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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Four Emperors that Built Rome

Debauchery and megalomania seem to define most Roman emperors. The need to control their realm and please people led many to murder, drain the coffers, build spectacular baths, aqueducts, circuses, amphitheaters, statues, and temples. There are four emperors that come to mind: Augustus, Nero, Vespasian, and Hadrian. These are not the best or worst emperors, but some who have a visual legacy available to visitors in Rome.

If it’s good to be king, then it’s great to be emperor. Imagine the cultural, artistic, and material resources at their disposal, when in its prime the empire extended from Syria, north Africa, Greece, to Northern Europe, and Britain. What would you build if you had unlimited access to marbles, precious stones, and the best architects and artists?

Gold Aureus of Nero, 66-67 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.
Gold Aureus of Nero, 66-67 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.


Two periods loosely define the Romans politically and artistically: the Republic from approximately 509-31 BCE and the Empire 27 BCE-mid fourth century CE. Republican Rome, while far from a democracy, had slightly more power balance between the Senate and Caesar. Julius Caesar’s assassination occurred partly because he wrestled control away from the Senate. He also had a number of enemies. His death created a power void and Augustus took advantage and became the first Emperor of Rome. The Senate’s role was minimized as the emperor attained more power, essentially becoming totalitarian. Emperors were usually deified after death although some took it on themselves to declare themselves god-like while living. Emperors needed to please three constituents to avoid poisoning, stabbing, or suspicious death: the Senate, the army, and the Roman citizens. Augustus was skilled at pleasing all three.

Augustus’ portrait was ubiquitous in the empire. Always depicted as a young man, with idealized features and calm expression, his portraits sent the message of prosperity and empire building. As emperor, he was also the high priest, or pontifex maximus. He performed sacrifices in honor of the gods and was the supreme religious leader in addition to commander in chief. Following his death, he was deified, a new tradition that took hold for most deceased emperors. His low set ears, short hair brushed forward, and small chin make him readily identifiable.

Augustus used his expanded powers to conquer new lands, provide public works like baths, aqueducts, roads, and sewers. Eighty-two temples were built or re-constructed during his forty-one-year reign (27 BCE-14 CE). Augustus ruled at the beginning of the height of the Roman Empire. Art during the empire was never neutral and always political. Everything was created to present the emperor, empress, or the empire positively, as strong, dominant, and culturally superior and Augustus set the tone for future emperors. Equally important was the first lady of the empire, Livia, who became the role model for wifely devotion and motherhood. She was skilled at influencing those around her in a patriarchal society where women were not seen as power brokers. Her Villa of Livia frescoes are a testament to her wealth and bravura.

Augustus re-defined what meant to be Roman in the empire. He was instrumental in organizing and codifying a state religion to bring unity and a sense of belonging to the empire. There’s a saying from the Roman historian Suetonius that Augustus transformed Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble. The Temple of Mars Ultor is an example.

Mars is the god of warfare. Deifying Mars legitimized the expansion of the Roman empire. Augustus elevated the god’s importance in his desire to conquer additional territory. Following a successful battle, the standards carried by the Roman army were housed in the Temple of Mars Ultor, built in the forum of Augustus. The Senate declared war, peace, and military successes from the temple. State ceremonies took place in the temple, including young men coming of age and putting on a toga as a citizen of Rome. Leaders from conquered countries would appear at the temple in subjugation and to swear allegiance to Rome. The temple was a monument to Augustus’ military vision as well as a monument to Rome’s military power. Ultor means avenger and venerating Mars fulfilled Augustus’ need to establish himself as leader and to show the assassins of Julius Casear, his adopted father, his victories.

The temple and Forum are visible today along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, although one must use imagination to comprehend its magnificence in Roman times. Various colors of marble from conquered lands were used to build the temple. It is difficult to tell one ruin from another along this Mussolini built street which connects the Colosseum to the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II (known as the wedding cake).

