Researcher won’t render unto Caesar his claim of transforming Rome to marble
It turns out Caesar Augustus was an undeserving braggart. He claimed, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” But new research by a university professor has found that only a small minority of the city of Rome’s buildings in Augustus’ time were marble.
“Many scholars have looked at Augustus’s claim from a political standpoint, as a metaphor for him transforming a republic into an empire. I wanted to see if Rome literally transformed under his rule,” said Diane Favro of the University of California-Los Angeles’ Department of Architecture and Urban design.
Favro used a mapping website called ArcGIS and a highly advanced form of a technique called procedural modeling to recreate a detailed map of ancient Rome, says a press release from UCLA. She discovered that relatively few of the buildings in the Rome of Augustus’ time were converted to marble from brick. She also determined marble buildings constructed under Augustus were hard to see in Rome’s cityscape.
“Given the literary descriptions and artwork, I thought these glittering marble temples on high would be very visible, but they were not.” she said.
Favro has degrees in commercial art, Etruscology and Roman architectural history. She’s traveled to many parts of the ancient Roman Empire, from Lebanon to Algeria and Germany. She has written books on Roman architecture and has done digital research projects exploring the ancient world. Favro wrote The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, after which she and graduate students used digital technology to research whether Augustus’s boast was true.
The Rome of Augustus’ time from above, as re-envisioned by UCLA researchers. The buildings in pink were marble.
Augustus ruled during a time of relative peace known as Pax Romana. He used the resultant manpower and resources freed by a lack of war and the opening of a new marble quarry to institute construction projects. He commissioned large marble buildings and monuments, some of which were under construction for 40 years. Consequently the streets of Rome were congested by the movement of massive marble blocks around the city. Miners extracted the marble from the Carrara quarries on the northwest coast of Italy, which opened just before Augustus came to power in 44 B.C.
Caesar Augustus, bronze bust, sculpted circa 27 to 25 B.C. (Steve F-E-Cameron/Wikimedia Commons)
“Because they saw construction taking place constantly, I believe people really did think that Rome had been transformed into marble. But in reality, the city did not greatly transform.” Augustus also had many public spaces in Rome paved in marble, which in the past had been used only in houses of the rich and sacred temples. “Suddenly, everybody moving through the area could find themselves walking on marble, so they felt like they belonged to this more elevated status,” said Favro.
Any impression Roman citizens had that the city had been transformed to marble was mostly an illusion, Favro concluded.
Shakespeare’s character Hamlet utters a wonderful lay about how Caesar himself might have become just another brick in the wall in Act 5, Scene 1:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter’s flaw
See Building Projects in Rome in Augustus’ Time for a list of construction projects he commissioned.
Featured image: The Temple of Mars Ultor, constructed under Caesar Augustus in Rome’s Forum of Augustus (Photo by Scaliger / Dreamstime)
By Mark Miller