Roman Conquest of Italy
 


Developments at Rome


Roman Temples: Temple of Mars Ultor



In his account of his achievements, Augustus recorded that:

  1. “I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Forum Augustum on my own land, using the spoils of war.  ... [Also] from the spoils of war, I consecrated offerings in... [a number of temples, including that] of Mars Ultor ...”, (‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, 4:21);

Ovid recorded that, on 12 May each year:

  1. “Mars comes [to Rome] ... : the Avenger himself descends from Heaven to behold his own honours and his splendid temple in the forum of Augustus”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 550).

As we shall see, this splendid temple in the forum of Augustus is the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger).

Cult of Mars Ultor (42 - 20 BC)

Vow of Octavian/ Augustus (42 BC)

We learn from Ovid that Octavian:

  1. “... had vowed [this temple] as a youth, when taking up arms in the cause of duty. ...  He stretched his hand out, and spoke these words:

  2. ‘If the death of my father Julius, priest of Vesta, gives due cause for this war, if I avenge [the wrongs done to both Julius Caesar and Vesta], come, Mars, and stain the sword with [the] evil blood of the enemy], and lend your favour to the better side.  Should I win, you will receive a temple and be called the Avenger.’

  3. So he vowed, and returned rejoicing from the rout”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 569-77).

Suetonius also recorded that the young Octavian:

  1. “... made a vow to build the temple of Mars [Ultor] in the war of Philippi, which he undertook to avenge his father”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 29: 2).

This reflects a tradition that traced the origins of this temple to the eve of the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), in which the army of the triumvirs (Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus) defeated that of Cassius and Brutus, the murderers of Julius Caesar (Octavian’s adoptive father).

Mars Ultor and the Parthian Standards (20 BC)

Charles Rose (referenced below, at p. 22) observed that:

  1. “Of the military defeats suffered by the Romans in the course of the Republic, three battles stand out in terms of catastrophic losses:

  2. two against Hannibal during the Second Punic War (at Lake Trasimene and [then at] Cannae); and

  3. one against the Parthians (at Carrhae in 53 B.C.), when the armies of Crassus lost the Roman standards to the enemy.

  4. Even with 20,000 men killed on the battlefield, Carrhae did not rival the death toll of Cannae, which appears to have been more than four times that number; but Carrhae was unique in that 10,000 Romans had been taken prisoner, and they [and their military standards] would ultimately stay in Parthia for 33 years.”

He also observed (at p. 21) that:

  1. “When Augustus composed the ‘Res Gestae’, he devoted more space to the pacification of Parthia and Armenia than to his policies in any other region.”

In particular, Augustus boasted that:

  1. “I compelled the Parthians to restore to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies [see below], and ... deposited [them] in the inner shrine of the Temple of Mars Ultor”, (‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, 5: 29).

Rome and the Parthians  (53 - 29 BC)

Defeat at Carrhae (53 BC)

The first and most important of these defeats took place at Carrhae in 53 BC, after a battle in which Marcus Licinius Crassus, the governor of Syria, was among the 20,000  Romans who were killed.  As Charles Rose (referenced below, at p. 22) pointed out, although this was not the heaviest loss of Roman lives in a single battle:

  1. “... Carrhae was unique in that 10,000 Romans had been taken prisoner, and they would ultimately stay in Parthia [along with their military standards] for 33 years .”

This probably accounts for the fact that the Romans regarded the ‘Parthian situation’ as an open wound that gave rise to a deep sense of shame.

Roman Responses (44 - 36 BC)

The Romans were thus bound to take military action in order to recover the surviving prisoners, along with the standards and other spoils of war.  However, they were initially distracted by the increasing problems at home, which culminated in civil war (49–45 BC) between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.   According to Cassius Dio, when when Caesar finally emerged victorious in 44 BC:

  1. “... a longing came over all the Romans to avenge Crassus and those who had perished with him, and they felt some hope of subjugating the Parthians then, if ever.  They unanimously voted the command of the war to Caesar and made ample provision for it”, (‘Roman History’, 43: 51: 1).

