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Classical Rome


The Imperial Age (BC 27 – AD 476)


Augustus (BC 27 - AD 14)

Domus aurea

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In 27 BC the Roman senate gave Caesar's nephew and heir, Octavius, the title 'Augustus' (reverend) that became the customary form of address for all later emperors. Augustus matched his new position with a wide-ranging programme of reforms in the army, and reorganizing the taxation and administration of the provinces.
Under the Emperor Augustus, the Roman Empire has doubled its size and reinforced its boundaries, while great works of restoration and construction gave splendour to new and old cities. In this period Rome as we know it starts to take shape, in the same crafty blend of tradition and innovation that characterized the government of its first emperor. It was firstly the city of Rome that, menaced by a growing population, needed a reorganisation.
The old city within its 4th-century walls had been divided into fourteen new regions, eight within the old walls and six outside them. Each region had its own magistrate, who was in charge of the new building regulations, the distribution of the public ration, and the organisation of seven fire brigades. The four old aqueducts were reconditioned and two new ones built (the Julia and the Virgo), the bed of the Tiber was dredged, its banks cleared and demarcated with boundary stones.
Augustus regulated all the public works as much as the cultural life. In art and in architecture, no less then in the writing of history, poetry, and drama, it emerged an Augustan 'court' style. He restored many old temples and erected a new one in honour of his own god, the Temple of Apollo, in direct association with his own house on the Palatine.
While remodelling the old centre of political life, the Forum, into an Augustan version of its older self, Augustus built a complete new Forum in a different site, where he transferred many of the ceremonies of state. On the Field of Mars rose new temples, porticoes, theatres, and an amphitheatre in the nearby of the Circus Flaminius, hub of military triumphs, but also a luxury public resort, with a great lake, baths, and gardens, all under the watchful eyes of Augustus' gigantic dynastic tomb.
The five Forums that were built during the first centuries of the Empire, during the fascism would be linked by the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The term "forum" originates from the Greek word "agora", an open space for the market. In Rome the Forum became the centre of every activity: religious, politic, economic, celebratory, and poetic.
Besides the erection of new monuments, Augustus also fostered the building of the unfinished ones. One of those was the Theatre of Marcellus, founded by Julius Caesar. This theatre, set in a prime position between the Circus Flaminius and the Temple of Apollo, was by far the most important of Rome's three theatres, capable of holding 20,500 people. It became the model for a contemporary rash of theatre building throughout Italy and the western Empire.
The curving facade of the two superimposed arcades represents just under a third of the outer perimeter of the theatre's semicircular banks of seating (the cavea). The lower archways led to the lowest tiers of seating and to staircases that led to the middle tiers and a higher-level corridor, behind the upper arcade, from where further stairs led to the highest tiers.
The façade is constructed entirely of travertine and embellished by framing each arcade in an architectural order of semi columns: Doric on the ground floor, the more delicate Ionic on the next level up.
Although some parts of the cavea survive in the private apartments of the Palazzo Savelli-Orsini, the plan of the stage front and rather cramped porticos that lay between it and the riverside is known mainly from the Marble Plan. The porticos (that probably contained the temples of Piety and Diana displaced by building the theatre) were demolished already in AD 365-70 to use the stone for the reparations of the nearby bridge of Cestius on the Tiber Isle.
The stage building probably lasted until AD 421 when the city prefect Petronius Maximus set up some statues in it. The colonnaded hall at its south end was still standing in 1575 but is now reduced to one travertine pier and a Doric column beside the palazzo gate.
In the BC 9th century, Augustus inaugurated the Altar of the Augustan Peace, the most famous example of Augustan monumental sculpture in Rome. It consists of an altar proper, surrounded by a high enclosure, all made of white Italian marble and elaborately carved in relief by some of the best sculptors of the day.
The work took 3 years and half, and was dedicated on 30 January 9 BC to celebrate Augustus' return after three year of victorious campaigns in Spain and Gaul. Pax, the goddess of Peace, was almost unknown before 13th century but central to Augustus' later political ideology, based on the ideals of peace and prosperity. The world soon became synonymous with the Roman Empire at large.
For himself and his family he commissioned the erection of a Mausoleum, placed in the present Piazza Augusto Imperatore. The great tomb is now a huge circular ruin of concrete and tufa reticulate, planted with cypresses, and artificially situated in a hollow. Steps lead down on three sides of the hollow to the original ground level, partly excavated in 1937 when the structure was liberated of medieval and later buildings and the surrounding piazza of Fascist architecture was created.
In antiquity the Mausoleum was set in a sacred precinct that stretched between the Via Flaminia and the river bank. The original entrance was on the south side, towards the open place of the Field of Mars.
It belongs to the Augustan Age also the first erection of the Pantheon, built in 27-25 BC by Marcus Agrippa. The rectangular monument, modelled on the Greek temples, was dedicated to all the deities of the Olympus. But it was destroyed in the great fire of AD 80 and completely rebuilt by Hadrian in 125 AD in a circular form.

