BMCR 2000.12.08

Death and the Emperor

, Death and the emperor : Roman imperial funerary monuments, from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv, 265 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm. ISBN 0521632366 $80.00.

Death and the Emperor surveys a series of monuments that, with just one exception, are well-preserved and extremely familiar sights in Rome. They are also very well studied, as Davies’ extensive and wide-ranging bibliography makes clear. The question that we must ask of such a book is whether it has anything new to contribute to our understanding of those monuments and, if so, whether the conclusions will be by and large convincing. In this case, the answer to both questions is an emphatic yes. This concise and lucidly written book is a very valuable new contribution to the studies of Roman imperial cult, political propaganda, and topography, and has the added benefit of discussing complex scholarly disputes in a manner that the non-specialist will probably follow with ease. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to my undergraduate students, although they are not the audience for whom it was primarily written. The photograph on the cover aptly sums up the nature of the volume: it shows a view of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, taken from the north-west and from across the Tiber river; at first glance, a handsome but unremarkable view of a well-known Roman landmark. This is a good, unobstructed view that demonstrates the building’s shape and structure to best advantage; as we learn in Chapter 6, the monument was carefully sited to take advantage of precisely this view, along with another from the Pons Neronianus to its southwest. Where the photographer must have stood, the sailors, longshoremen and merchants on the bustling piers of the Ciconiae could hardly have helped but look across the Tiber toward the monument every day, thus ensuring that Hadrian’s name and memory would live on in the consciousness of many ordinary citizens. And that, of course, is precisely the object of any funerary monument, but the goal becomes more urgent when the legitimacy of a ruler’s successor depends in large part on how he is remembered.

The monuments that D. analyzes in depth are: the Mausoleum of Augustus and its associated structures, Arch of Titus, Temple of the Flavian Dynasty, Column of Trajan, Mausoleum of Hadrian, Column of Antoninus Pius, and Column of Marcus Aurelius. Some of these did not actually contain the remains of the persons that they honored, but all were intended to serve as commemorative monuments after their honorees had died. Surprisingly, however, although all of these monuments have been studied in detail, they have not been studied in relation to one another specifically in the context of their funerary function. D.’s approach allows her to explore an elaborate set of relationships among the funerary monuments and between each monument and its patron’s other building projects. For example, it is now fairly well known that the Horologium Solarium Augusti and the Ara Pacis Augustae were placed in a very calculated relationship to the Mausoleum of Augustus, which had gone up earlier. It is less obvious, although immediately clear once demonstrated on a map (p.162, fig.111), that, from the belvedere at the top of Trajan’s column, the great circular drum of Hadrian’s Mausoleum aligns precisely with the dome of his Pantheon. Each new monument, moreover, became part of an ongoing dialogue with the earlier ones, as each emperor tried to associate himself with the memory of his revered predecessors, while perhaps contrasting himself favorably with those of less beloved memory. The similarities of Hadrian’s mausoleum to that of Augustus, and of the Column of Marcus Aurelius to that of Trajan are self-evident, and we can assume a deliberate quotation in each case. The Arch of Titus, conversely, formed a grand entranceway both to the Forum and in the other direction to the Colosseum, where Domitian’s father and brother had made a great show of generosity by restoring Nero’s private land to the public.

Some emperors built these great tombs or commemorative structures for themselves, perhaps in the hope of eventual deification. Hadrian must have known in his later years that his deification would be dicey, at best, because of the Senate’s hostility to him. He therefore neatly sidestepped the problem by building his tomb on private land, but in a place easily visible from the Campus Martius. The question of whether or not Trajan’s column was originally intended to hold his cremated ashes, as it eventually did, remains highly controversial, but there is little doubt that the column and probably its decoration were begun during Trajan’s lifetime. In every case, the monument served the political needs of his successor as much as the personal vanity of the man himself. By presenting a list of his glorious accomplishments, either in verbal form, like Augustus’s Res Gestae, or in pictorial friezes, the emperor could make a posthumous case for his own deification. That honor would in turn allow his chosen successor to call himself “Divi Filius,” and to enjoy the authority associated with that title. The images of fertility and of rebirth evident in so many of these structures may reflect the eschatological beliefs of their patrons, but, much more importantly, they stress the survival of the “body politic” in the person of the new emperor.