Caesar, as dictator, appointed the young Octavian (his nephew and future son by adoption) as his master of horse for this campaign, which explains why Octavian was with the legions that Caesar had mustered at Apollonia (in modern Albania) when he heard that Caesar had been murdered. 

The matter of the recovery of the Parthian standards was again put to one side as civil war was resumed.        Caesar’s murderers fled from Rome, where a triumvirate of Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian took power in Rome in late 43 BC.  At the start of the next year, while Lepidus remained in the city, Mark Antony and Octavian took their armies to Greece to confront the Cassius and Brutus, the most important of the surviving murderers, at Philippi in 42 BC.  As noted above, Octavian was later recorded as having promised to build a temple to Mars Ultor on the eve of this battle, although, in fact, he was prevented by illness from making any other mark on it: if truth be told, Caesar’s death was avenged primarily by Mark Antony.

After the battle, Lepidus was effectively marginalised within the triumvirate, while Mark Antony and Octavian split responsibility for the Empire between them (Mark Antony in the east and Octavian in the west).  Thus, it was Mark Antony who found himself responsible for the recovery of the Parthian standards.  Charles Rose (referenced below, at p. 22) observed that:

  1. “The product of [the resulting] campaigns, led by:

  2. Lucius Decidius Saxa, [Mark Antony’s governor of Syria], in 40 BC; and

  3. [Mark Antony himself] in 36 BC;

  4. was the loss of more Roman standards ...”

Unlike Crassus in 53 BC, Mark Antony survived and managed to lead at least part of his army to safety.  However, the Parthians now held more Roman trophies, and the Romans endure further shame.  Mark Antony’s prestige never recovered, albeit that, for a while, he retained control of the Roman east.

Octavian’s First Parthian Settlement (29 BC)

Neilson Debevoise (referenced below, at pp. 135-6) summarised the events that subsequently led to Octavian’s first Parthian Settlement:

  1. “... by 31 BC, a certain Tiridates (II) was in open revolt against [Phraates IV of Parthia].  Both men sought aid from Octavian, who was too deeply engaged in his war with Mark Antony to take up the matter.  Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC., and both chose to take their own lives ...  [Meanwhile, in Parthia], Tiridates  ... deposed Phraates, who [now] sought aid from the ‘Scythians’.”

After his final victory overCleopatra’s army at Alexandria in 30 BC, Octavian travelled:

  1. “... from Egypt to Syria and then to the province of Asia, where he spent the winter of 30/29 BC.  At about the same time, Phraates and his ‘Scythian’ allies drove Tiridates from Parthia, and he fled to Syria, where Octavian permitted him to live in peace.  Because of the laxity of the royal guards, he had been able to kidnap Phraates' young son, whom he took with him to Syria.  On learning of this, Phraates (now sole ruler of Parthia) sent envoys to Octavian in Asia Minor requesting the return of his son and the surrender of Tiridates.  [However], when Octavian left for Rome, both the son of the Parthian king and the pretender Tiridates went with him.  They were brought before the Senate, which turned the matter over to Octavian for settlement.  Phraates’ son was then returned to his father, on the condition that the [lost Roman] standards be restored, but, [as we shall see],  it was to be a number of years before the Romans actually received them.”

In other words, this first settlement achieved no more than Phraates’ agreement in principle to return the standards and the surviving prisoners.

Octavian’s Second Parthian Settlement (20 BC)

When Octavian became the Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, he retained direct control of the seven so-called ‘military’ provinces, each of which required protection or pacification.  This ‘unrepublican’ arrangement was to remain in force for ten years, although it was renewable in relation to any provinces that could not be settled in this time.  These seven military provinces  included Syria, which bordered on Parthia, and, as John Rich (referenced below, 2009, at p. 157) pointed out, since Phraates had yet to honour the terms of the settlement of 29 BC:

  1. “The Parthian question was the most urgent external issue facing Augustus: to meet public expectations, it was essential that the matter should be resolved within the first ten-year period.”

