Main page: The Mausoleum of Hadrian

  • Adriaan de Boer - Faculty of Economics and Business

  • Charlotte de Haas - Faculty of Spatial Sciences

  • Leonie Steenhof - Faculty of Medicine

The mausoleum of Hadrian[17].

At the head of the "Bridge of the Angels erects with a height of 50 meters [1], one of Rome's most ancient and impressive buildings; the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Constructed in the year 134 AD[2], as a final resting place for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family, the building dominated the view of the Roman city. And even though it is nowadays surrounded by other buildings, among which the nearby build Saint Peter's Basilica, the mausoleum still attracts the stranger's eye in Rome. Still standing after nearly 2000 years, the mausoleum has served many different functions, which can still be discovered in its walls. Take a trip through time, by visiting this magnificent piece of art.

1. Mausoleums in Rome
2. Hadrian
1.1 Hadrian's legacy
3. Mausoleum of Augustus
4. Mausoleum of Hadrian
4.1 When, why and by whom
4.2 Location
4.3 Shape
4.4 Hadrian's remains
5. Different functions of the Mausoleum of Hadrian
5.1 Fortress
5.2 Papal refuge
5.3 The Papal apartments
5.4 Castel Sant'Angelo
6. Current influence of the Mausoleum of Hadrian on the recollection of Hadrian

Mausoleums in Rome

A sculpted relief of the apotheosis
(transformation into gods) of
Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina.
It shows how people thought
of a deceased emperor [18].

In the Roman Empire the imperial cult regarded emperors and their family members as gods. Considering that worshipping a living emperor was unacceptable in Rome, emperors would be worshipped with sacrifices and were declared a 'divus' after they had died[3]. Funerary altars were linked to the tradition of constructing altars to honor the gods. A funerary altar would be used to heroicize the deceased and acted like a symbol of adoration[4]. A mausoleum works like a funerary temple, but it focuses much more on the deceased person[5].

Not only emperors, but also the elite were placed in mausoleums. These mausoleums were however often smaller and less impressive than those of the emperors and their families. This difference shows how tombs and mausoleums were used as important elements of the hierarchical system[6]. Roman emperors did not only use architecture to show the people their power and greatness, but also as a way of propaganda. A large and beautiful mausoleum would let the people know that the remains of an important person were buried there. By placing inscriptions and statues the emperor would be remembered just the way he wanted.


A statue of Hadrian
wearing his military
garb and civic crown [19].

Hadrian was born on the 24th of January in the year 76 AD in Hispanica Baetica, close to the place we now know as Seville in Spain. He became a Roman emperor in the year 117 AD. As an emperor, Hadrian travelled often to the borders of the empire and was hardly ever in Rome itself. Instead of trying to extend the Roman Empire, he chose internal reinforcement by inspecting the military at the borders of the empire. He did however construct a number of buildings in and close to Rome such as The Temple of Venus and Roma, the Villa Hadriani at Tivoli and the Basilica of Neptune . He also commissioned the reconstruction of the Pantheon, which had burned down. In total he created 10 buildings and monuments in Rome, including the Mausoleum of Hadrian[7].

The Temple of Venus
and Roma [20].
The Pantheon [21].

Hadrian's legacy

Even though Hadrian was not often in the empire's capital, he was known as one of the good emperors for his achievements[7]. But would the people of the empire share this view? How would they remember an emperor who was hardly ever around and hadn't increased the empire's size and power? One can only imagine that these were some of Hadrian's problems and that he needed a fitting solution. The building of a magnificent mausoleum could be the answer to all of these problems. The mausoleum would work first of all as a funerary altar, but it would also draw more attention to the greatness of Hadrian than any altar could.

Mausoleum of Augustus

A reconstruction of the Mausoleum of Augustus [22].

To explain how Hadrian would remind the people of Rome that he had been a great ruler for the empire, it is necessary to first focus on the origins of the mausoleum. In the first century BC and the first century AD, Roman emperors were buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. This mausoleum was one of the first in a series of projects undertaken by the first emperor of Rome. Upon its completion in 28 BC, it was the largest tomb as of then, with an estimated height of around 40 meters. Beside Augustus and his family, other notable emperors such as Tiberius, Vespasian and Nerva were buried in this mausoleum. [8] Online sources often state that the reason why Hadrian built his own mausoleum was because the Mausoleum of Augustus was full[9][10]. However, the following text will explain why this was likely not the true reason.

