Emperor Augustus and the Art of Fusion

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin

One of the famous imperial portraits discovered at Prima Porta was that of the First Emperor, Augustus, showing him dressed in armor with his hand raised in an oratorical gesture, suggesting he was addressing the troops, representing the fusion of Greek and Roman art traditions, where the Greek influence was visible.

Emperor Augustus' portrait in his victory pose.
Emperor Augustus in his favorite victory pose. (Image: miroslav110/Shutterstock)

Expressing Through Art: The Augustus Way

Emperor Augustus’s classical contrapposto pose displayed Greek influences. Distinctively, Roman was the way in which Augustus’s armor was completely covered with carved images that worked as statements reminding of his achievements and status. For example, the large carved scene on the stomach illustrated Augustus’s greatest diplomatic triumph when he retrieved legionary standards that had been lost during Crassus’s ill-fated invasion of Parthia.

Augustus’s Use of Art

Augustus was a master in using art for propaganda purposes. A vivid example is the Ara Pacis or Altar of Peace. This was an altar dedicated by Augustus to Rome; it was surrounded by a screen of fine white marble. The walls of this screen were filled with delicately carved images, including a procession of magistrates, senators, priests, and, in the end, Augustus’s friends and family. These reliefs were a mixture of Roman realism and Greek idealism which worked as a visual expression of traditional values that Augustus emphasized on.

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The Forum of Augustus

The forum of Augustus, full of stories about great men
The forum of Augustus used for different rituals. (Image: Calin Stan/Shutterstock)

An even more grandiose Augustan project was the Forum of Augustus. This huge complex was centered around the massive temple dedicated to Mars Ultor, or ‘Mars the Avenger’, and Augustus built it in honor of his having fulfilled a vow to avenge the murder of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar.

Beside the temple were two long colonnades and hemicycles featuring dozens of life-size statues of summi viri (‘the greatest men’) that included figures drawn from Roman history and legend. This Roman hall of heroes was used for various rituals, such as declarations of war and coming-of-age ceremonies for Roman boys.

The Story Behind Roman Architecture

Columns held the entire structure strong to make sure it does not fall
Columns played an important role in Roman structures. (Image: Cara-Foto/Shutterstock)

The Romans were certainly master builders. Until Augustus, Roman architecture consisted mostly of imitations of Etruscan or Greek models. For example, the way temples were constructed, those had the familiar form, with triangular pediments and columns that followed the conventions of the Greek architectural orders.


Unlike Greek, early Roman temples were set upon a podium and had a frontal orientation. This meant that there were stairs only at the front, and the columns did not extend all the way around, as on Greek temples.

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Rome’s ‘Concrete Revolution’

The Romans used plenty of decorative marbles on the exterior of their public buildings. The structural core of most monumental Roman structures was brick or concrete. The widespread use of concrete was one of the greatest Roman contributions in terms of architecture, called the Roman ‘concrete revolution’. Concrete allowed them to construct buildings in a variety of shapes and forms. By pouring the concrete into wooden molds, the Romans could craft structures with curving walls and ceilings or any number of other unusual shapes. The Romans invented a concrete using pulverized volcanic stones that would harden underwater, to build gigantic harbors with quays, breakwaters, and moorings for ships.

Making of the Vaults

Another major Roman architectural innovation was widespread use of the vault. This was a series of stones cut. Placed together, they formed a self-supporting curved arch. By arranging two vaults at right angles, a framework was created that allowed huge rooms which didn’t require columns in the middle to hold up the roof. Vaults were used in some of the largest structures made by the Romans, such as the bath complexes.

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The Pantheon Design

One of the famous, well preserved, and most influential of all Roman buildings is the Pantheon in Rome. Its design, unique among Roman temples, was another revolutionary innovation. The term ‘pantheon’ means ‘temple to all the gods’. The building that is seen today is not the original version of the Pantheon. That was erected in 27 B.C. by Agrippa, a fairly conventional rectangular temple. It was rebuilt on a huge scale by the Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 128 A.D.

Inside view of Pantheon, Rome
Sourcing the light at the dome in the Pantheon. (Image: Pavel IIyukhin/Shutterstock)

Hadrian’s Pantheon had a standard appearance with a podium and steps leading to a porch with several rows of columns. The space overhead surmounted by a colossal dome measured 142 feet high. The only source of light was a circular 27-foot-wide opening on the top of the dome called an oculus, which created a dramatic circular shaft of light moving around the interior.

A wide range of material was used for bearing the weight of the dome. Solid stone, travertine, and tufa were used to make the lowest sections, while the dome itself was made of concrete with the light volcanic stone pumice mixed in.

Supporting a huge expanse of roof, without any internal struts, it still stands intact today after about 2,000 years. The dome remained the largest concrete span until 1958.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Pantheon: The Most Influential Building

The Pantheon is one of the most influential buildings. Its formula of a square façade graced with columns surmounted by a triangular pediment became a stock design for many government buildings and museums, including the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, as well as nearly every state capitol building across the United States.

Common questions about Roman Architecture

Q: What famous buildings did the Romans build?

One of the famous buildings, Romans built was the Pantheon which means the ‘temple to all the gods’. The design of Pantheon was very unique among Roman temples.

Q: What were some of Rome’s greatest architectural developments?

The Romans used a lot of concrete or brick in most of their monumental structures which allowed them to construct buildings with a variety of shapes and forms. The Romans also employed plenty of decorative marbles on the exterior of their public buildings.

Q: What is the oldest structure in Rome?

Pantheon, one of the most influential building is the oldest structure in Rome. The building that is seen today is not the original version of the Pantheon, which was erected in 27 B.C. and rebuilt on a huge scale by the Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 128 A.D. One reason for Pantheon’s survival was its re-consecration as a Christian church in 608 AD.

Q: What architecture is Rome known for?

Romans were known for crafting structures with curving walls and ceilings or any number of other unusual shapes which included huge domes. Another Roman architectural innovation was that of vaults. This was a series of stones cut, placed together, to form a self-supporting curved arch. Vaults were used in some of the largest structures made by the Romans, such as the bath complexes.

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