Family Plots: The Mausoleum of Augustus

“Oh, sure. Family, I know how that goes.” – Bo Catlett, Get Shorty

I was snared by another article on my way to write up an entry for this week, though this one involving something a little more current-affairs than the Meidum Geese. After an intensive four-year restoration project, the Mausoleum of Augustus is being opened to the public again in Rome this spring for the first time since the 1970s. So, it seems like a perfect opportunity to talk about the mausoleum and the original imperial family.

[AHHAHAHA!! Welcome to the circle of Hell Dante and Virgil will find me in…]

As it says on the tin, the Mausoleum of Augustus is the imperial crypt for Octavius and a large number of his family. Romans of the 1st century BC/ 1st century AD generally cremated their dead, so the mausoleum housed the funerary urns of those interred within. But this is also why we have to rely so heavily on statuary and contemporary commentary to tell us what the Romans looked like, because we don’t have skeletal remains to reconstruct from.

[Luckily for him, even Suetonius agrees that Octavius was relatively good-looking, so we can probably take his statues at (mostly) face value. And in case you thought this might be white-washing, Suetonius is also where we get the idea that Octavius had blonde hair and blue eyes.]

Anyway, we know for certain that at least twenty members of Octavius’ extended family were interred here and the mausoleum was in service as an active burial site from 23 BC (Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Octavius’ nephew), until 98 AD (Emperor Nerva, not a Julio-Claudian at all). Nerva’s burial was likely an attempt by the emperor to rehabilitate his own legacy and a choice by his adopted son and successor, Trajan, to move Rome through a smooth imperial transition, something the empire only experienced periodically.

But the tradition had long been established by Octavius and his successors, who used inclusion (or exclusion) from the family crypt to control the imperial narrative and display who was in good graces with whoever was Imperator. 

[Buckle up, Virginia…]

Most of the Octavian family members who made their way into the mausoleum were either a part of the official succession at one time or another, or their mothers or wives. The first occupant, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, was Octavius’ sister, Octavia’s, son from her marriage before her one with Mark Antony. Octavius could be a real SOB , but he appears to have truly loved his older sister and would treat her children and grandchildren like his own throughout his long life.

[Marcellus]

By the time Marcellus reached his teens, Octavius and his wife, Livia Drusilla, were rapidly approaching theirs 40s, so there was increasing doubt that Octavius would have a male heir of his own. Rather than adopting Marcellus as Julius had done with him, Octavius instead married him to his daughter, Julia Augusti, and therefore indicate that the boy was likely his political heir.

[The Julio-Claudians are basically all cousins by blood or marriage, and were almost all married to each other at one time or another. Remember, the Ptolemies were only seen as weird because they insisted on sibling marriages so often. A lot of people in the ancient world were marrying their first and second cousins— it was an efficient way to consolidate power and property within a family.]

But Marcellus dies suddenly in 23 BC at the age of 19, and the mausoleum that Octavius is building for the family gains its first occupant. The Mausoleum of Augustus isn’t even completed at the time, no doubt because Octavius hadn’t anticipated needing a burial crypt so soon. Despite high infant mortality in the ancient world, there are few untimely natural deaths among Octavius and Octavia’s children, and by all accounts, Marcellus’ hit both of them hard. There is an apocryphal story that Octavia faints during a reading Virgil gives the family of the Aeneid when he reaches the part of the poem where Marcellus is in the underworld amongst the other famous Romans.

[Detail of Jean-Joseph Taillasson’s Virgil reading Aeneid, Book VI, to Augustus and Octavia]

But Marcellus and Julia were childless, so the succession also gets sent back to square one at his passing. Octavia’s other children are all girls, and Octavius isn’t close enough to any of his married nieces’ husbands to make them his new heir. Except for one.

[Enter the real hero of Actium…]

Octavius’ childhood friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, is married to Marcellus’ sister, Claudia Marcella the Elder, and has always been among the people believed to be a potential heir of the principate. Without Marcellus, Octavius is more than happy to have his best friend as his heir… buuuuuut he’s not about to elevate Claudia above his own daughter. So, he has Agrippa divorce Claudia and marry Julia instead.

[AWKWARD]

Agrippa will become the mausoleum’s second arrival when he dies in 12 BC in his 50s, but because the raison d’être of his life had always been to do exactly what his BFF needed him to do, he leaves five children (and three boys) with Julia behind him to secure the succession: Gaius, Julilla, Lucius, Agrippina, and Agrippa Postumus (so named because Julia gives birth to him after Agrippa’s death).