Mausoleum of Hadrian

When, why and by whom

A map of Rome during the time
that Augustus was the emperor
of Rome [23].

Originally, Hadrian commissioned the construction of his mausoleum in 134 AD. The building was finished in 139, one year after Hadrian's death, by his adoptive son and successor Antonius Pius[2]. During this year Hadrian's ashes were placed in the Mausoleum. Those of Antoninus Pius and Hadrian's wife Vibia Sabina followed later[9]. The remains of other emperors after Hadrian's reign - Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla - were also placed into the mausoleum. [10]


Hadrian chose the north bank of the Tiber river as the location for his mausoleum. Around the time it was built this part of Rome was still uncluttered, so the building was conspicuously placed on the empty side of the river[1]. Moreover, the land on which it was built had been used for burial purposes since ancient times[11]. These circumstances indicate that the choice of location was not a mere coincidence.


A replica of the original
Mausoleum of Hadrian,
displaying the three blocks
on one another and the
four-horse chariot on top[24].

With a height of 50 meters and diameter of 64 meters, it became the largest mausoleum in the city - even larger than the Mausoleum of Augustus - and also towered over buildings like the Pantheon and Trajan's Column[1]. The way in which Hadrian designed his tomb recalls Augustan rule. Reminiscent of Augustus' circular Mausoleum with a statue of the first emperor of Rome on top, Hadrian's Mausoleum too was round in shape and displayed a statue of Hadrian himself, dressed as a sun god, driving a bronze four-horse chariot. The building itself consisted of three large blocks on top of one another, and its exterior and walls were decorated with marble and bronze[11].

In addition to the mausoleum itself, Hadrian concurrently built the bridge that leads straight to the building: the Pons Aelius[2]. This bridge conveniently connected the mausoleum to the busy center of Rome - the Campus Martius - and offered a spectacular frontal view of the building while walking on it. Apparently, Hadrian placed importance on his tomb being easily accessible from the city of Rome.

Given the strategically chosen location, the newly built bridge, the size of the building and its splendor, it is clear that Hadrian wanted his mausoleum to attract maximum attention. The deliberate prominence of the building does not conform to the earlier mentioned statement that Hadrian built the mausoleum just because the Mausoleum of Augustus was full. If that were the case, Hadrian could have expanded the Mausoleum of Augustus or built a new mausoleum in a more sober manner. Instead, he chose to build a new mausoleum in the ostentatious manner as described above. Therefore, it seems more likely that Hadrian's motive for building his mausoleum was his desire to be inscribed into the history of Rome.

Hadrian's remains

When Hadrian died in the year 138 he was buried in Pozzuoli, but later reburied in the Gardens of Domitia. When his mausoleum was finished in 139 by his successor Antoninus Pius, he was cremated and his remains were placed in his mausoleum[12].

Different functions of the Mausoleum of Hadrian


Much of the mausoleum as it appears now does not belong to the original construction. The exterior especially does not originate from the second century AD[9]. While some of the tomb's original interior can still be observed, many statues and decorations have been removed or destroyed over time. One main reason for this modification of the building's appearance, is that the mausoleum's purpose has repeatedly changed over time. During the third century AD, the mausoleum was turned into a military fortress and became part of the Tiber fortifications. In the first centuries AD, it was not uncommon for Roman monuments to have their function altered towards more defensive purposes[11]. Theatres and tombs were often converted to parts of city walls or strategic military outposts. This is what happened to the Mausoleum of Hadrian as well. The reason for this was simple: with its vast size and sturdiness, as well as its strategic location on the north bank of the Tiber from where it controlled northern access to the city, the mausoleum offered an obvious defensive opportunity for Rome. Therefore, the mausoleum was pragmatically strengthened with extra walls and towers and became an important outpost during the time of barbarian invasions between 400 and 600 AD[11]. In the sixth century, after having been incorporated into the newly built Aurelian Walls of Rome, the Mausoleum played a significant role in defending against the Ostrogoth army in the First Siege of Romeof 537-538 AD.

The outer perimeter of the
Mausoleum of Hadrian [26].
The Mausoleum of Hadrian [27].

Papal refuge

Route of the Passetto di Borgo,
shown by the red line [28].