The Field of Mars in Rome, one of the oldest parts of the city, is where most people lived and continued to live in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Just east of the Tiber River, it consisted of a densely populated area packed with temples and public markets. Dedicated to Mars, it is known today in Italian as the Campo Marzio, or Campus Martius in Latin. Today the area is roughly from the Colosseum north past Piazza Navona and the Pantheon on the east side of the Tiber River across from Vatican City. It is on this northernmost section where Augustus conceived of his Ara Pacis or Altar of Augustan Peace to commemorate three years of war in Spain and Gaul (France). It was dedicated it on his wife’s birthday in 9 BCE.

Ara Pacis Augustae, 9 BCE, Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, photos Steven Zucker, CC BY NC SA 2.0

Pieces of the Ara Pacis were found starting in the sixteenth century thirty-eight feet below the surface and reconstructed beginning in 1938. It is more than coincidence that the Fascists, who admired and emulated Roman art and conquest, reconstructed this altar. Mussolini wanted to celebrate the 2,000 anniversary of Augustus’ birth to revive the Roman past and connect it to Fascist ideology. The Fascists were particularly fond of appropriating Roman ideals and the power of art into their messaging. The idea of conquering lands and declaring peace became key to Augustan political philosophy, and revived by Mussolini, who fancied himself as a twentieth century Augustus.

Two upper sides of the exterior consist of processions of the Imperial household, priests, and other religious figures. The lower portions have beautiful acanthus leaves, birds, animals, and vegetation. Mythological figures and a nod to the creation myth of Rome with Romulus and Remus are present on the other sides. Elements of air from the earth and sea are skillfully carved. The marble would have been painted in bright colors. Some details and sculptural elements have been reconstructed. Offerings to the gods took place inside the structure, which was open air.

The Ara Pacis resided alongside many monuments and buildings in the area all which emphasized the glory of Augustus’ reign. Abundance, harmony, and peace are stressed. His media campaign to promote his image and success was omnipresent. Someone living in Rome could not escape his likeness on coins, statues, temples, and markets. He was the longest ruling emperor and no one matched his skillful out-maneuvering of competing political and military foes, like Antony and Cleopatra. The wealth achieved by his conquests in Spain, Gaul, Germany, the Balkans, and Egypt enriched the Roman economy and its citizens while providing an endless supply of slaves as labor.

Although Augustus laid a brilliant foundation for leading the empire, his heirs did their best to undo much of what he accomplished. Many lacked integrity and the ability to keep the three factions content. Augustus and Livia had no children. He adopted Livia’s son from her earlier marriage, and Tiberius became the next emperor.


Augustus was a hard act to follow. Tiberius was noteworthy for his pragmatic rule (14-37) and lack of desire to further expand the empire. Augustus could hardly imagine what would follow next with Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (r. 54-68). Known to be handsome, vigorous, and youthful, Nero was the last emperor from the Augustan line, called the Julio-Claudians. Taking control of the empire at nearly seventeen years old, all went smoothly for a few years. He was a sociopath and narcissist which caused great concern among the elites and Senate. His intolerance for criticism increased from being annoyed to eliminating those who he felt were better than him, or were in any way a threat. Nero grew up in a dysfunctional household where vengeance and retaliation was common place. By the time he was emperor, poisoning, backstabbing, literal and figuratively, were common among family members and those vying for power.

His mother, Agrippina, was controlling and had a difficult time letting him rule the way he wanted. She also disapproved of his conduct, including his various romances and nocturnal escapades roaming the city to brothels. Nero decided to eliminate her. First, he arranged for her to perish at sea by drowning, but she survived. He found appropriate assassins to finish her off soon thereafter, and apparently without remorse. She was far from a perfect mother, but her murder laid the groundwork for years of paranoid decision-making.

Nero excelled in one aspect of governing and it wasn’t military exploits or administrative tasks. He was an entertainer. The public greatly admired the games he staged along with festivals, banquets, and grand theatrical performances. He was a patron of the arts, literature, plays, and philosophy. Spectators attending performances often received generous gifts. Nero was fond of racing chariots, and performing songs at theatrical events. The Senate was disturbed by his lack of decorum. He left Italy only once, to compete in the Olympic games in Greece, and of course he won every event. The provinces were left without leadership and plundered for their material goods, mostly to pay for his excesses. Eventually many outlying areas revolted.