However, in the early part of this period, Augustus was heavily involved in the pacification of Spain and the settlement of the affairs of Egypt.  Furthermore, he probably hoped that the Parthian question could be settled for him by Tiridates, who made a number of attempts to re-establish his position there.  This still seemed possible as late as March 25 BC, when, as Neilson Debevoise (referenced below, at pp. 138-9) noted, Tiridates:

  1. “... was again striking coins in the mint city of Seleucia.  However, by May of that year, Phraates had resumed control sufficiently to coin money at the same place, and Tiridates had vanished from our knowledge, this time permanently.  Meanwhile Roman losses at the hands of the Parthians had not been forgotten, and war in the east was definitely [still] among Octavian's plans.” 

As things turned out, war proved to be unnecessary: when civil unrest broke out in nearby Armenia, Augustus sent Tiberius at the head of a legion to ensure that the pro-Roman Tigranes emerged victorious.   Augustus himself soon arrived in Syria, and these developments had a salutary effect on the Parthians:

  1. according to Suetonius:

  2. “The Parthians ... readily yielded to Augustus, when he laid claim to Armenia, and, at his demand, surrendered the [captured Roman] standards  .... ”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 21: 3); and

  3. according to Cassius Dio:

  4. “ ... Phraates, fearing that Augustus would lead an expedition against him ... , sent back to [him] the standards and all the [Roman] prisoners [that he held] ... Augustus received them as if he had conquered the Parthians in a war; for he took great pride in the achievement, declaring that he had recovered without a struggle what had formerly been lost in battle.  Indeed, in honour of this, he commanded that sacrifices be decreed, and likewise a temple to Mars Ultor on the Capitol ... in which to dedicate the standards; and he himself carried out both decrees”, (‘Roman History’, 54: 8: 1-3).

Evidence for the Cult (19 BC - ca. 8 AD)

Augustus’ Coins of 19 BC


Silver cistophorus (RIC I 507), minted at Pergamum under Augustus’ authority in 19 BC

Augustus celebrated the recovery of the Parthian standards in coins that minted in at least two Roman provinces:

  1. one issue minted at Pergamum (RIC I 507), comprises coins (including the one illustrated above) in which:

  2. the obverse depicts Augustus;

  3. the obverse legend dates the issue (in terms of Augustus’ tribunician power) to 19 BC;

  4. the reverse legend records MART VLTO; and

  5. the reverse design depicts a military standard in a circular, domed, tetrastyle temple; and

  6. seventeen issues minted in Spain at about the same time (described in this webpage, which is drawn from the database of Online Coins of the Roman Empire), in which the reverses of the coins depict either a hexastyle or a tetrastyle circular domed temple of Mars Ultor and associated military standards.

As we shall see, the significance of the temples depicted on these coins is much debated: what is important here is the fact that, as Martin Beckmann (referenced below, at p. 130) pointed out, these coins represent the earliest surviving evidence for the Roman cult of Mars Ultor. Beckmann observed (at p. 132) that:

  1. These coins would [obviously] have served to publicise ..  the connection between Mars Ultor and the standards returned by the Parthians. ... This revenge against Parthia represented the achievement of [what had been] a major goal of the Roman state since the time of [Julius] Caesar, and it was fitting that Augustus should publicise it [in this way].  The coin types struck in Augustus’ name in and after 19 BC appear to declare this vengeance achieved, and perhaps also to announce Augustus’ plan to build the temple that was to rise in his own Forum [see below] ...”

In other words, it is possible the putative vow of Octavian/ Augustus at Philippi in 42 BC was only ‘remembered’ when the lost standards were returned to Rome in 19 BC, and that the cult of Mars Ultor was introduced into the city at this time.

Ovid’s Testimony (ca. 8 AD)

The earliest surviving literary evidence for the cult is found in Ovid’s ‘Fasti’, a poem that  was probably nearing completion at the time of his exile from Rome in 8 AD.  As noted above, Ovid first recorded that Augustus (when he was still the triumvir Octavian) had vowed a temple to Mars Ultor on the eve of the Battle of Philippi.  He then continued:

  1. “Nor is he content to have earned for Mars the surname of Avenger [in 42 BC] ...”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 579).

