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This Week In History

Ashes to Ashes – April 4, 37 AD

The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, was smothered to death by Marco (and possibly Caligula) on March 16, 37 AD. The Senate rejoiced and refused to vote to grant Tiberius with divine honors and mobs filled the streets with chants to throw his body in the Tiber. Instead, Tiberius was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Mausoleum of Augustus on April 4.

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Mausoleum of Augustus

The ancient Romans commonly cremated the royal family members upon their death. The building used for the funeral pyre was called an ustrinum. The ustrinum of the House of Augustus was located near the Mausoleum of Augustus. It was described by Strabo as “a travertine enclosure with a metal grating and black poplars planted inside it”. In 1777, while excavating at the corner of Corso and Via degli Otto Cantonia, a fine alabaster urn and six large rectangular travertine cippi were discovered. These cippi listed among others, three sons and a daughter of Germanicus and Tiberius the son of Drusus. The construction of the Latin inscriptions on them likely place them as belonging to the ustrinum of House Augustus.

Later ustrina were more elaborate and complex. The Ustrinum Antoninorum was prominently displayed on some posthumous coinage. That structure, unearthed in 1703 under the Casa della Missione, consisted of three square enclosures within one another, all part of the second tier of four levels, stacked in pyramidal fashion. The Ustrinum Antoninorum was designed as such:

  • The lowest tier was a plain podium with one large festoon and three smaller festoons on each side.
  • The next tier formed the sepulchral chamber for the reception of the dead body. In the center was a pair of paneled folding doors, flanked by two niches on each side with statues and surmounted by a cornice. The two inner enclosures were walls of travertine with the outer wall a travertine kerb. The innermost room was 13 meters square, the next 23 meters and the outer 30 meters. 3 meters of space were left between each room. The entrance to this area was on the south.
  • The tier above had three arch-headed niches with statues and a cornice
  • The upper tier formed a lofty plain attic with hanging drapery in front. A lit torch flanked each end of the upper tier, which formed a pedestal surmounted by the quadriga of the deceased, with his statue in the chariot. All the tiers diminished in width from the base upwards

The Mausoleum of Augustus still stands today in the Campus Martius in Rome, although the ashes of Tiberius and the others were looted long ago. The traditional story says that Alaric, during the sacking or Rome in 410 AD, stole the urns from the Mausoleum and scattered the ashes, but left the building itself untouched.

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