12 May 2014

Great(ish) Buildings: Domus Augusti

All this month my co-contributors are bringing you excellent posts on a diverse list of famous historical buildings. I thought it would be a sort of palate cleanser to do my post about an interesting little building that was considered great because of its lack of greatness, famous not for its splendor but for its conventionality: the Emperor Augustus' house in Rome, the Domus Augusti.

Atop the Palatine Hill sprawls an immense, luxuriant palace – that's the Domus Augustana, completed by Domitian in 92 CE. A little way down the hill sits a smaller two-story house, still a mansion by the standards of most Romans but lacking the conspicuous grandiosity of the more well-known imperial dwellings. This is the house Augustus built for himself. Like those other palaces, the Domus Augusti was designed to make a statement; but rather than a declaration of imperial greatness, Augustus' house was more like the epitome of ancient humble-bragging. The Princeps prided himself on his lack of pretense and adherence to traditional, conservative Roman values. (Augustus prided himself on a lot of things, but that was a big one.) The man who famously “found a city of bricks and left one of marble” did not apply that same grandeur to his own abode. Compared to the homes of his descendants  Tiberius' mega-villa, Nero's urban monstrosity, etc.  Augustus' house was decidedly zhuzh-free. Suetonius described it thus:

He lived […] on the Palatine in a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but one short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements. For more than forty years he occupied the same bedroom in winter and summer.

Hi, I'm Augustus --
welcome to my crib.
Keep in mind that Suetonius did more spinning than an 80s DJ, and his further statement that “the simpleness of his furniture and goods [were] scarcely fine enough for a private citizen” is stretching things. The frescoes that have been uncovered rival those in Pompeii, and the floors were made of expensive colored marble. But the layout was relatively plain, two-storied like a middle-class townhouse without excessive courtyards or garden spaces. It was all carefully designed to show the Roman people how down to earth their Princeps was, how he put their needs above his own, the father of his people rather than their king. Everything Augustus did was careful.

layout of Domus Augusti, with
the Temple of Apollo adjacent
He bought the land back when he was still Octavius, just after coming to power. The location was no accident, set between patriotic spots that literally put him in the center of Roman history. According to Suetonius, when part of the house was destroyed by lightning during construction, Augustus took it as a sign from the gods and built his great temple to Apollo on the spot. (Augustus was big on omens, particularly lightning, which terrified him.) He then finished the house with public money as a reimbursement. Later he added a public library next to the temple and a large forum for Senate meetings.

Augustus liked summering in villas around his burgeoning Empire, but the Domus Augusti remained his official place of residence. The house burned down either in 3 CE during Augustus' lifetime or later in the big fire of 69, and was at least partially rebuilt. It became state property, slowly dwarfed by other buildings until it was lost in the ruins of time, then rediscovered in 2008. As you can see in the short video below, it's been popular with tourists ever since. With the restoration of Augustus' mausoleum (reopened to coincide with the 2000th anniversary of his death), interest in the first emperor of Rome and his dysfunctional family is as high as ever.