Some 22 years later, he:

  1. “,,, tracks down the standards detained by the hands of the Parthians.  These were a people who were rendered safe by their plains, their horses, and their arrows, and made inaccessible by their surrounding rivers.  The pride of the nation had been fostered by the deaths of Crassus and his son, when soldiers, general, and standards perished together.  The Parthians kept the Roman standards, the glory of war, and ... [this enemy nation became] the standard-bearer of the Roman eagle. ... That shame would have endured till now, had not ... [Augustus] put an end to the old reproach, to the disgrace of a whole generation.  [Then], the recovered standards knew their true owners again.  ... Justly have the temple and the title of Avenger been given to [Mars], who has earned that title twice over ...”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 58o-97).

We learn from these passage that:

  1. Augustus himself had introduced the cult of Mars Ultor to Rome; and

  2. he had characterised Mars in this form as the agent of vengeance against:

  3. those Romans (notably Cassius and Brutus) who had murdered Caesar in 44 BC; and

  4. the Parthians, who had arguably inflicted greater humiliation on Rome in 53-29 BC than any other foreign enemy had done in the entire history of the Republic.

Temple(s) of Mars Ultor

Decree (ca. 19 BC)

As noted above, Cassius Dio recorded that, having recovered the Parthian standards, Augustus:

  1. “ ... ordered [the Senate to decree that]:

  2. supplicationes (festivals of thanksgiving to the gods) [should he held in Rome] in honour of his achievement; and

  3. a temple to Mars Ultor [should be decreed] on the Capitol, in imitation of the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, in which to dedicate the standards.

  4. [Augustus] himself carried out both decrees”, (‘Roman History’, 54: 8: 3).

Supplications

According to Cassius Dio, at the start of 42 BC, the triumvirs had confirmed a number of honours that had been conferred on Caesar before his murder: one of the resulting decrees required that:

  1. “... whenever news [arrived in Rome] of a victory anywhere, ... the honour of supplicationes [i.e., rites of thanksgiving, should be due] to both the victor himself and to Caesar, though dead ...” (‘Roman History’, 47: 18.4).

This is our only surviving source for the information that Augustus carried out the second of these decrees by building a temple to Mars Ultor on the Capitol.  This raises a problem, because:

  1. Ovid (as above) placed the temple in the Forum Augustus; and

  2. Suetonius recorded that Augustus’ public works included:

  3. “... his forum with the temple of Mars Ultor ...”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 29: 1, my italics).

As we shall see, there is no doubt that both Augustus and Suetonius were referring to the temple of Mars Ultor that Augustus dedicated in 2 BC, and that it subsequently housed the recovered Parthian standards.  Thus, we need to reconcile Cassius’ account of the temple decreed in 20 BC with the more securely-attested accounts of the temple in the Forum Augustum that Augustus dedicated to Mars Ultor 18 years later.

In Favour of Cassius Dio

Some scholars believe that the standards were initially deposited in Cassius Dio’s temple on the Capitol.  For example:

  1. Christoph Reusser (referenced below) included an entry on the Temple of Mars Ultor (Capitolium) in the Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae; and

  2. Fabio Giorgio Cavallero described the Tempio di Marte Ultore (sul Campidoglio) in entry 55 of the catalogue of Augustan monuments in Rome that was edited by Andrea Carandini (referenced below).

Most of the scholars who are of this opinion assume that this temple was represented on the coins of 19 BC discussed above, and that it was destroyed after the dedication of the temple in the Forum Augustum. 

Against Cassius Dio

As long ago as 1977, Christopher Simpson (referenced below, at p. 92) put forward a number of arguments against the hypothesis that  a temple of Mars Ultor was built on the Capitol in or soon after 19 BC in order to house the Parthian standards.  For example, he pointed out that, according to Horace (in a poem written in ca. 13 BC), the new age of Augustus had:

  1. “... returned rich harvests to the fields, and restored to our Jove the standards torn down from the proud doorposts of the Parthian ...”, (‘Odes’, 4: 4-7, translated by Niall Rudd, referenced below, at p. 259). 