Octavius takes the older two boys, Gaius and Lucius, and officially adopts them as his sons and joint heirs at Lucius’ birth in 17 BC, and personally trains them up for this role from a very young age. But both boys will be dead by 4 AD — Lucius in 2 AD and Gaius two years later, and would join their father in the mausoleum.

Now, Octavius still had Postumus, but he seems reluctant to adopt the boy as he had his brothers. The ancient commentaries speak of Postumus possibly being unsuited by temperament to becoming Princeps, if not flat out mentally unstable (the Latin word used is ferocia — a “beastly” nature). Eventually Octavius capitulates and does adopt him, but only as his personal heir, while his stepson Tiberius becomes his adopted political heir. But Postumus is banished for his behavior in 6 AD, and that effectively cancels his adoption and his membership in the family, hence why he is never placed in the mausoleum.

So, Tiberius, a Claudii, finally finds himself a Julii by adoption and his stepdad’s heir, but Octavius hasn’t completely forgotten his sister’s family, even though Octavia was buried in the mausoleum in 11 BC. Because, you see, he’s always had a soft spot for Octavia’s youngest, Antonia Minor, the prettiest of his nieces. Antonia (Anni to my Daughter of Eagles readers) marries Nero Claudius Drusus, Tiberius’ beloved younger brother, and they have three children: Germanicus, Livilla, and Claudius. Germanicus marries his cousin Agrippina (Julia Augusti and Agrippa’s second daughter), while his dad Drusus dies from a fall from a horse in 9 BC and is interred in the mausoleum. Octavius makes Tiberius’ adoption of Germanicus as his heir (ahead of his own son, Drusus the Younger) a condition of Tiberius’ own adoption by Octavius. Because in Octavius’ succession, Tiberius must always be made explicitly aware that he is never the first choice, and he will become emperor only because there is LITERALLY NO ONE ELSE.

[I’m sure that caused no permanent psychological damage…]

But this is how this branch of Octavius’ family will come to dominate the membership in the mausoleum after Octavius’ death in 14 AD. Tiberius, his mother Livia Drusilla, and his son will all eventually be buried in it, as will Germanicus, who will die in 23 AD long before he has a chance to succeed his uncle/ adopted father Tiberius, who doesn’t kick the bucket until 37 AD at the age of 77. But this is how Germanicus’ son, Gaius, will become emperor after Tiberius; you know Gaius better by the nickname he earned as an army brat while his father served the empire abroad— Caligula (“Little Boots”).

Agrippina, her other children, and her mother-in-law Antonia Minor, will all be housed in the mausoleum, and even Caligula will be deemed not crazy enough to be kept out of the family crypt. But like the move Trajan will make with Nerva seventy-some years later, the decision to place Caligula (alongside one of his young daughters) in the Mausoleum of Augustus was likely a desire by the next emperor, his uncle Claudius, to smooth out the chaotic imperial transition after Caligula is assassinated by his own Praetorian Guardsmen.

[You thought I was joking with this meme…]

Claudius and his son, Britannicus, will be the last of the Julio-Claudians to be interred in the mausoleum — Claudius will be succeeded by his second wife Agrippina the Younger’s son, Nero, and they are the descendants of Octavia’s other Antonii daughter, Antonia Maior and her husband, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Their long-gestating ascent to the top of Octavius’ heap will be as cataclysmic as it will be brief: Nero’s fall will end the line of the Augustan emperors, and the name Caesar will become a title, and not a direct genealogical link to Julius or Octavius.

Before we move on, the exceptionally eagle-eyed among you might have noticed a glaring omission among Octavius’ immediate family in his mausoleum: his biological daughter, Julia Augusti. As I’ve alluded to previously, the relationship between Octavius and his only child was complicated at its best, likely driven by his prenatal abandonment of her until she was politically convenient to him. History has not been particularly kind to Julia: she is often depicted as frivolous and headstrong. But I think it behooves one to remember that the role she was born into was a very narrow one, and her actions, which are often treated like a spoiled child lashing out, are just as likely the desperate lunges of a woman as intelligent and proud as her father left with no purpose in life other than to sit quietly and produce babies.

