Unsavory Antiquarians

What do Emperor Augustus and Adolf Hitler have in common?

Though this may sound like the set up to a bad joke, the two historical leaders do have a few things in common. Besides their not-so-savory legacy as rulers, Augustus and Hitler were both avid antiquarians who not only collected and treasured old things but also sought to create their own legacy. While the success of this endeavor was ill fated, the idea of actively creating a past, or planning for the past in the present, is fascinating when we consider the fabric that we preserve.

Augustus was the stepson of Julius Caesar and took over the Roman Empire after Caesar’s death when he was only 18. HE avenged the murder of Caesar by defeating the Egyptians, bringing on an era of peace to Rome. Augustus was known to be manipulative, bold and politically shrewd. But above all else, Augusts was interested in transforming Rome from “a city of brick” into “a city of marble.” He was among the first have such a plan of renewal for the city. Areas were cleared to make way for a number of his monuments: the Campus Martius, an area prone to flooding along the Tiber river, was made useable and on it he built the Mausoleum of Augustus (in an Etruscan style), the Horologium of Augustus and most notably the Ara Pacis. These buildings made up the new forum, which Augustus sought to represent the new era of peace and prosperity under his rule. The Ara Pacis, a sacrificial alter made to honor Augustus’s era of peace depicted relief carvings of mythical and historical events. He created his own imagery about Rome under his leadership and a kind of allegorical imagery of Roman myth. The Ara Pacis makes allusions to The Aneid, a work that Augustus commissioned Virgil to write in order to create a “tangible” mythical history of Rome. The Horologium, a giant sundial, was focused around the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio that Augustus brought back from Heliopolis in Ancient Egypt. Through the Campus Martius, the commissioning of the Aenid, and his larger urban planning works to regularize the city of Rome, Augustus sought to create a legacy for himself that tied himself to the history of the city.

Fast-forward a couple thousand years to Hitler and the Third Reich. I don’t have to explain much as to why the legacy of the Third Reich is less than savory, however the archeological and architectural principals employed by the Nazis are similar to Augustus. The use of ancient artifacts to assert the dominance over the ancient world and a desire to create great civic monuments that would speak to the importance of the Third Reich for centuries to come. Hitler wanted to create buildings that would age like the ruins of Rome. They too would cast a shadow of great power over anyone who looked at them.

Thus, Hitler’s desire to leave Berlin a city of great civic work is parallel to Augustus’s desire to leave Rome a “city of marble.” Both these rulers looked back in time to promote themselves and preemptively create for themselves their legacy. Though now the legacies of both rulers are tainted, and ultimately out of their control, I think it is fascinating to think of this kind of branding in preservation. When we preserve we are branding ourselves. We are choosing what legacy we leave behind, even if that legacy is just preserving what came before us. Does creating a legacy for ourselves or manipulating the built environment to create that legacy inauthentic?

I have a personal fascination with Augustus, and Rome (if you couldn’t already tell from my blog posts) largely because so much of our world was built in reference to it, and for that reason I believe we should understand how it came about looking the way it did. I would challenge anyone to try and find a contemporary issue that did not somehow manifest itself in Rome. I encourage anyone interested to read John Stambaugh’s The Ancient Roman City.


Stambaugh, John. The Ancient Roman City. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). Pp 53-63. (If you want to read excerpts, it is available on google books here: https://books.google.com/books?id=k0mZufizhH0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false )

Curtis, William. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Third Edition. (New York: Phaidon Press Inc. 1982, 1996). Pp. 354-356.


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