Stephan Matthiesen

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Were the Mausoleum and funeral of Augustus designed and manipulated for political reasons?

The Mausoleum of Augustus, which was built in 28 BC, was one of the major buildings erected by Augustus Octavian. Given that Octavian was a shrewd politician, who was able to play the power games of his time very successfully, one would expect that he designed his Mausoleum not only because he needed a decent family tomb, but that the building also served a political purpose.

Historical background

When the Mausoleum was designed some time before 28 BC, neither Octavian nor his contemporaries knew that his long reign would later be called saeculum Augustum, and be seen as a “Golden Age” of the Roman World. He did not even bear the honorary title “Augustus” yet. Only three years earlier in 31 BC, the thirteen year long period of civil war had ended with the defeat of his rival Antonius in the battle of Actium, making Octavian effectively the ruler of the antique World [Grimal, p.229]. His political position, however, had very little legality other than that arising from his own personal power, and there was still a need to consolidate his power and reorganise the political institutions of Rome. On the other hand, many Romans felt the need for a strong leader after the long period of civil war. Although the system slowly started to function again, there was always the possibility of a crisis, as could be seen as late as 23 BC, when the second Consul A. Terentius Varro Murena allegedly conspired to assassinate Augustus [Grimal p.235]. It is from this political background that we need to try to understand the design of the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Why build a tomb?

Throughout the Greek and Roman World it was part of the political power game to show one’s wealth and influence in public by financing monumental buildings or public entertainment. It is therefore not surprising that the young and ambitious Octavian was “the most important patron of new building in Rome” [Zanker, p. 65] during the 30’s, when the fight for power was at its peak. Octavian’s building programme centred mainly around two projects, namely his Sanctuary of Apollo and his Mausoleum, both of which “in sheer size and expenses (…) overshadowed all other projects” [Zanker, p. 65]. That his enormous Mausoleum therefore is a monumental building designed to show his wealth and political ambition is obvious, but also quite trivial. This is hardly sufficient to explain why Octavian chose a tomb and not e.g. another temple or some public building for this purpose. Wouldn’t a public building have been more effective in ensuring the sympathy of the public than this purely private family tomb? After all, he was still young and not in immediate need of a tomb. And wasn’t there a danger that such a pompous tomb would be seen as a sign of too much personal pride and egocentricity, perhaps not a good feature of a politician who was supposed to serve the res publica? Even worse, he choose to call his tomb a “Mausoleum”, a term coined after the tomb of King Mausolos in Halicarnassos, possibly conjuring up images of Eastern Kings in the minds of Republican Romans. Clearly, with hindsight, the size of the Mausoleum is quite appropriate considering the importance of the saeculum Augustum for restoring stability, peace and wealth to Rome, but for contemporaries this was not obvious. What positive reasons might Octavian have had to build a monumental tomb rather than something else, and how did he avoid these possible negative associations?

The political message of the Mausoleum

One good reason for Octavian to build a monumental tomb can be found in the events of the Civil War, which certainly still influenced the design of the mausoleum, although it had ended three years before the mausoleum was built. Most of the propaganda war that Octavian staged against his rival Marcus Antonius focused on the theme of Antonius being a traitor of Rome, a friend of Egypt and under the influence of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Octavian successfully played on the fear of the Romans that after Antonius’ victory, the capital would move to Alexandria, and the proud urbs would continue only as a province of the ancient kingdom of Egypt. This fear was further fuelled by Antonius’ will, which Octavian – illegally – made public. In it he wished to be buried in Alexandria, not in Rome [Zanker, p.65].

Octavian’s decision to have the Mausoleum built fits well into his political propaganda. By building his own tomb, intended for eternity, in Rome, he made it clear to the Romans that he not only supported the urbs, but also bound his own personal fate to the future of Rome. This interpretation is also emphasised by the obelisks erected at the entrance, a little hint to the Romans to remind them where the power would have been under Antonius. Although a private building, the Mausoleum could have signalled not so much personal pride and selfishness to the Romans, but a clear message for the future of the Rome, a clearer message than expenses for any other public building or temple could have sent. At the same time, as a monumental private building, it also signalled that Octavian was and intended to stay an absolutely integral part of Rome.