His brutality in personal and political affairs were covered up by his public persona. Not only did he kill his mother, but he had his first wife executed on false charges, assaulted his pregnant second wife who died of her injuries, and remarried for the third time, after drumming up conspiracy charges against her husband, who was forced to commit suicide. Later, he fell in love with a young man who resembled the deceased pregnant wife, so he castrated him and married him. The Senate and those in his inner circle were horrified. However, if anyone in the Senate criticized him, they were executed. Many others died by saying something that set him off.

In July 64 the Great Fire changed Rome. The fire burned for a week ravaging the fourteen city districts with only four districts untouched. Rome was built of mud-brick with timber beams. Fire swept through the narrow alleys and streets fueled by hot, dry weather. Nero was relaxing (not fiddling as the legend goes) in his seaside villa and returned to Rome only when his palace was threatened by the flames. Over four thousand homes and apartment blocks were destroyed. Only twenty-six years old, Nero was inept at managing a crisis of this nature. Although he helped those displaced from the fire with housing and grain, the blaze contributed to his undoing.

Nero found the Christians were an easy target to blame. He rounded up Roman Christians and made them martyrs in the Circus of Nero, currently where Vatican City is located. Of course, Nero used the fire for his own benefit to reclaim land in order to build his Domus Aurea (Golden House), an architectural wonder of concrete, fresco, an artificial lake, mosaics, a 120-foot bronze statue of himself, gardens, and great views of Rome. Over 250 acres of prime real estate were taken over in eminent domain for his pleasure house.

A year before his death he ordered the execution of his most successful general. Killing military commanders wasn’t a good idea. He was increasingly considered an embarrassment and a danger, yet it is confounding how long it took for the people, Senate, and armies of Rome to turn against him. In the end it was a combination of executions, revolts in the distant lands, and the amount of property he claimed for his own use. The list of his misdeeds is long, and some were relatively harmless, and some were devastating. He changed the month of April to Neronus, which happily for us, did not remain. Rebuilding Rome cost a fortune and to cope with the rising costs, Nero inflated the currency. More seriously, people were revolting in Spain, Judea, and Gaul. They were tired of taxes to pay for his games and life style. The army didn’t trust him. In Spain, the governor was pronounced emperor by his army.

In early June 68 the Senate declared him a public enemy. He simply did not have the leadership skills to deal with the uprisings, as he suggested singing to the rioters to soothe them. The Praetorian Guard abandoned him and he had no choice but to flee Rome and was forced to commit suicide. Nero was not allowed to be buried in the Augustan Imperial mausoleum. The Spanish governor was made emperor, although his reign lasted only seven months.

What did Nero leave us? He constructed an aqueduct immediately following the fire, the Circus of Nero, Baths of Nero, the monumental statue of himself, and a huge food market – all of which are barely visible, buried underground, or the materials reused. By far, the Domus Aurea is his most important legacy. Most of Nero’s visual legacy is untraceable because the Senate rebuked Nero with a damnatio memoriae. Conceived as a public punishment for the worst offenders, the damnatio memoriae literally expunges a person from culture and history, damning their memory. Nero’s memory was scrubbed. He was erased from Roman history, and in public by eliminating his portraits, coins, and statues. By a twist of fate, we have some of the Domus Aurea because of the damnatio.

Domus Aurea (Golden House of Nero), 64-68, Rome, photos Gerriann Brower.

The Domus is situated by the Colosseum in the Esquiline Hill area. It wasn’t quite finished at the time of his suicide. The Roman historian Suetonius described the palace beginning at the entrance with the statue of Nero. The exterior of the palace was so huge that a mile-long colonnade connected the gardens and buildings. The artificial lake was surrounded by buildings, animals, vineyards, and woodlands. The public had some access to these outside areas. Dining rooms had ivory ceilings. Guests would be treated to showers of flower petals from the oculus in the ceiling while they dined. Gold and jewels decorated some architectural elements. The main dining room featured a revolving rotunda. The vaults in the dining room were made with concrete, a newer material which had an impact on future construction.

