, and that Rome’s success what down to the powerful leaders it had. The collection built a story to the making of Rome, the downfalls were omitted and the positives were the focus, commemorating everyone like hero’s. These portraits offered the ability to create a revised version of Rome’s past, to create a history that suited the purposes of Augustan Rome. They created a traceable unity form the foundation of the city up to the present day, and in to the future. What also allowed Augustus to consume more power was the fact that all the stories and achievements belonged to him, in his forum and served him a greater purpose of portraying his legitimacy through the association with these men. Importantly it invoked the new morals of the new age of peace, in this gallery enemies stood united side by side, emphasising the end of civil strife. It became a collective space where viewers interacted with the representation of the past given by Augustus. In ancient Rome, literary texts were difficult to come by and to read for most people, the forum provided a decorative programme intended to educate people, an insight to public history, available to large audiences, therefor creating a larger impact. The audience of the Forum of Augusts was everyone, and the descriptions of the Summi Viri circulated to relevant audiences. The spread of this history and this knowledge was essentially and very cleverly the spread of the Augustan myth, supporting his lineage and legitimacy to power.
Figure 5: the layout of the Forum of Augustus.
From figure 5, the structure of the forum displays how Augusts constructed the Hall of Great Men. It shows how familiar figures and important figures were involved within the Summi Viri, being Aeneas and Romulus. These two figures stood as counterparts to Mars and Venus, uniting together in one space to revive the Augustan myth. Mars, Venus and the deified Julius Caesar were housed as cult statues in the Temple of Mars Ultor. On the pediment of the temple, there is a distinctive ordering of the figures, showing that they all relate to each other but only through their connection to Augustus. In this depiction, it is significant that Mars has been disarmed, this refers to the peace which follows war, and the new era of peace they are in provided by Augustus. The Augustan artist purposefully enhanced the style of the state gods to classical sculpture, elevating the myth to timeless piece of history. The placing of the Julian family is also significant, carefully placed to the right of the temple, selected among great men and positioned opposite to Romulus but with the Aeneas and the kings, gave a justified juxtaposition, proclaiming importance as a prominent family and the producer of an honourable heir. Additionally, the structure of the forum clearly shows how by placing himself in the centre, all figures accumulate and point to him, in a way this can be seen how they all concede their power to him and that he is the chosen ruler.
When studying the images portrayed and commissioned by Augustus we get a sense of the didactic and relentless purpose, but it cannot be denied that they were not successful. The effect of this artwork was widespread. “It was not long before this group was employed in the private sphere as symbol of pietas.” This shows the wanted effect of the spread of the myth and the values intertwined with new Republic of Rome was spreading and being sourced through images depicted on architecture. As discovered in this essay architectural forms played a large role in the construction of an Augustan myth. The myth was conveyed using materials that would endure the conflicts of time, although most only stand today in fragments, the solidary of this narrative in stone has been rejuvenated multiple times. It is clear to see that Augustan architects and artist created a new narrative technique, in order to join together the past and the future to create a single image, but a powerful image that convinced an empire of Augustus legitimacy. The collections in this period commemorated the growth and legitimacy of Augustus empire with a seductive narrative enabling a common identify for the Roman public. It isn’t hard to argue that the imagery created was accessible to everyone daily and therefor had a pivotal impact on the construction of an Augustan myth. To really see their impact, we had to take in to account there meaning in public life and the public audience they would receive. The works of art outlived its creators, but the Augustan myth was rewritten as history.
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- Shaya, Josephine. “The Public Life of Monuments: The Summi Viri of the Forum of Augustus.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 117, no. 1, 2013, pp. 83–110. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.117.1.0083.
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