Augustus of Prima Porta, early first century AD

Augustus of Prima Porta, early first century AD. Painted Carrara marble, 6' 8''. Musei Vaticani, Rome.

This week I will be working with portraits of patrons. Usually commissioned from a favorite artist, patron portraiture is always commissioned with a mind to have a very specific message and meaning depicted. I decided to start with one of the early, and most prolific, patrons of portraiture, the Roman Emperor Augustus.

The Prima Porta Augustus, from early in the first century AD, is a beautiful example of how portraiture can be propaganda for the patron. It can showcase wealth, education, power, social standing or more subtle nuances like refinement while alluding to historical moments the subject wishes to be associated with. This statue in particular is a piece of Roman propaganda from the highest echelons of power.

This statue was found in the villa of Augustus' wife, Livia, and is called the Prima Porta Augustus because the villa was situated near an ancient archway to the north of Rome. This work contains many of the key aspects of Augustus' larger propaganda program. Though this copy of an earlier bronze statue was probably commissioned by Augustus' adopted son, Tiberius, the original work, it can be very safely assumed, was commissioned by Augustus himself upon the triumph over the Parthians. The body of the emperor himself begins the subtle suggestive tone of the larger work. From his bare feet, which allude to his heroic actions (Roman mythological heroes are always shown barefoot), to the small figure at his left of Cupid and a dolphin, which are direct comments on the Julio-Claudian family's claim of ancestral descent from the goddess Venus through Augustus' adopted father, Julius Caesar. However, the most important aspect of this work, and its desired message, comes on Augustus' detailed breastplate.

Beginning on the shoulders, the gods of the sun and the moon grace the top part of the plate. Below them a Parthian barbarian, shown by his baggy uniform and shaggy hair, returns a military standard to a Roman legionary. This episode helps to date the work to being a later marble copy of a bronze statue commissioned after Augustus' victory over the Parthians in 20 BC. The allegory of the sky and Mother Earth, holding a cornucopia as well as the gods Apollo and Diana show the peace that encompasses all of the Roman empire now that Augustus has triumphed and protected it against their enemies.

This statue is a beautiful example of how Augustus used personal portraiture as a key aspect of his propaganda program in spreading his message of authority and peace. The symbolic allusions to peace on the breastplate, the small figures that support his claim to power and the idealized form of a powerful young emperor all combine to create a message of calm control and absolute power. This is probably the most famous statue of Augustus but there are legions of them, and those are only the ones that survived. This type of portraiture was the way that Augustus was able to reach to the far corners of his empire. He called on his ancestral lineage to confirm the validity of his claims, but also to showcase his own personal achievements. Many of the rural communities that lay far from Rome would never have laid eyes on the emperor himself, but this idealized image of authority and its message of peace would have been a powerful weapon spreading his message and in controlling the far-flung areas of the empire.

Sources Used:

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

Images taken from: http://mv.vatican.va/4_ES/pages/z-Patrons/MV_Patrons_04_03.html

1 comment:

  1. I just happened to be writing a paper on this statue in Art today. Thanks for the info..