Interior walls were frescoed in intricate decorative patterns. We do know the name of Nero’s painter, which is rare. Fabullus created a white background fresco with geometric squares, delicate lines, and mythological figures, along with animals and invented creatures, sectioned off into divided zones. Although many are lost, some frescoes are still visible during a guided tour given by scholars, architects, and engineers who are currently restoring the Domus Aurea.

As a result of the damnatio, Nero’s face was removed and replaced with another’s on his bronze statue. The Domus was filled in with ruble and dirt as much as possible. The next emperor filled in the lake and created the Colosseum. The lake had a base of concrete which served as a foundation for the Colosseum. The water supplying his private baths were turned into public baths.

No emperor after Nero lived in the Golden House. His ghost was said to haunt the place of his suicide and high priests performed rituals to cleanse the area. Future leaders did their best to convert buildings for public and civic use, or raze what they could, but Nero’s gift of using concrete made that difficult.

The Domus Aurea became buried over the centuries but was found again in the Renaissance. Artists, including Raphael, would lower themselves on ropes into the sunken rooms and ruins. They were awestruck. The frescoes and statutes gave artists great inspiration. The statues became part of private or Vatican collections. Raphael painted a loggia in the Vatican using a similar decorative motif that he first saw in the Golden House.


Following Nero’s death civil war broke out with four generals battling for control. After a year, Vespasian, of the Flavian family, emerged victorious. He was the opposite of Nero, from a plebian family, and a proven military commander. Where Nero drained the financial resources of the provinces and city, Vespasian prudently managed the coffers. Instead of having three wives, two of which he murdered, Vespasian’s wife died of natural causes. He then renewed an affair with a Greek freedwoman, Caenis. She became his common law wife. This was an unthinkable transgression for the Julio-Claudians to have a former slave live with the emperor.

Vespasian came from the countryside without any noble family or Senate connections, but ingratiated himself into Roman elite circles and the emperor’s court. He must have been cunning, self-assured, and a good judge of people. Emperors needed to be ruthless and he was no exception. Under Nero, Vespasian was in charge of controlling the revolt in Judea which began in 66. His son, and future emperor, Titius continued to subdue the rebels. By 70 Titius prevailed with an estimated 97,000 Jews taken prisoner and many more than that killed during the siege. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city sacked and looted. Jews dispersed in this pivotal moment in their history. Political rebellion and uprisings against taxes were not tolerated and the final blow came when the Romans extinguished the final rebellion in Masada in 74.

His ten-year rule (69-79) brought relative calm and an end to unrest and self-centered extravagances. Probably his greatest achievement was keeping the empire going after Nero. Known as a cheapskate, he levied a tax on using public latrines. His son Titus complained. Vespasian replied that money has no smell. His portraits show a balding man with wrinkles and a lined face, a departure from idealized portraiture of the Julio-Claudians.

Portrait of Vespasian, 70-80 CE, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0.
Portrait of Vespasian, 70-80 CE, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0.

This portrait, found in Tunisia, is probably a re-worked portrait of Nero due to the changes in the hair and substantial re-working in the back of the head, consistent after a damnatio. Vespasian had little hair on the top of his head and Nero had a thick head of hair combed forward covering his forehead. He also had prominent large ears. Vespasian’s image was that of a common man, not a god. He understood the plebeians and made good use of it by building the largest amphitheater in the empire, and the first one in Rome.

Colosseum, Rome, dedicated in 80 CE, photos Gerriann Brower.

The four levels of Flavian Amphitheater, as it was properly known at the time, would not have been possible without the use of concrete. The oval shaped amphitheater originally had travertine masonry on the exterior. Fifty thousand spectators could watch games and horrific brutality for their amusement. Approximately 100,000 cubic meters (130,795 cubic yards) of travertine was used to construct the amphitheater. Three hundred tons of iron clamps held the travertine in place. A series of intersecting arches and massive piers provide the structure with support. Titus dedicated the Colosseum in 80 CE.