After Agrippa’s death, Octavius marries Julia to her stepbrother, Tiberius, who like Agrippa before him, would have to divorce his current wife to make that happen (ironically, that wife was Agrippa’s daughter Vipsania). The marriage was a disaster from the start, fueled in part by Julia and Tiberius’ long-standing dislike of one another. Julia thought Tiberius was dull and conniving, and he thought she was empty-headed and promiscuous. Julia loved parties and dancing, but much like her near-contemporary Cleopatra, it’s difficult to judge how much of her loose reputation is truly deserved. But it would be these rumors of promiscuity that would ultimately lead to her downfall, when her father would become supposedly so upset at her behavior that he would banish her from Rome to the island of Pandateria, and later Rhegium. There is an alternate theory that the party-girl thing was a cover by Octavius to disguise that Julia, along with Mark Antony’s remaining son Iullus Antonius (married to the discarded Claudia Marcella the Elder) had been plotting to unseat him from the principate and place her sons Gaius and Lucius on the throne of the empire.

[Julia Augusti]

In this way, Julia became the first example of the ultimately political nature of the mausoleum, Octavius declaring in her exile decree that she would be excluded from its walls as a sign of her disgrace. A disgrace, I might add, that Rome never seemed to care about half as much as her father did. There is a story that the Senate asked Octavius to allow her to return one too many times, to which he snapped at them that he would only allow Julia to come home when the Tiber burned. The city responded by throwing firebrands into the river. Another reason to take later accounts of her with a grain of salt, especially given that many of them were written by allies of Tiberius. 

Julia’s banishment from Rome and the mausoleum would be repeated in the lives of two of her children, Julilla (sometimes called Julia the Younger), and as we saw, Postumus. Both Julilla and Postumus would also be exiled for that weird, fuzzy combination of questionable behavior and possible political intriguing against Octavius. As with their mother, the uncertainty surrounding their erasure is in part because anything negative about his family was usually obscured or left unsaid by Octavius’ official records. There was no room in Octavius’ legacy for his stubborn daughter or her less compliant children, and their absence in his mausoleum reflects this.

Much like the Colosseum, famous among Victorian tourists as being full of garbage and Rome’s transient population, the Mausoleum of Augustus has had a rather colorful post-situ history. As with much of classical Rome, the mausoleum suffered the one-two punch of Visigoth vandalism (and Vandal vandalism) and Christian rebranding in the centuries beyond the Julio-Claudian emperors and the eventual fall of the empire. There is an apocryphal account that says the Visigoth chieftain Alaric scattered the imperial ashes during his sack of Rome in 410 AD, but there are no reliable contemporary accounts to corroborate this. It’s just as likely almost anyone was in the crypt rifling through the vaults during the chaos of the city invasion.

Because the top tier of the mausoleum had been planted with cypress trees and the whole structure had gradually become overgrown and covered with dirt, by the medieval period, the mausoleum was now called the Mons Augustus (Mount Augustus). A chapel to the archangel Michael would be built on its summit, and much like the Papal See would do to the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally the emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, the Mausoleum of Augustus would eventually be fortified by the Colonna family during the Investiture Controversy wars of the 12th century. The Investiture Controversy arose between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over who had the authority to choose (invest) bishops. Both the Pope and the Emperor wanted the bishops to be loyal to them over the other, and having the other guy’s people in place would undercut their power. This might sound very minor, but it led to a fifty-year civil war in Germany and serious political instability in Italy that would continue off and on for another four centuries. The Colonnas of Rome supported the Emperor, and their bitterest enemies were the powerful Orsini family, who supported the papacy.

[Castel Sant’Angelo]

These are the factions that would evolve in the Ghibellines (imperial) and the Guelphs (papal) — the internal war between the Italian city-states that would lead to Dante’s banishment from Florence in the early 1300s.

The Colonna family would be banished from Rome after the Roman Commune was defeated in 1167, abandoning their fortifications at the Mons Augustus. After the fall of the Colonnas, the mausoleum would spend the Renaissance passing through several Roman families, who would primarily use it as a garden. By the 19th century, it would be a circus, and then a concert hall in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Mussolini would revert the mausoleum to an archeological site with the ambition of restoring the structure. This was part of Il Duce’s desire to link the Italian Fascist Party to the Roman Empire, and himself to Augustus, much as Nerva had tried to do a millennia prior. However, he would be ousted from power and summarily executed before his plans for the mausoleum could be acted on.

After Mussolini’s fall and the end of World War II, the mausoleum limped along until it was closed to the public in the early ‘70s, when it once again become overgrown and often used as a refuse dump. Lack of funding had stalled out any restoration proposals until a grant from Telecom Italia in 2017 finally moved the project forward and gave Rome back the Mausoleum of Augustus. Its inhabitants are long gone and their ashes scattered to the winds, but the mausoleum is an important architectural part of early imperial Rome, and to have it reopened is an exciting addition to the Eternal City’s rich archeological tapestry.

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