This suggests that, at least in ca. 13 BC, the recovered standards were housed in a temple (perhaps on the Capitol) that was dedicated to Jupiter. 

John Rich (referenced below, 1998, at p. 82) produced a robust defence of what he called Simpson’s “effective exposition”, arguing (at p. 83) that:

  1. “... both [the passage of Cassius] Dio and the coins [of ca. 19 BC] are, in fact, weak supports [for the physical existence of the putative temple of Mars Ultor on the Capitol].”

The gist of Rich’s argument was as follows:

  1. In relation to the passage of Cassius Dio, the testimony of Horace, who had probably witnessed the return of the standards to Rome, was to be preferred to that of Cassius Dio, who certainly had not.

  2. In relation to the coins, they tell us only that the temple for Mars Ultor that would house the standards had been decreed by 19 BC:

  3. ... they do not entitle us to infer that a temple such as they depict was actually erected.  Representations of temples on the coinage may commemorate primarily the honour conferred by the decreeing of the temple.  Temples may thus figure on the coinage long before they were dedicated, as happened with the temple of Divus Julius [decreed in 42 BC; depicted on coins  (RRC 540/1) in 36 BC; and dedicated in 29 BC] ...”

  4. Martin Beckmann (referenced below, at p. 134, note 36) agreed:

  5. “The coins [of 19 BC] cannot be taken as evidence of the existence of ... a shrine [of Mars Ultor, on the Capitol or anywhere else in Rome], since they show various and different renderings of the structure and its contents, and since there is evidence of other unbuilt buildings appearing on coins in this period ...”.

Decree (ca. 19 BC): Conclusion

The coins of 19 BC discussed above almost certainly indicate that Augustus had recently decreed the building of a temple in Rome dedicated to Mars Ultor.  It seems to me that the surviving evidence does not allow us to determine  the whereabouts in Rome of the Parthian standards thereafter until 2 BC, when (as we shall see) they were certainly installed in Augustus’ new temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum Augustum.

Dedication of the Temple (2 BC)


Plaster cast  of a relief (Julio-Claudian period) now in the facade of Villa Medici, Rome,

thought to represent the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum Augustum

From the website by Reed College, Portland Oregon on the new Museo dell'Ara Pacis, where this copy is exhibited

Cassius Dio’s account of the events of 2 BC began with a series of decrees relating to the temple that were issued immediately before its consecration.  In the surviving manuscripts, the first part of the relevant passage has been lost.  The surviving text reads:

  1. “... to Mars, and that:

  2. [Augustus] himself and his grandsons should go there as often as they wished, while those who [adolescents who were leaving] the class of boys and being enrolled among the youths of military age should invariably do so;

  3. those [officers] who were sent out to commands abroad should make [the temple] their point of departure;

  4. the Senate should take its votes there in regard to the granting of triumphs, and the victors, after celebrating them, should dedicate to this Mars their sceptre and their crown;

  5. such victors and all others who receive triumphal honours should have their statues in bronze erected in the Forum [presumably the Forum Augustum];

  6. whenever [Roman] military standards captured by the enemy were recovered, they should be placed in the temple;

  7. the cavalry commanders of each year should celebrate a festival besides the steps of the temple;

  8. the censors, at the close of their terms, should drive a nail into it [i.e. probably into the temple wall];

  9. even senators should have the right of contracting to supply the horses that were to compete in the Circensian games; and

  10. [they should] also take general charge of the temple, just as had been provided by law in the case of the temples of Apollo and of Jupiter Capitolinus.  