The introduction explains the origins of this project, which began as a Yale dissertation, and defines its scope. D. limits her studies to monuments in Rome proper, but accepts a fairly broad definition of “funerary monuments,” one that includes commemorative structures as well as actual tombs. She briefly summarizes the precedents for these buildings in the increasingly monumental private tombs of the late Roman republic and discusses the literary evidence for the rituals of an imperial funeral.

Chapter 1, “The Monuments,” briefly describes each of the buildings, its present condition, the evidence for its original design, its subsequent history, and the scholarly controversies about its reconstruction and interpretation. This chapter will be a very useful source for anyone researching these monuments, whether or not they share D.’s interest in their funerary and commemorative function.

Chapter 2, “An Image of Things Achieved,” devotes much of its attention to the Mausoleum of Augustus, a justified choice in view of this building’s importance as a precedent for all such later monuments. D. reviews the various possible reconstructions of the Mausoleum, and argues in favor of a series of stepped terraces, rather than the giant tumulus-tomb more often seen in models and drawings. She reviews a variety of precedents for the Mausoleum: the original Mausoleum at Halicarnassus that not only set the precedent for but gave its name to an entire class of monuments; the tomb of Alexander as described in literary sources; and some extant tombs of the first century B.C. in Egypt and Northern Africa. But Augustus’s mausoleum has another source as well: the architectural military trophy, like those at La Turbie and Adamklisi. The latter association would explain both the placement of the Mausoleum on the Campus Martius, with its military associations, and its construction relatively early in Augustus’s career. In 29 B.C., Augustus’s death was still a fairly distant possibility, but his military victories required constant emphasis as the justification for his new political position. The Arch of Titus and the Column of Trajan, although structures of a very different sort, emulate the Mausoleum in presenting a record of the deceased emperor’s achievements through their relief sculptures.

The third chapter, “An Imperial Cosmos: the Creation of Eternity,” examines the cosmological imagery of several of these monuments. Some of these are fairly explicit, such as the Horologium Solarium Augusti, which demonstrated the movement of the heavens to visitors in the area of Augustus’s Mausoleum. The column base of Antoninus Pius and Faustina, which not at all coincidentally depicts Augustus’s monumental sundial in its relief, also contains a figure of Aion, holding the globe of the cosmos. On the back of this personification, the deified emperor and his wife ascend toward the heavens. In other monuments, the architecture could be read cosmologically, as for example in the great circular corridor that leads the visitor around Hadrian’s burial chamber and suggests the movements of the heavens that are also so clearly visible in his Pantheon. The Templum Gentis Flaviae can be only very partially reconstructed from surviving fragments, but ancient literary descriptions hint at a similar cosmological meaning. In every case, such imagery suggests the divine source of the ruler’s authority, ordained by the will of the gods as manifested in his horoscope. It also, however, reminds the viewer of the cyclical nature of time, the return of morning after night, of spring after winter, and by implication, the continuity of the empire in the ruler’s successor.