Tiberius to Claudius

Augustus had done so much that his successors Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius had a relatively easy time. They all contributed to extend the boundaries of the empire and also to embellish the city of Rome. They repaired the odd public buildings and undertook further work on the Tiber, Rome's lifeline to the sea. Under Tiberius the Praetorians moved to a large fort, the Castra Praetoria, later incorporated to reinforce the city's defences.
Caligola and Claudius brought about the construction of two new aqueducts (the Claudia and the New Anio), but otherwise they concentrated their attention on the imperial palaces and other residences. Unfortunately many fires, a phenomenon that occurred very frequently, have destroyed lots of their constructions.

Nero (54 - 69 AD)

Nero is famous mostly for his cruelty, especially evident in occasion of the great fire of AD 64, the martyrdom of Peter (67 AD), and the persecution of the early Christians. The Great Fire, lasted nine days and razing to the ground three regions of the city, though a disaster gave the unprecedented chance to rebuild whole quarters on completely different lines. Nero, well known for his lavish tendency and excesses, was quick to seize the opportunity.
To prevent the dangers of the fires, streets were to be made wider, with large open squares, buildings were to be of limited height and use as little wood as possible and to be protected by outer walls of Alban and Gamine stone (hard peppering stuff), and imperial funds paid for porticoes along the facades of the new apartment blocks.
Far from the modesty that had characterized the imperial rule of Augustus, Nero also erected for himself his own imperial residence, the Golden House. This wonderful palace was embellished by gardens, courts, fountains and halls decorated with frescoes, mosaics, paintings, and marbles. He also commissioned the construction of the Circus in the "Agar Vatican’s", the present day piazza St Peter.
After the Great Fire, artists began to experiment new forms of architecture and interior decoration. Concrete vaulting became more adventurous. Windows glass, cast in sheet, came into widespread use, bringing about new ideas of space and light.
'Fourth style' wall painting made its appearance, but painting in general was losing status, replaced by more exotic and permanently coloured schemes into stucco-work, glass mosaic, and marble.


Vespasianus (69 - 79 AD)

Vespasianus was a general of simple origins who, after his successful campaigns in Judaea, acquired the status that brought him to imperial power. Vespasianus and his sons, known as the Flavians, restored the stability in the Empire and continued the urban programme of renewal inaugurated by Nero.
Together with his sons he also established his habitation in Nero's Golden House, but one after the other, all the Vespasian emperors notably changed its original aspect. Vespasian celebrated his victory in Judaea with three great monuments in the republican manner: the Temple of Peace, the Amphitheatre (Colosseum), and a rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline.
The greatest and most famous of these monuments is for sure the Amphitheatre Flavius, planned by the emperor in AD 72 on the model of the Theatre of Marcellus.

 Art and Culture in Rome: The Famous Colosseum

This great monument was called Colosseum after the nearby bronze statue of Nero (the "Colosso"), then destroyed. It is by far the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, 189 metres long, 156 metres wide, and 48 metres high. When intact the outer perimeter measured 545 metres, and it estimated to have required 100,000 cubic metres of travertine, with 300 tons of iron clamps holding the blocks together.
Equally vast amounts of tufa and brick-faced concrete were employed in the radial ribs and vaults which supported the seating. Although never matched in scale nor in refinements of its architectural style the basic design was emulated by many amphitheatre builders throughout the Empire.
It is characterised by an elliptic form, three arched stories and a top level finished off by Titus. Inside there was the arena, an enormous oval able to handle great numbers of animals and men. Tunnels allowed the animals and other performers to be brought in directly underground.
The public could assist the performance both from outside, from one of the three levels of arcades and an upper level, and from the seating at the inside. According to the Calendar of AD 354 the seating could hold 87,000 people. As in theatre, the spectators were dressed and seated in accordance with their status and profession.
The monument housed a series of public performances for the entertainment of the people and the emperor. The most followed and appreciated were the naval battles, made possible by the filling of the arena with water, and the gladiatorial shows, which is fights between gladiators and wild animals. The fights were often staged in elaborate sets, with moveable trees and buildings. Some executions might involve complicated machinery and torture, some others acted out particularly gruesome episodes from Greek or Roman mythology.
Gladiators were a mixture of condemned criminals and prisoners of war, and career professionals (slaves, freedmen, or free volunteers). Animals came mainly from Africa and included rhinoceros, hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, panthers, leopards, and crocodiles. In 75 AD, Vespasian commissioned also his own Forum, as already did before him Caesar and Augustus, where he erected the Temple of the Peace.


Titus (79 - 81 AD)

Art and Culture in Rome: Arch of Titus

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The most important architectural legacy of the short reign of Titus is the Arch of Titus, erected in 81-2 AD at the point where the road leading up from the Colosseum valley met the Via Sacra. The inscription on the east face is original and reads 'The Senate and People of Rome, to Divus Titus, son of Divus Vespasian, Vespasian Augustus', to celebrate the victorious campaigns of the Emperor in Jerusalem and his early death.
That is why his deified figure appears, riding heavenwards on the back of the eagle, in the centre coffer of the coffering on the underside of the archway. The relieves carved on the archway illustrate two scenes from the triumph that he had celebrated with his father in AD 71, the procession travelling over this very spot on its circuitous route from the Campus Martius to the Capitoline Hill. The scene on the south side shows the procession as it approached the Triumphal Gate at the beginning of the route.
The scene on the north side is dominated by Titus riding in his chariot drawn by four horses, with the goddess Roma holding on to the bridle of the leading horse. Much of the arch, originally constructed entirely of Pentelic marble, has been restored in travertine.


Domitianus (81 – 96 AD)

Domitianus commissioned Rabirius, one of the few Roman architects we know by name, to erect his own residence, the Domitian's palace, built between 81 and 92 AD. The main body is composed around two peristyle courtyards.
The entrance on the west side (in line with the old front door of the House of 'Livia', Augustus' wife) leads first into an octagonal vestibule, with an extraordinary sequence of curvilinear waiting rooms on either side. Then comes the first court, once enclosed on all four sides by a portico of the fluted columns of Numidian yellow marble, whose fragments are scattered here and there.

Art and Culture in Rome: Domitian's Stadium

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The open area of the court was almost entirely occupied by a pool as big as a lake, with a large octagonal island in the middle, where fountains played water down steps and channels. Everything was once veneered in marble. Domitianus also commissioned the erection of a big Stadium, designed for athletic contests in the nude Greek fashion.
The Stadium was inaugurated in occasion of the first of new games in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus, sometime before AD 86. The construction was set up in the present Piazza Navona, whose form still reflects the extended form of the old stadium. Even the name of the square still bears signs of its ancient past: Navona, in fact, derives from "agoni", the Roman word to designate these athletes.
Besides the athletic games, the stadium was used for events such as public executions or gladiatorial games. In the nearby was erected the Odeon, a roofed theatre dedicated to musical and poetic performances with a seating capacity of 10,600. The Odeon was another of Domitian's Greek-style additions to Rome's cultural scene, to complement the Stadium.
This semicircular building was transformed, during the Renaissance, into the Palazzo Massimo ale Colonna that in the facade still keeps the curvature of the theatre.
By the AD 90s imperial ownership and operation of the principal quarries was providing ever greater supplies of fine quality marbles and other stones. In the meanwhile, concrete architecture became increasingly ambitious in scale and decoration.


Nerva (96 – 98 AD)

In AD 97, Nerva inaugurated a new Imperial Forum, the Forum of Nerva. Although inaugurated by him, the forum had been actually built by his predecessor Domitian. At the north end, as in Caesar's and Augustus' forums, there was a temple dedicated to Minerva, one of the Capitoline triad, goddess of both craftsmanship and war, a rival to Mars.
The forum was also known as the Forum Transitorium (the passage-way forum), presumably because, besides forming a vestibule to the buildings on either side, it remained a thoroughfare from end to end, having transformed but not abolished the major street called the Argilentum.


Trajan (98 – 117 AD)

Trajan ruled in exemplary fashion, largely extending the boundaries of the Empire though successful military campaigns. Under him, the Roman Empire reached its widest extent. He personally commanded the campaign in Dacia, beyond the Danube, which brought military glory and huge amounts of new wealth, both to him and to the city.
The new wealth is particularly evident in the large amount of surviving monuments. Trajan completed the projects left unfinished by Domitian, built a huge forum and Basilica, endowed the residents of the Esquiline Hill with the largest Public Baths yet seen in the city, and led in Rome's tenth aqueducts, the Traiana, to serve the Transtiber. The Tiber side docks at the emporium were rebuilt to a new plan as was the harbour at the Tiber mouth.
The complex of buildings erected on the Quirinal Hill belongs to the Trajan's Markets. At the foot of the Market hemicycle runs the basalt-paved street that separated it from the peperino tufa perimeter wall of the Forum. The Forum square was of powerfully triumphal characters. The architect was Apollodorus of Damascus, an accomplished military engineer who had designed a remarkable bridge across the Danube that launched the Dacia (Romania) campaigns.
The two long porticoes, modelled on those in the forum of Augustus, were 112 metres long and 14, 8 metres wide; the floor raised three steps of marble above the level in the open square. The square itself was paved in huge blocks of Italian marble. In the centre stood a colossal statue of Trajan, in military dress and on horseback. One side of the square was filled by the great Basilica Ulpia, the central section of which can be seen in the excavation in front of the Column of Trajan, marked by the forest of grey granite columns.
The Forum was the centre of Roman public life. It included a big market, the Basilica Ulpia for the administration of the justice, the Latin and Greek libraries, and the Column of Trajan. This column, that was also the tomb of the Emperor, was a celebration of the military successes of the Roman army under Trajan. His glorious campaign in Dacia is represented on the relief that rises spiral-like all along the column.
The Basilica Ulpia, inaugurated on the same day as the Forum (nowaday famous as Trajan's Forum) in January 112, was the largest that had been yet built in Rome. It was principally used, as the Basilicas Paulli and Julia in the old Roman Forum, to provide prestigious covered space for law courts, but it was also the venue for distributions of imperial largesse, and other official acts of generosity, such as the cancelling of public debts.


Hadrian (117 – 138 AD)

Hadrian's rule also lasted for twenty years and made a major impact both on the empire and the city of Rome. On the imperial front, he retracted some of Trajan's expansions and took the first steps to fix the frontiers (Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain being one).
He travelled a lot, especially through his beloved Greece, and introduced many measures to raise provincial morale and encourage disaffected local aristocracies to aspire to high positions in the imperial system. In Rome there is hardly any part of the city that has not produced evidence of the new building during Hadrian's reign.
This is partly due to the growing prosperity of the city, and partly to the generosity of the Emperor self. He could restore and rebuild many of the projects left unfinished after the great fire, and sponsor the construction of new ones. In 125 AD he rebuilt the Pantheon, one of the most magnificent architectural monuments of the antiquity that stood till today and kept its special atmosphere.
The building owes its survival partly to the fact that during the Middle Age it was converted into a church (St Mary of the Martyrs), but mostly to the extraordinary strength and stability of its construction. The structure comprises two distinct and contrasting parts: the front porch and the circular drum.
The porch belongs firmly to the Classic tradition of monumental entrances, its pedimented front supported on Corinthian columns with monolithic shafts of Egyptian granite and bases and capitals of white Greek marble. Its exterior also once clad in white marble. The architectural choices of this part deeply reflect the esteem and admiration felt by Hadrian towards any form of Greek culture and art.
The design of the Rotunda, on the other hand, although once coated in white stucco to look like a marble building on the outside, comes from the purely Roman world of concrete bath-buildings and palatial halls. He personally sponsored the raising of the ground level and the rebuilding in the central Field of Mars, an extension of Trajan's Forum with the great temple in honour of Trajan and his wife, the equivalent of a new forum on the Velia (Temple of Rome and Venus), and the rebuilding of the adjacent Baths of Titus.
To rival Augustus, he also built a great Mausoleum, and carried out many improvements and extensions to the imperial palaces and other residences around the city. But most of his efforts, in that regard, were addressed to the erection of the great villa outside Rome, Hadrian's Villa, in Tivoli.
The villa was erected following the designs of the emperor self, a skilled amateur architect. His plans reflect the typical architectural tracts of his age, characterised by new departures in forms and materials.
Life-size and larger figurative statuary in huge variety came into vogue, much of the architecture designed specifically to achieve decorative and programmatic effects.


Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 AD)

Marcus' reign was anything but peaceful. The emperor self was often involved in numerous battles on the northern and eastern frontiers, but despite his absence he evidently felt no need to display his authority in Rome through the erection of glorious buildings.
He celebrated his military victories with the erection of some triumphal arches, and erected a monumental column in association with an altar on the Fields of Mars, in honour of the deification of Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father and precedent Emperor.
But probably the most famous monument linked with the emperor Marcus Aurelius is the equestrian statue dedicated to him. The bronze statue representing the emperor on a horse-back that stood on the centre of the Campidoglio since 1538 is placed on a pedestal in marble of Michelangelo and still represents a potent political symbol to modern Romans.
Now it has been removed from its original position and placed in the Capitoline Museums.


Caracalla (211 – 217 AD)

Art and Culture in Rome: Caracalla Baths

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The emperor Caracalla is known especially for his Baths, the Baths of Caracalla, the most beautiful of Rome. They were the second of the really big imperial thermae of Rome after those of Trajan, capable of accommodating perhaps 10,000 people at once.
Inside there were an Olympic-sized swimming pool, cold hall and hot room all aligned on the central axis, and a series of secondary rooms, including the exercise courts? The principal innovation with respect to the Baths of Trajan was the circular shape of the now vanished caldarium. But besides being the ideal place where to relax and have fun, it was also a place where to exercise the mind.
It included, indeed, a theatre and a library. It was open to every Roman inhabitant, belonging to any social class.

Aurelianus (270 – 275 AD)

The period that followed Caracalla's death was very confused and problematic. While at least eighteen emperors and hordes of usurpers tried their chance, people on the fringes of the empire seized the opportunity to invade. Because of the warlike situation, only few emperors succeeded in holding power for more than a couple of years. One of them was Aurelianus, who reigned five years, from 270 to 275.
Being a period of wars, he was mostly interested in fortifying the frontiers rather than embellishing and enriching the city of Rome. His most famous and lasting work of fortification are the impressive Aurelianic Walls, a 19-kilometres long fortification around the city, to protect it from the barbaric invasions.
The huge circuit of city walls lasted well kept until today and still encloses the 22 quarters of the historic centre of Rome. Aurelian, who came from the Danube region, lived for a while in the Gardens of Sallust, favourite retreat of Vespasian and other earlier emperors that occupied both sides of the valley between the Pincian and the Quirinal Hill.
Around the gardens, the emperors have built a mile-long porticos where he would exercise on horseback, while, in 273, he built a magnificent temple to the oriental sun-god Sol, celebrating a triumph in the old republican fashion, for victories he had won in the East.



Diocletianus (284 – 305 AD)

Diocletian took the historic step of dividing the empire into two big regions, the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire, each ruled by two emperors, helped by two Caesars. This new form of governing is known with the name of tetrarchy (rule of four). Dioclatian transferred his seat to the Eastern Empire.
He visited Rome only once, in 303, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his accession, but have ordered the rebuild of these parts of the Roman Forum and the Forum of Caesar that had been seriously damaged by the fire of AD 283, remodelling the space in monumental style.
He also commissioned the construction of a great set of imperial Baths on the Viminal hill, in the present Piazza della Repubblica. In '500, Michelangelo used the tepidarium (the hall with swimming pools with tepid water) to erect the Church of Saint Mary of the Angels.


See the complete list of Roman Emperors.

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