The house of Augustus: all mod cons?
Another new site to visit opens in Rome this week. It’s four rooms of the House of the first Emperor Augustus on the Palatine hill, never on show to the public before. Some parts of this building have opened from time to time, but those bits which you might have seen in the past are currently closed. The plan is that in due course, when conservation has finished, they will open again to join this new section.
You’ll have to pay (11 euros), to cover entrance to this and the whole of the Forum area. In fact, there’s been a bit of a sleight of hand here. For the last few years entrance to the Roman Forum has been free – one of the few major Roman sites in Italy making no charge at all. This ‘combined’ 11 euro ticket uses the new display of these four painted rooms to conceal the fact that you’re now being charged for the Forum too.
But the material you can see is so good that its hard to complain about the price. For what you’re walking into is part of the ‘modest house’ of the first emperor.
Of course modesty comes at various levels.
This is pretty lavish modesty, with exquisite wall-painting in the so-called Second Style of Roman painting. But ancient authors were always struck by the fact that, unlike later emperors, Augustus always lived in a ‘house’ rather than a palace. Or rather he lived in a couple of linked houses on the Palatine, now known conventionally as the ‘House of Augustus’ and the ‘House of Livia’ (there’s actually no reason to suppose that he lived in one and the wife in another, frosty as their marriage may have been). It wasn’t until his successor Tiberius that something that was recognisably a palace appeared on the Palatine (the hill then giving its name to the building).
The point for ancient writers was that Augustus lived in an ‘ordinary’ style of house (and it was not even new, part of it it had once belonged to the orator Hortensius). This, of course, fitted with his ‘first amongst equals’ image. And the imperial spin doctors were hard at work staging the ancient equivalent of photo opportunities to rub the message home. On occasion, for example, Livia was to be glimpsed sitting in the house at her loom, in an old-fashioned Roman way –even though she can hardly have weaved for real any more often than Cherie Blair peels the potatoes.
But there was another side to Augustus’ house, which archaeology only partly reveals. If it was in one respect just an ‘ordinary’ up-market dwelling, in other respects it was close to divine, literally. For it somehow linked directly to Augustus’ new temple of Apollo – so that the inside of the temple could be used by him as a ‘palatial’ reception area. As usual Augustus was having it both ways – blazoning the fact that he was living as an ‘ordinary’ aristocrat, while at the same time sharing house room with the god Apollo.
Thinking carefully about his living arrangements give you a good insight into the ambivalences of Augustus’ rule.
If you want a bit more of Beard on ancient housing, I had a piece on the Roman property market in yesterday’s Sunday Times (it's at the bottom of the main article in this link). This also involved translating bits of modern estate agents jargon (des res; location, location, location; all mod cons etc) into Latin. This kind of thing always takes much longer than you think. But I was quite tickled by some of the results, partly borrowed (I admit) from Pliny and Statius.
I was particularly chuffed with ‘nil ibi plebeium’ for ‘up and coming area’ – it’s Statius (Silvae 1, 5)describing the swanky property of an ex-slave, so hits the nail on the head I think. See what you think of the rest.