The travertine and other facing materials have been quarried away for centuries. When it stopped functioning as an amphitheater in the sixth century it became a source for building materials. The iron clamps were scavenged and left pock marks all along the exterior where the clamps were taken. Images of the Colosseum are common now but in the first century it was an innovative and impressive architectural masterpiece.

There were two other Flavian emperors. Titus was first to take the throne following Vespasian’s death, and he ruled for only two years, but they were consequential years, with another fire in Rome, a plague, and the 70 Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. His brother Domitian ruled for fifteen years, with good financial and administrative leadership but he was egotistical and cruel. The Senate particularly disliked him. He was murdered in 96.


The Flavians opened the door for non-Roman born men from the provinces to enter into government, the Senate, as military commanders, and maybe become emperor. Trajan (r. 98-117) was from Spain and was a rare emperor who pleased the Senate, the people, and the army. He was politically savvy and knew which fights to pick whether it was military or with the Senate. Scholars concur that the empire “peaked” economically and in political stability beginning from about 100-180. The empire’s population varied from 50-70 million people with a gross domestic product and per capita gross domestic product comparable to Europe in 1600. The empire was wealthy and economically sound.

Slaves were about 15-20 percent of the population and many earned their freedom. However, life was short. Adults could expect to live to about thirty, if you were wealthy, and infant mortality was thirty-three percent. Most of the one million who lived in Rome did so in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The poor, which was most everyone, received free or subsidized grain, olive oil, and subsidized wine. Of course, there were the public baths and entertainment events to keep them content.

Portrait of Hadrian, 125-130 CE from Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0.
Portrait of Hadrian, 125-130 CE from Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0.

This was the empire Hadrian (r. 117-138) inherited. He too was from Spain. Hadrian left his mark on the empire with the seventy-three-mile wall running across northern England, the Pantheon, a huge villa in Tivoli, and a tomb in Rome. He was known for killing generals who might challenge his authority, his arrogance, and a self-proclaimed expert in nearly everything. Yet he made some wise decisions not to expand the empire. Very popular with the commoners, less so with elites, Hadrian forgave back taxes, lowered taxes, handed out money to the poor, put on games, and stabilized the territories. He was a builder of culture and architecture, and some think of Hadrian’s reign as the height of the empire in prosperity and the arts.

He was a patron of all the arts and philosophy, and considered himself an amateur architect. One could say he was spiteful and ruthless, yet he admired and encouraged anything Greek-like in the arts. His beard is a sign of his love for anything Greek as Roman men were clean shaven but Greeks liked to sport facial hair. Hadrian esteemed Greek philosophy, art, and literature and immersed himself in their culture. He considered Western and Northern provinces now in Europe to be backwards. In 100 he married Sabina, who was fourteen. It was a childless marriage and probably loveless.

Hadrian did fall deeply in love with someone else. He was not fond of spending time in Rome, so he made travel to faraway provinces an important focus of his reign, making forays of many years into his preferred eastern lands. On one such trip to Turkey in 123, along with his 5,000-member entourage, he met a stunning youth named Antinous, who was about twelve or thirteen. Antinous was a Greek lad born in Bithynia. Hadrian fell hard for Antinous. They had an affair.

In 130 while visiting Egypt, Antinous suddenly died at age nineteen, drowning in the Nile River. His death was suspicious. Hadrian grieved but deified Antinous. He spent most of his last years at his estate and palace in Tivoli, outside of Rome, on three-hundred-acre grounds with thirty buildings, baths, a theatre, an arena, libraries, lots of Greek art, gardens, and fountains. He built a getaway where he could govern without dealing with Rome; a little Greek escape in Italy.

Hadrian’s architectural legacy remains the best-preserved Roman building in Rome - the Pantheon. Some say he was directly involved in the design, although there is evidence the structure was conceived and started during Trajan’s rule. Conceived as the temple to honor all gods, it appears rather plain from the outside, which is partially due to the stripping of materials by later generations and popes. To be truly appreciated it must be seen in person. No photograph can capture the sensation of entering or walking around the interior. There is an element of surprise when entering and finding a circular structure with an oculus streaming in light.