As mentioned before, the mausoleum was an impressive building, at an extraordinary location. We have seen that it served several purposes over time, but one of its functions is yet to be mentioned. Besides a mausoleum and a fortress, the mausoleum also functioned as a place of papal refuge. With this change of function, the building turned from its Roman imperial origin to a representation of the Catholic Church.

During the reign of Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280), who was a born politician, a secret passageway away from the Vatican was constructed. One can only imagine that the Pope, who was known for strengthening the Papal position, did this to preserve his own safety and that of his successors. The already existing Aurelian walls formed the perfect template, and the Passetto di Borgo[13] was created on top of them. Even nowadays, the walls still house the secret passageway, although not always accessible to public.

The Passetto di Borgo formed the connection between the Vatican and the Mausoleum of Hadrian. It is argued that this building was chosen as a place of safety for multiple reasons. First of all, because of the convenient location close to the Vatican and at the edge of the city on the Tiber bank, the mausoleum must have been intimidating for outsiders. Secondly, its size and strong walls made it difficult to enter the building, which is essential for a place of protection. This was especially true since the building had been further strengthened during its time as a fortress.

The Papal apartments

In the early sixteenth century Pope Julius IIand Leo X aimed at making the mausoleum more papal worthy and they commissioned the creation of a chapel and courtyard. This is where Clement VII took refuge during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Pope Paul III (1534-1549) created a new apartment, for which he assembled a team of decorators, led by Perin del Vaga. The Sala Paolina, decorated between 1545 and 1547, is by far one of the most papal worthy apartments of the mausoleum. In this apartment, episodes of the lives of Alexander the Great and St. Paul are displayed. Both the Emperor Hadrian and the archangel Michael can be seen in this apartment, which shows that the different time layers and functions of the building should be appreciated[14].

Archangel Michael
as shown in the
Sala Paolina [30].
The emperor
Hadrian as shown
in the Sala Paolina [30].
Sala Paolina [29]

Castel Sant'Angelo

From 590 to 604 AD, Gregory I was Pope[15]. During the year 590 AD the plague ruled over Rome and a large portion of the Roman citizens died. Pope Gregory I commissioned a collective prayer for divine mercy, which took place at the tomb of Saint Peter, where nowadays Saint Peter's Basilica is built. Legend says that during the prayer the protector of the people, the archangel Michael had appeared, whilst shielding his flaming sword. To the people this was a sign of God and all misery would soon end. And according to legend it did: during the same year, the plague faded and city could finally recover.

In honor of this event the name of the mausoleum was changed into the Castel Sant'Angelo or "Castle of the Holy Angel[16]". Because of this change of name the building is nowadays better known to most people as a building of religious origin, instead of a building from ancient Roman imperial times.

To further enhance this image, Pope Leo X (1513-1521) ordered the creation of a statue of the archangel. The original statue was created by Raffaello da Montelupo, an apprentice of Michelangelo. The marble statue with bronze wings was placed on the highest point of the mausoleum and faced the city, which is probably because of the protective view of Michael over the people.

During the eighteenth century lightning struck the statue, which caused it to fall. The Flemish sculptor Peter Anton von Verschaffelt got the assignment to create a new bronze sculpture, which up to this day can still be seen on top of the tomb. The original statue can still be seen in the courtyard of the building.

Statue of Archangel
Michael currently standing
on top of the
Mausoleum of Hadrian [31].
Original statue of
Archangel Michael,
currently standing in the
courtyard of the
Mausoleum of Hadrian [32].

Current influence of the Mausoleum of Hadrian on the recollection of Hadrian

The Mausoleum of Hadrian and the
Pons Aelius [32].

Even though the mausoleum has been on the bank of the Tiber river for almost 2000 years, it is still an eye catcher, for both tourists and Romans. With its imposing bridge and view of both the Roman city and the Vatican, the ancient building still stands out of all the great Rome has to offer. Although many people are unaware that the name Castel Sant'Angelo is not the actual name of the building, it is still commonly known that Hadrian has built it as his mausoleum. And since this mausoleum was even bigger than the one Augustus constructed, who was seen as a god during this time, it might even remind the people that Hadrian was the superior emperor. The mausoleum has served many different functions over the years: a final resting place, a fortress, a place of refuge and so on. But what these seemingly different functions have in common is that the building has always kept its function as a place of protection and defense. And for an emperor who was always ensuring reinforcement and protection of the empire, this is a fitting legacy.


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