In at least four cases, these monuments were intended to house not only the remains of the emperor himself, but of the women in his family. Livia was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus, where the remains of Agrippina the Elder, Antonia Minor, and Poppaea later joined hers. Julia Flavia, the daughter of Titus and niece of Domitian, was the first person to receive burial in the Templum Gentis Flaviae, Sabina was buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, and Faustina appears conspicuously alongside Antoninus Pius on their column base. The fourth chapter, “Fire, Fertility, Fiction: The Role of the Empress,” examines the political significance of their presence. In every case, the woman serves as the “genetrix” of her dynasty, the symbolic mother of the emperor’s heir. Not one of these four women, ironically, had actually given birth to an emperor’s son, although Livia’s son by an earlier marriage did eventually succeed Augustus. Julia Flavia and Sabina died childless, and Faustina the Elder had no male children. A woman who died without heirs could become a symbolic genetrix through deification, a guardian spirit who would watch over the well-being of later generations of her family. Martial describes the deified Julia Titi watching over the unborn son of Domitian and Domitia Longina in just this manner.1 These verses perhaps help to explain why Caligula’s sister Drusilla, Nero’s infant daughter Claudia Augusta, and his wife Poppaea were all deified, although none of them lived to fulfill her dynastic role. In addition to sharing their husbands’ tombs, many of these women appear prominently in the sculpture of other monuments: Livia on the Ara Pacis Augustae, which stood near Augustus’s Mausoleum, and Sabina on the relief of her apotheosis that probably once decorated an altar in her honor. The companion piece of this plaque probably represents the institution of an alimentaria in Sabina’s honor. Livia, on the Ara Pacis, appears in close connection to the children of the imperial family (and possibly also the foreign princes raised in Rome, although this point remains controversial).2 Both Livia and Sabina are thus associated on these monuments with the well-being of the next generation. The identification of childless women with motherhood might not have seemed as incongruous to a Roman audience as to us, since all of these women had the right to the social title “materfamilias.” This term designated the wife of a living paterfamilias, whether or not the couple had any children together.3 The emperor would certainly be the paterfamilias of his own family and would have been considered the symbolic father of the empire as well. In many cases, the Senate formally awarded him the title “Pater Patriae.”

D. hints at but does not explore another important role of the emperor’s wife, as a priestess and public figure in the state religion. Livia, on the Ara Pacis, participates in a ritual, one of the few arenas in which Roman tradition allowed women prominent public visibility. Livia later became the priestess of the deified Augustus, a role in which Antonia Minor succeeded her. Likewise, Agrippina the Younger, in A.D. 54, became the priestess of the Deified Claudius. The emperor’s widow thus assumed responsibility for the rites that would keep her husband’s consecration fresh in the minds of the Senate and public. Even when she was not making sacrifices to the Deified Augustus or Claudius, her title would serve as a constant reminder of his status, and a major enhancement of her own, while (theoretically, at least), buttressing his successor’s claim to legitimacy.4 An issue of Claudian aurei and denarii that honored Antonia, long after her death, continued to refer to her as the “sacerdos divi Augusti.”5

Chapter V, “The Dynamics of Form,” discusses the viewer’s interaction with these monuments, both psychological and physical. All Roman funerary monuments, almost by definition, attempted to induce some action on the part of the viewer, if only to read and perhaps say aloud the name of the deceased. But many also invited the passer-by to pause, perhaps sit down on a bench, or wander around the structure to see its decorations. Imperial tombs often seem to direct the viewer’s movement in a very specific direction: counter-clockwise around the monument. The helical corridor that slopes upward from the entrance of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, around the full circle of the structure and finally into the burial chamber, leads the visitor in this direction. The friezes on Trajan’s and on Marcus Aurelius’s columns virtually force the viewer to turn to the right and circumambulate the monument. The cavalry parades on each side of the column base of Antoninus Pius and Faustina demonstrate for us the meaning of this movement: the parades in honor of the deceased imperial couple circle in the same direction. Visitors to many of these monuments, therefore, must re-enact that honorific procession. The Mausoleum of Augustus likewise has circular corridors surrounding the inner burial chamber, although the visitor is not necessarily compelled to move to the right. The structure of Augustus’s tomb, however, marks a significant departure from circular tombs of the late Republic, which tended to have radial rather than concentric walls. The pattern of a circular corridor around the burial place thus seems to have been a significant part of the earliest imperial tomb, as well as its successors.

The columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius also invite another type of interaction. Both have interior spiral staircases that encourage the visitor to ascend to the belvedere. The human impulse to make the grueling climb up a long, dark and vertiginous staircase is difficult to explain. Any tourist who has trudged to the cupola of St. Peter’s, however, to be rewarded by the spectacular view from the top, knows the almost irresistible appeal of such a challenge. Ancient visitors to Rome were undoubtedly as susceptible as their modern counterparts to the lure of a view from a high vantage point, and architects like Apollodoros of Damascus could skillfully exploit that impulse. The monument of the deceased ruler would thus imprint itself firmly on the memory of the viewer, not only as an impressive sight but as a dramatic experience. Chapter 6, “The Power of Place,” examines, among other issues, what those ancient tourists would have seen from the tops of the columns. In both cases, the doorway from the enclosed stairway to the belvedere was carefully calculated for the most impressive possible effect. The Column of Trajan first offered a view of the Markets of Trajan, a work of architecture that could not have been fully appreciated from any other vantage point. The viewer stepping onto the platform of Marcus Aurelius’s column would first have seen a panorama of the Campus Martius, framed by the Mausolea of Hadrian and Augustus, with a number of more recent Antonine monuments visible between them.

Both site and sight lines were, in every case, carefully calculated for maximal power of association. Augustus’s choice of the Campus Martius for his tomb emphasized not only his recent military victories, but the parallels between himself and Romulus, whose death and assumption into heaven legend placed near the site of the Mausoleum. The entrance to the Mausoleum, moreover, was carefully aligned with the axis of Agrippa’s Pantheon. The exact form of that early building remains controversial, but D. agrees with Loerke’s reconstruction of the first Pantheon as a circular, hypaethral peristyle entered through a propylon (D. p.140, nn.25-26).6 If the original Pantheon was indeed circular rather than rectangular, then the shapes as well as the alignment of the two buildings would have connected them, a particularly significant relationship if, as Loerke hypothesizes, the earlier Pantheon was primarily an ancestral monument to the Julians. Domitian, not to be outdone by Augustus in paralleling himself to Romulus, later situated the Templum Gentis Flaviae in close proximity to the Temple of Quirinus.

In some cases, to be sure, D.’s conclusions rest on controversial identifications and speculative reconstructions. The relationship of the Arch of Titus to two other arches, in honor of Vespasian and Domitian respectively, and of all three arches to temples of Jupiter, depends on several hypotheses about monuments that have been completely destroyed, and others whose identification is still debated. Likewise, the colossal altar aligned with the column of Antoninus Pius might have been built on the site of that emperor’s funeral pyre, but the evidence is not conclusive. Nonetheless, this final chapter is a topographical tour de force, and most of its conclusions are quite persuasive.

University libraries should definitely acquire this book. Despite its rather hefty price, it deserves a place in the individual scholar’s library as well. There is material in this volume that will be immensely useful to researchers in many areas: archaeology, history of architecture, iconography, history of religion, and Roman political propaganda, to name just a few. I strongly recommend it to scholars interested in any or all of the above topics.


1. Martial, Epigrams VI.3.

2. C. Brian Rose, “‘Princes’ and Barbarians on the Ara Pacis,” AJA 94 (1990), 453-467; John Pollini, The Portraiture of Gaius and Lucius Caesa (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 21-25; Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1988), 217-218.

3. Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6.

4. In practice, Tiberius seems to have resented his mother’s continuing influence, and indeed suppressed some efforts to honor her, such as the arch that the Senate voted to her after her death. Tiberius offered to pay for this monument himself, then “forgot” to complete the project. Nero, likewise, discovered soon after his succession that his stepfather’s deification and the power that it conferred on his mother were not an unmixed blessing. See Dio, 58.2.2-6; Sen. Apocol. passim; Konrad Kraft, “Der politische Hintergrund von Senecas Apocolocyntosis,” Historia 15 (1966), 97-122; Anthony Barrett, Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, 165-66, 207.

5. William Loerke, “Geroges Ch├ędanne and the Pantheon: A Beaux-Arts Contribution to the History of Roman Architecture,” Modulus. The University of Virginia School of Architecture Review (1982), 47-49.

6. William Loerke also presented these hypotheses about Agrippa’s Pantheon in a pair of public lectures at the American Academy in Rome, 1977.