The funeral and honours for Marcellus are reported by Cassius Dio, 53.30.
Augustus gave him a public burial after the customary eulogies, placing him in the tomb he was building, and as a memorial to him finished the theatre whose foundations had already been laid by the former Caesar and which was now called the theatre of Marcellus. And he ordered also that a golden image of the deceased, a golden crown, and a curule chair should be carried into the theatre at the Ludi Romani and should be placed in the midst of the officials having charge of the games
These were extravagant honours. The golden image and the magisterial chair referenced an authority Marcellus had never enjoyed, and must be seen as reflecting Augustus’ own power and status.
In the Roman landscape, Marcellus is associated with the theatre which was named after him. Most Roman theatres before the Augustan age had been temporary structures of wood. The Theatre of Pompey had been the first permanent theatre. The theatre being built by Augustus was a competitor in size and adornment and although it was started by Julius Caesar and finished only in 13 BC. A further theatre, the Theatre of Balbus, was also completed in 13 BC. The theatre was not intended to be named after Marcellus.
Theatres were common throughout Southern Italy long before Rome got its first stone theatre. It is not clear why Rome was late in this regard. Theatres were large, expensive structures that required significant investment. There may have been qualms about public order if permanent theatres distracted the plebs from their work. There may have been worries that such a building was on too grand a scale to be a matter of private benefaction to the plebs.
Plan of central Rome, showing Theatres of Pompey, Balbus, and Marcellus.
The Theatre of Marcellus sits alongside the Portico of Octavia, the Theatre of Balbus and then the theatre of Pompey, the Baths and Pool (Stagnum) of Agrippa in a
monumentalisation of the area leading from Capitoline Hill along the river and into the Campus Martius. It clustered a series of entertainment buildings together.
The theatre was a place of popular assembly and was perhaps relatively ungoverned. It certainly offered the Roman people an opportunity to voice support or concerns. As the largest assembly of the Roman people, a theatre audience was a indicator of popular feeling. It is possible that the aristocratic politicians of Rome were uncomfortable with such a permanent symbol of the people through which the people might be given voice.
The Pompeian and Marcellan theatres were lavish investments in the city, but also in the plebs of Rome. They provided public entertainments and were displays of the care of the public exercised by Pompey and later Caesar and Augustus. They were also celebratory victory monuments. Pompey was one of the great military leaders of all Roman history. Balbus was also a leading general of the early Augustan period and very close to Augustus himself. One guesses that what became the Theatre of Marcellus was intended to carry Augustus’ name. So why name it after Marcellus? Why shift it from being a monument of victory to becoming a memorial to the dead?
One answer is to think about the function of Roman theatres. Rather than a discrete gathering a of a select group of people, Roman theatre was a mass spectator event. What better way to symbolise that the people and their rulers were together in all things than to give them a collective place of assembly? With the theatres of Pompey and Balbus, the benefits of Empire were brought to the Roman people as a whole. In the case of the Theatre of Marcellus, it looks as though the benefits that the imperial family brought to the Roman people were made concrete and marble.
What is surprising is that appeal to the people was associated with Marcellus. It seems excessive. But then, the whole event has something excessive about it. We have a short poetic description of the funeral of Marcellus in Virgil’s Aeneid 6. 854-85. This passage was probably written three to four years after the event. What makes it extraordinary is the context. Aeneas is visiting the underworld and is being shown, by his dead father, the future of Rome. Virgil chose to present that future not as culminating in Augustus’ triumph, but as ending in a funeral and death, in the lost hopes of a generation. Rome came together to mourn its lost future in the death of the young Marcellus.
Marcellus had had no public career to speak of and had achieved nothing.
Yet, he was the hope of Rome and the city was, supposedly, bereaved by his loss. The symbolic honours of golden chairs and processions and theatrical associations point to the people being at the centre of the mourning. The honours were quasi-divine (and thus connected to the imperial cult) and quasi-regal.
If that seems extraordinary, then we should think of the great modern funerals of those taken too young, deaths and funerals which united a generation and country: Diana, Princess of Wales, and President Kennedy.
Marcellus was cremated and his ashes interred in the mausoleum that Augustus was constructing for himself on the Campus Martius.
The mausoleum was, in itself, an extraordinary structure, far larger than any tomb that any previous Roman had constructed. Its inspiration was probably derived from the East and the tombs of heroes and kings. Yet, Octavian was still a relatively young man. In 23 BC, he was still not of the age at which, customarily, men had run for the consulship.
The mausoleum was a symbolic project. It represented his commitment to the city of Rome (in some contrast to Antony’s wish to be buried in Alexandria). It also represented Augustus’ greatness, a greatness that was heroic in scale and bordering on the divine. From 23 BC, it also represented the family since it was to become a family tomb.
The representation at Marcellus’ death was of a monarchic regime. Virgil’s text makes Marcellus the representative of Roman glory, imperial values, and historical achievements. That investment in the young man is a fundamentally monarchic shift. If the arguments that broke out after the illness of Augustus in 23 BC were focused on precisely this issue, the supposed monarchic nature of the regime, the symbolism employed by Augustus around Marcellus did nothing to reduce that monarchic impression. It seems also that the courting of popular favour seems to have manifested itself in quasi-monarchic honours for members of the imperial family. If the senate worried itself about an impending monarchy, the plebs seem to have been less exercised by that prospect.
Augustus was walking a tight line. On the one hand, he maintained the Republic he had re-established in 28-27. On the other, he was like a monarch or even a god, who, together with his family, provided for the Roman people.
It was a difficult line to walk.