Avoiding unnecessary self-glorification

Was there a danger that the Mausoleum showed too much self-celebration, or, as Zanker has argued, is it true that “the adaptation of an architecture created for the self-glorification of kings in the Greek East (…) was not fully compatible with what Octavian was trying to express” [Zanker, p. 67]? Certainly, in late Republican times, tombs were increasingly used as means of family propaganda, and Octavian was no exception. However, he seems to have resisted the temptation to make it too much a celebration of his victory. No decorations survive, and although it has been argued that they may have been removed during the Middle Ages, it seems more likely that there were no scenes showing Octavian’s life, with a monumental statue on the top being the only image [Richardson]. This is consistent with the finding that his other great building of the time, the Sanctuary of Apollo, also show no scenes of Octavian’s victory, whereas monumental statues were not uncommon [Zanker]. This lack of decoration is somewhat surprising, considering that tombs of the late Republic tended to be lavishly decorated with scenes showing the daily life of the deceased. However, while monumental statues of important politicians had been known throughout the Republic, the inclusion of scenes of Octavian’s life would undoubtedly have reminded the Romans of royal self-glorification. Octavian himself boasted in the res gesta that he had statues of himself in the city removed and the money used to dedicate offerings to the Temple [after Zanker]. One might also speculate that the bizarre exaggeration of the design in many contemporary tombs, like the tomb of the baker M. Vergilius Eurysaces [Toynbee, pl. 34&35], began to make scenic decorations of tombs in the eyes of the nobility a rather suspect feature.

A link to history

The shape of the Mausoleum itself also conveys a political message. There are some other examples of circular tombs, most notably the tomb of Caecilia Metella, which was almost as big as the Mausoleum [Zanker, fig. 58]. However, there is no convincing evidence that any of these tombs dates before the Mausoleum [Holloway], and probably the fashion to build circular tombs started with the Mausoleum. It has been suggested that the Mausoleum was modelled after the grave mounds of the Princes of Troy (in reality prehistoric settlements) [Holloway], more convincingly the circular shape was seen in relation to the Etruscan tumuli [Toynbee, p. 143]. More recently, Caesar had been buried in the tumulus Juliae [Richardson], and the tomb of Sulla was also of circular shape [Holloway]. It is difficult to judge whether the Romans saw all these connections, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Octavian wanted to signal historical continuity, both with Caesar, whose heir he was, and with the (Troyan or Etruscan) ancestors. This not only emphasised his right to be a leading force in Rome, but also signalled to the Romans that he honoured tradition, thus announcing early his later programme of cultural revival.

The funeral

Was the funeral itself manipulated for political reasons? Certainly, the grand celebrations [Toynbee, p.58] related to his public funeral were intended to show his political power, but considering the fact that Augustus had ended the civil war and brought a long period of peace and wealth to Rome, the celebrations seem quite appropriate. It seems unlikely that the funeral had any other political implication than demonstrating that the family of Augustus was now the ruling family in Rome.

Summary and conclusion

It seems surprising at first that the young Octavian, at a time when he just had gained his political power, choose to build a monumental Mausoleum, which might as well have been interpreted as undue self-glorification after the fashion of eastern kings. But the Mausoleum was a powerful signal to the Romans, showing them that the future of Rome was linked to Octavian. At the same time, Octavian managed to keep a difficult balance between the need to advertise his person as the guarantee for Rome’s future, and to avoid the impression of royal egocentricity and decadence.


Grimal, P. (Ed.) (1966)
Die Mittelmeerwelt im Altertum III – Der Aufbau des römischen Reiches. Fischer Weltgeschichte 7, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.
Holloway, R.R. (1996)
The tomb of Augustus and the princes of Troy. American Journal of Archaeology, 70, 171-173.
Nash E. (1962)
A Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Vol. 2.
Richardson, L. (1992)
A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Toynbee, J.C.M. (1971)
Death and Burial in the Roman World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Zanker, P. (1988)
The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. University of Michigan Press.

Diesen Essay schrieb ich 1998 im Rahmen eines Open Studies Kurses im Bereich Archäologie an der Universität Edinburgh.

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