The Mausoleum of Augustus
Piazza Augusto Imperatore
Founded: 28 BCE
Number of Interments: none any longer
Open: only with a tour group
The Mausoleum of Augustus was built in 28 BCE as the tomb of Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, who took the name Augustus upon his ascension to the throne. His wife Livia, mother of Emperor Tiberius, was buried there, along with Emperor Nerva, who died in 98 CE. Reportedly the ashes of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius (Livia’s grandson) had also been entombed here. At some point during the mausoleum’s long history, all the ashes vanished.
It’s a struggle to imagine the mausoleum as it had been, faced with marble, surrounded by columns, with a hill on top crowned by a golden 50-foot statue. In two millennia, it had fallen a long way from such grandeur.
Rome Access describes the red brick Mausoleum of Augustus as “drum-shaped.” The cylindrical tomb has a dusty circular path around its base, paced into the moat between its brick walls and the land heaped up around the tomb. The tomb originally stood alone on a field where the Roman Army held war games. The site isn’t far from the river and years of flooding had all but buried it in silt. Lush green grass sprouts from its roof and bright red poppies nod amidst the wildflowers.
Behind a two-story iron gate, inside the sepulcher’s walls and draped in shadows, stood a big rectangular box — a sarcophagus? When I visited, there was no tourist office to answer my questions. Rome Access contradicted Permanent Italians by saying that the building opened for guided tours. Nothing announced when they might be.
The tomb was one of the first in Rome to be colonized by the living. During the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress. Worse, the area worked as a bullring in the 18th century. After that, it performed for a while as a concert hall.
From time to time, history tried to reclaim the mausoleum. Between 1926 and 1930, Mussolini restored the tomb by removing the grass growing over it and the dirt that had swallowed it. He planned to be interred in there with the memory of emperors. Instead, he’s buried with his family in Predappio, apparently not enough of a national treasure to find rest in the Eternal City.
I wonder over the ongoing attempts to find a purpose for the tomb. I haven’t ever lived in a museum; extremely few pre-20th century buildings exist in San Francisco. What it would be like to live in Rome, where the past inhabits large portions of your daily reality? As long as the moderns use something, it survives. Currently, the Mausoleum of Augustus serves no real purpose. It hasn’t been a grave in centuries. It isn’t much of a tourist attraction, since it isn’t open to tour. It is just a big building, sunk into the earth and overgrown with weeds. Do things need to be saved simply because they’re old and historic?
For me, it was enough that flowers grew there and birds sang louder than the traffic on the nearby Via del Corso. At the Mausoleum of Augustus, I found a moment of peace.
History and dimensions of the Mausoleum of Augustus
Photos of the interior monuments
Aerial view of the tomb and the Tiber
Another tour organization
My review of Permanent Italians
Other Roman-era tombs on Cemetery Travel:
Cemetery of the Week #29: the Roman Pantheon
Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian