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Behind Ancient Gates: Revealing the Secrets of the Mausoleum of Augustus

Behind Ancient Gates: Revealing the Secrets of the Mausoleum of Augustus


There is a mausoleum in the heart of ancient Rome which saw the funerals of some of the most important people in the history of the Roman Empire. The mausoleum is known as the Mausoleum of Augustus, but apart from Octavian Augustus it's where Germanicus, Octavia Minor, Nero, Caligula, and many others were buried.

It was built in 28 BC on the site known as Campus Martius in Rome. The mausoleum of Augustus is an impressive and monumental tomb located on the Piazza Augusto Impreatore, which was built by the order of the Emperor Octavian Augustus. He made the final decision to create the tomb after winning the Battle of Actium and visiting Alexandria.

Some researchers believe that he was inspired by the famous tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria and the burials of pharaohs, including those of the Ptolemaic dynasty. It could also have been related to other places like the pyramids or tombs of Hellenistic rulers. All that is known for certain, is that Octavian wanted to create a wonderful tomb which would hold his family’s remains. He hoped that it would be a place of burial for a dynasty which would rule the world forever.

A baroque painting of the battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672.

A baroque painting of the battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672. (Public Domain)

A Monument for Buried Dreams

The remarkable construction holds the ashes of many famous Romans inside it. Although it was looted in antiquity, it is still a magnificent example of monumental architecture from the time of Octavian. The mausoleum was created in a circular plan measuring 90 meters (295 ft.) in diameter by 42 meters (137 ft.) in height. The building had a small garden of cypress trees around it which covered its facade. Apart from this, there was a statue of Augustus, fountain, and two pink granite obelisks which flanked the entrance. They were the same obelisks which are now located at the Piazza dell'Esquilino, near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

As Strabo wrote in his work Geography (V.3.8):

"In fact, Pompey, the Deified Caesar, Augustus, his sons and friends, and wife and sister, have outdone all others in their zeal for buildings and in the expense incurred. The Campus Martius contains most of these, and thus, in addition to its natural beauty, it has received still further adornment as the result of foresight. Indeed, the size of the Campus is remarkable, since it affords space at the same time and without interference, not only for the chariot-races and every other equestrian exercise, but also for all that multitude of people who exercise themselves by ball-playing, hoop-trundling, and wrestling; and the works of art situated around the Campus Martius, and the ground, which is covered with grass throughout the year, and the crowns of those hills that are above the river and extend as far as its bed, which present to the eye the appearance of a stage-painting—all this, I say, affords a spectacle that one can hardly draw away from."

According to many historians, in 410 AD the Visigoths entered the tomb and stole the urns and scattered the ashes around, but they didn't destroy it. However, some researchers suggest that this story is only anti-Visigoth propaganda. During the medieval period the tomb was fortified like a castle. The same happened with the current Castel Sant'Angelo; which was a tomb - the mausoleum of Hadrian – in ancient times. The Mausoleum of Augustus became the residence of the Colonna family, but when they were banished from Rome in 1167 the building was abandoned and over time it turned into ruins.

Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome, Italy.

Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome, Italy. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Eternal Palace

The tomb is one of the most incredible places to find key members of the Roman Empire close together. It is uncertain how many people were really buried there, but the first person who was interred was Marcus Claudius Marcellus - his funeral took place in 23 BC. Along with him, the tomb became the eternal home of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Nero, Octavia Minor, the wife of Octavian Livia, Germanicus, his son Drusus, Tiberius, Caligula, Antonia Minor, Julia Domna, Britanicus, and many others. Most of them were cremated, but Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s wife, was embalmed.

Portrait of Marcellus.

Portrait of Marcellus. (CC BY 2.5)

There are at least two stories about Poppaea’s death. When she died, she was young, beautiful, and pregnant. Historians say that she died due to complications while delivering; but it is also possible that the story presented by Suetonius, who said that she died because Nero kicked her abdomen, could be real. When Nero discovered what he had done, the crazy Roman emperor decided to embalm her body to make her beautiful forever. Some of the burials were very decorated and others were simple, but now it is impossible to guess exactly who and how many people were buried in this tomb.

Statue of Poppaea in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Greece).

Statue of Poppaea in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Greece). (Public Domain)

House of Roman Glory

In the 1930s, researchers opened the tomb and tried to fix the inner and outer space. It also became one of the symbols of Benito Mussolini’s power. He was fascinated with Augustus. Mussolini used the ancient tomb of the royals in his propaganda, but he also helped save the building.

The entryway to the mausoleum of Augustus.

The entryway to the mausoleum of Augustus. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now, the tomb is not open to tourists. Although the graves were looted and damaged, it is still the final home for many historical figures. It is unknown what really happened with the ashes, but the building continues to be one of the monuments of influential people whose story ended with the sound of the closing gates of the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Top image: Mausoleum of Augustus, Field of Mars, Rome (CC BY-SA 2.0) and portrait of Augustus showing the emperor with idealized features. (Public Domain)

By Natalia Klimczak


Rome: Mausoleum of Augustus, available at:

Augustus rules again as Rome acts to restore lost mausoleum, available at:

Mausoleum of Augustus, available at:



It’s hard to understand how anyone could use the mausoleum as a residence; there is a massive round center column surrounded by limited open space where the ossuaries laid between the column and the wall. Possibly the double-wall enclosure surrounding the mausoleum could have been used as the residence of the Colonnas.

For those who like exploring with Google streetview, you have a short look inside by dropping the ‘yellow man’ on the center section. The marker stones on the wall show where the ossuaries of Germanicus, Nero, and Tiberius laid, beside each other.

Poppea: you can also check out her villa about 7 miles east of Pompeii. Very posh, and a collection of jewellery, likely Poppea’s, was found there during excavation. As someone commented: ‘It probably didn’t belong to her maid’. 

It sucks dumb ass ancient men plainly loot and scatter ashes in the debauchery pointless raids. But perhaps also they felt they did purpose..?


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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