Pantheon, c. 126 CE, Rome, exterior and interior photos Gerriann Brower: painting by

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, c. 1734, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, public access.

It is a temple with a more traditional exterior and a very creative interior, unlike any other in Rome. Only when you are inside is it evident there is a large dome resting on a drum with an oculus. Perfectly proportioned, the height of the dome complements the width of the interior space. Eight piers support the drum of the dome and structure. A very pleasing and harmonious rhythm is established inside with colored marbles along with niches on the lower level and square coffers in the dome. The coffers are smaller as the dome rises and also work to lessen the weight of the dome.

Until the twentieth century the Pantheon was the largest concrete dome. The concrete was laid inventively in a single batch. Heavier materials such as travertine are used as aggregate and lighter materials such as pumice are used as aggregate towards the top where less support is needed. The use of concrete, size of the dome, and contrast between the geometric exterior and circular interior mark this as a breakthrough in architectural design. The Pantheon proved influential for Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and other architects, and has been copied for hundreds of years. It was consecrated into a church about 613.

Probably the best representation of what the interior looks like is from Panini’s eighteenth-century painting. His painting helps convey the size, sense of design, and light from the oculus. It is Roman architecture at its finest, in perfect harmony.

As Hadrian aged, he longed to die. Unable to travel long distances, with his wife and lover dead, and without children, he waited for death. He had a failing heart and poor circulation. The accounts of his heath woes are pitiful. His attempts to get someone to administer assisted suicide were bizarre, and unsuccessful. He sounded like he was tired of living and ready to move on, and finally he did on July 10, 138.

To prepare for his final demise, Hadrian had thought in advance to construct a huge mausoleum to hold his ashes. This huge monumental tomb rests on the river banks across the Tiber on the Vatica, now the Vatican. It looks like a huge drum on a square base. Originally there was a smaller circular structure topped with a bronze statue of Hadrian in a chariot drawn by horses. The shape is similar to what Roman’s would have used as a funeral pyre. Augustus’ mausoleum is across the Tiber about a half mile away and has a similar shape. The three tiers of Hadrian’s mausoleum became the tallest building in ancient Rome.

Castel Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Mausoleum), begun 120s, Rome, photos Gerriann Brower.

Hadrian’s tomb was the final resting place of future emperors through Caracalla (r. 211-217). The bridge leading across the Tiber was also constructed by Hadrian, called the Pons Aelius, now known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo. By the time of his death, Hadrian was not popular. It took a year for the Senate to agree to deify him and move his ashes into his tomb. The Senate realized he was part Nero, part Augustus, and ultimately unable to conciliate and please all three entities of the populus, Senate, and military. Nonetheless, the empire continued. The last Roman emperor, Theodosius I, ruled until 395.

With its prime location by the river, and concrete construction, Hadrian’s mausoleum became a fortress in the Middle Ages. Eventually the emperor and his chariot were replaced with the archangel St. Michael, and its name changed to Castel Sant’Angelo. Much of what you see today has been modified or added over the centuries. And that is what is so endearing and captivating about Rome. Castel Sant’Angelo became a prison, a barracks, and a refuge for the popes when Rome was attacked. Clement VII was exiled to the castle during the 1527 Sack of Rome until he could escape the city. The ten angels on the bridge were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the seventeenth century. One building and a bridge contain over 1500 years of history.

Castel Sant’Angelo is iconic. Puccini’s final act of the opera Tosca takes place in the castle. More recently, the movie Angels and Demons (2009) starring Tom Hanks, based on the book by Dan Brown, features the mausoleum in a drama filled night scene.


Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dyson, Stephen L. Rome: A Living Portrait of an Ancient City. The John Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

Strauss, Barry. Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Tuck, Steven L. A History of Roman Art. Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Zanker, Paul. Roman Art. Translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon. Getty Publications, 2010.

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