  11. These matters settled, Augustus dedicated this temple of Mars ...”, (‘Roman History’, 55: 10: 2-6)

Ovid recorded that, on 12 May each year:

  1. “Mars comes ... The Avenger himself descends from Heaven to behold his own honours and his splendid temple in the forum of Augustus.  The god is huge, and so is the structure: not otherwise should Mars dwell in his son’s city.  That shrine is worthy of trophies won from giants; from its might, the Marching God [a reference to Mars Gradivus] fitly opens his fierce campaigns, whether an impious foe shall assail us from the east or another will have to be vanquished [in the west].  The god of arms surveys the pinnacles of the lofty edifice and approves that the highest places should be filled by the unconquered gods.  He [also] surveys weapons of diverse shapes  on the doors, and arms of lands subdued by his soldiery.  On [one] side, he sees Aeneas laden with his dear burden, and many an ancestor of the noble Julian line.  On the other side, he sees Romulus carrying on his shoulders the arms of the conquered leader [i.e., the spolia opima that he had taken from the king of Caenina], and their famous deeds inscribed beneath the statues [of Romans] arranged in order.   He beholds, too, the name of Augustus on the front of the temple; and the building seems to him still greater, when he reads the name of Caesar”, (‘Fasti’, 5: 550-68).

Forum Augustum

In the passage quoted above, Ovid has Mars admiring the figures of Aenaeas and his Julian descendants to one side and Romulus and other illustrious Romans on the other, each portrayed in the exedrae of the Forum Augustium.  It seems that the temple and foorum had been conceived as a single project in ca. 19 BC, in the exuberant political climate that was created by the return to Rome of the Parthian standards.  However, a number of sources indicate that this project took some time to complete.  For example, according to Macrobius:

  1. “... at the time that the architect of Augustus’ forum was dragging out the operation, [it happened that] many people whom [the apparently incompetent] Cassius Severus prosecuted were being acquitted.  Augustus joked:

  2. ‘I wish Cassius would prosecute my forum too’”, (adapted from the translation by Robert Kaster, referenced below, who pointed out, at note 55, that the joke turned on the Latin verb ‘absolvi’, which can mean both ‘be acquitted’ and ‘be completed’).

The temple was even more delayed than the forum: thus, Suetonius noted that Augustus had built a new forum because the growing demand for legal services meant that:

  1. “...  [the existing] two were no longer adequate.  Therefore, [the new Forum Augustum] was opened to the public with some haste, before the temple of Mars [Ultor] was finished”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 29: 1).

Political Context

After his victory over Mark Antony in 31 BC, Augustus held the consulship for eight consecutive terms, each of which extended for a whole year.  Then, in 23 BC, when he was in the process of serving as consul for the 11th time, we learn from Cassius Dio that:

  1. “... he went to the Alban Mount and resigned [this office]. ... {he claimed that] he now wished to end [what had been, in effect, his perpetual consulship], in order that as many as possible might become consuls; and he resigned outside the city, to prevent being hindered from his purpose. ...  [However], the Senate voted that [he] should be tribune for life, and gave him the privilege of bringing [matters] before the Senate  ... , even if he were not consul at the time ...”, (‘Roman History’, 53: 31: 3-6).

From this point, Augustus exercised power, not as perpetual consul, but through his so-called tribunician power.   However, he served additionally as consul on two subsequent occasions: Suetonius recorded that:

  1. “... he asked of his own accord for a 12th [consulship] after a long interval (no less than 17 years), and two years later for a 13th [consulship], wishing to hold the highest magistracy at the time when he introduced each of his sons Caius and Lucius to public life upon their coming of age”, (‘Life of Augustus’, 26: 2).

Augustus himself similarly recorded that:

  1. “The senate and the Roman people, to do me honour,  made my sons Caius and Lucius Caesar (whom fortune [was to snatch]  away from me in their youth) consuls designate,  each in his 15th year, providing that each should enter upon that office after a period of five years”, (‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, 3: 14).

In other words, Augustus chose to serve as consul:

  1. for a 12th time, at the start of 5 BC, in order to usher his grandson Caius into public life; and

  2. for a 13th time, at the start of 2 BC, in order perform the same role in relation to his other grandson, Lucius.

