Ancient Rome – An Important Precinct of Power and Glory


Long before Rome became the centre of a great Empire it was only a collection of small settlements founded on seven hills. These were above the River Tiber whose lofty vantage points acted as a defensive standpoint from invaders and protected its inhabitants from the malaria and other diseases that thrived on the marshy valley floor.

The Roman Gods of the community, such as Jupiter, Mars, Vesta, Janus and others were concerned with the welfare of the state expressed best by the word religio, which meant a feeling of respect and awe towards the sacred.

As fertility is synonymous with survival it doesn’t take much imagination for us to endeavour to understand why allusions to everything associated with the act of procreation, were given prominence in their art and life and why they worshiped the goddess of love.

If you add to this the fragility of human life in a world without antibiotics or sophisticated surgical techniques;  one in which an infected wound, the drinking of contaminated water or a miscarriage meant certain death we can begin to understand a little more.

The city of Rome came into being when the seven hill towns became one to drain the valley floor and improve their collective future. The construction of the Cloacae Maxima, the great Roman sewer six centuries BC meant they could drain the area of low ground south east of the Capitol between the Palatine and Equiline Hills and then markets, and other trading activities could take place on the reclaimed land.

From 60 BC to 49BC a struggle for power played out at against a backdrop of a Senate of powerful men whose factions were all trying to gain control for their preferred leader. It eventually came down to a choice of three of its most prominent citizens and successful military leaders, who initially formed an unlikely alliance to try and govern together.

As in all such struggles it led to a stand off and to resolve the issue and one of the preferred, Gaius Julius Caesar, began a civil war in 49BC knowing that if he won he would become undisputed leader of the Roman world. Caesar came, saw and conquered and after it was over set about bringing order from chaos, enacting extensive reforms, emboldening others.

The Senate gave him the tile dictator perpetuo, ruler for life, and he set about great public works extending the Forum Romanum on the south side of the Palatine Hill, the site of Rome’s earliest settlement.

The Forum Romanum was marked by freestanding commemorative arches at its east and west end. Today very little is left because when migratory peoples overran the city centuries later the columns and other architectural elements were reclaimed and used to build churches and other new buildings.

During the reign of Augustus (31BC – 14ACE) Rome emerged as an economically successful city with a population approaching one million. To become a free citizen of Rome was considered a great honour.

Whoever you were if you were born within the boundaries of the Roman Empire you had the right to hold the highest office in the State. Under Augustus the concept of an eternal Rome emerged, revealing its link to the legendary past and its promise of a new era.

Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace at Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace at Rome

In the account of his own accomplishments he placed side by side two concepts, reflected in the design of Roman architecture: that of auctoritas, or inner weight, the authentic and the exemplary, and ‘potestas’ the powerful and the authoritative.

A building with auctoritas had dignity, validity and authority and the use of marble in buildings like temples, led to evolving designs different from those of a previous age.

In Augustan Rome public models of propriety were a meaningful aspect of society and the life of the state. A statesman of consummate skill, Augustus legislated to mould the fabric of Roman society.

Some saw his leadership as a return to a mythical golden age, one where there would be a place for everyone. This made it possible for each Roman citizen to devote himself to the creation of a better world by participating in public works on a grand scale.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus empowered others treating people with dignity and respect so that everyone’s self esteem remained intact. Today we would admire him as an ultimate professional. His systems, once established were put in place in other towns throughout Italy and, also other countries as Rome’s influence spread and everyone became prosperous under centralized Roman rule.

Prima-Porta-AugustusThe most famous image we have of him is in his military aspect and it was found in the remains of the house he lived in at Prima Porta with his strong willed wife Livia (58BC-29AD).

The sun represents the new day, which dawned for Rome when Augustus became its leader. This image set his personal style, for that of being a restorative figure above all else and the statue is a great piece of propaganda.

It dominated the space it stood in. The right foot supports him a device that strengthens our perception of his coming to a halt to command what lies before him and, that he will challenge all those who enter his arena.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010, 2011, 2017

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