In his autobiography, Augustus recorded that:

  1. “While I was administering my 13th consulship, the Senate, the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title of Pater Patriae (Father of my Country) and decreed that this title should be inscribed:

  2. upon the vestibule of my house;

  3. in the Senate; and

  4. in the Forum Augustum, beneath the quadriga erected in my honour by decree of the Senate”, (‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, 6: 35).

Ludi Martiales

As we saw above, Cassius Dio recorded that,  after a number of decrees related to the temple:

  1. “... Augustus dedicated this temple of Mars ...

However, he then recorded that he had done so despite the fact that:

  1. “... he had granted to Caius and Lucius  ... the right to consecrate all such buildings by virtue of a kind of consular authority that they exercised in the time-honoured manner.  They did, in fact, have the management of the Circensian games on this occasion, while their brother Agrippa took part along with the boys of the first families in the equestrian exercise called ‘Troy’.  260 lions were slaughtered in the Circus.  There was a gladiatorial combat in the Saepta, and a naval battle between the ‘Persians’ and the ‘Athenians’ was given in the place where, even today, some relics of it are still pointed out. (It will be understood that these were the names given to the contestants; and that the ‘Athenians’ prevailed as of old).  Afterwards, water was let into the Circus Flaminius and 36 crocodiles were slaughtered there.  Augustus, however, did not serve as consul during all these days but, after holding office for a short time, gave the title of the consulship to another.   These were the celebrations in honour of Mars”, (‘Roman History’, 55: 10: 7- 9).

Augustus himself recorded that:

  1. “In my 13th consulship, I gave, for the first time, the ludi martiales (games of Mars), which, since that time, the consuls, by decree of the Senate, have given in successive years in conjunction with me”, (‘Res Gestae Divi Augusti’, 4:22).

Finally, according to Velleius Paterculus, in the year that Augustus was consul with Gallus Caninius, he provided the:

  1. “... magnificent spectacle of a gladiatorial show and a sham naval battle on the occasion of the dedication of the temple of Mars”, (‘Roman History’, 2: 100: 2).

Form and Decoration of the Temple

The exterior of this temple was probably depicted in a relief that is now embedded in the facade of the Villa Medici in Rome.  Ovid (in a poem written in exile and addressed to Augustus) provided an important piece of information about the interior of Augustus’ temple:

  1. “If [one] enters the temple of mighty Mars. thine own gift, , [one sees] Venus [standing] close to the Avenger, [while her husband, Vulcan], is outside”, (‘Tristia’, 2: 295, adapted from the translation suggested by David Traill, referenced below, at p. 505).

As Paul Zanker (referenced below, at p. 196) observed, this passage indicates that a statue of Venus stood beside that of Mars in the cella of the temple.  He also explained Ovid’s remark about her husband waiting outside the temple:

  1. “There, indeed, stood a statue of the fire god [Vulcan], in honour of Augustus for his establishment of the city fire department.”


Read more:

A. Carandini, “La Roma di Augusto in 100 Monumenti”, (2014) Novara

M. Beckmann, “Trajan’s Column and Mars Ultor”, Journal of Roman Studies, 106 (2016) 124-46

R. A. Kaster (translator), “Macrobius: Saturnalia”, (2011) Cambridge, MA

J. W. Rich , “Augustus: War and Peace””, in:

  1. J. Edmonson, “Augustus”, (2009) Edinburgh, at pp. 137-74

C. B. Rose, “The Parthians in Augustan Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology, 109:1 (2005) 21-75

N. Rudd (translator), “Horace: Odes and Epodes”, (2004) Cambridge, MA

J. W. Rich , “Augustus's Parthian Honours, the Temple of Mars Ultor and the Arch in the Forum Romanum”, Papers of the British School at Rome, 66: November (1998) 71 - 128

C. Reusser, “Mars Ultor (Capitolium)”, Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, 3 (1996) 230-1

C. Newlands, “Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti”, (1995) Ithaca (New York) and London

C. J. Simpson, “The Date of Dedication of the Temple of Mars Ultor”, Journal of Roman Studies, 67 (1977) 91-4

N/ C. Debevoise, “A Political History of Parthia”, (1938) Chicago


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